India's chief justice, fact and fantasy (23/3/2008)

NOTE: India's weekly news magazine, Tehelka, has just published a slightly edited version of the following article by Aruna Rodrigues - the chief Petitioner to India's Supreme Court in the long-running Public Interest Litigation (PIL). (Tehelka, Vol 5, Issue 12, March 29 2008) http://www.tehelka.com/story_main38.asp?filename=cr290308DancingWith.asp

COMMENT from GM Watch: Just over a month ago something remarkable happened in India's Supreme Court. A leading lawyer suddenly thumped the podium, threw down his files in disgust and walked to the back of the courtroom, telling India's Chief Justice (more or less verbatim): 'I will not give evidence in this Court. Why don't you go ahead and give your judgement without even bothering to listen to the Petition?'

Prashant Bhushan's dramatic outburst was prompted by the partisan way in which India's Chief Justice had handled what should have been an open and shut case of Contempt of Court brought against India's GM regulators over how they had allowed field trials of various GM food crops, but most especially large scale field trials of Bt Brinjal, with almost total disregard for the terms of the moratorium on GM trials then in place.

The contempt application had already been repeatedly deferred by the Chief Justice - 3 times since September 2007, when it was filed - and at the point in the proceedings at which Prashant Bhushan expressed his outrage, the Chief Justice had given him, as the advocate for the Petitioners, absolutely no opportunity to present their case, while he - the Chief Justice - engaged in a 30-minute long diatribe in favour of GM crops. As part of this, the Chief Justice sought not just to ridicule but to smear the Petitioners and their expert witnesses.

This Chief Justice, it should be remembered, was not the one who had orginally granted the moratorium on GM field trials in India. Indeed, ever since his appointment in Jan-Feb 2007, this Chief Justice had repeatedly said that he could not be expected to read the Petitioners' submissions since he neither had the time nor the inclination, not being a scientist. 'How can I be expected to understand all this science?', the Chief Justice had complained. Yet all judges (and juries too, for that matter) have to deal with scientific and technical issues in certain of the cases that come before them. It is never normally open to them to exclude evidence simply because it is of a scientific or technical nature. And, as had been pointed out to the Chief Justice on several occassions, it wasn't that he was being asked to understand every last detail of any of the scientific studies referred to. Rather, he was being asked to make a judgement, having considered the evidence presented by both sides, on whether independent scientists were raising sufficient scientific concerns to justify employing the Precautionary Principle, which is a precedent in Indian Law. According to the Chief Justice, however, he wasn't prepared to even read or listen to the evidence, let alone consider it.

That would have been bad enough, but in his partisan efforts to obstruct the Petition, the Chief Justice went much further. In his half hour diatribe, he said that lurking behind the Petitioners could be the likes of the pesticide lobby, warning that the Court had to be very careful not to be taken in by conspiracies intended to impede the Government of India in its efforts to improve Indian agriculture with higher yielding GM crops!

One of the Petitioners' expert witnesses - Dr. Dave Schubert of the prestigious Salk Institute - figured particularly prominently in the Chief Justice's concerns. The Salk Institute? What was that? The Chief Justice wanted to know, as if this world renowned scientific research institute was something peculiarly suspect, and as though Dr. Schubert's credentials hadn't already been firmly - and repeatedly - established in previous Court hearings. The Chief Justice even went so far as to suggest that the involvement of American scientists, like Dr. Schubert, might reflect a conspiracy by the US to stop India from moving rapidly ahead in agriculture via new technologies.

Needless to say, while raising such outlandish, and unsupported, suspicions about the motives of the Petitioners, and about the motives and credentials of the scientists whose affidavits supported them, at no point did the Chief Justice in any way question the motives or credentials of the likes of Monsanto (an American company actually in the business of selling pesticides!) or of any of those opposing the Public Interest Litigation. They, it seemed, were beyond suspicion.

Prashant Bhushan's outburst at least had the effect of calling a halt to a performance by the Chief Justice that had descended into pure farce. It also bought more time for consideration of the Petition, which the Chief Justice had seemed on the point of dismissing out of hand. Even so, Prashant still did not get the chance to present or read out a single page of the 25-page Written Submission that the Petitioners' had brought before the Court to summarise their case. Lawyers for the Indian Government, Mahyco (Monsanto's Indian partner) and other GM crop developers, together with the Chief Justice, made sure of that. Despite this, right at the end of the day, the third judge on the bench, Justice Ravindran, did ensure that India's GM regulators would have to make their decisions under the scrutiny of two eminent Indian scientists, one of whom at least has the kind of indpendence that India's apex regulatory body - the GEAC, with the likes of CD Mayee (a board member of the GM-evangelising lobby group ISAAA) as its co-Chairman - self-evidently lacks.

We have the impression that many people in Court that day were profoundly shocked by the undisguised agenda of the Chief Justice of India. It was that blatant. So blatant, in fact, that if anyone's part in the court drama could justify the suspicion, which the Chief Justice seemed so keen to entertain, of someone acting as the cat's paw of vested interests, it was that of the Chief Justice.



