By Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty
On the occasion of the recently celebrated National Safe Food Day, Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty traces the journey that won the citizens of India moratorium from its first GM food – Bt brinjal
The press conference saw a letter directed to the Minister for Environment and Forests (MoEF) in which more than 150 scientists from across the country pointed out that food security arguments around GM crops are baseless and fallacious, both from the scientific and global experience point of view. These scientists expressed disappointment that the MoEF, responsible for regulation of transgenics, allowed the Ministry of Agriculture to step into the Supreme Court PIL on GMOs on behalf of the Union of India.
“We urge Ms Jayanti Natarajan, Minister for Environment & Forests, to show the independence that her predecessor showed in placing a moratorium on what would have been India’s first GM food crop, Bt brinjal. The Bt brinjal moratorium decision has set a good precedence in terms of a precautionary approach,” said Sridhar Radhakrishnan, Convenor, Coalition for a GM-Free India. According to the Coalition, various agencies like Task Force on Agricultural Biotechnology, headed by Dr M S Swaminathan in 2003, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture (2012), the Prime Minister’s Scientific Advisory Council (PM-SAC), the Sopory Committee, commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Technical Expert Committee of the Supreme Court (SC TEC) have highlighted the much-required element of needs assessment and assessment of alternatives, before going in for the GM option. They had pointed out serious and objectionable issues with regard to transgenic research and regulation, where crores of rupees of taxpayers’ funds have been expended. They had also confirmed GM contamination. “It is surprising that the Ministry of Agriculture ignores all of the above and continues with its biased and unscientific stand on GM crops. The Ministry of Agriculture’s continued aggressive promotion of GM crops is unacceptable and we want the Minister for Environment & Forests to be responsive to society and responsible to science. Therefore, we expect the Environment Minister to accept the first set of recommendations by the TEC,” added Radhakrishnan. The Coalition pointed out that citizens are keen to have an informed debate on the subject and it does not help to have a unilateral view presented by the government, that too using taxpayers’ funds. A number of people, mainly the youth, turned up at Jantar Mantar, the protest hub of the city, to mark their dissent against the GM foods being endorsed by the government. The venue buzzed with excitement among the young volunteers as they shouted anti-GM slogans and addressed people’s queries on GM food. A group of students from Khadya Nyaya Abhiyan (KHANA) campaign conducted a street play on food safety and GM foods, followed by an open discussion on the threat posed by GM crops to Indian agriculture and citizens.
Armed with banners and posters, the volunteers distributed flyers to the gathered crowd, involving them in discussions and dispelling various myths. The general refrain among the crowd was regarding the government’s disdain towards citizen welfare. “This apathy from the powers-that-be is upsetting. The way they spend huge amounts on creating transgenic food, despite knowing the harm it causes, is preposterous. The youth must come forward and be a part of such awareness programs to ensure food safety and pressurize the government into paying heed to our concerns,” stated Ayush Srivastava, a second-year student of hotel management. According to Nishank, Secretariat Coordinator, Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) and one of the organizing members of the meet, the main aim behind this initiative was to involve urban milieu as well since everyone must know what they are eating and how GM foods affect us all. The event ended with volunteers forming a human chain on the streets of Jantar Mantar to show resolution and solidarity towards the cause.
I never cared much for the color purple. I always thought of it as an artificial color. How wrong I was! Sanaa, my lovely young friend, loves the color. When we moved to Mumbai six years back and Sanaa was helping me buy furnishings for our home, her constant refrain was, “Aunty, look at that purple cushion cover (or sheet or curtain), it looks gorgeous, doesn’t it? It would look great in your living room.” I would deflect her by saying, “Sanaa, lets go for a something like green or yellow, purple is really not my color.” And then Bt brinjal happened!
I became aware of the issue of genetically modified (GM) foods while in the US and that’s when we (my husband and I) moved to eating organic food. When we moved back in 2007, I knew that the cultivation of GM cotton was approved in India; however, no GM food crop was approved. A GM brinjal – Bt brinjal, created by genetically engineering brinjal with a gene of Bacillus thuringiensis(Bt), a soil bacterium, which acts as a toxin for certain class of pests – was under field trials in different parts of India. There were objections brewing about this GM crop, which, if approved, would have been the first ever GM food crop allowed to be cultivated in India.
