Biotech Companies As Bioterrorists

While the public is preoccupied by an anthrax scare, another act of bio-terrorism is threatening India’s farmers and our rich biodiversity.

Ten thousand hectares of transgenic Bt. cotton was found to have been illegally planted in Gujarat in Western India.

At a meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the Committee in the Union Environment Ministry whose permission is mandatory for the introduction of any GM crop, a land mark decision was made to order the state biotechnology co-ordination committee to destroy all standing crops of Bt.cotton.

Bt. cotton would not have spread so widely if laws and regulations had been adhered to earlier.

The very introduction of Bt. cotton in India has been steeped in illegality and violation of Biosafety laws and norms.

In 1989, laws to regulate genetically engineered organisms were framed under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The Biosafety laws were titled “Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms, Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells”.

Under these rules, the permission of the GEAC is mandatory for any import, large local scale use or deliberate release of GMOs into the open environment. Field trials in which a GM crop interacts with soils, other plants, insects and animals, are open trials, and hence also need GEAC approval.

A Second Committee, the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) governs the clearances for genetic engineering experiments in labs or greenhouses which are totally contained .

From beginning to end the introduction of genetically engineered Bt. cotton in India has been illegal. Bt. genes were imported illegally by MAHYCO without GEAC approval. In 1998, after the Monsanto and Mahyco formed a joint venture and Monsanto also bought a 27 percent stake in Mahyco, the two companies started 40 open field trials in 9 states without GEAC approval.

These trials were therefore in violation of the Biosafety laws. They were also in violation of the Constitution of India since agriculture is a state subject and none of the nine states were consulted. Nor were the State Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC) and the District Level Committee (DLC) informed in advance as is required under the Biosafety Rules.

On 6th Jan 1999, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India to bring the bioterrorism of biotech companies to the notice of the Court and to seek protection of the environment, and ecological and economic security of farmers.

In spite of the case, the Monsanto and Mahyco repeated their illegal trials in 1999 in 10 locations. They continued to multiply seeds in total contravention of Bio-safety laws which require that all planting material at trial stage will be destroyed.

Between 1995 and 2000, the biotech companies were acting without approval of the GEAC only in May 2000, Mahyco wrote to GEAC seeking approval for “release for large scale commercial field trials and hybrid seed production of indigenously developed Bt. cotton hybrid”. In July GEAC cleared large scale field trials on 85 hectares and seed production on 150 hectares. We again challenged the GEAC clearance for seed production without completion of the biosafety trials.

Even ordinary seed requires 2 years of trials and tests to ensure new diseases and pests are not introduced. Since genetically engineered seeds introduce new traits into crops, their tests and safety assessments have to be more rigorous and more extended, and need to take place over at least five years before commercialisation.

The GEAC’s first approval came in July 2000. Bt. cotton seed should not be introduced commercially in India before 2005. It will in any case take five years to upgrade our state agriculture research institutions to test for biosafety and to get the gramsabhas, panchayats, district administrations, state governments, and union ministries fully equipped to deal with the new technologies and the biosafeguards that must evolve simultaneously.

In the absence of biosafety capacity building, commercial introduction of GMO’s amounts to bioterrorism.

The uncontrolled spread of GM seed over 10,000 acres in Gujrat is a result of five years of illegal seed production and multiplication by Mansanto and Mahyco over the past five years. It somehow reached Navbharat seeds, an Ahmedabad based seed company whose Managing Director is Dr. D.B Desai. The seed was sold as “Navbharat 151”.

The cultivation of GM cotton in Gujrat was not detected by any regulatory body but by Mahyco. Mahyco, which had itself spread Bt. cotton in Indian agriculture illegally over the past five years, and had repeatedly bypassed the GEAC now ran to GEAC and the DBT wanting “strong and immediate action” against Navbharat for its “blatant contravention of the legal and regulatory processes”.

However until July 2000, Mahyco and Monsanto had also acted in blatant contravention of the legal and regulatory processes, and whatever action is taken against Navbharat for violating biosafety laws should also be taken against Monsanto and Mahyco for their illegal trials.

