Maharashtra farmers' group agitates for 'freeing' GM seeds, but illegal varieties are rampant in India

Watched by a handful of policemen, farmers in a village in Akola, Maharashtra, planted herbicide tolerant (HT) Bt cotton on Monday, 10 June, in defiance of the law, as part of a Shetkari Sanghatana programme demanding technological advancements for the agricultural sector.

HT cotton is not approved for cultivation or sale in India, though it is being grown illegally in many states. A plan to plant Bt brinjal (on which there has been a moratorium since 2010) failed, as the seeds were not available.

Over 1,000 people attended a day-long programme in Akoli Jahagir village, before planting the seeds on two acres of land belonging to Lalit Bahale, a farmer. While the police didn’t stop the planting, the agriculture department has served a notice on the farmers, warning against such illegal planting in the future.

“We will continue the programme to plant these seeds in every district and put out videos on social media to build pressure on the government,” Anil Ghanwat, national president of the Shetkari Sanghatana, said.

In the run-up to the 10 June “Civil Disobedience” programme, the Sanghatana had put out saffron and green posters that proclaimed “Freedom of technology is our birthright” and announced its intention to defy the ban on Bt brinjal and HT cotton.

 Maharashtra farmers group agitates for freeing GM seeds, but illegal varieties are rampant in India

The Shetkari Sanghatana's poster demanding 'freedom for GM seeds'

Justifying the agitation, Ghanwat said the Genetic engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment had approved Bt brinjal, so there were no grounds for environmentalists and religious activists to oppose it. Further, he claimed that India has been importing GM soya oil since many years and even locally, cotton seed oil from Bt cotton is being consumed without any ill effects. According to Ghanwat, HT cotton and Bt brinjal have many benefits and should be made accessible to farmers.

The Sanghatana’s action, however, has sparked off outrage among the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) and other groups, which have warned farmers to be cautious while endorsing such dubious moves by those claiming to represent them. Anti-GM activists have shot off letters and complaints to the GEAC to take strict note of the intention to plant Bt brinjal and initiate steps to check the cultivation of illegal crops.

It must be noted that the Sanghatana is not doing anything revolutionary since illegal seeds are rampant in India.

Since 2009 in India, farmers have been growing illegal HT cotton. While there has been some investigation, there is little action to prevent the seeds from being available to farmers who are growing them every year. The increasing use of glyphosate products like Roundup Ready herbicide points to the cultivation of HT cotton (as it is sprayed with this particular formulation). Even as the Shetkari Sanghatana is exhorting farmers to grow HT cotton, thousands of petitioners in the US have sued Monsanto and three of them won lawsuits against the company (now owned by Bayer) for causing cancer from Roundup Ready. The US Environmental Protection Agency considers glyphosate safe, but the rising number of cancers allegedly linked to it provides possible evidence to the contrary.

At the Shetkari Sanghatana's meeting, where about 1000 people, including farmers, were present

At the Shetkari Sanghatana's meeting, where about 1000 people, including farmers, were present

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The Coalition for GM-Free India has been demanding transparency from the GEAC and had already filed a complaint regarding the illegal cultivation of Bt brinjal in Haryana, detected in April this year. While the Haryana government sent samples of brinjal for testing to the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), the results did not show up the CRY1Ac gene, though tests conducted in another laboratory, at the behest of activists, confirmed its presence. Some gene markers indicated that the brinjal seed was genetically modified.

In a letter to the GEAC, the Coalition said that the “Bt brinjal event has not yet been identified. Nor has any progress been made on the investigation into the identity of the Bt brinjal seed supplier and those involved in the supply chain. Whilst the Haryana state government authorities have been investigating Bt brinjal illegal cultivation, events have come to such a head that it demands your inputs for action on a national scale, none of which is visible.”

The Coalition also raised concerns that in another suspected case of Bt brinjal cultivation in Sirsa, the state authorities drove a tractor through the fields and did not take any samples.

Kavitha Kuruganti of the Coalition said those “egging on farmers to do such illegal planting of unapproved GM seeds are actually anti-farmer, or have not understood the ramifications of GM seeds on farmers, unfortunately”. Kuruganti appealed to farmers in India “not to be misled by so-called farmers' unions which are (in reality) corporate-led".

The Coalition said the call by a group of individuals committed to break GMO regulations and safeguards is tantamount to an act of ‘war’ on the biosafety of India. This includes certain and irreversible brinjal seed contamination in India and also serious health implications. The Coalition demanded large-scale testing nationally to determine how widespread the illegal planting of Bt brinjal is, and prosecute those involved in the illegal supply of Bt brinjal seeds — not the farmers.

In Maharashtra, Kishore Tiwari, who heads the Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission or the Farmers’ Task Force, said that in the past, those found with stocks of HT cotton were caught and cases were filed against them. In this case too, illegal seeds cannot be planted and those doing so would be prosecuted, he said.

The Sanghatana under its founder Sharad Anantrao Joshi had advocated for Bt cotton and wanted more emphasis on biotechnology. In recent years the organisation has lost the mass following it had earlier, but continues to function.

The agitators plant the illegal HT cotton seeds

The agitators plant the illegal HT cotton seeds

A former member of the Shetkari Sanghatana, Vijay Jawandhia said that the Sanghatana used to focus on three things: Price, Technology and Infrastructure. Now, it is only stressing on technology. “These people are supported by Monsanto and are working on the guidance of multinational companies,” he alleged. The hybrid technology ensures the farmer is enslaved as each year the seeds have to be bought. The Sanghatana was using Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of ‘civil disobedience’ to create an agitation which has no basis, Jawandhia added.

There are many worrying aspects about Bt brinjal, which is why there is a moratorium on it, Jawandhia pointed out. HT cotton has to be sprayed with an herbicide that has suspected carcinogens. There is also the question of labelling such products in India — if farmers grow Bt brinjal, how will the consumer know the difference? The real issue is whether or not Bt brinjal has passed scientific scrutiny and if HT cotton needs to be grown, Jawandhia said. Instead of that, the issue is being diverted as one of freedom to plant and defying bans.

The Shetkari Sanghatana’s Anil Ghanwat says all the organisation wants, are “good seeds”. “Those opposing this do not have any proof that it is bad. Earlier we had hybrids. Now it's progressed to transgenics. Many scientists, including Dr CS Prakash, have endorsed Bt brinjal as safe for consumption. When the GEAC has approved, where is the question of a moratorium?"

Ghanwat also refuted allegations that the Sanghatana was working with Monsanto. “I have sold my land to work for this organisation. Farmers came to the village to plant seeds in 45 degrees C heat. If Monsanto was supporting us, our programme would have been held in an air-conditioned hall. We want more companies to come forward and give us technology and good seeds — that is all we are asking for," he said.

Meanwhile, Aruna Rodrigues, who has filed a public interest litigation on genetically modified organisms in the Supreme Court, wrote to the Ministry of Environment and the GEAC on Tuesday, 11 June, protesting the lack of action in this case.

"This is nothing less than an act of war on the biosafety and biosecurity of India, in clear breach of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, the ‘Rules’ governing hazardous GMOs and International laws. Article 15 of the Biosafety Laws requires Government to act when the rules are violated," she said.

The planting of illegal GM seeds is in criminal breach of the law and an unprecedented threat that requires emergency responses by the Ministry, Rodrigues said, urging the ministry to act under the law and issue immediate warnings of criminal prosecution to those violating the law.

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2019 08:14:42 IST