Civil society groups appeal against sacrificing biosafety for biotech companies

 Urge governments to implement biosafety protocols and adopting cautious approach towards risky technologies like genetic engineering 

By M Suchitra
Published: Tuesday 02 October 2012

On the second day of sixth the meeting of parties (MoP) to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, civil society groups, particularly from the host country India, urged global leaders to follow the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in letter and spirit. They appealed to global nations to ensure that biodiversity and with it the access of the local people to their biological heritage is not sacrificed for risky and irreversible technologies like genetic engineering in agriculture. They demanded that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and living modified organisms (LMOs) are not released into the environment. Their appeal came in the backdrop of growing evidence on the impacts of genetically engineered crops on biodiversity and human health. ´╗┐

Speaking at a press conference, jointly held by the Coalition for a GM-Free India, a network of non-profits, and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a Hyderabad-based research organisation, at the Hyderabad convention centre on Tuesday, Sridhar Radhakrishnan, the convenor of the coalition, said that the resistance to GM crops is growing across the world. It is best reflected in countries like India and China where governments have started heeding the concerns over GM crops raised by various sections of the society, he said.

Parliament panel warning

In March this year, China released its draft grain law which forbids any individual or entity from undertaking any genetic modification of the country's staple crops like rice, wheat and maize, he pointed out. Similarly, the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, comprising of members of Parliament cutting across party lines, in its report submitted to the Indian Parliament on August 9, has asked the government to go slow on GM crops as there seems to be more concerns than benefits for the country from GM crops. 

 “The committee has observed that GM crops may not be the right way forward if the country wants to attain food and livelihood security for millions of farmers,” said G V Ramanjaneyalu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. Criticising the abysmal performance of the existing regulatory system and the inadequacies of the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, the parliamentary committee strongly recommended establishing “an all encompassing umbrella legislation on biosafety which is focused on ensuring the biosafety, biodiversity, human and livestock health and environmental protection”, he pointed out. 

India’s tryst with GM crops

The speakers pointed out that 2012 marks the 10th year of the controversial introduction of GM crop cultivation in India. Reviews, both from public sector institutions as well as the civil society, have broken the myth about Bt cotton, the only GM crop commercially grown in India. Studies have shown that it has not only failed to increase yields or reduce pesticide usage as claimed by the biotech seed industry but has increased the cost of cultivation of cotton, and thereby pushing the cotton farmers into further distress. The situation is particularly acute in the rainfed regions in the country which comprises 65 per cent of the area under cotton cultivation. 

Highlighting the Bt cotton experience, Sridhar said: “It is unfortunate that India learnt its lesson the hard way from its tryst with Bt cotton and it is our poor farmers who are continuing to pay with their lives. It is time that governments across the world realise that techno-fixes like GM crops can neither solve agrarian distress nor provide food security. The solutions to these lie in ecological farming where the triple bottom lines of social, ecological and economical sustainability are met.” 

While the public debate around Bt brinjal and its eventual moratorium has resulted in a pause on the commercialisation of GM food crops in India, open air field trials continue. There is growing controversy around the open air field trials of GM crops, especially GM corn. Though field trials have been stopped in many states due to the intervention of the state governments that have banned field trials, the states of Punjab and Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat have given the go ahead for field trials of GM corn, and the trials are taking place this season. “It is a pity that the Indian government is ignoring the possibility of contamination through GM crops,” said Sridhar.  He said experiences from India and elsewhere have demonstrated that field trials can lead to GMOs entering the food supply chain and also endangering biodiversity.

 The speakers reminded the Indian government that its commitment to protecting biodiversity should not end with its taking the lead in hosting of CoP-MoP, but that it should be reflected in its uncompromising stand on upholding  the precautionary approach towards risky technologies like genetic engineering/modification and it products. 

Industry frames rules to avoid liability 

As a first step, they urged minister for environment and forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, whose ministry houses the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal agency for environmental releases of GMOs, to stop all open air field trials of GM crops in India.

To make the Nagoya-Kaula Lumpur Supplementary Protocol, which deals with liability and redress for damage from GMOs and LMOs, applicable in developing countries, governments need to put in place national laws, pointed out Ramanjaneyalu. But the industry, particularly the big multi-nationals that sell GM technology, such as Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Syngenta, have propped up their own set of rules on liability and redress called the Compact. This document will result in avoidance of liability under the supplementary protocol. It attempts to divert the attention of governments from the protocol, by suggesting an industry-friendly short-cut. The Compact will in effect dilute the strict liability that the supplementary protocol prescribes. It is imperative for countries like India to develop their own legal framework on liability and redress, till the supplementary protocol comes into force. 

Shalini Bhutani, a legal researcher from India pointed that the Parliamentary standing committee report also clearly states that a special legislation is required for India to implement the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur protocol on biosafety. The international law contained in the Cartagena Protocol does not need countries to wait until the special protocol comes into force for them to make their national law.

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