Tuesday, February 2, 2010

At the Bt Brinjal public forum...

I am only an expert at eating Brinjal and not too conversant with Bt Brinjal (:P) debate, and hence decided to make it to the open forum on Bt. Brinjal that was conducted by the Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Mr. Jairam Ramesh (kudos to him for that). How I got to the venue is a lonng story that we will reserve for another day :), but the experience after getting to the venue and subsequent observations are what I will be writing here :)

The beauty of this program was that one could get to hear the opinions from really a wide range of people. Jairam called upon doctors, scientists, farmers, NGO's, govt. officials, retd.professors etc to express their opinion. Infact, he even called upon his most vocal critics, reminding people that he is doing so! :D

Views across the hall

There was this lady teacher from a village in Nalgonda district who came all the way here to try and see if she could talk to the minister. She explained in detail how farmers in and around her village took to Bt.Cotton ignoring the food crops they used to grow before. Now, Bt.Cotton apparently is not yielding the expected output, and the soil is no more fit to grow food crops. So,neither are they getting profits nor are they even able to grow food crops for themselves. Her point was that, therefore how are we confident that another Bt variety will not play havoc with lives of farmers?

Then there were these two ladies from different NGO's (one of them came all the way from Chennai), who bought up the issue of excessive child labour in areas where Bt.Cotton is grown. It is a serious issue, I agree, but I think they raised it at the wrong forum (well, given that Jairam is the only minister who is talking to the people, can't blame them for trying).

An interesting point was made by an elderly gentleman working for an NGO whose name I forgot :). He questioned the claims of some NGO's which were saying that Bt crops will kill people! He pointedly asked that when no death has been reported so far in any country that uses Bt crops, how on earth are the NGO's spreading such information. He then went on to say that his objection is to the fact that MNC's are pressurising and guiding us as to what to use for our crops. Such blatant transgression is what he is objecting to, and he ended by saying that if this continues, the day is not far off when it will be Chinese rice that will be sold under the Rs.2 a Kg scheme!

An agricultural scientist, Dharmendra (Jairam was joking that a scientist by the name Dharmendra is an interesting concept :) ) put up a strong argument for Bt crops in general. A retired professor from the Acharya N.G.Ranga Agricultural University was also saying that Bt will improve the quality of vegetables, and in these times, quality is also important. Both arguments were greeted with whistles and claps by those supporting the Bt. crop!

A farmer was then called upon, and he was also reminded that though he was one of the main reasons for the ruckus in the first 30 minutes! Ohh I forgot to say - I was late for the event, and was told that I missed some fun in the initial 30 minutes! Apparently, the agitators were blaming that Monsanto has bought in farmers early in the morning in many buses and planted them inside the auditorium! Until Jairam pacified the agitators by first saying he will listen to everyone and also adopted a stern tone, the situation was not controlled!

Anyways, back to the farmer who detailed as to how proper procedures were not followed while approving the Bt. variety, how the mandatory tests were not conducted before arriving at the conclusion that Bt is safe (some others have also mentioned how even those minimum tests were carried out by stakeholders involved and not by neutral arbitrators). Ofcourse, there were whistles and applause for these arguments too. I must say, the farmer was an excellent orator. He actually began his speech by asking Jairam to first ask his wife to cook Bt at home!

There was also a broad consensus that the Brinjal crop is not in a crisis, and availability is not a problem today or in the near future.Infact, some were suggesting that pricing is a problem and that needs to be looked into.

Jairam asked the person sitting next to him, Mr. Vijay Kumar, on the dias to give his concluding arguments. Vijay Kumar has vast experience in promoting non-pesticidal management over the past 6 years (he is also Director of SERP) and he spoke about how about 6 lakh farmers over 15 lakh sq.kms have succesfully followed practices that eliminate use of pesticides. He was urging all farmers to practice more such methods as part of sustainable agriculture. I guess he was saying that if Bt Brinjal is being bought in to eliminate the need of pesticides, then we already do that without it!

Mood in the hall

There was clearly a huge polarisation in the hall. Both for and against citizens were quite voiceferous in support of their arguments. But there seems to be a general agreement all around that enough tests were not carried out to confirm the viablity and effects of this particular Bt.crop (confirmed by an expose by CNN-IBN
here). Most of them questioned as what the hurry was in trying to bring it to India, which I guess is a fair argument. What just is the need to set aside all prescribed rules and bring in the seed now?