As far as the issue of compensation and liability is concerned, the government of Gujarat should immediately buy the Bt. cotton from farmers, which is in any case ready for harvesting, and pay them full market price as compensation. This amount should then be collected from Mansanto, Mahyco, and Navbharat seeds.

Mansanto, after all, “owns” the Bt. gene in Bt. cotton through a patent. In all laws of environmental pollution, the owner and producer of the polluting product is liable.

The same holds for biopollution. Mansanto and Mahyco were responsible for destroying all planting material after trials. No seed should have been available for further sale.

The availability of enough seed to cover 10,000 acres in Gujarat is a result of violation of biosafety laws by Mansanto, Mahyco earlier and Navbharat now.

How the government handless the Gujarat case will determine the future of both Biosafety laws and Intellectual Property Laws in the country. Mahyco, and hence Mansanto, are outraged at Bt. cotton being grown in Gujarat not on grounds of biosafety but because they would like to have exclusive rights to sell and produce Bt. cotton in India as soon as possible. Their battle with Navbharat is a property rights battle.

Our challenge to Monsanto, Mahyco and Navbharat, and the regulatory agencies of the government is on grounds of Biosafety and Farmers Rights. We do not want to see our biodiversity destroyed and our farmers ruined because of corporate bioterrorism. We do not want corporations to destroy farmers’ freedoms and choices through biopollution and IPR monopolies.

The engineering of the genes of Bt. toxins into plants implies that high dose toxin is expressed in every cell of every plant all the time. This promotes development of resistance in insect populations and the creation of “super” pests.

Monsanto’s genetically engineered “Bollgard” cotton or Bt. cotton has genes from a bacteria engineered into it so that the plant produces its own pesticide contrary to Monsanto’s claim. Bt.cotton is not “pest-resistant” but a pesticide producing plant.

The severe ecological risks of crops genetically engineered to produce toxics include the threat posed to beneficial species such as bird, bees, butterflies, beetles which are necessary for pollination and for pest control through prey predator balance. Nothing is yet known of the impact on human health when toxic producing Bt. crops such as potato and corn are eaten or on animal health when oilcake from Bt.cotton or fodder from Bt.corn is consumed as cattle feed.

Further, while pesticide producing plants are being offered as an alternative to spraying pesticides, they will in fact create the need for more pesticides since pests are rapidly evolving resistance to genetically engineered Bt. crops.

Research at the Scottish Crop Research showed that lady birds fed on aphid which were fed on transgenic potatoes laid fewer eggs and lived half as long as lady birds on a normal diet (Brich et al, 1996//97).

The latest research that has sent shock waves throughout the scientific and environmental community is the finding by the Cornell scientists that the Monarch butterfly Danaus plexippus was killed by ingesting milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from Bt. cotton (Losey et al., 1999).

These impacts on non-target species falsify the claims that the Bt. toxin in Bt. cotton only effects the cotton bollworm. If such Bt. cotton is allowed to spread across the country its impact on diverse species will be similar to the devastating impacts of pesticide use. In addition, the risks of transgene moving into other plants will have the added risks of genetic pollution and the destruction of our biodiversity.

Gujarat has 130 indigenous cotton varieties. Genetic pollution would wipe out this rich genetic wealth. In any case, spreading the risk of genetically engineered crops is not necessary because organic cotton cultivation produces more cotton of better quality at lower cost. It therefore brings a double benefit to farmers of lowering costs on expensive seeds and chemicals, and increasing income by producing a quality product.

GM cottons is not a superior option for the farmer, it is only a preferred option for the biotech and seed industry which can lock the farmer into a new bioserfdom based on patents and intellectual property rights, and forced purchase of expensive and unreliable seeds at every planting season.

The government needs to immediately set up a high level study to evaluate the risks and the benefits of organic farming vis-à-vis genetic engineering. Meantime, a five year moratorium needs to be imposed on all commercial sales of GM seeds.

The research and regulatory capacity for Biosafety needs to be built in these five years at all levels — local, regional and natural laws for strict liability to reflect the ownership of GMOs as embodied in IPR regimes need to be evolved and implemented. Let the fields of Gujarat become an opportunity for creating national policies and laws that protect biodiversity and farmers rights. Let us ensure that corporate the Bioterrorism does not become the culture of Indian agriculture.

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