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We are no lab rats!

The baingan bharta is a favourite recipe in most Indian homes. It is a mixture of smoked brinjal (eggplant/aubergine) and spices eaten with roti (flat bread). So the recent possibility that it could be contaminated with toxins rankled people across the country.

In October 2009, when Indian regulatory authority the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) approved the commercial release of Monsanto’s genetically modified ‘Bt brinjal’, the environment ministry was flooded with protest letters. One of the petitions was a Greenpeace India signature campaign called the ‘world’s largest baingan bharta’.

Since this was the first GM food crop to be introduced in India, the GEAC left the final decision to the Indian Government. Before signing off on the GEAC’s decision, India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh stepped in to hold seven public hearings across the country. He also conferred with scientists and the governments of the country’s brinjal-producing states. All of them were against introducing Bt brinjal at a time when there isn’t adequate biosafety testing and regulation in place. Based on the overwhelming public and scientific opinion against Bt brinjal, in February the minister announced a moratorium on the commercial release of the seeds.

This unprecedented decision is a big victory for civil society in India, where it’s a given that big business lobbies will trump democracy. ‘For the first time, the minister was willing to listen and hold public hearings,’ enthused Kavitha Kuruganti from the Coalition for GM Free India. ‘Our campaign succeeded because many eminent scientists and doctors spoke out. People from all walks of life responded and came to the public hearings.’

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil-dwelling bacterium that is inserted into a crop’s DNA to kill certain pests. Bt cotton, for example, is used extensively in India, despite much controversy surrounding its introduction, cost and use. According to Greenpeace India, the bollworm builds up resistance quickly – making crops ineffective after just a couple of years – and farmers still have to use chemicals to deal with secondary pests, which increases their costs without improving their yield. When it cleared the Bt brinjal seed – which is marketed by MAHYCO, the Indian partner of USbased biotechnology giant Monsanto – the GEAC said it would reduce pesticide use.

However, the minister, in his public statement, highlighted the flaws in that argument, questioning the need for GM seeds. He cited other alternatives, such as non-pesticide management, which is being used by 600,000 farmers in Andhra Pradesh, one of the largest brinjal-producing states in India. His statement boldly questioned the integrity of the GEAC’s approval process. Ramesh suggested an overhaul of the regulatory process for GM technology, with an independent, scientific body testing and regulating. Despite opposition from the seed lobby, influential agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and a few farmers’ organizations, the minister made history with his stand.

It helped that the anti-Bt brinjal campaign had gained surprising momentum. Besides environmental groups, both the right- and leftwing opposition parties in India were against the GEAC’s decision. Agricultural universities, consumer groups, medical health groups, biochemical scientists, even celebrities and India’s new age tele-gurus entered the fray. The father of the Green Revolution, MS Swaminathan, expressed his concern over safety and the flaws in the regulatory process. At one of the consultations, a former managing director of Monsanto spoke out against the company’s monopoly over the food chain, the minister’s statement reports.

‘This victory is only a temporary reprieve. Now, we need to press for GM-related regulation with a mandate to protect public health and the environment, not one that acts as a clearing house for industry,’ says Kuruganti. ‘Our campaign title “I am no lab rat” says it all.’

Dionne Bunsha

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