Biopiracy in India: The case of the aubergine

A lawsuit in India alleges that a US biotech firm genetically modified local seeds without permission.

About 53 per cent of all GM and organic seeds are produced by three companies: Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta [EPA]

It’s hard to imagine that the humble brinjal (also known as eggplant or aubergine) could kick up such a storm. But it has.

This is a story of one of the world’s largest agricultural biotechnology companies – the United States-based Monsanto – and its run in with farmers in south India, following murky allegations of its attempts to “steal” nine indigenous brinjal varieties and genetically modify them.

Monsanto claims that its main priorities are farmers and integrity. Its website says: “Integrity is the foundation for all that we do. Integrity includes honesty, decency, consistency and courage.” And this, Monsanto pledges, includes engaging in dialogue with “diverse points of view”.

That may well be. But in India, this corporate foresight has gone awry, for the seed giant may have forgotten to enter into dialogue with farmers in the Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and, indeed, the federal government of India. The allegation being levelled against Monsanto is that between 2005 and 2006, the company, through its Indian subsidiary Mahyco and several agricultural universities in India, inserted a bacterial gene into the indigenous brinjal genome to create a genetically modified version named BT brinjal. These seeds were then sown in limited field trials in India. But when it embarked on its programme to genetically modify the brinjal, it did so without first asking India’s National Biodiversity Authority for consent.

Research without consent

In response, the national biodiversity authority has announced its plans to prosecute Monsanto for carrying out this research without seeking its permission and the consent of hundreds of thousands of farmers who have cultivated these varieties for generations. Officials at the authority say that, by failing to consult with farmers and the national biodiversity authority, the multinational firm has run foul of India’s Biological Diversity Act 2002. The law states that, if companies want to genetically modify indigenous varieties of seeds and plants – for research or commercialisation purposes – they must obtain prior consent of the authority. That never happened, the national biodiversity authority says, so now Monsanto and Mahyco look set to face charges of biopiracy – a fancy word for theft. It will be the first criminal prosecution under the act if it goes ahead. Though brinjal is a vegetable that is now widely eaten and grown around the world, it is native to south Asia with more than 2,500 varieties.

Monsanto denies the accusations, claiming that it has not worked in partnership with Mahyco to develop BT brinjal. The US company says the genetically modified variety of the vegetable was developed by Mahyco with a gene previously accessed from Monsanto.

To no avail. Environmental and farmers groups in India are livid. “Why were we not consulted when Monsanto and Mahyco muscled in?” they ask. “If these trials had led to the commercialisation and the sale of GM varieties of brinjal, would we have been compensated?”

Farmers should be consulted and remunerated when companies use indigenous crop and seed varieties that local farming populations have cultivated and protected for generations. This is their right, a right that the United Nations-led global Convention on Biological Diversity recognised almost two decades ago.

If companies want to genetically modify indigenous varieties of seeds and plants – for research or commercialisation purposes – they must obtain prior consent of the authority.

Embarrassingly for the federal Indian government, officials at the Karnataka Biodiversity Board say that a separate arm of the federal government in New Delhi – the Department of Biotechnology, at the Ministry of Science and Technology – gave the green light for the research into BT brinjal in 2005, even though the Biological Diversity Act and the National Biodiversity Authority were not consulted. 

This raises serious questions about the political will and the institutional capacity of the Federal Government of India to protect its treasure trove of biodiversity and its agricultural sector – arguably the backbone of a country in which around 70 per cent of 1.2 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

To file or not to file charges

Whether Monsanto and Mahyco are brought before India’s courts is yet to be seen. The Indian government placed a moratorium on BT brinjal last year. Officials at the national biodiversity authority are currently investigating, and a decision on whether to file criminal charges against Monsanto and Mahyco is expected in the next few months. But the echoes of what happens in India will reverberate globally, for underlying this is the larger issue of who controls the global supply, production and price of food.

More than half (53 per cent) of all genetically modified and organic seeds traded worldwide are owned by three multinational companies, according to the environmental group Greenpeace. Monsanto is on that list, as well as Dupont and Syngenta. The world’s top ten agro-chemical companies own almost 75 per cent of all seeds sold globally. This means that they control the price at which seeds are sold to farmers, the kinds of seeds that are sold, and ultimately what types of food are produced, in an industry that brings in multi-billion dollar profits. In developing nations where farmers often rely on subsistence agriculture to eke out meagre livings, the controversial and highly lucrative industry of genetic engineering is thrown into sharper relief against a backdrop of widespread poverty. This is all the more poignant in India, where thousands of debt-ridden farmers have in recent years resorted to taking their own lives to escape the misery of crop failure and financial ruin.

The core of this debate centres on whether this kind of agricultural “development” can be inclusive. It is an argument that has divided experts. Advances in science and technology can help to produce more food, so hardier seed varieties and larger yields are welcome – not least to help feed the millions of people worldwide who go to bed hungry each night. But the issue of how this goal should be met and whether genetically-modified (GM) food production is one way of meeting it continues to create division. More than 80 per cent of all GM foods are grown in the United States, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. Europe has preferred to remain almost GM-free, while the only GM crop India and China currently grow is cotton. Beijing last month [September] also placed a moratorium on the commercialisation of GM rice.

‘Uncomfortable questions’

But the priority of feeding the world’s population – which hit the 7 billion mark this week – should not overshadow the way in which we strive to consign food insecurity and malnutrition to the history books. Uncomfortable questions surrounding this kind of scientific research and agricultural “development” remain: What of the potentially unknown consequences to the environment and fragile eco-systems of genetic engineering? If methods such as GM are used, what are the costs of this to the farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by the introduction of GM seeds and plants – some of which have contaminated indigenous varieties? In August 2011, agricultural biotechnology firm Bayer CropScience paid out a settlement of $750m to thousands of rice farmers in the United States who alleged that a strain of the company’s genetically modified rice had contaminated their varieties of rice. This is worth remembering.

GM seeds are also often more expensive and can require the use of more inputs such as pesticides. These costs are surmountable through economies of scale for landholders who own large farms, but for the smallholders or tenant farmer – the mainstay of agriculture in the developing world – these costs hit hard. How can they compete with GM seeds or profit financially from this “improvement” in food yields through genetic modification? Farmers in countries, including India, can and have become financially crippled after genetically engineered crops entered the food chain.

A balancing act is needed, in which value is placed on advances in research and technology, yet value that also protects farmers, the environment and pushes for modes of development that are inclusive and sustainable in the long term. But this is a stance that we have failed so far to reach, and debacles like the Monsanto case don’t help.

What is most alarming about this is that the BT brinjal fiasco is far from unusual. Given the massive profits involved, multinationals seem more than willing to ride roughshod over laws in foreign nations – often in the developing world – that they would rarely ignore in their own countries. So while we shouldn’t be surprised by this, it makes it no less difficult to stomach. Maybe the next time we sit down for dinner, the curious case of India’s aubergine will give us all food for thought.

Rajeshree Sisodia is a British freelance journalist who focuses on human rights, development and conflict related issues in south Asia and Burma.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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