Hundreds of farmers have turned out outside a regional research station in northern India as part of a peaceful protest against nearby open-air field trials of GM corn.
The farmers, members of the non-political, agrarian Bharat Kisan Union (BKU), carried placards reading “Monsanto GM Corn Quit India”, directed at the American multinational seed giant, which has been conducting trials of a herbicide-tolerant GM corn variety at the research station.
The farmers’ protest, at the Choudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University, comes in the wake of a recommendation by the Indian Supreme Court’s Technical Expert Committee (TEC) to impose a 10-year moratorium on all field trials.
Pressure group’s calls unanswered
Opposition to GM testing has been building among the public ever since multinational companies began open-air field trials at public-sector research stations in the state of Haryana, north of Delhi. United under the banner of Alliance for GM-free Haryana, opponents including BKU met the state agriculture minister, Paramvir Singh, last month to urge him to stop all such trials in the state. However, the state government is yet to announce any moves to appease the group.
In their submission to the minister, the alliance cited growing evidence on the negative affects of GM crops on human health and the environment. It also raised concerns about the manner in which seed companies have been taking control of the seed sector using their proprietary GM seeds, referring to the case of Bt Cotton, the only commercially cultivated GM crop in India.
Addressing the recent protest Gurnam Singh, Haryana State president of BKU, said: “A month has passed since we met our agriculture minister, but the government has failed to act on our behalf. The onus is now on us.” He urged the farmers to unite and declared that the union will not permit any more field trials happening in the state.
The field trials currently taking place in Haryana include GM corn with bacterial genes inserted to provide herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. While these trials have also been permitted for Pioneer, Syngenta and Dow Agro Sciences, Monsanto leads the pack with one small scale (BRL 1) of its herbicide-tolerant GM corn and one large scale (BRL 2) field trial of its stacked-gene GM maize which has one bacterial gene for both herbicide tolerance and one for insect resistance.
Haryana more open to GM testing
The alliance in its letter had also claimed that the field trials had been happening in the absence of any biosafety assessments that would prove their safety to human health and to the environment.
“It is unfortunate that Haryana is becoming the testing ground for risky GM crops which have been rejected by other states in the country” said Pankaj Bhushan, co-convenor of the Coalition for a GM-free India.
Addressing the assembled farmers, he asserted that “Massive opposition from all quarters in the past forced the central government to put a moratorium on Bt brinjal two years ago, but now the governments, both at the centre and state, are permitting back door entry of GM crops through such open field trials.”
Other speakers at the demonstration claimed that experiences from the countries that harvest GM corn commercially show that the practice would eventually lead to “super weeds”, which are tolerant to herbicides, meaning that farmers will eventually use more herbicides with increasingly less impact.
“What is worrisome is that the recent scientific studies that point to the potency of herbicides like Monsanto's Glyphosate—commonly called as Roundup—to cause cancer, birth defects and female hormone disruptions.” said Dr Ramkumar, a retired senior scientist at CCHAU.
He added: “By promoting such GM crops, companies like Monsanto make double profits by selling proprietary seed and chemical herbicide.”
Supreme Court demands moratorium
In its interim report submitted to the Supreme Court last week, the Technical Expert Committee recommended a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of Bt food crops and HT crops until an independent assessment of their impact and suitability could be done.
The TEC’s scientists had conducted widespread consultations and found that the moratorium would be required because of the potential harm GM crops could have on human health, livestock and biodiversity, as well as the possibility that field trials would contaminate regular crops and the food supply. It was also concerned by the inadequacy of the current regulatory system to assess the safety of GM crops and its ability to safely conduct field trials.
In August, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, a multi-party group of 32 parliamentarians tabled a report on GM food crops that recommended the “stopping of all field trials under any garb.”
Rajesh Krishnan, a sustainable agriculture campaigner with Greenpeace India, called it unacceptable that “after repeated recommendations from legislative and judicial agencies, our government continues to permit the open release of GM crops in the country in the name of field trials”
Returning to the demonstration, the protesters concluded by demanding that central and state governments stop the promotion of GM crops, and in return support ecological farming that is socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.
They also pledged to keep both the state and the country free from GM crops and to take action if any open releases of GM crops are permitted in the name of experimental trials.
Editor's note: This is clearly an issue that is coming to a head across India, and it is likely that we will hear much more on the subject over the coming weeks. Please let us know in the comments section below where you stand on the matter, and what approach you think the government, the judiciary and the farmers should take.