Moratorium on Bt Brinjal
A Review of the order of the Minister of Environment and Forests, Government of India
C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education
On February 9, 2010, the Minister of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, following a seven-city public consultation process, put on hold the October 14, 2009 recommendation of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for commercial release of Bt brinjal, and declared a moratorium of an unspecified period on Bt brinjal. The moratorium document (MD) has a text of 19 pages in 31 paragraphs, containing the opinions and responses of the MoEF to the consultation process, and selected submissions from various interest groups consisting of four Annexures of 532 pages, all posted on the Ministry's website at www.moef.nic.in. The Annexures contain a) a report on the seven consultation meetings (Annexure I), b) letters from Chief Ministers of States (Annexure II), c) submissions by
Scientists in India (Annexure IIIA) and abroad (Annexure IIIB) and d) submissions by interested individuals and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) (Annexure IV). The GEAC and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) did not get an opportunity to present their stand at the public consultation meetings.
To facilitate more people to know the arguments of the MoEF in support of his decision, the MD is reviewed here in pointed reference to the material in the Annexures. Part A of this review is an analysis of text of the order, supported by references to scientific literature, and Part B is a summary of the Annexures II to IV. Annexure I is not reviewed here as it is already published.
The MoEF stated that the GEAC is a statutory body authorized to grant approval for environmental release of genetically modified organisms, yet the MoEF seized the opportunity presented to him by the GEAC, for a final decision. Notwithstanding his assurance that the moratorium applies only to
Bt brinjal, and to no other genetically engineered (GE) crops under development, the moratorium has created a regulatory uncertainty. No research and development of GE crops is possible without the shadow cast by the moratorium. Already there are second thoughts on some transgenic vegetable projects that are in advanced stages of development. No investor, Indian or foreign, feels secure in pursuing even the existing projects, let alone starting new ones. With bleak prospects of employment caused by the slump, education and training in GE crop technology will also suffer.
Of the 28 States and seven Union Territories in the Indian Union, only nine have actually opposed the release of Bt brinjal 'at this point of time' and four conveyed no decision and the stand of the rest of the States is unknown. Yet, the MoEF claimed that all States who responded to his letter have expressed apprehension and the media erroneously reported that all the States have rejected Bt brinjal.
Ignoring the vast scientific evidence, the MoEF gave credence to activist claims that a) Bt brinjal may contain unknown toxins, b) India is the country of origin of brinjal and brinjal is a largely self pollinated crop and hence gene flow from Bt brinjal would lead to the loss of currently available diversity of brinjal in India, and c) as there is a lot of uncertainty and doubt about the safety of Bt brinjal, the 'Precautionary Principle' makes the moratorium imperative.
The MoEF had also supported the other view points of the activists such as a) alternatives to Bt technology such as 'no pesticide management' practices should be considered, b) biosecurity tests were conducted only by the product developers and not in any independent institution casting serious doubts on its reliability and credibility, c) absence of publicly funded effort in GE crop development in India leads to the dominance of the private sector, d) release of Bt brinjal would result in Monsanto dominating Indian agriculture, e) need for an independent GE regulatory body (meaning the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) now being set up as the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India,
BRAI)) as the integrity of the GEAC process is questioned, and f) other countries opposing GE crops and foods. These are not issues related to the safety of Bt brinjal or environmental concerns arising on account of its commercial release. More importantly, there is no credible evidence in support of any of these assumptions.
Of the 18 scientists from abroad who made submissions to the MoEF, eight supported Bt brinjal and the rest were critical of it. The MoEF ignored the supporting arguments and heavily leaned on those who opposed Bt brinjal recognizing them as 'independent scientists'. The most conspicuous among them is Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini from Paris, who was commissioned by Green Peace to evaluate the Indian Bt brinjal dossier and Seralini's comments are being widely used by the activists. No reasons were given as to why no positive recommendation was seriously considered by the MoEF.
There are 26 submissions from scientists in India, 16 supporting and 10 opposing Bt brinjal. Here again the MoEF almost totally rejected very valid scientific arguments of the supporters. The apprehension that Bt brinjal would hamper the use of brinjal in Alternative Systems of Medicine also became a contentious issue, though the cultivated brinjal has no known medicinal value. Socio-economic issues were mixed up with the science of biosecurity regulation. The MoEF strongly feels that Bt brinjal developed in the public sector institutions needs to be introduced first, not realizing the serious legal implications as this idea constitutes discrimination against private sector.
The MoEF leaned heavily on Dr MS Swaminathan's letter in support of the moratorium. Dr Swaminathan recommended that the existing brinjal diversity be conserved and long term toxicological tests be conducted before Bt brinjal is released, which overlooks the large body of evidence that is already available on both the issues. Dr Swaminathan also emphasized the need for an independent regulatory system before Bt brinjal is released, meaning that Bt brinjal will not see the light of the day till BRAI is in place which might take several years.
The MoEF has selected two submissions in support and 13 against Bt brinjal from the among the submissions by CSOs and concerned individuals. There are some elaborate documents opposing Bt brinjal from CSOs and petitioners in the Supreme Court of India against GE crops, that are in essence a consolidation of the critical view points of Professor Seralini and Dr Pushpa Bhargava. The operative principle of the MoEF here is that the studies being demanded by responsible civil society groups before release of Bt brinjal should be conducted as a measure of our sensitivity to public opinion, trashing the combined Indian and global scientific opinion on the safety and efficacy of Bt brinjal which was developed for public good. The MoEF has not for a moment thought of the underlying forces behind the
opposition to Bt brinjal such as the pesticide and organic lobbies and scientifically baseless arguments.
The MoEF wants the moratorium period to be used a) to build a broader consensus on GE in agriculture, b) operationalize an independent regulatory body, c) evolve strategies for retaining public and farmer control over agriculture, and d) to have a detailed debate in the Parliament and the National Development Council (NDC) on these issues. These are broader issues, even if relevant to Bt brinjal, it would take several years and delay the decision on Bt brinjal by a decade.
The MoEF has asked the GEAC to consult scientists to draw up fresh protocol for the specific tests that will have to be conducted in order to generate public confidence, which means completely trashing all scientific evidence gathered on the efficacy and safety of Bt brinjal so far. Besides, the scientists he named for GEAC's consultation have already expressed their opinion to the MoEF.
The MoEF's Bt brinjal exercise has obfuscated the entire issue and created a new breed of experts. With emotion riding a rough shod over scientific reason, decision making has been further politicized. The moratorium may have gladdened those who claim to represent the public, but threatens the deployment of a safe technology aimed to benefit the public. The critical science based activity of biosecurity evaluation of GE crops is now replaced by the whims of the politicians and professional protestors on the street. The MoEF has supported the alarmist and paranoid activism that imagines demons where there are none. At this rate, the nation will not be able to derive the full benefit of modern agricultural biotechnology for a
very long time to come.
June 17, 2010
The full text of this 70-page review is available at http://www.whybiotech.com/resources/tps/Moratorium_on_Bt_Brinjal.pdf (accessed on December 30, 2010)
Electronic version can be sent as an e-mail attachment, on request to the author at email@example.com
Citation: Kameswara Rao, C. 2010. Moratorium on Bt Brinjal: A Review of the order of the Minister of Environment and Forests, Government of India. FBAE, Bangalore. Pp. 70. Hard copy released in July 2010.
December 30, 2010