|India Pulls Punches on Biosafety/India Can Shine By Fighting Against Biopiracy (3/3/2004)|
"U.S.-based biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. conducted large-scale trials of its GM cotton here in the 1990s without proper regulatory approval, only to complain subsequently that its seeds were being extensively pirated. The government took no worthwhile action against the company or the alleged bio-pirates." - item 1
1.Eyeing Markets, India Pulls Punches on Biosafety
Eyeing Markets, India Pulls Punches on Biosafety - Activists
India has agreed to soften international protections against plant contamination, in a bid to enhance commercial prospects for genetically modified (GM) crops that nevertheless could jeopardise consumer safety and food security, leading activists here said.
NEW DELHI, Mar 3 (IPS) - India has agreed to soften international protections against plant contamination, in a bid to enhance commercial prospects for genetically modified (GM) crops that nevertheless could jeopardise consumer safety and food security, leading activists here said.
At issue is the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity's Biosafety Protocol, a document that spells out measures to ensure that GM crops, also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and living modified organisms (LMOs), do not harm human health, contaminate traditional staple food crops, and reduce Earth's biodiversity, or variety of natural plants.
Parties to the protocol, which was signed in Cartagena, Colombia in 2000 and took effect last September, met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Feb. 23-27 to hammer out implementation standards.
''The Indian team seemed soft on issues like levels of compliance and handling of GM crops because they see themselves as exporters of GM crops in the future,'' said Suman Sahai, a member of the influential Delhi-based group Gene Campaign who attended the Kuala Lumpur talks.
The consequences could prove ''dangerous'' for India, she said, adding that the country was particularly vulnerable because its fledgling GM industry operates under lax regulation and in the midst of small landholdings where it is impossible to sequester one crop from another.
Sahai, in an interview with IPS, said her fears were not unfounded. U.S.-based biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. conducted large-scale trials of its GM cotton here in the 1990s without proper regulatory approval, only to complain subsequently that its seeds were being extensively pirated.
The government took no worthwhile action against the company or the alleged bio-pirates. Instead, it has begun developing its own line of GM crops in the face of biosafety hazards and despite grain and other food surpluses.
In January, Gene Campaign filed public interest litigation in the Supreme Court seeking an improved and transparent system to regulate the entry and use of GM crops.
Within weeks, however, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research announced trials of 12 GM crops, including papaya, cotton, banana, maize, eggplant, soybean, cassava and potato.
Politicians and government scientists have said they can convert farm production -- currently carried out by some 600 million largely illiterate farmers using low-output techniques -- into a modern, high-yield industry in which GM crops would be an important component.
''It is imperative to exploit the potential and requirement for transgenic technology to enhance production and productivity of food crops,'' said Rajnath Singh, agriculture minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.
Sahai and anti-GM scientist Devinder Sharma countered that there would be no domestic market for GM crops in the near future and that exports would have to compete with U.S., Canadian, Brazilian, and Argentine farmers producing surpluses in a world increasingly suspicious of so-called 'Frankenfoods', an allusion to the fictional Frankenstein monster.
''I think our economic advantage is in being distinctly non-GM and in supplying niche markets which are finding increasing takers across the globe,'' said Sahai.
The European Union has imposed an embargo against the import or planting of GM crops, resulting in a major legal dispute at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with the United States, the world's largest producer of GM crops, and with Canada and Argentina.
China, which signed the Biosafety Protocol in 2000, has announced that it expects to ratify the document soon, an event that could shrink the world's largest market for imported GM crops.
Japan has ordered brewers to stop using GM grains while Thailand, fearing contamination of its rice, a major export earner, has banned all GM varieties except for research.
The United States did not sign the Biosafety Protocol but sent a team of officials to the Kuala Lumpur talks to convince delegates there that there was no scientific evidence that GM food products represent a danger to human health.
Roughly 40 percent of corn and 70 percent of soybeans eaten by U.S. consumers reportedly is genetically modified.
Sharma, however, noted that the imposition of royalty payments on farmers using GM crops has fuelled opposition to the technology on economic grounds, in addition to environmental and health concerns.
Monsanto has collected three million dollars in royalties from growers who planted its GM cotton in 2002, the first of year of commercial use, he said. Royalties also are to be collected from farmers in Argentina and Brazil.
Sharma said the Kuala Lumpur meet was a setback because developing countries were forced to acquiesce to U.S., Canadian, and Argentine demands that a five-percent contamination of crops be deemed permissible.
''The CBD, as ratified, will now actually help the proliferation of GM crops, which are weapons of mass deception,'' Sharma said, referring to the biodiversity convention.
