Seed wars: The right to refuse

The minister of environment and forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, informed the Rajya Sabha during the Budget session of Parliament that the ministry of agriculture and the government’s regulatory body, called the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), have been telling the apex regulatory body for GM organisms, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), to do away with the requirement for state government clearance before trials on GM crops can be conducted in a particular state. This is blatant indeed. Government agencies are telling the top regulatory body to dilute its rules to benefit the seed industry. The seed industry is naturally lobbying for this dilution because the more lax the rules and regulations, the better off they are. But why is the agriculture ministry and the RCGM lobbying for the seed industry’s benefit?
Almost all the crops in the pipeline, the 300-odd Bt cotton hybrids and the infamous Bt brinjal and everything following these (Bt rice, Bt okra, Bt tomato… and so on) are products being developed by Mahyco-Monsanto. There is not a single public sector GM variety or hybrid to be seen anywhere. The shameful fudging by government scientists on the allegedly public sector Bt cotton — the Bt Bikaneri Narma — is known to all. So why are the eager beavers in the agriculture ministry and the RCGM falling over themselves to make the seed industry happy… the farmers be damned? Should one smell a rat here?
If the RCGM is ignorant of the Indian Constitution, surely the agriculture ministry with its myriad bureaucrats and one of the most knowledgeable ministers in the Cabinet knows better? Agriculture is a state subject; just about everyone who has gone to high school knows that. Nothing pertaining to agriculture can be dictated by the Centre and no action related to this field can be implemented in the states without their express consent. So the audacity and defiance that we are witnessing is breathtaking, especially since both the RCGM and the agriculture ministry are asking for the suspension of the mandatory “no-objection certificate” (NOC) before field trials of GM crops can be conducted in the states.
The hubris of the government lobbyists is to be seen in their discussions with the GEAC where the case was made that state governments did not issue NOCs because they were essentially ignorant of the nature of biotechnology and biosafety, and that these “highly technical issues” were beyond their comprehension. Chief ministers of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand and Karnataka, please note, it is your ignorance that underlies your refusal to allow the release of GM crops in your state, not your considered opinion expressed in the interest of your people. The agriculture ministry’s future plans include educating these state governments till they can be made to fall in line with what the seed industry wants.
As for state government NOCs, let me tell you of an incident where Gene Campaign was involved. This was in Jharkhand, where we detected a clear case of violation of all prescribed biosafety norms for field trials in the areas where the Mahyco-Monsanto Bt rice was being tested. The testing by the company was done in the middle of the farmers’ fields and there was not a single prescribed containment measure in sight, not even a board announcing that a field trial of Bt rice was underway.
Not surprisingly, we found that rice plants in the neighbouring area had been contaminated with the Bt gene.
When members of the Gene Campaign asked for information regarding the trials under the RTI Act, we received, among other documents, a letter from the head of research of the local agriculture university, refusing to monitor the field trials since they had not been informed of the trials and were not involved in its planning and execution. They were asked to come only in the last phase of the crop, to monitor and report on the outcome. Quite rightly, the research staff refused to be a party to whatever manipulations the company had done.
As of now, field trials of GM crops are being conducted only in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan since these state governments have given permission for the trials. The governments of Uttarakhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka have refused permission for trials of GM crops. Some states remain in limbo, where trials are being conducted without any real knowledge of the state government but no explicit denial either. This situation needs clarification.
States must retain their jurisdiction over state subjects and be empowered to take the decisions they feel are in the state’s interest. If Bihar does not want to allow GM crops, it should be able to do so without someone in Delhi trying to bypass them, or, worse, browbeat them. To protect themselves from future interference of this kind from Central agencies, states must create legal instruments that will explicitly block such motivated attempts to tread on their territory. The chief ministers’ meeting on April 16 revealed the tensions between the Centre and the states with states chafing at the high-handedness of the Centre. This matter of GM crops will only
exacerbate the trust deficit. The Centre must back off.

The writer, a genetic scientist who has served on the faculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, is convenor of the Gene Campaign

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