Sunday, October 21, 2001


Suman Sahai

A leading English daily has carried a series of front page stories on the illegal planting of a transgenic cotton crop in Gujarat. The subject is ten thousand hectares of cotton in Gujarat , found to be planted with Bt cotton . This planting has been done with GM cotton seed procured from a Hyderabad based seed company called Navbharat Seeds Pvt. Ltd. It is illegal to sell GM seed in India and it is illegal to cultivate GM crops . Navbharat has duped the farmers by not informing them that the seed was a GM variety and that they were not allowed to cultivate such seeds. Apart from jeopardizing the farmers, the Seed Company has broken the law. As though all this was not enough, the basic seed material that Navbharat has used , has probably been stolen from another seed company which is still in the process of conducting field trials.

Gene Campaign, a leading NGO working on issues of bioresources and food security has issued a call for the media to be better informed and more responsible when reporting stories, and not to come out in support of provenly illegal actions. Dr. Suman Sahai, convenor of the Gene Campaign said it was very unfortunate that an established newspaper like the Indian Express has chosen to take up cudgels on behalf of a greedy , unscrupulous company which has thought nothing of flouting the laws of the land and putting the environment at risk. The media has a responsibility that its reports are factual and well researched. In a technical and somewhat difficult area like transgenic crops, it would have been advisable for the paper to have informed itself somewhat better and understood the issue before rushing to take sides.

Indian law does not yet allow the release of GM crops in farmers' fields and so far no GM crop is under cultivation in India. The situation is the same in many developing and developed countries where GM crops have not been given permission for cultivation. Navbharat's action is completely illegal and must be severely punished. Dr. Suman Sahai said that an example has to be made of the seed company and the government must visibly demonstrate that such dangerous offenders will be dealt with the severity permissible within the law. The company must lose its license to sell seed for at least 2 years, and be made to pay a heavy financial penalty. In addition , they must be required to compensate to the last rupee for the losses that the farmer will incur when the Department of Biotechnology , quite correctly, burns down the standing crop. The onus for compensating the farmers should not be placed on the Gujarat government.

The issue here is not whether the Bt cotton seed supplied by Navbharat is a good or bad seed. The issue is that it is an illegally obtained and clandestinely sold seed, in violation of the laws of India and flouting all established practices operative for GM research and trials. GM crops are at the center of a raging controversy. Their safety and effectiveness are still in question and therefore their research, field trials and very specially, their cultivation in farmers fields is very carefully monitored and controlled.

The guiding principle is to exercise the utmost caution since the effects on the environment of such GM crops carrying foreign genes, has not been fully assessed or understood. That is the reason, all countries in the world, including India have a series of procedures that have to be followed when dealing with GM crops. Regulatory agencies have been set up to assess the research and field trials and their permission has to be sought for taking each further step. To report that the government is sitting on results or has been tardy with the release of transgenic seeds is to draw a red herring. That is not the point. The point is breaking the law , which Navbharat has done.

This kind of maverick action must be dealt with seriously so that others are suitably deterred. Whether or not GM crops will be cultivated in India will be decided after scientific appraisal and if the people and policy makers feel it is in their best interest to do so, Dr. Sahai said. The agenda can not be set by a criminal action on the part of a greedy and unscrupulous company. For the media to put the government in the dock for not having released GM seeds and for almost condoning the actions of the Navbharat seed company is an unacceptably irresponsible action. Dr. Suman Sahai said that it would be irresponsible madness to fool around with future agricultural production and food security by being anything less than extremely careful while dealing with this new and exciting, but as yet incompletely understood technology.