Thursday, March 4, 2010

Let baigans be bygones!

“You cannot get up before tasting the baghara baigan, it is the south Indian speciality” quipped Ashish Uncle, neighbour of my aunt in Hyderabad. It was a weekend and I had been to my local guardian’s place when Ashish Uncle had invited us for his son’s birthday.
All my life I have detested the king of vegetable but since I have come to Hyderabad, it has been tough time ignoring brinjal! Whether it be the Sunday special at the hostel mess or a friend’s mom invitation for feeding us the ‘home made’ food or  lucky  ‘out of the blue’ invitation for  Ashish uncle’s kid’s birthday party or the news papers flooded with ‘BT Brinjal’... Brinjal seem omnipresent!
But I realize that brinjal in newspaper is certainly more intriguing than the brinjal on a platter… because it’s just not about the king himself but plethora of things attached to it. Bt brinjal has triggered issues such as livelihood of the farmers, sustainability of agriculture, burgeoning profits for the corporate houses, credibility of the scientific research, faith in government’s decision and a range of issues like this!
BT brinjal, a genetically modified strain created by India's number one seeds company Mahyco in collaboration with American multinational Monsanto, claims to improve yields and help the agriculture sector. This claim has been contentious and has let to a stir in the country, jolting everyone from the netas to the aam admi. 
The company products have the dubious distinction of proving destructive on the fields and adversely affecting the lands and the crop yields worldwide. Various international groups such as the Organic Consumer Association, Greenpeace have carried campaigns such as “Millions against Monsanto”. It is a clique that the poor farmers have been coaxed by the governments and the Monsanto to pay them and get their fields contaminated by genetically modified organisms.

Presently the big multinational corporations (MNCs) control the seed and chemical supply, and it’s a huge market. Monsanto, one of the top MNCs claims to apply innovation and technology to help farmers around the world produce more while conserving more.  In reality the companies have pushed the farmers into a vicious cycle, where to grow the GM seeds, the farmers have to spend on chemical fertilisers and then to sustain the seed one has to depend on pesticides. Consequently the farmer is caught in a debt trap as all these wares come at a price and the worst of crisis occurs when the yields are shockingly low! Thus more  borrowing to harvest the new GM seeds!

The MNCs have been showing keen interest in the agricultural sector of the country due to various reasons. India being the habitat of the world’s second largest population, food security is a major concern.  Per hectare yield of the farms in India has been drastically low in comparison with other countries; hence increasing the output of the farms is one of the priorities of the sector. MNCs ensuring abnormal outputs see India as a major market for the genetically modified seeds.
In 1995, Monsanto teamed up with the Indian Mahyco to import Bt cotton seeds. The GM seeds were crossed with local varieties to ensure that they could adapt to local conditions. Much of India's GM debates stems from this point - In India’s agricultural history the first GM crop to be commercially grown in the farm lands was the Bt Cotton. Let alone an increased yield of cotton, it rather led to series of farmer suicides in the states where the GM seeds was promoted aggressively by the state governments.
There is now a stand-off between supporters of the technology and activists  who accuse the government and industry of a lack of transparency, which they say has prevented a serious, inclusive scientific debate on the issue. The decision of allowing the GM seeds was a top down diktat that was enforced on the vulnerable farmers.
"With no transparency over GM crops in India, no one, farmers or the state agriculture department, is told anything properly," says Suman Sahai, convenor of the Delhi-based nongovernmental organisation Gene Campaign. 
After the fatal consequence of the Bt cotton, the next GM crops that awaits to cause  destruction is the Bt Brinjal .However, the debate over the safety of Bt brinjal continues with mixed views from scientists working for the government, farmers and environment activists. There have been various versions of the research that had flooded the debate on the Bt brinjal.
The research conducted by the MNCs  which they use to persuade the governments is usually the research  funded by the companies themselves and then presented to the regulators for clearance. It is not surprising then that there is an enormous lack of credibility.  Activists allege that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has shown a bias towards   Monsanto. Ideally the research must have been publicly funded and openly scrutinized.
Dr. Vandana Shiva, noted environmentalist and activist says that “Safety tests conducted on Bt brinjal were a big fraud. The tests have not checked the effects of transgenic Bt which include genes for antibiotic resistance and genes for viral promoters. The tests have been done on safe microbial Bt, which has been used as an organic pesticide for decades. Hence the results merely show the safety of the organic spray.”
There has been a wide spread protest in the country including methods like the ‘brinjal satyagraha’ a nationwide fasting campaign against the commercialisation of the Bt brinjal in India, signature campaign where about 1, 70, 000 people have signed the document stating “I am No Lab Rat”. 
Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister of environment came up with the device of public consultations on October 15, 2009, just a day after the regulator in his ministry, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), had given its go-ahead to the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal. The series of consultation meetings chaired by him have turned out to be dramatic, given the manner in which pro and anti-GM lobbies sought to demonstrate their strength.
States cutting across regional and political lines: Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar have come out against Bt brinjal. While some asked for a moratorium pending further testing of the bio-safety of Bt brinjal, others rejected the very idea of letting toxic genes be inserted into food crops. Consequently Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister for environment and forests, has agreed to put Bt brinjal in the cold storage for a while.
The question is not only about allowing a new technology of genetic modification here; it is about its use in a daily-use vegetable, cooked in our homes, a vegetable that can easily be grown in the backyard. India is the home of brinjal, where it has been cultivated for four thousand of years without the help of fertilizers; hence do we really need a Bt bringal? Will it help the farmers to improve their income or will it lead to surge in the  number of suicides?   Or will it just help the MNCs to fill their kitty? There are numerous such questions that need to be debated and discussed constantly!
To add to that list, one more question …. Will the Bt bhagara baigan will taste as delicious…. Well I would leave the question to the south indian food experts to answer!

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