After failing to push through Bt-brinjal in India, Monsanto shifted sights to Philippines and Bangladesh. While it lost the battle in the island nation, the jury is still out in Bangladesh. People there must pull out all stops to counter the threat, writes tushar chakraborty
Philippines is a nation of islands, rich in biodiversity as well as cultural diversity. It is part of the Indo-Malay-Philippine (IMP) biodiversity zone. As a biodiversity hot spot, Philippines is often referred as "Galapagos times ten". Unfortunately, the rate of environmental erosion is also high in Philippines. After the Marcos Dictatorship ended through a popular mass movement in 1986, a new constitution was enacted in Philippines. This 1987 Constitution proclaimed the protection of the environment as one of the policies of the State. It says the State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature. This sounds good, but how it can be guaranteed?
The Philippine Supreme Court subsequently took the initiative in giving flesh to this constitutional mandate. In 2010, it finally provided for the writ of kalikasan as the legal remedy, when the situation demands so. Kalikasan in Filipino language means Nature. This writ is an innovation of the Philippine Supreme Court to combat any large scale destruction of the environment, or such attempt. It clearly specifies "precautionary principles" as its guideline.
The microbial anti-insecticidal toxin carrying genetically modified (GM) Bt-Brinjal, which is genetically monopolised by Monsanto through patent rules, initially attempted to use India as its test ground. Once it was ready for the plate, they wanted to use 120 crore Indians as test or experimental animals. In the year 2009 came the moments of truth for them.
However, the commercialisation attempt of Bt-Brinjal in India by Mahyco, which is now an instrument for Monsanto, faced a tough challenge from farmers as well as citizens throughout the nation. It was clear from several public hearings during the time that releasing Bt brinjal would be too risky. People were already sensitised by the actual Bt-Cotton experience, which that ran havoc in cotton belts throughout India, specifically in Maharashtra. Finally a moratorium was declared by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) on 9 February, 2010.
This part of the story is well-known to most of the alert Indians. We also know how our prime minister expressed his frustration over the issue. He even shifted Mr Jairam Ramesh out of the MoEF and maligned the NGOs. But, what is unknown to most of us is Mahyco&’s attempt to bypass this moratorium through illegal offshore operations in
Philippines and Bangladesh.
Most probably, Mahyco was unaware that the Writ of Nature may be invoked against planting GM-crops in Philippines. In fact, due to the presence of International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) – a powerful platform for Agribusiness experimentation and initiatives run by chemical and biotechnology giants – Philippines is an easy prey for overt and covert agricultural operations. It is famous for the implementation of Green Revolution in the 1960s.
Around 1991, Philippines emerged as the poster boy for GM success stories. The project started with GM corn. The country&’s experience with GM corn is similar to India&’s experience with Bt-cotton.
However, the sudden offshore landing of Mahyco and the company&’s alignment with some University of Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) associates alerted Greenpeace activists and MASIPAG (a farmer-scientist alliance), who were already agitated about GM-crops. The Writ of Kalikasan was invoked by these plaintiffs in 2012.
In the hearing of this Writ in the Court of Appeals appointed by the Supreme Court of Philippines, I had a chance to appear as an expert witness to oppose Prof P Davies of Cornell University, USA from USAID.
We found that the Mahyco operation is actually being backed by the US government; field trial of Bt-brinjal is not an isolated research project, but part of a crafted design.
The court hearing and the dealing of the case under the Writ of Kalikasan was exemplary. The field trial of Bt-talong (talong is the brinjal in Filipino) was revealed as an error in the court room itself, which violated precautionary principles. The cornerstone of environmental safety in this type of case is the precautionary principle, especially when the magnitude of potential damage, both in time and space are huge.
The verdict was finally announced in May 2013. The special 13th division of the Court of Appeals in the Republic of Philippines ordered: a) permanent halt to field trials of Bt-Talong; b) protection, perseveration, rehabilitation and restoration of the environment in accordance with the judgment. This is perhaps the strongest indictment against GM-crops in a court room.
If any law-abiding citizenry thought this was the endgame for Bt-eggplant, he would have been terribly wrong; for, the US-supported GM-crop patent holding biotech lobby is worse than the Hollywood&’s Western gun-toting bandits. Following the verdict, they just shifted their operation and turned to Bangladesh, which is one of the weakest links in terms of GMO regulatory rules or frameworks.
Monsanto, in the garb of Mahyco, is now targeting one of the most popular, common, and cheap vegetable loved by millions in Bangladesh. We hope the people will take cues from Bt-brinjal&’s faulty journey from India to Philippines and stop its further spread.
Meanwhile, in India, Monsanto received a blow. The Intellectual Property Appellate Board of India rejected Monsanto&’s patent application on a so-called salt-tolerant GM crop; it ruled that tinkering with nature was not patentable. So, it is really a bad season for Monsanto.
Since the beginning, Europe has been highly sceptical about the utility of GM-crops and GM-food in general. Despite possessing this technology and playing a pioneering role in its developments, Europe gradually choose to follow precautionary principles. At the time, it was not known what stand the developing world would take with regards this post-modern agricultural technology.
Four countries adopted GM-crop technology at large – US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. But further expansion of GM crops faltered thereafter. Its spread till now remains more restrictive than nuclear energy technology.
The US industrial lobby has often sneered at this reaction as a mere European aberration. They have engaged USAID to spread this technology in developing countries, including South-East Asian nations. India, Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia are being "cultivated" through bribery and coercion. Perhaps, GM-crops are the part of the infamous US "food weapon" strategy as well.
However, crude food-shortage panic and vending for techno-fix solutions are no longer cutting ice these days. Farmers as well as public opinion and the judiciary are taking a serious view on the open release of all kinds of GMOs, especially genetically modified plants. Their risks and utility are being weighed cautiously.
Now, we also know that the use of GMO in the open environment will have to be judged in a scientific manner, but not by handpicked, state-nominated scientists alone. That is what the apex court in Philippines showed clearly. Whether this might be the road to extinction for genetically monopolised organism via social and natural selection, only time can tell.
The writer is a molecular biologist. He can be reached at [email protected]