United Coalition Against Genetic Engineering
UNCAGE aims to prevent the regularisation of genetically modified crops in Orissa. It demands the unconditional total ban on experimentation with, field trials and cultivation of all varieties of genetically modified food and crops.
The coalition is composed of members of such organisations as CWS, Vasundhara, Rushikulya Ryot Mahasabha, Paschim Orissa Krushak Sangathan Samambaya Samiti, Orissa Krushak Mahasangha, Chethna Organic Farmers Association, members of farmers wing of the CPI(M), farmers associations of Bargarh and Bolangir, Jana Kalyan Sanstha, Human Rights Law Network, Wildlife Society of Orissa, CARR, UAA, Dulal, CACL, HRE, NAWO, Childright India, Orissa Homeopathic Druggists Association, ayurvedic doctors, PUCL, Batnet, Living Farms, Lohia Academy, Womens Rights Activists, students associations, trade union leaders, and even members of the media.
Farmers reject Bt Brinjal in National Consultation
On the 16th of January the whole of India waited with bated breath as Bhubaneswar took on Sri Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment & Forest who had arrived here to take the opinion of stakeholders on the Bt Brinjal issue.
The people of Orissa turned up in large numbers both within and outside the venue. Those inside clamored to be heard and outside the crowd put up posters, banners, placards to register their protest. Some very attractive anti-GM posters were also displayed at strategic points outside the venue. There was a tribal dance group performing a road show.
Farmers, traders, agriculture scientists, bureaucrats, academicians, students, media and social activists were present in the venue. Monsanto-Mahyco representatives and their dealers were also present.
There was strict security. The DCP Sri Himangshu Lal was present on the spot to supervise. Commandos in plain clothes were positioned at strategic points both to control the crowd outside and protect the Minister inside the auditorium. Kolkata obviously was in every ones minds.
The queues in front of the registration counters were long. There was around five registration points marked for the farmers, NGO’s, Press and Scientists and Government Officials. Each person who got registered received a booklet and a token, coloured paper with a number. The colours were different for each of the categories.
As the Minister arrived and settled down members of the public were seen going up the dias and submitting their petitions to the Minister who received them cordially. “I am a very cool man, I don’t easily get irritated or angry. I lost my temper at Kolkata against just one person, and the NDTV recorded that and is perhaps still airing it at regular intervals”, he said. Sri Sampad Mahapatra of NDTV only smiled at this barb.
The Centre for Environment Education (CEE), the organizers, started the session with a simple presentation on the way the debate has unraveled and the controversial aspects of GM crops as against those claimed by the organic farmers and their unions. The Minister then talked about how he could sense the controversy and thus decided to meet farmers from across the country.
He said he started with Kolkata because it produces the largest quantity of brinjal, about 30%, followed by Orissa 20% and Bihar 10%. Thus only three states accounted for 60% of the total production. He said that the EC II was now on his table and he had to ensure that it went further with clear comments. For that he said he would listen to the farmers first, those given the green paper with a number. The farmers who wished to speak were asked to raise the coloured tokens.
One of the speakers wondered how the Honourable Minister had rushed to the state on the issue of the simple brinjal. Why is this issue so important while the Minister has several very important issues to address? He said he was a farmer who has seen 50 to 60 varieties of brinjal in three districts of Orissa.
The next to speak was an aged farmer of 76 years. He said that he was still growing a variety of brinjal that his mother used to feed him when he was three years old. He took out a photograph that showed very healthy brinjal plants. As per him even the stem and fruit borer was a beneficial insect in small numbers as it helps the plant to attain its full potential. He said that he grew brinjal organically and pest attack was never a problem.
He invited the Monsanto Mahyco scientists to his field so that he could teach them how to grow healthy and diverse varieties of indigenous brinjal. He then went up to the minister and offered him a basket of organic indigenous brinjal. He wanted the Minister to taste them as, if GE Brinjal was introduced, he would no longer get traditional organically grown brinjal as food.
A tribal lady then spoke about how she treasured her variety of brinjals. She said no power on earth could take away her collection. She was definitely against Bt Brinjal. The Minister wanted to cross check whether she was speaking her mind and was not being prompted. He asked if she knew what Bt Brinjal was. Much to his surprise she replied correctly that is was a genetically modified brinjal.