Sahai voiced concern that even if the Biosafety Protocol required GM exporters to provide detailed information to importers and to take measures to prevent contamination, it remains virtually impossible to affix liability for economic, environmental, or social damages.
''Given the derivation of liability from existing laws based on damage due to hazardous substances (rather than genetic modification), there will be problems,'' she said.
''To demonstrate damage conventionally, you have to show causality and linkage with the episode. Both will be difficult with gene escape,'' she added.
Sahai suggested the problem might have stemmed from conflicts of interest at the Kuala Lumpur talks.
''Nobody from the Asia-Pacific country delegations understood the details or nuances although their lawyers, who also happened to be advising industry groups... clearly saw the problems,'' she said.
Asian food exporters conducting GM crop research include Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. (END)
2. India Can Shine By Fighting Against Biopiracy
Last week there were couple of events on global scale as well as in the country which are pointers for ensuring safety of our bio-resources against any piracy.
On the global scale the Seventh Conference of Parties (COP-7) to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) concluded in Kaula Lampur in Malaysia on the meeting of parties (MOP) to the Cartagena Protocol begun from February 27. In the country, the Supreme Court on February 23 directed the government to challenge the patent rights accorded by EPO, Munich to the US multinational, Monsanto on Indian wheat landrace, Nap Hal.
The COP-7/CBD concluded with a honorific gift to India. The Indian representative, Desh Deepak Verma, currently joint secretary in the Union ministry of environment and forests was elected as chairman of the working group on UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This apex body is to deal with matters relating to access to bio-resources and benefit-sharing which are crucial for all biodiversity-rich developing countries.
In the COP-7/CBD, India called for a ban on terminator technology and objected to the Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTS). Though on many other vital issues it was not proactive in supporting other developing countries, India could ultimately gain the confidence to be elected to chair the working group on CBD.
India has now to live up to the expectations of other biodiversity-rich developed countries have reposed confidence in its leadership. This sort of exemplary leadership should also begin at home. India has from time to time been a victim of biopiracy. To cite few example we had the multinational Ricetec patenting our Basmati rice. We fought for rights over Neem, turmeric when they were patented by others. The multinational ConAgra patented the process of traditional grinding of wheat flour and we did not raise any objection.
Recently on May 21, 2003 the Munich based European Patent Office (EPO) accorded patent rights over Indian wheat landrace, Nap Hal to Monsanto vide No EP O 445 929 B1. Strangely the government did not know about this until a global NGO, Greenpeace International made a hue and cry. Even after the getting the information on the accorded patent rights the government remained as a mute spectator and also prefers to remain as such. It is a matter of shame for the government not to take any steps against biopiracy. It was the Greenpeace International, the Indian NGO, Research Foundation for Science, Technology & Ecology (RFSTE) and a farmers' organisation, Bharat Krishak Samaj which jointly challenged Monsanto's patent rights before EPO, Munich. The government even did not compliment these organisations for safeguarding country's interests. The result was that the apex court had to intervene and ask the government to do so.
The BJP-led coalition which is currently ruling the country should know that `India can shine' as long as its bio-resources are protected from piracy and are conserved and put to effective use for the benefit of the community. The ruling coalition which says that the people of the country are experiencing `feel-good factor' on account of its policies, should know that it can be a `feel-bad factor' for farmers if the traditional plant varieties are pirated by multinational to whom they have to pay heavy royalties in future.
Though the accorded patent rights is titled `plants' it not only relates to the wheat variety in question having having special genetic characteristics which when grinded produces flour exhibiting special baking qualities but also the products derived from it. This means the patent rights cover cultivation and processing of wheat products also.
It is clear the genes of the patented variety was sources from one of the overseas public sector genes banks. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is likely to come into force in July, 2004. This treaty has ambiguity under its Article 12.3d relating to IPRs on genes sourced from public sector gene banks. This ambiguity needs to be removed. Possiblily the governing body of the treaty may take up this issue when it meets and India as a signatory should plead for removing the ambiguity. India should ask for similar global treaty for protection of livestock genes and livestock keepers rights on the lines of that suggested by UK based Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG). India should work to strengthen the Global Crop Diversity Trust, joint initiative by FAO and IPGRI.
Enough global initiatives are there for conserving bio-resources. There should be no let up in fighting biopiracy at home.
Jamia Hamdard Develops GM Herbs, Plans To Develop GM Oilseeds, Pulses
The government has entrusted the Delhi based deemed university, Jamia Hamdard to develop genetically modified (GM) oilseeds, pulses and medicinal herbs. It has rendered Rs 40 million financial assistance for this project to the deemed university under the Technology Mission on Oilseeds, Pulses and Maize (TMOP&M).