Hybrid law? Govt is stern with GM crop innovators, but lax with farmers growing them
As the Centre squats on GM crop approvals for years together, farmers take the law in their own hands; how safe is the practice?
If the government does not respect a procedure established by law, can people compel it to abide by that procedure by themselves breaking the law? Is a government within its rights to squat on an approval for 12 years without valid scientific reasons? Is such a stance compatible with the rule of law?
On February 17, Anil Jaysing Ghanwat, President of the Swatantra Bharat Party, led a group of about 500 farmers in planting unapproved, genetically modified (GM), fruit & shoot borer-resistant Bt brinjal on a little less than a 10th of an acre at his farm at Shrigonda tehsil, in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district.
He had begun the process about a month ago, raising about 400 seedlings in a nursery. Packets containing about 200 Bt brinjal seeds each were also distributed to farmers from about 25 districts of Maharashtra. They were tasked with growing the seeds and distributing them.
Swatantra Bharat calls itself India’s only liberal party. It is the political wing of the Shetkari Sanghatana, founded by Sharad Joshi, who died in December 2015. Ghanwat was until last year the President of the Sanghatana. He resigned when a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Sharad Bobde made him a member of the court’s committee on the three controversial farm laws that were ultimately repealed. The court’s committee had been mandated to find a way out of the impasse caused by the stiff stance of protesting farmers and the government on the three farm laws enacted in September 2020.
Agricultural free markets
The Shetkari Sanghatana believes in free markets — in farm land, crop inputs and produce — and free access to agricultural technology. In June 2019, about 2,000 farmers planted illegal herbicide-tolerant and bollworm-resistant HTBt cotton on the farm of Lalit Patil Bahale at Akot tehsil of Akola district, Maharashtra.
The ‘civil disobedience movement’, as Ghanwat called it, spread and farmers were seen planting HTBt cotton in their fields after inviting news TV crews to record and broadcast the event. Their slogan was “Chor Bt nahin, imandaar Bt” (a not-too-literal translation would be “Bt by right, not by stealth”.
The Maharashtra police booked Bahale, who is now the president of the Sanghatana, and 15 other farmers for offences under the Environment Protection Act, the Seed Act and the Indian Penal Code. The seeds they planted were proven to be HTBt. A chargesheet was filed but the cases have dragged on. The courts have said no coercive action should be taken against them.
Bahale said that when Bt brinjal was planted on February 17 this year, the government ignored them. No policeman or official was present to warn or stop them. Ghanwat said an official of the State’s Agriculture Department subsequently visited his house, when he was away campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, and inquired from his family whether Bt brinjal had indeed been planted.
Rigorous safety assessment
GM crops have to go through a rigorous process of safety assessment to ensure that they pose no risk to human or animal health or a threat to the environment. The planting of illegal GM crops, on the other hand, is fraught with danger. Pests such as borers can develop resistance to the Bt gene if the seeds do not adequately express the protein which is toxic to them. If HT cotton is not of sufficient potency, weeds might become resistant to known herbicides.
But when the regulatory mechanism fails and the government deprives farmers, consumers and the nation of a useful technology out of political expediency or ideological aversion, what recourse do they have? It may be noted here that brinjal is highly susceptible to borers, so farmers spray pesticides 25- 30 times. But these are ineffective once the borers lodge themselves in the fruit. Bt brinjal is toxic to them. The Bt gene, however, is not known to harm humans or animals.
Who will compensate the organisation that invested time, effort and money on research and in seeking approvals, trusting the procedure approved by Parliament?
The apex regulator for GM crops, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), approved Bt brinjal for cultivation in October 2009 after determining that it posed no safety issues. Of 16 members of a panel, just two did not give the green signal. A committee that went into the objections of the dissenting two overruled them.
But the then Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, placed a moratorium on its cultivation in February 2010. He appeared to favour a process that included public hearings in various cities where shrill activists opposed to GM technology fanned fears about Bt brinjal, following which the Minister acted in ‘public interest’. He further changed the mandate of the apex regulator from one of giving approvals to one of making appraisals.
Bangladesh takes the lead
In October 2013, Bangladesh allowed the cultivation of Bt brinjal after conducting agronomic studies based on India’s bio-safety data. It has been growing the crop since then.
In September 2018, the GEAC took up the re-activated application of the company whose Bt brinjal was kept off cultivation — the one whose technology Bangladesh had approved. The regulator told the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bengaluru, to study the post-release impact of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh and report the findings. Nothing has come out of that.
In early 2019, anti-GM activists raised a storm after they found a farmer in Haryana growing Bt brinjal illegally. The farmer said he had bought the seedlings from a wayside seller and did not know they were GM. The seedlings tested positive and the administration destroyed the farmer’s crop.
Ghanwat did not disclose where the farmer had obtained the seeds from. He said he had not obtained them from Bangladesh — though that does not rule out their Bangladeshi origin. He suspects Bt brinjal is grown widely in India.
This is the case also with HTBt cotton. A committee appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office reported in 2018 that HTBt cotton was planted extensively in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. It estimated that about a fifth of the cotton area in those States is under the GM crop. Investigations into Bt brinjal cultivation may spring a similar surprise.
The government’s attitude is barely rational. Those who follow lawful procedures are held to a high standard. Even after meeting the standards, they are denied commercial application of their innovations. It is not just GM cotton or brinjal. The apex regulator approved GM mustard for commercial release in May 2017. But the government has not acted on the advice. (We have no qualms about importing GM canola oil or GM soybean oil, though. Last year, imports of GM soymeal were allowed to quell high poultry feed prices).
But the government does nothing when farmers break the law. This is how Bt cotton — India’s only GM crop approved for commercial cultivation — was cultivated in Gujarat in 2001, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of the State. Only when farmers grew it illegally with the support of the Shetkari Sanghatana was the GM hybrid approved for large-scale cultivation in 2002. HTBt cotton cultivation is proliferating with the government’s knowledge.
If the government does not care for the law, can farmers be blamed for taking it into their hands?
Another layer of complication has been added by the government’s laxity with respect to intellectual property rights. It has been arbitrarily fixing fees for GM traits (like insect resistance and herbicide tolerance) payable by farmers to innovators. For Bt cotton, no trait fees are payable. No company would want to sell its patented GM seeds in India, even if approved, if it cannot profit from its innovations.