The farmers from Keonjhar , Nayagarh , Ganjam ,Cuttack , Kandhamal ,Daspalla , Jagatsinghpur , Bargarh , Mayurbhanj, Western Orissa Farmers’ Union , Nabrangpur ,Malkangiri , Sundargarh etc. as a whole, excluding one, let the Minister know their reservations about Bt Brinjal. They shared their data on growing brinjal as a part of the mixed farming in their Organic Agriculture.
The farmers spoke about their apprehensions regarding the toxicity of Bt Brinjal, the effect on soil micro organisms, the loss of traditional varieties, deaths of cattle and also about loosing their control over seeds. All of them said organic manure and non chemical approaches for pest control has always shown wonderful results.
The farmers wanted to know that while the meeting was about agriculture and health why were the Agriculture Minister and Health Minister not present?
Brinjal farmers said they produced so much quantity of brinjal that often it exceeded demand and they had to give it to cattle for feed. They also said that traditional brinjal plants yielded fruits for as much as three to seven years. There was no need to plant saplings every year. Would Bt Brinjal perform so well? If they were encouraged they were capable of exporting indigenous brinjal to other countries, they said. There has never been a shortage of brinjal they informed.
The farmers were angry that a unilateral decision was being taken without consulting farmers. Country wide farmers have suffered the green revolution which opened the doors to deadly pesticides which not only harmed them but also along with chemical fertilisers destroyed the fertility of their fields. Now another toxic product was being introduced which would surely finish what is left of agriculture.
The tribal farmers said they were too poor to spend more on medicines for the diseases Bt Brinjal was likely to cause. They wanted a written guarantee from the government that Bt Brinjal would not harm them, their cattle, their fields, and destroy their traditional varieties. They sought the name of the person who would be held liable when things would take a turn for the worse. They also spoke of seed sovereignty.
The NGOs and other members spoke about patents and the need for more studies. They revealed their apprehensions over Monsanto taking over India’s agriculture. Now they are taking seeds, tomorrow they will take the fields of farmers and force them to be labourers in their own field. They also questioned how a toxic vegetable was being introduced without any medical institute of repute testing it for its after effects. A scientist of Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) said that controls should be in place and intense monitoring will have to be done every year.
The scientists, barring three, voraciously opposed the entry of Bt Brinjal. The Dean Research of OUAT said that without proper independent multiple tests Bt Brinjal would not be allowed. One of them said that repercussions would be felt in many fronts. When there are safer alternatives, why was Bt Brinjal being considered?
They asked for enough seeds so they could test the Bt Brinjal on all aspects. They requested the Minister not to hurry and introduce the crop into the country. They expressed concern regarding the health and biodiversity informing that Orissa had more than 300 varieties of brinjal. The scientists, mostly from OUAT, were so committed that they attended the consultation despite the death of one of their colleagues in an accident.
The Minister said that the Agriculture Minister of Orissa Sri Damodar Rout had written to him vide D.O. no 35/MACF/ 16.01.10 that “In view of the fact that 82% of the farmers of Orissa are small and marginal and they are dependant upon indigenous varieties of Brinjal for their livelihood. It may lead to monopoly of a few seed producers in the country, detrimental to the interests of the farmers of Orissa. Further there have not been sufficient trials of this crop in the state. The Govt of Orissa does not support the introduction of Bt Brinjal at this stage unless and until sufficient trials are made and the interests of the small and marginal farmers of the state are safeguarded.
The Minister agreed to the media questions that whether such fears were genuine, the Bt Brinjal was indeed toxic. The apprehensions are legitimate, he said. Bt Brinjal has undergone seven years of testing. If required seven more years of studies would be undertaken, he said. If farmers don’t want it then we will not allow Bt Brinjal. The GEAC would be restructured as the Genetic Engineering Assessment Authority, he declared.
Overall there was tremendous opposition to Bt Brinjal which forced the Minister to say that he had not come to any conclusion in his mind. If that was the case he would not be present here. He was just trying to hear both the sides. The entire proceedings was being recorded and would be put in the Ministry website, he promised.
The Minister also stopped to talk with the gathering of farmers outside and asked them about their opinion.