Agri-biotechnology Agriculture Policy Briefing GM Crops

If Govt Can Remove Ban on Jallikattu, Why Cannot It Lift Stay on Bt Brinjal? Asks Jairam Ramesh

Jairam-Ramesh-X-close-up

Nearly six years after he imposed a stay as environment minister on the introduction of Bt brinjal for cultivation Jairam Ramesh tells Vivian Fernandes in an interview, he intended the stay only for a couple of years, he is not opposed to genetic engineering of crops, a single or few companies cannot dominate seed supply and the bill for a biotechnology sector regulator should be quickly re-introduced.

While declaring a moratorium on the commercial introduction of Bt brinjal on 9 February 2010, you said your ‘concern was with Bt brinjal alone and not the larger issue of genetic engineering and biotechnology in agriculture’.  But that is not how it has turned out. Despite, allowing field trials of GM rubber in Kerala soon thereafter, your decision has had a chilling effect on agricultural bio-technology and the companies engaged in it are blaming you for their plight.

Jairam Ramesh:  It was a moratorium on Bt brinjal; nothing more, nothing less. I was one of the early advocates of Bt cotton. After the Bt brinjal moratorium, as you yourself mentioned, I was a strong advocate of GM rubber much to the opposition of the Kerala government. It was not a ban on research. It was a ban on the commercialization of Bt brinjal ─ not even a ban, a moratorium for a specified period of time. I had expected the moratorium would last no more than two to three years and I gave three conditions: (1) set up an independent, professional, regulatory authority (2) have an agreed protocol for tests particularly as far as food crops like brinjal are concerned and (3) get the states on board, because not a single state was on Bt brinjal, including Mr Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. In a few weeks it will be the sixth anniversary of the moratorium. What do we find? No effort has been made at scientific consensus. The independent regulator is not in place. States are still opposed to it. If you want to introduce bio-technology in a big way, which I support, and within bio-technology, transgenics is only one route. There may be a place for transgenics. In Dr (M S) Swaminathan’s own laboratory I have seen work being done on salinity-resistant rice, which is very important for coastal states.

The BRAI (Biotechnlogy Regulatory Authority of India) bill for an independent regulator…Jairam-Ramesh-Mudra

Jairam Ramesh: Why hasn’t it come? Why don’t they bring in the BRAI bill?

 Your government should have done it; it was in power till 2014. (Actually, the UPA government introduced it in June 2013. It lapsed with the previous Lok Sabha. –Editor)

Jairam Ramesh: We prepared it. It came to me. I gave my comments. I did not want it to be part of the Department of Biotechnology. The Commissioner of Railway Safety is not under the ministry of railways or the Railway Board. It is under the ministry of civil aviation. Create firewalls to ensure there is no conflict of interest.

Three high-level technical committees ─ the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation and two expert committees set up by the Genetic Engineering Approval (now Appraisal) Commitee (GEAC) in 2006 and 2009 ─ said Bt brinjal is safe. The six national science academies had said the following, after your disapproval, in recommendation No 7:  ‘The overwhelming view is that the available evidence has shown adequately and beyond reasonable doubt that Bt brinjal is safe for human consumption and that its environmental effects are negligible. It is appropriate now to release Bt brinjal for cultivation in specific farmers’ fields in indentified states.’

Jairam Ramesh: This report which the scientific academies produced is a huge disappointment. It reads like the annual report of some company or a note that has been prepared for them. I expected that they would exercise their independent judgement and come up with a sober report. I had not expected them to be pro or anti. I wanted in the best tradition of scientific evidence (inquiry, is what he means), reports like the National Academy of Engineering. I had expected them to come up with a professional and objective report. Instead, what I got was an apology. To say there was no dispute on the effects of Bt brinjal is not true. There are divergent viewpoints. I have put them in the public domain. There were scientists in India and abroad who were questioning the tests. These were not activists.

Of the eight foreign scientists quoted in our order,  Elseviewer, the publisher of Food and Chemical Toxicology withdrew the paper of Gilles-Eric Seralini because his study on GM corn and tumours in rats did not stand up to peer scrutiny. (The journal said the results were inconclusive, not incorrect. -Editor)

Jairam Ramesh:  I don’t hold a brief for Seralini. The Seralini case is not black and white. There are huge shades of grey. Look what Keshav Kranthi, Director of CICR (Central Institute of Cotton Research), had to say on Bt brinjal. He put a lot of conditions on the release.  Look at what Dr M S Swaminathan said on biodiversity. (Kranthi expressed support for Bt brinjal but suggested three measures for resistance management. -Editor)

On the basis of the same safety tests Bangladesh allowed the cultivation of Bt brinjal in October 2013.

Jairam Ramesh: The Bangladesh thing is highly, highly controversial.  I respect what Bangladesh has done. I have no stake either for or against Bt brinjal. My view, on the strength of the evidence that I had, was that GEAC had not done as comprehensive a job as it should have. It had not listened to voices within GEAC.  But that is history. This government came to power in May 2014. They could have easily removed the moratorium. Eighteen months have gone by. Right now the government is about to remove the ban on Jallikattu, the fighting of bulls in Tamil Nadu, (it was removed on 9 January, 2015) the Supreme Court upheld my order, now the government is about to remove that ban, so remove the moratorium on Bt Brinjal.

