Sunday, November 29, 1998


Suman Sahai

Gene Campaign , the group working for several years against patenting of seeds and for the rights of Indian farmers has announced that it will begin a large scale awareness generation program to sensitise the farming community and concerned citizens about transgenic crops and the dangers to the farmer if these crops are tested in the field without the highest safety precautions. Gene Campaign would launch the first phase of its program in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana . This was because

awareness about issues in the Hindi heartland was usually very poor due to low literacy and other factors.

With respect to the transgenic cotton trials being conducted by the American company Monsanto in Maharashtra, Gene Campaign has demanded that the government cancel the license given to Monsanto for its operations in India since there is complete lack of transparency about its field trials. There are several points of concern :

*Have the local farmers been informed about what is being tested and what the dangers of such tests are ?

*Has the farming community in the test locations consented to trials in their neighborhood ?

*Have they been taken into confidence about the nature of these tests and the kind of safety precautions that are needed for such tests ?

*Are these safety precautions being put in place ?

*On the testing proper, is there collaboration with Indian scientists and Indian monitoring agencies in the field ? If not, why not .

*Has preliminary data about Monsanto’s initial trials been given to the department of Biotechnology ? Are these preliminary data such that open field tests can be allowed ?

*Most importantly, why is Monsanto conducting its trials on genetically altered cotton in India? Why is it not doing it in the USA , its home country, with 5 times as much agricultural land as India and where this transgenic cotton variety has been developed.

Gene Campaign has charged that in order to escape critical scrutiny and expensive field trials in the US, Monsanto is doing its testing in India. It is taking unfair advantage of the general ignorance in rural areas about the damage that can be caused to farmers’ crops if such tests are not conducted properly. Monsanto can get away with shoddy testing here, ignoring safety regulations that it can not do in its home country. If the intention of the company is indeed to sell a disease resistant cotton variety in India, let it conduct its tests somewhere else, in partnership with Indian experts. If the tested variety is shown to be a safe and effective product, they should be able to sell their variety in India….but not before that.

Field testing for the new breed of genetically altered crops must be done very carefully following a strict biosafety protocol of checks, physical containment and large land tracts isolating the experimental plots from farmers fields. In addition to this, data must be collected from the field constantly to see whether the foreign gene has escaped from the experimental plots to neighboring fields. Is all this being done by Monsanto ? Is it being monitored by Indian agencies ?

In India awareness about the new developments in genetics and biotechnology is very poor . Never mind the public, what is shocking is the utter ignorance of the scientists and scientific institutions working on the new areas in genetics and biotechnology. It may be recalled that just a few months ago , the experimental plots with standing crops of a transgenic variety had to destroyed in the field in Delhi since safety regulations were not being complied with. This was incidentally at a reputed national facility. Given this record, is it really sensible to allow field tests by a foreign multinational in farmers fields in Maharashtra or other locations ?

Monsanto’s lack of transparency about its transgenic cotton trials in India and the fact that it is the owner of the terminator technology for self destructing seeds is evidence enough that the goals of the Monsanto company and Indian farmers are exactly the opposite. What is good for Monsanto, is not good for us. Our goals are food and nutritional security , maintaining genetic diversity and ensuring the livelihood of small and marginal farmers. The goal of Monsanto is commercial and monopolistic agriculture . It is the unbridled greed to make as much money as possible even if this means critical genetic loss , the destruction of ecosystems and perhaps famines and starvation deaths.

There is no place for Monsanto in India . They must be asked to go.