Monsanto's genetic engineering trials in India are dangerous and anti-democratic

The US transnational, Monsanto, is currently carrying out field tests of its genetically engineered crops in 40 locations in India. The manner in which these tests are being conducted violates all democratic and ecological norms, says Vandana Shiva. The absence of a proper regulatory framework and a proper regulating agency both nationally and internationally to deal with ecological risks associated with the new technology only serves to reinforce the call made by citizens worldwide for a five-year moratorium on genetic engineering in agriculture.

MONSANTO is establishing its empire in the agricultural sector in India at the cost of democracy and ecology.

This has once again been proven by the manner in which Monsanto began trials of its genetically engineered crops in India. Even the governments of the states where the trials were being carried out were kept in the dark by Monsanto and the Department of Biotechnology.

Mr Byre Gowda, Agriculture Minister of Karnataka, stated that the centre had not consulted the state before allowing the field trials in Maladahalli (Sindhanne Taluk, Raichur), Ramkhar (Gagarilsom-mananahalli Taluk, Bellary) and Adur (Hanagal Taluk, Kaveri) in the fields of Mr Sabassa J Hunsole, Mr V V Nanjundappa, Mr Mahalingappa and Mr Shankarikoppa. Public participation in decisions about whether trials can be carried out has not even been considered, although all environmentally destructive activity is supposed to be notified and cleared only after a public hearing.

Genetic engineering has serious ecological risks. That is the reason article 19.3 of the Convention on Biological Diversity called for a Biosafety Protocol, which is currently being developed through international negotiations. This is also the reason France has banned all genetically engineered crops and the UK has responded to the call of citizens by having a one-year moratorium on release of genetically engineered crops. Most recently, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), the world's largest body for organic agriculture called for a ban on genetic engineering from agriculture, because it poses hazards without being necessary for the development of agriculture.

The risks of Monsanto's toxic plants

Monsanto's present trials in India are being carried out on its genetically engineered 'Bollgard' cotton or Bt-cotton which has genes from a bacterium engineered into it so that the plant produces its own pesticide, contrary to Monsanto's claim. Bt-cotton is not 'pest-resistant' but a pesticide-producing plant. The severe ecological risks of crops genetically engineered to produce toxins include the threat posed to beneficial species such as birds, bees, butterflies and beetles which are necessary for pollination and for pest control though pest-predator balance.

Nothing is yet known of the impact on human health when toxin-producing Bt-crops such as potato and corn are eaten, or on animal health when oilcake from Bt-cotton or fodder from Bt-corn is consumed as cattle feed. Further, while pesticide-producing plants are being offered as an alternative to spraying pesticides, they will in fact create the need for more pesticides since pests are rapidly evolving resistance to genetically engineered Bt-crops. The widespread use of Bt-containing crops could accelerate the development of insect pest resistance to Bt. which is used for organic pest control. Already eight species of insects have developed resistance to Bt. toxins, either in the field or in the laboratory, including diamond back moth, Indian meal moth, tobacco budworm, colorado potato beetle and two species of mosquitos.

The genetically engineered Bt. crops continuously express the Bt. toxin throughout its growing season. Long term exposure to Bt. toxins promotes development of resistance in insect populations, this kind of exposure could lead to selection for resistance in all stages of the insect pest on all parts of the plant for the entire season.

Due to this risk of pest resistance, the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) offers only conditional and temporary registration of varieties producing Bt. Monsanto's technology will therefore destroy beneficial biodiversity and create superpests both through wiping out pest predators and by creating pests which are resistant to pesticides. While Monsanto's pesticide-producing Bt- crops are not based on the terminator technology, which terminates germination of seed so that farmers cannot save it, they are in an ecological sense a terminator technology which terminates biodiversity and the possibilities of ecological and sustainable agriculture based on the conservation of biodiversity.

The ecological impact of Bt-cotton cannot be assessed on the basis of a three-month trial. The trial needs to be carried out over 2-3 growing seasons and impact needs to be assessed on all organisms, including soil microorganisms which have been known to be killed by the toxics in Bt-crops. To get the full ecological impact of biodiversity destruction and genetic pollution caused by genetically engineered crops, the following steps are necessary:

  • a full biodiversity assessment of the ecosystem in which the genetically modified organism (GMO) is to be introduced.

