Wednesday, December 16, 1998


Suman Sahai

The American multinational Monsanto has been all over the newspapers recently for the wrong reasons. It has been conducting trials of a genetically altered cotton variety , that is a transgenic variety, called Bollgard. This does not contain the terminator gene as Monsanto says and as the government has confirmed. However ignorant and misguided farmers in Karnataka have been destroying crops in the field thinking that the Bollgard cotton variety contained the terminator gene. The action has spilled over into Andhra without anyone bothering to verify the facts.

The misguided action to “ uproot the terminator gene” has allowed Monsanto to produce clarifications and offer assurances to the public and the government that it is not using the terminator gene. Monsanto has succeeded in portraying itself as the wronged party attacked by a bunch of goondas for something it has not done and has even got a High Court injunction for protection of its assets and property.

Unfortunately , the result of this ill-informed sensationalism has been the obfuscation of the real issue which is the actual nature of transgenic tests being conducted by Monsanto and their violations of biosafety protocols. In order to protect the farmers from being exploited or misused as guinea pigs it is important to have clarity about what is what so that action is taken against Monsanto for its biosafety violations and not some non-existent terminator gene.

The questions of concern are : *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 .

*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, which has huge tracts of fallow agricultural land and where this transgenic cotton variety has been developed.

It would appear 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.

Field testing for the new breed of genetically altered crops must be done very carefully following a strict biosafety regime 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 ?

Transgenic crops in the field can be dangerous if the foreign gene they contain is carried to other crops or plants through cross pollination. Several reputed laboratories have shown that pollen transfer can occur over very large distances and the foreign gene can be detected in related species at these distances. Therefore the danger is that genes from transgenic varieties can land up where they are not desired and thus cause harm. In any case, farmers who do not wish to grow the transgenic crop must not be forced to deal with gene pollution just because they are neighbours of those who have put transgenics in the field.

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?

What is urgently needed is to increase awareness in rural areas about these new developments in genetics and agriculture. Gene Campaign has therefore launched a public campaign to clarify the real issues and explain to people what transgenics are and the dangers of careless transgenic testing in the field. The first round of public meetings and group discussions are being conducted in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. The next round is planned for Bihar and the North -Eastern states.

Monsanto’s lack of transparency about its transgenic cotton trials in India and its attempt to use India as a third world testing ground are to be condemned. The goals of this multinational company are commercial and monopolistic agriculture and to make as much money as possible . Our goals are food and nutritional security , maintaining genetic diversity and ensuring the livelihood of small and marginal farmers. The collision course with Monsanto is therefore already laid out and it is clear that what is good for Monsanto, is not good for us. There is no place for Monsanto in Indian agriculture . They must be asked to go, but for the right reasons.