Corporatising agriculture

(The following article has been reproduced from the New Indian Express of March 8, 2010. The author is a renowned agricultural scientist.)

While north India celebrated Holi and Parliament witnessed much turmoil on account of the price rise of essential food items, two things happened quietly with most of the Indians not really gripping the seriousness of the issues. First was the drafting of the draconian Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill (BRAI) which will be tabled in Parliament soon. The second was the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Washington and New Delhi which will make the American presence in the Indian farm sector very strong. The visit of Hillary Clinton to New Delhi in October was a presage to this. Most recently, the reciprocal visit of Manmohan Singh to Washington in November, where the ‘Knowledge Initiative In Agriculture’ was signed. The budget, which professes to be ‘pro-farmer’, is, indeed, pro ‘corporate farmer’. All the three put together, will take India on the corporate road, leaving the poor small farmer in the wilderness.

The MoU has been quietly approved by the Cabinet, against established protocol, without taking Parliament into confidence. It is titled ‘Agriculture Cooperation and Food Security’ between India and the US. The MoU is primarily intended to enable private American investments in the country. It also seeks to privatise the huge Indian network of agricultural extension. The nutrition security component of the MoU calls for access of Indians to ‘diverse diet and diversified and fortified foods’ — a euphemism for genetically modified (GM) foods. India is a big market and with the draconian Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill in the offing, the US government with the Cabinet’s approval of the MoU will have no problems in dumping GM foods in the Indian market. The food and nutrition security component will give access to India’s great genetic diversity of crop plants for commercialisation to the advantage of the US because of its superior technological skills. The opening up of food security policy dialogue is also a matter of great concern, as it will impose on India the US model of agribusiness and vertical integration of food chain, greatly impacting and consolidating monopolies, because of the extensive and efficient US infrastructure. Indian food sovereignty will simply be lost.

An India-US Agriculture Knowledge Initiative is already in place since Clinton’s visit last October, which provides for US-based private multinational seed giants like Monsanto and Cargill to be appointed on the board, enabling them to bear huge influence on India’s farm sector.

But the most worrisome development is the unfolding of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill of India. If this becomes law, an Indian’s freedom to choose his food will simply be lost. New Delhi is hastening the introduction of the bill because of the controversy surrounding Bt brinjal.

If the ministry of science and technology has its way, criticising genetically modified products could land you in jail. The clause to silence critics of GM food is contained in the BRAI Bill, 2009 prepared by the department of biotechnology, which is a wing of the ministry of science and technology headed by Prithviraj Chavan. ‘Misleading public about organism and products’ is one of the crimes for which punishment has been prescribed in Section 63, Chapter 13 of the Bill which deals with various ‘offences and penalties’. The clause specifically deals with critics of biotech products including GM food crops. GM products covered under the Schedule I include genetically engineered plants and organisms, DNA vaccines, cellular products, gene therapy products, stem cell products and other such genetically engineered or transgenic products like Bt brinjal.

If the bill becomes a law and comes into force, anyone questioning the safety of Bt brinjal or stem cell therapy ‘without evidence or scientific record’ can be put behind bars. Many of the technologies mentioned in the bill are still in the realm of research and have not been proven safe for humans. It is also curious how the ministry of science and technology came to propose the bill when the subject actually is related to food safety, health and environment — subjects that come under the purview of other ministries. The proposed legislation has no clauses on public participation in the process of approval. The bill keeps information related to research, approval and science of GM products out of purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Moreover, the three-member expert team approved by the department of biotechnology can overrule the position taken by any of the states in relation to GM technology. This simply shows that though in India’s legal framework agriculture is a state subject, this right is simply usurped by the department of biotechnology. It is important to note that at the height of the Bt brinjal controversy, 10 states had officially opposed it. What is further worrying is that the BRAI will have its own appellate tribunal.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (under the Convention on Biological Diversity) which has been invoked in the preamble of the bill, clearly states that signatory countries should ‘consult the public in decision-making process regarding living modified organisms’. This fundamental provision has been thrown to the winds by the proposed bill. Equally worrying are some of the provisions in the budget, which, on surface, appear pro-farmer, but in reality is pro-corporate farming. The budget promises ‘appropriate banking facilities’ in every village with a population over 20,000. However, a critical examination shows that since 1993, the number of rural branches of scheduled commercial banks has steadily fallen. Despite the hype about the Bt cotton, Vidharbha district in Maharashtra has witnessed the maximum number of farmer suicides. With retail food prices rising many times more than the wholesale prices, where does a poor farmer benefit?

One can clearly see that a very alarming situation on the farm front in the rural sector is developing. The consequence would be huge migration of villagers to urban areas in search of a livelihood leading to further urban chaos. That is the time when land sharks will swoop and corporate farming or industries will start to bloom. The control of Indian agriculture is slipping into the hands of multinationals, either Indian or alien. The poor Indian farmer is in for a real shock. The only way India can redeem itself is when its current leaders reaffirm their faith in what Mahatma Gandhi said many years ago: “India lives in its villages”.


Biotech Regulation – What People Need and What the Govt Plans

What should a biotech regulatory bill actually look like?

A bill to regulate genetically modified organisms should mainly aim at protecting people's health and the environment from the possible risks of GM organisms. Activists have stressed that some of the principles such a bill should institutionalise (which were violated in the course of the Bt Brinjal episode) are:

The GM option should only be a last option in case of absence of other alternatives

Distinct regulatory mechanisms should govern the phase of research and that of release of any organism

Safeguards against conflicting interests (as was witnessed for instance when individuals involved in the decision to release Bt Brinjal were found to be on the payroll of Monsanto-Mahyco, the company with a commercial interest in the release)

Transparency and public scrutiny in decision-making, timely sharing of all information and public participation in decision-making

Rigorous risk assessment protocol to be spelt out with proper scrutiny of the testing and evaluation process

Rigorous procedure to assess social, environmental impact and ethical concerns
Liability – including penal clauses, and clauses for redress and remedy

Even in case of release of any product after rigorous process of evaluation, guarantee of proper labeling to ensure informed choices to the consumer

Incorporation of the Polluter Pays principle and other internationally accepted principles of environmental jurisprudence

The BRAI Bill meets none of these concerns. It is conceptually flawed because in the first place, it sets out to establish a 'Biotechnology Regulatory Authority' to facilitate the introduction of GM products! Rather, the concern ought to be to protect people and environment from the risks posed by modern biotechnology, and so the demand has been raised that the Bill be renamed as “Gene Technology and Biosafety Protection Act”.

Activists have also demanded that the regulatory authority should NOT be housed under the Ministry of Science & Technology since this will constitute conflict of interest; it should instead come under the Ministry of Environment & Forests or under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare.

The principle that GM should be the last option was pelt out by none other than the Supreme Court observer in the apex regulatory authority Dr Pushpa Bhargava: that any process of assessment of a GMO must “ascertain after careful analysis of existing information (and, if need be, relevant new information that could be generated within a short period) that there are no alternatives to the GMO and that the GMO will, if it meets the stipulated requirements, bring substantial benefit to the country and to one or more classes of its citizens. And if the GMO is truly required, carry out rigorous risk assessment”. The Bill incorporates nothing to reflect this principle.

Instead the Bill seeks to muzzle any possible objections or any public demand for transparency by threatening voices of dissent with jail!

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