The last few weeks have indeed been colourful if not schizophrenic with regard to agricultural policy in India - a moratorium on Bt-brinjal, a steep rise in food prices, an international conference hailing biodiversity as pivotal to food security, and a proposed Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. on agriculture cooperation and food security; the last item was kept under wraps and later announced as a fait accompli.
Activists, farmers, some scientists and many who are concerned about what they eat have been celebrating the moratorium promised by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in introducing Bt-brinjal into the Indian markets. Never mind that by all accounts the delay will be for a few months and we do not know what it means in the long term for farmers and consumers. Will there be more scientific tests? Who will conduct them and how will they be evaluated? Indeed, will postponing the introduction of Bt-brinjal improve matters or will we need another round of protests and consultations at the end of the moratorium period?
Further, what is the plan for other Bt-vegetables that are being field tested? Last week Monsanto announced that the pink bollworm has developed resistance to Cry1Ac, which is the Bt protein in Bollgard cotton. This has taken place in the past in other places including in the US and was to be expected. Under intense pressure, pests will develop resistance; this is 101 biology. Perhaps the annoucement is an inducement for farmers to start using Monsanto's second generation Bt-resistant cotton, the Bollgard II.
The union government has announced that it will change the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), to Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, whatever that might mean in real terms for the decisions it makes. Meanwhile, a proposal is being considered to take over authority from the MoEF. A draft bill to set up the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), will supposedly be tabled by the government in the budget session. It proposes to "regulate the research, transport, import, manufacture and use of organisms and products of modern biotechnology...in order to promote the safe use of modern biotechnology by enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of regulatory procedures."
India has not used the rights offered by the Biosafety Protocol, which already provides a significant degree of protection that this bill proposes to offer. Is this simply because agribusiness is opposed to the Protocol?
Further, while the GEAC was under the MoEF, the new Authority will be under the Department of Biotechnology in the Ministry of Science and Technology. Thus, the agency charged with regulating the technology also has the responsibility of promoting it. It seems like India is trying to duplicate, instead of improving on, the mess of U.S. biotechnology policy. There we find that three federal agencies regulate genetically modified (GM) foods: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Oversight by these departments is based on a random collection of pre-existing statutes and conflict of interest is structurally embedded by, for instance, having the USDA regulate and promote GM crops.
Problems with the BRAI
We need an overhaul of the regulatory bodies and regulatory processes for GM crops in India. Riddled with conflict of interest, lack of scientific rigour, outright lies by the companies, and corruption of Indian regulators, every aspect of the regulatory system requires a rethink. The BRAI, which is based on a different version of the older National Biotechnology Regulatory Bill, 2008, simply adds to the chaos in the institutions that regulate GM crops.
According to article 63 of the proposed law, "whoever, without any evidence or scientific record, misleads the public about the safety of the organisms and products ... shall be punished with imprisonment for a term - and with a fine - or with both". Another controversial new article, 81, indicates that decisions made at the state level can be overridden. Yet another clause, article 27, suggests that the BRAI could override India's Right to Information Act, which mandates citizens' right to obtain information from the government. This confusing, not to say, disingenuous legislation has many civil society groups up in arms and is perceived as unconstitutional by many of them.
We learned, almost in an off-hand manner, that the government has secured cabinet approval for a new agreement with the U.S., which, among other things, promotes the privatisation of agricultural extension services and facilitates collaboration between American agribusiness and the farm sector in India.
We should consider what kinds of innovations could be promoted in agriculture. What role do practices such as intensification of farming, low or no-till farming, organic agriculture, ecological agriculture and farmer?s cooperatives have on improving agricultural yield in a warming world? How will methods to advance storage and distribution of food grains improve food security in concert with other changes? We need an integrated systemic approach to agricultural policy, not the piecemeal methods adopted by the government thus far such as evidenced in the case of Bt-brinjal.
While all these regulatory changes were taking place, an international conference was held in the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, with high-level experts from different parts of the world. A nine-point plan for boosting biodiversity was announced in a Chennai Declaration, a manifesto that links food security, climate change and biodiversity. Various measures to strengthen and expand biodiversity were highlighted, as were methods to build resilience in a changing climate. The need to protect our ecosystems from the threat of monoculture and the connections with rural livelihoods, health and food security were noted along with the need to establish gene banks.
The promotion of GM crops by MSSRF on the one hand - thus promoting monoculture - and calling for the preservation of biodiversity on the other hand, leaves many activists confused about the organisation's goals and motivations.
Privatising extension services
Yet, perhaps all this happened in some sort of vacuum. We learned, almost in an off-hand manner, that the government has secured cabinet approval for a new agreement with the U.S., which, among other things, promotes the privatisation of agricultural extension services and facilitates collaboration between American agribusiness and the farm sector in India. According to The Hindu, "An India-U.S. Agriculture Knowledge Initiative is already in place that allows for US-based private multinational trading and seed giants like Cargill and Monsanto to be appointed on the board, enabling them to bear influence on the country?s farm research". The last thing we need is Monsanto and Cargill giving us advice on food security.
According to Doug Gurian-Sherman from the Union of Concerned Scientists, "this is potentially a very serious development for several reasons. One is that a system of private extension could shift farm practices toward technologies preferred by the private sector - especially the large companies. Extension acts as a conduit of science and technology to farmers, and can be very important and influential in shaping farm practices".
He adds that extension in the US has gone down this privatization course over the past 30 years. While public sector extension scientists, usually associated with agricultural universities, may provide farmers with information on the best practices, private extension may be influenced by incentives from companies to push their preferred solutions. Practices based on knowledge - like organic farming rather than expensive inputs that are attractive to big business - will not have big business constituencies to buy off extension agents with incentives. "In practice in the US, industrial agricultural methods were pushed by public sector extension scientists too, because of the undue influence of industry and large farms on our Department of Agriculture. But at least if structured properly, public sector extension could be more objective".
While many were celebrating a delay in Bt-brinjal commercialisation, our policymakers were selling our farmlands for all varieties of crops as dictated by agribusiness. While some people in MSSRF were calling for biodiversity, our gene banks were being handed over to American agribusiness. I do not believe that this is simply the result of pressure from agribusiness, although I know that such pressure is nothing to be scoffed at for its power and reach. Agribusiness in the US has done all it can to destroy their ecosystems, consolidate family farms, and industrialise agriculture. It has resulted in an increase in monoculture, contributed to the expanding American waistlines and made the US one of the unhealthiest countries in the developed world.
What we need in India is an integrated agricultural policy. There are excellent approaches suggested by groups such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), and others. We need to establish far stricter rules for transparency in government at every level. Only then can we at least begin our task by voicing our opposition when we want a different future from the one envisioned by our policymakers.