On the 13th February 2008, during the hearing of the PIL on GM crops, the Chief Justice of India stated that Genetically Modified crops give higher yields. The Prime Minister and his cabinet believe it, as is evident from the Central Government's policy to promote GM crops in India. This is an astonishing notion, with no factual basis. It would therefore be well to bell this particular cat and several others, by making a start with separating FACT from FICTION with regard to Genetic Engineering (GE) and its products GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). The first casualty is the myth about their improved YIELDS against conventional agriculture. Currently, worldwide, 99.9% of GM crops sown commercially comprise two kinds: First, Bt crops like Bt cotton grown in India, engineered to kill a specific pest, the 'bollworm' (not other pests), thereby protecting the crop; and second, Herbicide Tolerant (HT) GM crops engineered to withstand herbicide spraying against weeds, where the engineered crop will live, but vegetation, beneficial insects and other organisms around it, will die, indiscriminately. This 99.9% is mainly animal feed, comprising cotton, corn, and soy along with canola, (mustard oil seed). They provide sheer volumes and lucre for Monsanto and the industry. None of these GM crops are engineered for higher yields. They are straightforwardly, 'pesticidal' (Bt) or herbicide tolerant (to kill weeds). This is the science and the fact. On the other hand, higher yields are conferred by traits in the parental lines that make up the GM crop; these parental lines are the result of farmer inputs over 10,000 years of agriculture. The Intellectual property is rightfully theirs. It must be remembered that billions of $s have been spent by the GE companies experimenting on 'traits', unsuccessfully. This represents a huge investment of resources that could be better utilised elsewhere because dozens of traits have been successfully launched using conventional and high-tech conventional breeding techniques. Genetic engineering has conspicuously failed to match these successes.

Myth No.2: Less pesticide, herbicide use, better economics with GM crops

It is not within the scope of this article to analyse the Industry claims of the success of Bt cotton in India on the basis of lower pest attacks of the bollworm and therefore higher output. What can be said straight off is that scientists' warnings of 'resistance' (a response of nature) to both Bt and Ht crops, with super bugs, super weeds and also insect shifts filling an ecological gap, are very much in existence globally, and are growing with each passing year. Quite contrary to what GM companies are saying therefore, worldwide, herbicide and insecticide use have not gone down with the adoption of GM crops. The experience of the US, Canada & Argentina are amply documented and are clear pointers to the dangers for India if we go down this path. US government data shows a 15 fold increase in herbicide use by 2005, (over a 10 year period), with the adoption of GM herbicide crops in the US. First quarter sales of Monsanto's herbicide RoundupReady are up by just under 50%. This is a good business to be in: you sell a HT GM crop; but spraying goes up because farmers don't have to be too careful. The crop won't die. Remember it is resistant; after a few years when resistance sets in with super weeds, then the progression is to fiercer spraying and eventually moving on to the next, more lethal class of herbicides. So farmers get trapped on an herbicide treadmill.

GM crops are a hard-nosed business for biotech corporations, based on patents and profits, which farmers must pay for. Without patents, this business would die. This is the litmus test of 'who really benefits from GM crops'. In the killing fields of Vidharbha for example, about 70% of farmer suicides represent Bt cotton farmers, reeling under both crop failures and the unbearable burden of higher input costs, a fact attested by the Tata Institute for Social Sciences and the Mumbai High Court. The deeper goal is however insidious, and much more serious: nothing less that the control over third world agriculture and the world's food supply by a handful of private Transnational Agri-business Corporations. Why our Government should allow this, or fall for it, is the mystery.

Last month, Transnational GE companies staged a walk out of the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development), refusing to participate, because the report substantially downplays the contribution of genetic engineering to agriculture and promotes alternatives. The IAASTD is the agricultural equivalent of the 'Climate Change' IPCC (International Panel for Climate Change), formed to provide a global assessment of how agricultural technology can help developing countries.

Myth No. 3: GM Crops are safe

GM crops are not safe; there is growing proof of their hazardous impacts on human and animal health and on the environment with each passing year. You simply cannot feed people toxic food. The accepted science with regard to genetic engineering is expressed clearly by David Schubert, Professor, Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the prestigious Salk Institute, in his affidavit for the Supreme Court:


This is why genetic contamination is an outstanding issue. Contamination is certain because it is a biological fact and IRREVERSIBLE. GMOs will change the molecular structure of our food in perpetuity. The largest impacts will be felt on the biodiversity, threatening those very traits that nature supplies, and which may hold the answers for our future food security and global survival: traits for drought and disease resistance; high-yielding traits that GE corporations rely on to engineer their genetic manipulations. This is the central problem.

Myth No 4: GM crops have been tested as safe for human consumption

At a time when other countries are getting tougher about GM crops, India is relaxing norms; pushing ahead with reckless haste. India generally follows the US regulation on GM and borrows wholesale from it. It will come as a surprise to the reading public that the US FDA does not approve any GM crop as safe for human consumption. Members of the European Parliament have called for a Community response to the threat posed by the introduction of 'invasive alien species and alien genotype;' '--- to ban the introduction of genetically modified organisms and evaluate the potential threat to biodiversity posed by their introduction.' Yet India is trail-blazing with this hazardous technology, with a staggering range of every conceivable GM vegetable, grain and oilseed, in effect, all our food, such as no government anywhere has contemplated. We are the first country to undertake large-scale pre-commercial trials of Bt brinjal; Bt Bhindi (okra) in field trials is also a universal first. China has backed off from commercialising GM rice. We have not.

