India's GM aubergines become a test case for biopiracy laws

November 2011

Brinjals
Indian brinjals (aubergine). Photo by YL Tan on Flickr
India's Bt brinjal (aubergine), already infamous after being banned on health and safety grounds in February 2010 (see GM AUBERGINES – GMFS News Archive, February 2010), has now become a test-case for the country's biopiracy laws.

A formal complaint was initially lodged by the Environmental Support Group (ESG) in 2010. This claimed that ten local varieties of brinjal had been criminally accessed. Since then, it has taken the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) a full year to investigate the case. The Authority's conclusion has been to recommend legal action in respect of six varieties of GM brinjal.



As the ESG has pointed out, the law demands that access to local brinjal strains requires prior permission from the National Biodiversity Authority, the State Biodiversity Board, and local biodiversity management committees. Such rigorous prior appraisal is needed to protect the country's biodiversity from misuse or overuse of plants, and from theft of local strains, and, when transgenics are involved, from contamination. For both commercial and research applications, local communities who have protected local varieties and cultivars for generations must be consulted. If they consent to its use, benefits must accrue to them.

The biggest difficulty faced by the prosecutors seems to have been pinning down who to charge.

Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company, Monsanto's Indian partner) commercialised the GM seed, but claims the Bt brinjal was developed by the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad. The university claims the law does not apply to it (!) as they are a publicly funded company. Monsanto has tried to deny any responsibility, but in fact owns 26% of Mahyco and supplied the Cry1Ac, 'Bt', gene inserted into the brinjal; also, Mahyco and Monsanto are inextricably linked through their joint Bt-promotion company, Mahyco Monsanto Biotech Ltd.

The NBA seems to have solved the dilemma by attaching blame to every possible candidate involved: all the above, plus one other Indian university, one US university, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) which facilitated agreements between Mahyco and Indian universities.

OUR COMMENT

Well done the Indian authorities for disallowing buck-passing, no matter how big the companies, how powerful the country whose government has interfered, nor how prestigious the universities involved.

Predictably, Monsanto's reaction to this bad press seems to have been to launch a rapid-response PR counter-attack, see PAYING FOR NEWS – November 2011


SOURCES
  • Development of Bt brinjal a case of bio-piracy, The Hindu, 10.08.11
  • Leo F. Saldanha and Bhargavi S. Rao, National Biodiversity Authority to prosecute Mahyco/Monsanto and collaborators for promoting Bt Brinjal in violation of Biodiversity Protection Law, ESG India, 11.08.11
  • Dinesh C. Sharma, Heat on Monsanto over brinjal piracy, India Today, 12.08.11

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