Leading scientist attacks Monsanto's nexus of control in India (31/8/2003)

A leading Indian scientist has launched a devastating attack on the corrupt nexus between multinational corporations like Monsanto and India's politicians and bureaucrats, not least its scientist bureaucrats.

Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, who has been described as "one of the leaders of the biotechnology movement in India", is able to tell the story from the inside. He had a hand in setting up the Indian government's National Biotechnology Board and its later Department of Biotechnology.

The magazine Biospectrum India, which reports on India's biotech sector, describes Bhargava as "one of India's most brilliant scientists". He founded and directed the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, and has been awarded the Legion d'Honneur, India's prestigious Goyal Prize for science, and the Padma Bhushan - awarded to recognize "distinguished service of a high order to the nation".

Below we reproduce the third and final section of his article, 'High Stakes in Agro Research: Resisting the Push', which appears in the latest issue of India's, Economic and Political Weekly (www.epw.org.in).

The article's earlier sections deal with the hidden story of American efforts to control India's agricultural sector, detailing examples from Dr Bharrgava's direct experience of the commercial and political leverage exerted in relation to the agrochemical sector.

In the final section Dr Barrgava turns to seeds and asks why India continues "permitting foreign seed companies blindly and without adequate checks and controls, to exploit our trusting farmers and dominate our seed business even when numerous other better local alternatives exist".

Dr Barrgava says roadblocks have been deliberately placed in the way of those alternatives while farmers have been fooled into buying expensive GM seeds that have failed to fulfil the claims made for them, and for which there is "no evidence that any reasonable risk assessment was ever done".
High Stakes in Agro Research
Resisting the Push
Economic and Political Weekly, August 23, 2003
In a country where the majority of the population depends wholly on agriculture and agro-related activities for livelihood and survival, seeds and agrochemicals are critical inputs, whose control must lie with the people. At least two attempts have been made in the past - the first one between 1980 and 1985 and the second in 1981 to control our agrochemicals business. We are now seeing a third attempt being made to control the seed business. Some lessons from the past.

Pushpa M Bhargava

...[part 3] On the Seeds Front

At a state-sponsored biotechnology meeting in Bangalore in April 2002 a group of Indians and non-Indians representing foreign seed interest made two important points. First, that, as of then, nearly 30 per cent of seed business was under the control of MNCs [multinational corporations], 20 per cent was in the hands of Indian seed companies and the remaining in the hands of small stakeholders in the country. The second point was that they had no doubt that in the coming few years the entire seed business of India would be in the hands of MNCs. That they had the courage to make the second statement shows how deep the nexus is between the MNCs such as Monsanto and Proagro and our politicians and bureaucrats, including of course, the scientist bureaucrats. The three departments or agencies of the government of India primarily involved in making this nexus work are the department of biotechnology (DBT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and the department of environment and forests (DOEnF).

How does this nexus operate? It does so by its representatives stating to all parties concerned in this conspiracy that we can take care of our growing need for agricultural products only by resorting to new technologies for which the monopoly exists (according to them) only with the MNCs. We must therefore open the business of producing and marketing seeds that are a product of new technologies such as genetic engineering to the MNCs without any reservations and without asking any questions for they know it all better than us - just as the British stated during their rule in India that they knew better than us what was good for us.

In this respect, our people, specially our farmers and others engaged in agricultural activities, are being cheated in two ways. Firstly, the MNCs have made sure that in spite of our having all the capabilities to develop any technology that any multinational company has as of today we do not actually use these capabilities as then how would the nexus mentioned above be able to justify having MNCs with us? Thus, in spite of our never-doubted demonstrated ability to produce our own Bt cotton (as China has done), we discouraged and did not adequately support our own scientists in this endeavour, while welcoming with open arms Monsanto's  Bt cotton. As a consequence of this policy, the production and marketing of Bt cotton seeds by Monsanto's Indian network was permitted by the government of India through its Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of DOEnF in March this year.