Incomprehensibly, Bio-safety decisions by the Indian Government are based on secretive Industry studies by the very crop developer that will benefit from its introduction. The Government also astoundingly accepts Industry demands of confidentiality or CBI (Confidential Business Information), overriding PUBLIC SAFETY. This is of course unconscionable; it flouts every ethical norm and yardstick of objectivity. It works only to sanction fraud. Where does this leave India as a supposedly functioning democracy and the health and future quality of life of its people? On the other hand, a German court, in a decision involving a Bt corn, which had passed the approval process in the EU 10 years ago, forced Monsanto to publish its dossier on a 90-day rat feeding study. When leading independent scientists subjected the study to hard scrutiny, Monsanto's own data showed the GM corn variety to be toxic. This February, the new French President, Sarkozy banned another variety of Bt corn (also for animal feed), the ONLY GM CROP grown on French soil. The provisional High Authority on GMOs found 'a certain number of new negative scientific facts which notably impact fauna and flora'. The UK does not grow any GM crops; Poland and Scotland have moratoriums. Ireland, Wales, and Cyprus are moving toward declaring themselves GM-free. In the US, four district courts have ruled that the USDA has acted illegally, for not conducting proper environmental impact assessments, even calling the 'USDA'S REGULATORY HEEDLESSNESS ARBITRARY AND CAPRICIOUS' and 'an unequivocal violation of a clear congressional mandate.' As a result of this landmark judgement commercial sales of GM alfalfa are banned nationwide.

Monsanto and our Government

It is very relevant to cite Monsanto's 100 year-old track record of how it serves society:

*This is the company that said Agent Orange and PCBs were safe (of Bhopal infamy).

*This is the agri-business giant that now makes GMOs. It owns Terminator technology in partnership with the US government, fudges, bribes and falsifies data to show its GMOs are safe.

*It bribed 140 Indonesian officials to get Bt cotton approved without an environment impact assessment and tried to bribe Canadian government officials to get its GM Bovine Growth Hormone approved without further study.

*The US Patent and Trademark Office rejected four key Monsanto patents related to GM crops that the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) challenged because the agricultural giant is using them to harass, intimidate, sue - and in some cases bankrupt - American farmers.

*The Alabama Court Judgement in February 2002 best describes the sort of business that Monsanto is in. Court documents revealed that the company withheld evidence about the safety of their PCBs because '---We can't afford to lose one dollar of business---'. Residents of the town were being poisoned by their factory. Monsanto was found guilty on six counts including OUTRAGE which according to Alabama law is conduct 'so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society.'

We must be judged by the company we keep. The RTI data provided to GreenPeace proves just how cosy the relationship between the Regulators (the GEAC & RCGM) and the GM Biotech industry is; the Regulator's approvals mortgage India's farming livelihoods and systems, her biosafety and the health of her citizens. The Indian Government has gone one further with the enactment of an agreement with the USA, called the KIA, (Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture) which will give Monsanto access to India's genetic resources. What I and three co-petitioners asked of the Supreme Court, in view of the sheer weight of the evidence against GM crops, and the way they are approved in India, was a ban on the release of GMOs in line with the Precautionary Principle, especially in our food crops, which must not be contaminated: until we have in place a transparent system functioning under a tough and rigorous biosafety protocol, which will ensure openness to scrutiny by the international scientific fraternity and civil society. This is not just rational and scientific; it is a firm basis in law that is appropriate and reasonable.

Our Food and Biodiversity will be Contaminated Irreversibly without Hope of Restoration

The gravest threat is to global ecological damage from the twin threats that face our world: First, of 'climate change' and with it, the unique risks of genetic engineering and its products GMOs. 'Climate Change' after years of cover-up and disinformation is now headlined every day. In theory at least, there can be a ROLLBACK if we act decisively. ON THE OTHER HAND, THE GREATEST DANGER POSED BY GE IS THAT GLOBALLY, WE ARE BEING SUBJECTED TO THE SAME SPIN AS CLIMATE CHANGE WAS FOR YEARS. This time however, every action that releases untested GMOs, takes us to the brink. Today, in India, we stand 'on the brink' like no other nation. The crisis we face requires a profound reassessment of just who we are as a people and what we stand for. Grappling with the honest issues of the debate and making decisions based on such an assessment is one thing. Committing our country to the disastrous and irreversible consequences of this technology based on scientific facts being covered-up and the fiction being promoted as the truth is completely unacceptable. In my book, given the magnitude of the sell-out of India's national interest, this is treasonable.

Aruna Rodrigues is the main Petitioner to the SC in a PIL filed in 2005. This article is based on the evidence submitted in Court, which includes statements of leading world scientists prepared for the Court.

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