Bt Brinjal : Corporate Control in Scientific Research

Radhika Krishnan

The highly controversial issue of genetically modified (GM) crops has once more catapulted into national limelight. For the past few years, public opinion against GM has been building up, owing to a nationwide campaign. Finally, in February this year, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced an indefinite moratorium on the introduction of Bt Brinjal and its commercial production in India in the face of massive public opposition. In doing so, Ramesh overruled the recommendations of the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) which sanctioned the introduction of Bt Brinjal in October last year.
The debate that has taken place on Bt Brinjal has raised several important issues: Firstly, it has proved that there is no shortcut for a careful long-drawn, scientific analysis of the possible impacts of introducing GM crops. Bt Brinjal is the first ever such GM food crop anywhere in the world with the toxin-producing Bt gene in it. Indeed, all other GM crops used widely across the world are either eaten in processed form (like Bt soya in the US) or used after industrial refining (corn or rapeseed oil). Therefore, in this case, the need for research was all the more important. Secondly, it has proved that the necessary scientific research required before clearing GM crops rarely happens (in the case of Bt Brinjal for instance, GEAC granted approval in spite of the fact that only 4-5 of the required 29 tests have been done, that too in a shoddy manner). Thirdly, the debate has also brought to the limelight serious issues of vested interests, accountability and corporate takeover of scientific research, especially in areas that could have wide-ranging ramifications for public health. In the case of Bt Brinjal for instance, almost the entire research that has been done (and on the basis of which the GEAC cleared Bt Brinjal) has been conducted by Monsanto-Mahyco - the company which is responsible for developing and promoting Bt Brinjal. Can we really “trust” this research done by the very company that stands to gain significantly from the introduction of Bt Brinjal? The clear answer to this question, going by the horrific track record of multinational corporations to lie, manipulate and suppress facts, is an emphatic no. 
In the maze of the claims and counter-claims over Bt Brinjal, we need to ask ourselves certain fundamental questions. What will the introduction of GM crops mean for Indian agriculture? What will it do to the livelihoods of the Indian farming community? What repercussions will it have for democratic participation in decision-making over something as basic as what one should eat? GM crops are part of a larger package of trade liberalization and corporate globalization: farm-saved seeds are replaced by corporate seeds, which need fertilizers and pesticides and cannot be saved. Corporations prevent seed savings through patents and by engineering seeds with non-renewable traits. As a result, poor peasants have to buy new seeds for every planting season and what was traditionally a free resource, available by putting aside a small portion of the crop, becomes a commodity strictly under the control of a handful of MNCs.
Moreover, the introduction of GM crops almost finishes off the production of local, non-GM varieties – a phenomenon that could be a potential death knell for the rich biodiversity in Indian farming if replicated for food crops - biodiversity that has helped millions of poor farmers in the country to survive. Also, the experience of Bt cotton in India, or even of GM crops grown abroad proves that claims of increased ‘production’ from GM crops are pure myth. In the case of Bt cotton in India, the productivity (yield per hectare) has actually fallen after the introduction of Bt cotton. Not just this, hitherto unknown insect pests have spread, causing significant economic losses for the farmers, and the pesticide usage by farmers has actually increased. Governments like the UPA, which are loath to increase the access of the millions of poor people to food grains, find the false rhetoric of ‘increased production’ from GM crops a useful cover to hide their real agenda of handing over Indian agriculture on a platter to large and powerful multinational corporations. Also, the entire emphasis on ‘productivity’ hides a more important concern: the central problem concerning agriculture today is not so muchthe shortage of food as the flawed distribution process.
In this context, it is important to see Jairam Ramesh’s decision in perspective. For those who have been campaigning against GM crops over the past many years, it is clear that Ramesh was forced to bow down to massive public opinion against Bt Brinjal. Renowned scientists (including Dr. Pushpa Bhargava who is a nominee of the Supreme Court on the GEAC, and even Dr. M S Swaminathan, known as one of the architects of the Green Revolution) from India and abroad publicly advocated a ban on the commercial introduction of Bt Brinjal. Dr. Bhargava has gone to the extent of publicly stating several times (including in a much-publicized letter to Ramesh) that the Chairman of the GEAC (Dr. Arjula Reddy) had agreed with his assessment that eight essential tests to ensure the  safety of consuming Bt Brinjal had not been conducted by Mahyco (the company promoting Bt Brinjal).Dr. Bhargava has also stated that Prof Arjula Reddy had complained to him of being under “tremendous pressure” to clear Bt Brinjal and had received calls from the Agricultural Minister, the GEAC and industry to this affect. Such public revelations were the worst possible indictment of Bt Brinjal. Moreover, most state governments including Andhra Pradesh (where farmers have faced considerable problems after shifting to Bt cotton), Kerala, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh opposed Bt Brinjal; several NGOs and reputed independent research institutions have also worked very hard at building a nationwide campaign against GM crops in general and Bt Brinjal in particular. Obviously Bt Brinjal was just too hot for Jairam Ramesh to hang on to, given the extent of opposition.
It is clear that the UPA and the biotechnology industry is no mood to allow another such ‘disaster’ to happen - and the proposed National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) Bill, 2009 (prepared by the Department of Biotechnology, which is a wing of the Ministry of Science and Technology) is the UPA’s solution to muzzling any possible opposition to future GM products. The proposed NBRA has provisions that can put a person in jail for a minimum of six months and impose a fine of Rs 2 lakhs for ‘misleading public about organism and products’ (read voicing genuine criticism and concern). Holding demonstrations against a university or trying to ‘obstruct’ research could invite imprisonment for three months and a fine of Rs 5 lakh!  Such a draconian law (obviously instituted on the behest of the powerful biotech industry) is on the lines of proposed legal provisions in the US which will effectively outlaw organic farming. Jairam Ramesh, even as he was announcing the moratorium on Bt Brinjal, apparently mentioned that this moratorium period should be used to “get politics right”. For the UPA, this translates to creating a ‘favourable’ political situation where all potentially embarrassing information is neatly hidden away from the public domain and anyone seeking public scrutiny of it can be muzzled!

The debate over Bt Brinjal has obviously raised several fundamental questions. It is important for us to remember that Bt Brinjal was produced as part of a US-sponsored programme – a Public Private Partnership of various institutions with MNCs like Monsanto and Mahyco. It was a direct effect of the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, signed alongside the Nuke Deal. The repercussions are now out in the open: it is now clear that we need an informed discussion not just on Bt Brinjal, but on every GM crop that the government (backed by corporations) wants to promote. We need far greater accountability from the scientific community as well as from the seed and biotech industry. We need to institute legislations that provide for punitive action and compensation in case of adverse impacts from GM crops; rather than legislations like the NBRA like seek to gag protesting voices.