In this connection, one may justifiably ask as to what the DBT has been doing since 1983 when the National Biotechnology Board (NBTB) which was the precursor of DBT was set up. I had a role in setting up the NBTB and later, the DBT. One of the primary objectives of setting up these apex bodies for biotechnology was to ensure that commercial genetic engineering technology develops in India soon. The background for this had been laid earlier through the Programme Advisory Committee on Genetic  Engineering and Molecular Biology of the Science and Engineering Research  Council (SERC) of the DST, which I had chaired for many years. The DBT totally failed in meeting the above objective. It would seem that this failure was deliberate, to allow Monsanto's Bt cotton technology to come in.
It is interesting that when C R Bhatia was the (second) secretary of the DBT Monsanto had tried to sell to India the Bt cotton seed technology for about Rs 60 crore. Many of us were upset about this and when I wrote to Bhatia in this regard, he replied saying that they had brought down the price to a little over Rs 30 crore, when we could have developed this technology for less than Rs 3 crore, be it in the public sector or the private sector. Eventually, DBT was prevailed upon by the hue and cry we raised not to purchase the Bt cotton seed technology at that time. Now, we have thrown all caution, rules and regulations, and the country's interest to the four winds in approving the Bt cotton of Monsanto-Mahyco the Indian seed company in which Monsanto has a controlling interest.
We thus never looked at the poor credibility of Monsanto and its widely known and documented habit of misleading and exploiting people and even going against the law. Monsanto had manufactured Agent Orange that was responsible for defoliating plants in Vietnam during the country's war with the US, which the US lost. The company has paid enormous amounts of money as fine in its own country for contravening laws: these fines would have probably been orders of magnitude greater if the company had not found ways and means of keeping the regulatory authority in the US on its side. Our government did not take any note also of the fact that a severe indictment was passed in the summer of 2000 against Monsanto (and three other MNCs) by the People's Permanent Commission on Global Corporations and Public Harm (the successor to the Bertrand Russel War Crimes Tribunal) following a public hearing in England.
Today, we can identify a whole range of risks entailed by the release of GMOs - specially, plants, animals and microorganisms - in the environment  and the damage such a release can cause to human and animal health and the environment. I have listed these risks (See EPW April 13,2002:1402-1405). I have also stated in this article how these risks can be assessed; this has also been done in a two-volume booklet brought out by the Edmonds Institute of the US. We have no evidence that any reasonable risk assessment was ever done either by the RCGM or the GEAC, the concerned committees of DBT and DOEnF, respectively, before permitting the release of Monsanto's Bt Cotton in March 2002. Surely, if there is any evidence that this has been done it should be in the public domain. In spite of repeated statements by a large number of serious concerned citizens including scientists, of the country that all the data that the above two concerned committees of the government that are involved in approval of the release of genetically engineered products or GMOs for marketing, have in this regard should be made public there is not a shred of information available as to the basis on which these committees approved the marketing of Monsanto's Bt cotton.
On the other hand there is evidence that Monsanto has falsified its data of trials in India of its Bt cotton. Further contrary to our law the RCGM did not make a single site visit during the course of Monsanto's early trials on a limited scale in the country. It is therefore no surprise  that Bt cotton planted last summer after the above permission was granted, has totally failed in some parts of the country. Further, our farmers who are highly trusting of people, have been taken for a ride on many counts by Monsanto/Monsanto-Mahyco (I use the two names synonymously).
Thus the farmers were told that the use of Bt seeds would totally eliminate the use of pesticides and increase the normal yield (that is, what one would have if there was no pest attack) by some 10 per cent. This, we all know, is an absurd statement. It is unfortunate that even some of our agricultural scientists have made this statement.
We have deliberately put road blocks in respect of the use of alternatives to Bt cotton for minimising pest attacks. For example, integrated pest management (1PM) was successfully developed and tested for cotton by the ministry of agriculture years ago. However, this has not been used in the country as extensively as it should have been. Similarly, we have not encouraged the use of natural cotton varieties which would be less susceptible to pests or of traditional or modern agricultural practices that would bring down the use of pesticides. Moreover, no farmer was told during the trials that resistance to Bt will gradually develop in the pests and that the farmers would need to put in some 50 per cent refuge of pest-susceptible crop at the end of five years or so of use of Monsanto-Mahyco's Bt cotton seeds.
Keeping the above in mind, the GEAC, while approving Monsanto-Mahyco's Bt cotton for marketing laid down certain conditions such as planting of a certain proportion (20 per cent) of non-Bt seeds and keeping track of how the Bt cotton crop behaved. The job of ensuring that these criteria was, however, left to Monsanto itself. The first condition (of planting 20 per cent refuge crop) is totally non-workable for small holdings which predominate in our country. As regards the monitoring, shouldn't this have been done by a group of socially responsible and sensible outsiders - individuals or organisations? The nexus between the politicians,  the bureaucrats and the MNCs like Monsanto, which seems hell-bent on selling of our country's agriculture (and therefore, the country) to MNCs is also exemplified by the fact that neither the government of India nor the government of Gujarat took any serious action to find out who the culprit was that was responsible for unauthorised plantation of Bt cotton in Gujarat and in Andhra Pradesh (AP) in over 10,000 acres in the summer of 2001 when the permission for doing so had still not been granted by the GEAC. We do not even know whether the Bt cotton seeds used in Gujarat and AP were authorised for trials - that is, they contained only one copy of one Bt gene.
In spite of repeated demands, the government has not set up a viable independent agency to test whether the seeds given to the farmers are genetically engineered and if so, what the nature is of the foreign genes that have been put in, and how many of them and where in the genome. Thus you can buy (mostly spurious) packets of 'Bt cotton seeds' for prices varying for Rs 70 to Rs 1,600 per 450 grams - at least in Gujarat.

Moreover, the farmers, without knowing the consequences legal and/or economic - are using Fl, F2 and F3 seeds of Bt cotton initially purchased by them, in the cases where the yield per rupee spent by them on the original seeds was higher for the Bt seeds than for traditional non-Bt seeds. Against this background, it is not surprising that Monsanto-Mahyco's Bt cotton which was planted in several parts of the country during the summer of 2002 following granting of permission by the GEAC in March 2002, has been a failure to varying degrees in many parts of the country, for example, in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.
The tentacles of unethical companies like Monsanto have spread widely in our country. There exists in the US an organisation to 'educate' those who are in a position of making decisions, including the judiciary about the benefits of products such as Bt cotton. There is evidence on record that representatives of this organisation have had meetings with members of our highest judicial body not long ago.
Finally, one may ask as to why the ICAR has not used the tools of modern biology to develop pure varieties that will have all the advantages of hybrids but the seeds of which could be produced and used by the farmers themselves as per the provisions of this year's Plant Varieties Protection Act. If we continue permitting foreign seed companies blindly and without adequate checks and controls, to exploit our trusting farmers  and dominate our seed business even when numerous other better local alternatives exist, we would need to change the slogan, 'Mera Bharat Mahan' to 'Unka Bharat Mahan'.

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