Slowly, during 2008 and 2009, the campaign against the introduction of Bt brinjal started heating up with many farmers’ groups, civil society groups and concerned individuals getting involved. People were seriously concerned about this irreversible, risky and living technology which was to be introduced into our food. Its adverse impact on human health, biodiversity, effect on farmer’s livelihood security (due to large seed companies owning seeds), loss of consumer choice and the availability of sustainable alternatives were all debated and discussed. There were also concerns about the potential impact of Bt brinjal on Siddha and Ayurveda medicines, which used brinjal extensively. Above all was the question whether Bt brinjal was needed at all?
Numerous debates, seminars, petitions and letters addressed to Ministers and the Prime Minister and street campaigns took place in different parts of the country. There were also brinjal food and seed festivals, drawing competitions for children, and documentary film screenings (a documentary film called Poison on the Platter was screened in many cities around the country). However, despite various submissions to the regulator and objections from various quarters, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex biotechnology regulator of the country, recommended Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation in October 2009. The recommendation was sent to the then Minister for Environment & Forests who decided to hold public consultations and seek feedback from all quarters. Many scientists from within India and around the world wrote to the Minister citing problems with Bt brinjal. Thirteen state governments said no to Bt brinjal !
Public consultations were held in seven cities across the country and were attended by over 8000 people. It was a memorable occasion when the views and opinions of the public were being sought about a fundamental issue concerning our food safety and security. Every consultation was like an Indian mela, people dressed up as brinjals, displays of native varieties of brinjals, children and adults with placards and slogans and milling crowds. Farmers, scientists, industry representatives, civil society activists, doctors and citizens from all walks of life participated in the public consultation process. A majority rejected Bt brinjal.
Power to the people: lively protests across the
country tipped the scales against Bt brinjal A few of us went from Mumbai to Ahmedabad and some went to Nagpur to take part in the process. I remember the crowd, the noise, the camaraderie and nervousness and excitement. Like numerous other people who attended the consultation, I too got a chance to voice my opinion on Bt brinjal – albeit for two-three minutes! It was exhilarating. I remember that I had completed my outfit with a kalamkari dupatta in a rare shade of purple; by then I had embraced both purple, a color I didn’t previously care for, and brinjal, a vegetable I was indifferent to – they symbolised food safety, food security and food sovereignty to me!
Finally on Feb 9, 2010, the Environment Minister declared a moratorium on Bt brinjal and said, “There is no overriding urgency or food security argument for [release of] Bt brinjal.” Every year since then, February 9 has been celebrated as the National Safe Food Day, to remind us of the occasion when people spoke up to ensure safe food as well as food and seed sovereignty.
The moratorium is not the end of the GM crop or food issue; there are numerous GM crops under various stages of trials and research in India. The biotech industry is keen to make more profits from the Indian seed market. Many in the establishment want to follow up the pesticide treadmill (in agriculture which has resulted in the widespread use of pesticides causing many human health problems and the ecosystem degradation) with the GM crop gamble; and it seems like sustainable agriculture does not even figure in the game plan.
One of the oft-repeated claims for introducing GM crops is food security, that India needs this technology to address the problem of food security for its burgeoning population. However, many respected global bodies and national committees have unequivocally said that cultivation of GM crops cannot assure or ensure food security. A report from the United Nations and another from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) have unequivocally suggested that agro-ecological practices and sustainable small holder farming can feed the world. The European Environment Agency, in January 2013, released a report; on the issue of food security the report concludes that top-down approaches like GM technology undermine food security, whereas bottom-up approaches like agro-ecology offer ‘sustainable, participatory and locally adaptable solutions.’
The Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Agriculture, consisting of Parliamentarians from across parties, tabled their report titled ‘Cultivation of genetically modified food crops: prospects and effects’ in Parliament in August 2012. It said that food security was a multi-pronged problem and the solution for that is not to adopt unproven technologies. It recommended, ‘the Government to come up with a fresh road map for ensuring food security in coming years without jeopardising the vast bio-diversity of the country and compromising with the safety of human health and livestock health.’ (Section 7.71 of the PSC report)
Obviously, the key to food and nutritional security on one hand, and providing safe food on the other, can be achieved through sustainable, diverse, Eco-friendly farming practices by a multitude of farmers while ensuring their own livelihoods. Three years after the moratorium, as we celebrate the National Safe Food Day for the third year, we have reasons to celebrate and cause to be worried. What we need to do is to keep ourselves informed and be active participants to ensure our food safety and food security. As part of this journey, we could explore kitchen gardening, mindful eating, organic farming, connecting with farmers who grow our food, and educating ourselves and our loved ones about safe food. Above all, we also need to be responsible and responsive citizens and make our voices heard to the government about safe food. Let the color purple and brinjal remind all of us about safe food and a GM-free India!
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