The fate of the controversial Bt brinjal is blowing in the wind! At a meeting of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex body for transgenic crops in India, several experts favoured a “limited release of Bt (brinjal) seeds to identified farmers under strict supervision” (Business Line, May 26, 2011). NGOs, however, remain opposed to the introduction of Bt technology in food crops. So, too, are some scientists who want more studies to assess the safety of such Bt food crops. Bt brinjal has been embargoed and the prospects of it being introduced soon looks grim because it faces a bio-safety burden of proof that is impossible to meet.
This transgenic crop was approved by the GEAC in October 2009, following nine years of testing involving as many as seven government departments, committees and institutes. But shortly thereafter, Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh stated that he would not accept the GEAC’s decision and went in for public consultations. It was this ministerial decision – ostensibly taken in the national and public interest – that single-handedly blocked the transgenic brinjal.
In bypassing the GEAC, Ramesh stated that the moratorium would continue as long as it was needed to establish public trust and confidence. But what conceivable tests would establish public trust and confidence?
Clearly, this set the bar impossibly high, felt Professor Ronald Herring of Cornell University. “There are still large groups around the world who are not ‘satisfied’ with the science supporting evolution, viral origins of HIV AIDS, global warming or even lunar landings… Sociology of knowledge tells us ex ante that the standard invoked by the minister is essentially impossible to meet... This was precisely the intent of activists campaigning to stop even field trials of Bt brinjal: to raise the bar from acceptable uncertainty to absolute consensus on absence of risk,” he argued in his recent paper “State science and its discontents: Why India’s second transgenic crop did not follow the path of Bt cotton”.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, the environment minister consulted state governments who also urged caution and delay in the introduction of Bt brinjal. Kerala went one step ahead and stated that the state government’s policy was not to allow genetically modified (GM) crops, not even field trials and was in favour of a moratorium at least for the next 50 years until complete safety is proven! The verbal communication from Uttarakhand was equally blunt: “Ban Bt brinjal”. By such standards of safety even a peanut wouldn’t be approved for cultivation! Such responses are not surprising because, barring the Congress, most other political parties were opposed to agricultural biotechnology in their electoral manifestos in 2009.
A puzzle indeed is how did Bt cotton get introduced in the fields while Bt brinjal got embargoed? The same transgene (cry1Ac), producing the same insecticidal protein, in the same regulatory process produced very different outcomes. According to Herring, Bt cotton has done extremely well in agro-economic and environmental terms. The fact that Bt cotton has catapulted India into the second position in the world in cotton production; that 90 per cent of farmers cultivate Bt cotton has also been admitted by Ramesh. But Bt brinjal, which in field trials offered greater benefits to farmers in net income and pesticide reduction, failed to receive regulatory clearance by the minister for environment!
The divergent trajectories of these two transgenic crops basically stem from the role of farmers. In the case of cotton, farmers “voted with their ploughs”, to borrow an expression of Herring, under the regulatory gaze of the state to force it to act speedily and approve Bt cotton. They were upset that the GEAC was taking its own time in approving this technology. Maharashtra and Gujarat also took a more proactive role in this regard because farmers were demanding this technology and these governments in effect legalised Bt cotton months before the GEAC ruled on this matter. As Herring puts it, the GEAC science was rendered irrelevant by the political power of the states in a federal polity.
Bt brinjal fared poorly in comparison because its farmers are not so powerful as a lobby. Those who grow brinjal grow other crops as well. They do not control a lot of land and earn no forex. They are also not organised as cotton farmers are. There are only about half a million hectares of brinjal grown in India — cotton is closer to 10 million hectares. The number of brinjal farmers is around 1.4 million scattered all over the country unlike the greater concentration of cotton farmers in Gujarat and Maharashtra. For such reasons, brinjal farmers got no such support from any of the states. The GEAC science, in this case, was successfully attacked by a Union cabinet minister.
Bt cotton, thus, made it — thanks to wholesale farmer acceptance that sidelined opposition from NGOs and some scientists. These forces got resurrected in the case of Bt brinjal and successfully managed to get it embargoed.
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