People oppose GM technology for ideological reasons..

Jairam Ramesh: Seed control is a very important issue. It is an ideological issue. I am not an ideologist by any chance, left or right, but do you want seed supply to be controlled by one company? Whether it is Indian or foreign is immaterial.

This is dog in the manger attitude. The public sector will not do research  and private companies are not allowed to.  

Jairam Ramesh:  In the last 15-20 years there has been systematic effort to choke R&D in the public sector and promote R&D in the private sector. The Green Revolution happened because of R&D in the public sector: CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) in Mexico and IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) in Manila…  The technology came from these two institutes to ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research), to CRRI (Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack) and to PAU (Punjab Agricultural University).

If that is the concern, why not ban seed MNC s from operating in our country? Why have a dual attitude? First welcome them, then block them?

Jairam Ramesh: It is not a question of blocking them… Okay, since you have raised this question, let me say, Monsanto carries its own DNA. The DNA of Monsanto is toxic, unfortunately.

How so?

Jairam Ramesh: Agent Orange. (A defoliant used in the Vietnam war)

Jairam-Ramesh-PointingIn what way has it harmed us in India?

Jairam Ramesh: Look, I have not met anybody from Monsanto, I do not know Monsanto, I have no brief for Monsanto. I know a lot of Indians are working for Monsanto. There is a fear of Monsanto not only in India but all over the world. After Bhopal (gas tragedy), Union Carbide (now part of Dow Chemical) became toxic.  Whatever Monsanto has done in the past, in Vietnam, in the US, whether it is true or false, but there was a certain DNA associated with Monsanto and my feeling is that the huge adverse reaction (to Bt brinjal), that is my theory, was caused in large part by the fact that Monsanto was associated with it.

(Bt brinjal was developed by Mahyco. Monsanto supplied the insecticidal Bt gene. Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech was not involved. – Editor)

Was it a fear that also preyed on your mind?  That here is this huge company which might take control of our food security?

Jairam Ramesh: I have acknowledged it: that one multinational company is going to be in control of the seed supply and we have not done enough to strengthen the public sector R&D, to strengthen the public sector seed industry.

Should a country as big as India be on the defensive?

Jairam Ramesh: What is the great food security argument for Bt brinjal?  I can understand Bt rice, or some new GM wheat, or GM tur (pigeon pea). The first thing you do is Bt brinjal, what is the urgency?

If the government thought brinjal was not priority, it should have said so. Why let companies waste time and effort?

Jairam Ramesh: Bt cotton was approved in 2002. We should have unveiled a strategy at that time. What happened on Bt brinjal could have been avoided had in 2002 or thereabouts these issues were discussed and a road map laid for the private companies.

Can you elaborate?

Jairam Ramesh: What is going to be out attitude (to GM) in food crops? We should have had a regulator in place then.  I do not understand what this great (dismissively) Bt cabbage (sic) is all about. I really do not understand. So much of national time and effort has been spent on this bloody Bt baingan.  We should be worried about bigger things in life, yaar.

Let me speak of the bigger things in life. We have a shortage of pulses ─ tur and chana (chick pea) ─ and these are vulnerable to the pod borer. Within their germplasm, scientists tell me, resistance is not available to the pest, which inflicts huge damage. Assam Agricultural  University has developed Bt chana which it licensed in 2009 to a private entity and four public institutions, one of which is Icrisat, but CLL Gowda, the former Deputy D-G of ICRISAT tells me that scientists are not able to do field trials.  This was also the opinion of the director of the Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur. GM technology is also the only option to deal with stem borers that chew rice panickles, and the sap sucking brown plant hopper, a tiny fly, says A K Singh, head of genetics at IARI.

Jairam Ramesh: Is Bt the route to take for pulses? That is the big question that I want to ask.

Apparently it is, about forty percent of tur and chana is said to be lost to the pod borer and with Bt insect resistance, this damage can be averted. Your decision has had a chilling effect. Our scientists cannot go ahead with field trials. They are constrained.

Jairam Ramesh: This is all an excuse I am afraid. In plain simple English, it was made very clear that it was a moratorium on commercialization of Bt brinjal. It was not a moratorium on research. It was not a moratorium on field trials. That happened because of the Supreme Court. On a parallel case the Supreme Court set up an expert committee. That committee gave a report. The Supreme Court gave a stay on the field trials (It did not.-Editor).

While imposing the stay on Bt brinjal, you said it will stay till such time as ‘independent scientific studies establish to the satisfaction of both the public and professional – the safety of the product from the point of view of its long- term impact …’ How many of your controversial decisions would meet this standard? Did they satisfy all?

Jairam Ramesh: I do not want unanimity. I want broad consensus. There was no consensus in the scientific community, no consensus in the political establishment. Not one chief minister was willing to support Bt brinjal.

But state NOC (no objection certificate) was not required till you made it mandatory.

Jairam Ramesh: It is not NOC. I said let us get their views. Have I used the word NOC anywhere in my order? No.