  • assessment of the impact of genetically engineered crop on diverse species including pollinators and soil microorganisms

  • assessment of the risks of transfer of genetically engineered traits to non-engineered crops through horizontal gene transfer and pollination. None of these essential steps for assessing the ecological risks of GMOs has been carried out in Monsanto's present trials with Bollgard cotton in Karnataka.

When Monsanto states that it has had 93% success, it is referring to agronomic performance, not to ecological safety. Further, since the Bt technology is aimed at pesticide production, not yield increases, Monsanto is deliberately distorting facts when it refers to yield-increasing characteristics of Bollgard cotton.

Monsanto is also misinforming the public when it states that pesticide-producing plants mean no pesticide needs to be sprayed. The primary justification for the genetic engineering of Bt. into crops is that this will reduce the use of insecticides. One of the Monsanto brochures had a picture of a few worms and states, 'You will see these in your cotton and that's O.K. Don't spray'. However, in Texas, Monsanto faces a lawsuit filed by 25 farmers over Bt-cotton planted on 18,000 acres which suffered cotton bollworm damage and on which farmers had to use pesticides in spite of corporate propaganda that genetic engineering meant an end to the pesticide era.

The inadequacies of present biosafety regulations

The clearance of Monsanto's trials with toxic plants without the democratic consent of concerned governments, from state to local level, and democratic participation of the public in biosafety decisions reveals the loopholes and inadequacies in the present biosafety regulations from both the democratic perspective and the ecological perspective.

The biosafety regulations need to undergo dramatic changes through increasing public participation in decisions related to genetic engineering.

The clearance for trials of genetically engineered crops and their release needs to be given not just by the central government but by all levels of government, from the state to the local level. Further before any clearance is granted for trials of a particular genetically engineered crop the application for trials should be notified to the public as part of the citizen's right to know. Public hearings need to be organised in the specific villages and districts and states where the trials and introductions are planned.

The scientific framework of the ecological impact of genetically engineered crops on biosafety, ecosystem health and public health also needs to be upgraded for dealing with the impact of field trials and deliberate releases under diverse ecological contexts existing in India.

If Monsanto and the Indian government fail to fulfil these ecological and democratic criteria for field trials of genetically engineered crops, we will have further evidence that the promotion of genetic engineering by corporations like Monsanto can only be based on dictatorial, distorted and coercive methods. In such context, genetic engineering in agriculture must necessarily be anti-nature and anti-people.

Urgent policy imperatives

1. Monsanto's trials for genetically engineered crops in 40 locations in India should be immediately halted since they violate all ecological and democratic norms.

2. A five-year moratorium should be introduced on all commercialisation of genetically engineered crops both through imports and through seed production and distribution in India while full and adequate ecological and regulatory frameworks for assessing the ecological impact of genetically engineered crops and public participation are evolved.

3. The regulatory framework for genetic engineering is not just inadequate in India. It is inadequate worldwide. In the US, trials for such crops do not have any ecological dimensions. They only assess agronomic performance. The data from the hundreds of US trials is basically 'non-data from non-trials' in the ecological context.

4. Biotechnology and genetic engineering in agriculture are evolving in a total regulatory vacuum as is clear from the US situation. Monsanto itself states,'Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food'. 'Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible.

Assuring its safety is the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) job'. The FDA does not look at the safety of Bt-crops since such crops are treated as a pesticide.

The EPA, which is supposed to look at the safety of pesticides, treats genetically engineered crops which produce pesticide as conventional crops and hence does not look at the safety of such crops either. There is, therefore, no agency guaranteeing the safety of genetically engineered crops. It is to fill this policy vacuum in environmental safeguards that citizens worldwide are calling for a five-year moratorium on genetic engineering in agriculture. (Third World Resurgence No. 100/101, Dec 98/Jan 99)

Vandana Shiva is a scientist and activist. She is also a contributing editor for Third World Resurgence.