Jairam's comments

Jairam did give a fair chance for many of them to speak. He listened to all opinions, and presented a very fine closing argument. His first and foremost announcement was that he will be cutting down on the mandate of Genetic Engineering Aprroval Committee (GEAC) by changing it to just an Assesment committee. It's mandate has to be limited to just assesing and not approving. He also said that he is not under any pressure from either the PM or PMO ( I didn't doubt that a bit, because it is the agricultural ministry that is pressurising him!). Infact, he said that he is under pressure from himself! And the best point he made is that it is unfair to polarise the debate. All those who oppose are not anti-national and all those who are for are not Monsanto agents! Jairam had to remind more than once that this debate was not about the future of GM crops in the country (though, in a way it was - yesterday it was Bt. Cotton, today Bt.Brinjal, tomorrow? :) )


I have this hunch that a decision has already been taken. I don't know if it is for or against, but I have a hunch that it has already been taken. The reason being that Jairam announced that the next session is in Bangalore on the 6th and he will announce his decision by the 10th. Now, are we to believe that all consultations will happen in 2-3 days and a decision arrived at? ;-)

Media's role

First major complaint. Jairam said that he was disappointed at the ways of expression of displeasure. TIMES NOW says this "Jairam Ramesh disappointed by dissent against Bt.Brinjal" !!! At no point did he say he was for or against Bt.Brinjal. Anyways, what else could you expect from TIMES NOW? :D

There were scores of cameras in the auditorium. All of them were just pointed to the dias. Seldom (or maybe at no point) were they turned around to capture the video of those concerned, patriotic citizens who made time to participate in this process. Most of the views were not even recorded, most of them not photographed. But the moment a group of people barged in shouting slogans, they were all over the place! The moment the session concluded, they were all over the dias (like a swarm of bees) surrounding the minister. What were they losing if they tried to film all those who were making their points? Wouldn't it have been great if bits of their arguments (both for and against) were telecast in the media, instead of just showing shouting protestors? Wouldn't it have set a fine example of journalism?

I had a premonition from the morning that the media will just cover the protests part of it and nothing else. Were there protests at the event - yes. Were they an eyesore/earsore at times - yes. But for crying out loud, there was about a 2 1/2 hour discussion (and I was there for the latter half) at the auditorium on this issue and all we get from a reputed journalist by name Sagarika Ghose is this - "Bt Brinjal causing large scale protests. jairam ramesh needs to make a comprehensive statement". When infact he made as comprehensive a statement can get from that very dias!

Final say

It is quite clear that adequate testing was not done and that rules were flouted, obviously to favour seed companies. There is untold urgency in pushing through this by the Agricultural ministry, and thank god that the minister of Environment and Forests stood up to this. The debate in the society on this is quite polarised (but I must say that this is informed polarisation!) with both for and against groups holding onto their viewpoints strongly.

Quite frankly, I am sceptical about the argument that people would die if we consume Bt. Brinjal!. However, benefits and effects aside, when basic rules are flouted and basic tests are skipped, to make the sale easier, it just isn't worth to bring in Bt. Brinjal (or for that matter any product) into the market. Each Bt. product has to undergo all prescribed tests to get certified. Just because one Bt variety was a success doesn't mean that we fast track and flout rules of others!

On a lighter note, if Sharad Pawar is convinced so quickly based on report of experts committee, surely there is something fishy right? ;-)

For those interested on further reading, read the Ministry's comprehensive release here (26 pages, worth reading), the report of expert committee here (it is 105 pages long and I only glanced!), and a response by a scientist here. All these links are via @S_Sivakumar.

And also an article asking to give Bt.Brinjal a chance is here. (link via @barbarindian)

And finally a status list of GM crops waiting in the wings :) is here. (via colleagues at office)

PS: On february 10, Jairam Ramesh announced that there is a moratorium on Bt Brinjal until proper tests are completed.


keralafarmer said...

A good post I read. As a farmer from Kerala I have to say thay extracting from the soil to produce more with out the availability of balanced nutrients input is against next generation. Already we are suffering from so many diseases due the deficiency of soil nutrients and the availability of harmful pesticides. Soil is the only solution for every thing. Don't spoil it? We have no right to spoil the earth and the universe.
Thank you

Avijit said...

Very clear and unbiased post. :)

As far as I know, currently GM technology is in it's infancy and profit hungry companies are trying to market it before adequate testing is done.

There is enough data to show that GM foods have a number of problems associated with them.

Check out http://www.gmwatch.org/10-reasons-why-we-dont-need-gm-foods

Specific to the Bt Brinjal issue, see Professor Eric Seralini's assessment of it. He is an independent French biologist from the Caen University and head of Scientific Council of the Committee for Independent Research and
Information on Genetic Engineering

According to him rats fed with Bt Brinjal had decreased liver weight and diahorrea. There have been no tests done on humans to see how Bt Brinjal would react.

Sudhir said...

Thanks for your comments KeralaFarmer and Avijit.

From your points, it is further clear that proper debate and discussions have eluded the process! All hail Sharad Pawar :D !

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