Let us apply your standard to nuclear power. (Ramesh had approved the Jaitapur power park). If you had asked the chief ministers would they have agreed to locate a nuclear plant in their state?

Jairam Ramesh: (Maharashtra chief ministers) Ashok Chavan and then Prithvi (raj Chavan), both of them wanted Jaitapur. Mr Bhupinder Singh Hooda wanted the nuclear power plant in Sonepat. First (YS) Rajasekhara Reddy, (K) Rosaiah and then Kiran Kumar Reddy wanted it in Srikakulam. Did (J) Jayalalithaa oppose Kudankulam? No.

I stand corrected.

Jairam Ramesh: On nuclear power, I am afraid you will have to stand corrected. By the way, it is not ‘no objection certificate,’ please.  The states have to be on board.

No, no, no no, it is not just consultation. You made it mandatory for them to give no objection certificates.

Jairam Ramesh: Have I used the used the term no objection certificate? I did not make them mandatory. By the sheer efflux of time this is what has happened.

In your book Green Signals, you give details of institution building during the 25 months you were environment Jairam-Ramesh-in-chairminister. The National Green Tribunal was set up, you pushed for an independent regulator for the environment, and operationalized the Forest Rights Act by giving tribals the right to harvest and sell bamboo, as a ‘minor forest produce’. But you emasculated the GEAC, you doubted the integrity of its members and second-guessed its advice. You converted it from an ‘approvals’ committee into an ‘appraisal’ committee.

Jairam Ramesh: (laughing) The GEAC was not an independent, professional, regulator.  I am all for a biotechnology regulatory authority of India. I gave ten comments in my book on how to make it effective and I am very sad that first my own government and then the Modi government ─ four years have passed ─ they have not even brought the bill (before Parliament).  Same thing with the nuclear regulatory authority of India. Today, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board reports to the Atomic Energy Commission. How can it be an independent regulator?

Why not? You can have people of competence and eminence, those with professionalism and integrity.

Jairam Ramesh: Organizational dynamics, yaar, organizational dynamics.

Do you agree that in the case of GEAC you were an institution breaker?

Jairam Ramesh: No. GEAC I found to be a closed club. These decisions are not purely scientific decisions. They have economic, social consequences and the way GEAC was structured and run, it was a closed club of scientists who had no scepticism or doubt. As a politician I approach every issue with some scepticism or doubt. The record of the GEAC did not give me that confidence.

You said studies on safety were not independently done. They were. All regulatory regimes around the world use this system with the technology developer sponsoring the studies which are carried out in accredited labs. This was also the case with Bt brinjal. Studies were conducted in govt institutions or accredited private labs. They were done as prescribed.

But that is wrong. This is the first time a GM food crop in the world.

No. Not in the world. The United States has GM maize and GM soybean. Hawaii has GM papaya.

Jairam Ramesh: GM maize is feed. Don’t tell me when you eat corn in America you are eating GM corn?

Yes.

Jairam Ramesh: It is labelled.

There is no labelling of GM food in USA. (This is because GM and non-GM foods are similar except for transgenes. Some states have introduced labelling. – Editor) 

Jairam Ramesh: Okay, Bt brinjal was the first GM food crop for India. Brinjal is a vegetable which we consume every day. The tests must have some credibility.

The townhalls that you held were a circus really. They were kangaroo panchayats where the sober voice of science was drowned by the clangour of the anti-activists.

Jairam Ramesh: The videos of all the seven public hearings are on the website. They have not been doctored. Nobody’s voice was drowned. Everybody was given a chance including a former managing director of Monsanto who said in Bangalore ‘you would be doing the nation a great service by putting a ban on Bt brinjal’.

People were heckled. A garland of baingan was put on you.

Jairam Ramesh: Yeah. I was heckled. It is democratic. The introduction of Bt brinjal was not a purely scientific decision.

Jairam-Ramesh-gapingYes, you have to reassure the public, take it into confidence. After all, it is a food crop. But there is procedure for it. The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) of Australia invites objections and addresses them. The risk assessment report is put on the website.

Jairam Ramesh: I got the objections. I asked people for comments. I sent to sixty scientists and NGOs. They submitted their reports. And I also wanted to get public opinion. It was done by the Centre for Environmental Education, by (its CEO) Kartikeya Sarabhai of Ahmedabad. It is an independent outfit. The only thing I told them was make sure all points of view are represented. What the public hearings demonstrated was that (1) the scientists had never communicated to the public and (2) the extreme intolerance of the civil society organizations to any form of scientific discussion or scientific debate. I was caught between the devil and the deep sea.

I did the same on the coastal zone regulations, when I went to five different places.  I did the same thing on the Green India Mission. Environment is not an issue of just science; it is a people issues, a livelihood issue, a health issue.

Sir, one gets the sense that genetic engineering of brinjal was not the issue at all. This was an exercise in the political re-engineering of Jairam Ramesh to mesh with the socialist worldview of the top Congress leadership. You wanted to live down your liberalizer image.

Jairam Ramesh: Why? I lost all my friends. I was accused of being Luddite. You called me a Luddite.

(Photos of Jairam Ramesh. Copyright Vivian Fernandes)

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