Monsanto is not Gandhi

Genetically-Modified Crops

farming community

After a series of seven public hearings on Bt Brinjal, on February 9 2010, the then Union minister of state for environment, Jairam Ramesh, announced an indefinite moratorium on introducing Bt Brinjal — the first genetically modified food crop that was sought to be introduced for mass production in India.

In June 2019, lobbyists for the American agribusiness and biotechnology company Monsanto announced that farmers would illegally plant Bt Brinjal as a ‘Satyagraha.’

This is outright criminal action. Kishore Tiwari, chairman of the Maharashtra Government Commission on Agrarian Distress clearly stated that farmers acting on the behest of Monsanto are “criminals” and will be treated as such. Article 15 of the biosafety law requires the government to take action when rules are violated. Further, the Environment Protection Act, 1986, requires that anyone violating the law face an imprisonment of five years.

The reason we have national and international biosafety laws is because genetically-modified organisms (GMO) cause harm to biodiversity. Bt crops like Bt Cotton and Bt Brinjal have a gene for producing a toxin inserted in the genome of the plant, thus producing the toxin in every cell all the time.

It was known in the 1990s and has been scientifically confirmed since that Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) in plants is different from the naturally occurring Bt in the soil. New studies are showing that Monsanto took a safe, natural pest control agent and made it a ‘super toxin’ by genetically engineering it into plants. 

The scientific fraud begins with the claim that Bt toxin in crops affects only the bollworm species and controls it. This is false. While natural Bt affects only the caterpillar family, the ‘high dose toxin’ or ‘super toxin’ in GMO Bt crops affects a wide range of species. Further, the bollworm has evolved resistance to Bt, as the Indian experience with Bt shows.

A study published in a peer reviewed journal shows that in the Bt Cotton-growing areas of Vidarbha, beneficial soil organisms have declined, undermining soil health and fertility. The result revealed a significant decline in actinobacteria (17%), bacterial count (14%) as well as acid phosphatase (27%), phytase (18%), nitrogenase (23%) and dehydrogenase (12%) activities in Bt Cotton compared with non-Bt Cotton fields.

The study was repeated in 2015, and the soil microorganisms had further declined due to Bt toxin. The decline ranges between 6% and 77% of different parameters, which indicate the severe adverse effects of Bt Cotton on soil biological health. A decrease in bacterial population between 51-77% was noticed under Bt Cotton growing areas as compared to non-Bt Cotton soils of different districts.

Herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready Crops (glyphosate-tolerant crops) have increased the use of herbicides like Roundup which has been established to be a carcinogen. Roundup also kills biodiversity of plants and pollinators dependent on them. They have also led to the emergence of super weeds. Roundup Ready Bt Cotton is being illegally spread in India, with no action by the government to prevent this illegal action.  

Bt Brinjal will spread the failure and tragedy we have already witnessed with Bt Cotton. Worse, since Bt Brinjal is a food crop, there will be harm to public health. No independent research to prove the safety of Bt Brinjal exists. There are no long-term studies of more than 90 days or human feeding studies.

Bt Brinjal also contains antibiotic-resistant genes and poses serious public health concerns with the possibility of ‘horizontal gene transfer’ of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is already a major public health problem. There are tried, tested and successful alternatives that do not harm the public health or environment.

The scientists, farmers and citizens who gave evidence at the public hearing made it clear that any deliberate release of Bt Brinjal would be a threat to biodiversity and India’s environment.

India is the Centre of Origin/Diversity of Brinjal, with more than 4,500 varieties. The government cannot allow a foreign corporation to violate India’s Biodiversity Act to contaminate and pollute this rich diversity.

The higher common good and larger public good is what our biosafety and environmental laws are supposed to protect. To deliberately act against laws that protect the common good from the greed of the ‘poison cartel’ of three global gene giants which already control 60% of the world’s seed supply through such illegal actions is to participate in their crimes against nature and humanity.

Satyagraha is based on a higher consciousness, to promote Ahimsa and to stop brute law based on violence. Henry David Thoreau engaged in civil disobedience against the poll tax that supported slavery. Gandhi undertook Satyagraha against apartheid in South Africa, against the forced cultivation of indigo in Champaran, and against the imposition of the Salt Laws in 1930.

Following in Gandhi’s footsteps, we have undertaken ‘Seed Satyagraha’ since 1987 to prevent the ‘poison cartel’ from controlling our seeds, our agriculture, our food. India has Article 3j in our patent law which prohibits patents on plants, animals and seeds, since they are not human inventions.

During Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, we cannot allow such criminal actions undertaken by corporate interests to impose ‘Seed Slavery’ upon us and equate it with Gandhi’s Satyagraha. Monsanto is not Gandhi. Crimes against nature and society are not Satyagraha. We will uphold the integrity of Satyagraha — the force of truth — and not allow the idea and moral force of Satyagraha to be degraded and misused to commit crimes against nature and people.

We count on the Government of India to strictly implement the Bt Brinjal ban, to uphold India’s biosafety and environmental laws, and Gandhi’s legacy.

(The writer is Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology)

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