Feb 18, 2010

Indian S & T Minister uses GM lobby data to justify Bt brinjal

If you ever attend a conference where an Advisor from the Department of Biotechnology or a member of the discredited Genetic Engineering Approval Committee is making a presentation, you will invariably find that they rely heavily on the data provided by the GM lobby group ISAAA. They claim to take views of all stakeholders into consideration but have no capability to look beyond ISAAA.

For the proponents of GM technology, ISAAA annual publication is the holy book.

But I am rather surprised to know that even the Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan has fallen into this trap. I have always respected Mr Chavan for his sensitivity, and his concern for the real issues. For years, before he became a Minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister's Office in 2004, I must acknowledge that he was among the saner voices in the Congress Party. In fact, he had been a strong critic of the World Trade Organisation and Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights, and has campaigned on these issues for long.

I am therefore quite surprised at his recent statements about the biosafety of Bt brinjal. I can understand that being the Minister, it is his duty to defend the position/recommendations of the DBT, which falls under his ministry. But I fail to comprehend how could he simply overlook the veracity of the claims that his department was making, and more importantly put his signatures to a letter prepared by the DBT for him.

As has now become evident, the Minister has simply lifted bulk of the material verbatim from a report called 'The Development and Regulation of Bt Brinjal in India' produced by ISAAA. Even the annextures have been lifted from the report.

If this is science, the Minister owes a lot of explanation to the nation.

Prithvi used GM lobby data to push Bt brinjal

By Dinesh C Sharma

The pro-Bt brinjal view in the ministry of science and technology seems to be on shaky ethical ground.

Investigations reveal that the department's minister Prithviraj Chavan - a vocal supporter of genetically engineered crops - copied and quoted in an official letter material from reports published by a lobbying outfit funded by seed companies including Monsanto and Mahyco.

Monsanto and Mahyco are respectively the patent holders and the Indian distribution rights holders of Bt Brinjal.

Chavan lifted paragraph after paragraph in a letter (a copy of which is in Mail Today's possession) that he wrote to his former colleague Dr Anbumani Ramadoss in July 2009, to defend Bt brinjal. Ramadoss had written to the prime minister in February 2009, in his capacity as health minister, raising health concerns about the introduction of genetically modified (GM) food crops in India. Curiously, Chavan - on behalf of the prime minister - replied in July 2009 when Ramadoss was no more a member of the Union Cabinet.

The four-page letter is accompanied an annexure containing eight pages.

Both the letter and the annexure draw liberally from two 'reports' prepared by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a US-based charity whose aim is to "facilitate transfer and sharing of crop biotechnology applications" in developing countries. The outfit has an active office in New Delhi.

Among the major donors of ISAAA - as listed on its website - are Barwale Foundation (earlier known as Mahyco Research Foundation), Monsanto, Bayer Crop Science, Bejo Sheetal Seeds (India), J. K. Organisation, CropLife International, Raasi Seeds Limited, Vibha Agrotech, Cornell University, US Department of Agriculture and USAID. The bulk of Chavan's letter has been lifted verbatim from a report called 'The Development and Regulation of Bt Brinjal in India' authored by Bhagirath Choudhary and Kadambini Gaur.

Ironically, amongst the reviewers of this 102-page report is Dr Ananda Kumar, a member of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee - the regulatory body that cleared Bt brinjal in October 2009.

The second paragraph in the letter has been lifted fully - including a reference - from the first report on Bt brinjal.

The key argument advanced in this para is how development of GM crops with traits like "tolerance to drought and salinity, improved nitrogen use efficiency, enhanced yield, quality and nutritional properties", coupled with existing traits, would be "real value addition for India". It also says these crops will help India the challenges of "hunger, poverty, malnutrition and food security in tomorrow's world". This para appears on page 27 of the ISAAA report.

The second page of Chavan's letter talks about how the introduction of Bt cotton has helped Indian farmers.

Material on this page has been copied from page 37 of the ISAAA report in three chunks. One of them reads "Bt technology has a long history of safety, proven efficacy and benefits. Bt brinjal promises to be of great value to Indian farmers." Chavan had reached this conclusion several months ahead of the GEAC's regulatory approval for the commercial release of Bt brinjal - which came only in October 2009.

Chavan has given some new arguments in favour of GM crops. He seems to believe that "biotech crops are environmentally friendly and have contributed significantly to reducing emission of greenhouse gases from agricultural practice". Needless to say, this is what the biotech industry has argued in the ISAAA reports used by Chavan to draft his reply to Ramadoss.

The eight-page annexure to Chavan's letter has been taken entirely from a report called 'Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008', which is also published by ISAAA. The annexure is actually a photocopy of pages 76 to 83 of this report. Chavan's letter says on Page 3 that "biotech crops have also reduced pesticide spraying considerably (publications are attached in Annexure-1)". The "publications" referred to here are nothing but quotations from the president, the prime minister, the finance minister and the agriculture minister (all supporting biotech crops) as well as testimonials of farmers using Bt cotton.

Read the full report at: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/Story/84529/LATEST%20HEADLINES/Prithvi+used+GM+lobby+data+to+push+Bt+brinjal.html

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