Of all the voices that opposed the introduction of Bt brinjal, one was most significant — that of 84-yearold TV Jagadisan, the former MD of Monsanto India. Talking to Shoma Chaudhury at his Bengaluru flat, Jagadisan, who was with the company for 18 years and served as managing director for South Asia for eight years, spoke of all the reasons to fear Bt brinjal. He may have retired 20 years ago but here’s an industry insider talking about the disturbing way in which corporates and governments function. Excerpts:
How long were you with Monsanto and what position did you hold there?
I was with the company for 18 years. I joined as a marketing and development manager and was promoted to general manager. In my last eight years with them, I was the managing director for India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. I retired about 20 years ago.
At Minister Jairam Ramesh’s public consultation over BT brinjal, you expressed serious concerns about the way government regulatory bodies give clearances. Can you elaborate? In your time as MD, Monsanto India, what products were cleared?
I was responsible for introducing several herbicides in India. Butachlor, which is a rice herbicide (brand name Machete); Alachlor (brand name, Lasso); Triallate (brand name Avadex BW). For all these we had to submit data to the Central Insecticides Board for approval. None of these government regulatory agencies have the facilities, time or resources to do the testing themselves, so they routinely rely on company data. This was true not just for Monsanto but all companies. When regulatory bodies rely on company data to give clearances, naturally companies like the data to appear favourable to themselves.
With something like BT brinjal, this becomes very disturbing. Unless long term tests are held independently by bodies like the ICAR and IARA, there should be no hurry to introduce it. In my opinion, in fact, there’s no need for BT brinjal. India cultivates brinjal in about half a million hecatres and produces over eight million tons every year, so there’s no problem of low production. Yes, there is pest incidence, the fruit and shoot borer no doubt does cause damage, but there are other methods for controlling that. Simple home remedies like neem oil emulsion can control this pest. There is absolutely no need to move towards BT brinjal.
These industries are very opaque. What was the internal culture of Monsanto like? Did you really conduct any internal tests at all?
Yes, as far as herbicides are concerned, we did do some internal tests, but sometimes we used to just produce foreign data — not location specific Indian data — and the Insecticides Board just accepted it. They had no means of verifying what we gave them. We did some demonstrations, but we never had any controlled plots for research or anything elaborate like that.
Would you say any data was fudged during your time?
Not in my territory, or jurisdiction; what happened abroad I cannot say. But you can generally take it that any company that’s got to give data for getting approval for its own product will naturally like to make it appear favourable. That’s common psychology.
Bt cotton must have been developed during your time. Did you have doubts about that as well?
It was being developed in St Louis while I was there but it was introduced in India after I left, so I don’t know that much about it. But it’s public knowledge, that it’s not all roses. Some farmers say their yields have doubled; others have committed suicide because it failed. There have certainly been failures after its commercial release. Particularly in 2002, the crop failed, the pest incidence increased. They said the wrong variety of cotton had been chosen for BT technology and, later on, they improved it. But you see nature will take its own course. If you try to control something, something else will proliferate. Bt cotton was engineered to control the bollworm, but mite incidence went up. Other pests proliferated. Even bollworm has developed a resistance. So pesticide use came down in the beginning but has started going up again.
There is concern about farmers having to buy new Bt seeds every season.
Exactly. The terminator gene. This is supposed to be a gene that allows seeds to grow only once, and seeds coming out of the crop cannot be resown and will not germinate. I don’t know if Monsanto really put that into Bt cotton or which crop it was introduced into, but it’s public knowledge that with Bt cotton, farmers have to buy seeds every season at a very heavy cost. That’s against Indian culture. In Indian agriculture, farmers generate their own seeds for the next season. With Bt, he can’t do that – he has to go back to the company to buy new seeds.
As MD, weren’t you privy to these things?
When I talked to colleagues, they spoke of this terminator gene. But I can’t say for a fact. What one does hear now is that Bt cotton seeds are much more expensive and I hear Monsanto has got 63 companies which produce Bt cotton seeds and it collects royalty from them. That is published information. I have no first hand knowledge of it.
Monsanto creates herbicides and pesticides; Bt seeds are supposed to resist them. Isn’t that a conflict of commercial interest?
Monsanto developed a herbicide called glyphosate to kill weeds in crops but found that it destroys soyabean also. So they created a genetically altered soyabean that can resist glyphosate. So you make a herbicide to kill the weeds, then you make a seed to resist that herbicide — so it’s making money on both sides! (Laughs) Later I heard even that soyabean is not so successful. Yields are coming down. That’s what published information says.
Apart from dangerously inadequate government clearances, what are your other concerns about Bt brinjal?
A whole lot of concerns. For one, India’ biodiversity will be gravely tampered with. For example, we have more than 2,400 varieties of brinjal in the country. Brinjal is a highly cross-pollinated crop. So if you have Bt brinjal growing in some field, its pollen can easily get transferred by wind or insects to other fields. Monsanto has itself filed suits against many people in Canada for growing Bt cotton without license, but for no fault of theirs. It’s the wind and insects that had carried pollen and created Bt cotton in their fields! Monsanto vs Schmeiser is just one famous case in Canada. The court judgment went in favour of Schmeiser.
The same thing will happen here in India. They say 30 meters is sufficient to separate BT and non-BT brinjal. I don’t believe that. There’s no way anyone can control the gene flow because you cannot control wind and where insects will fly. And once that cross-contamination takes place, our entire biodiversity will be at stake. Our native brinjal has a wonderful property – it can control Type II diabetes. We don’t even know what properties Bt brinjal will have once its genetically transformed.
So we are back to inadequate testing and malafide government clearances?
Yes, we need independent long-term trials, thorough research and peer reviews to get a clearer idea of harm and good. In this case, it’s the first time such technology is being introduced into a regular food crop. Yet there have been no trials for birth defects in successive generations. Lab rats fed on GM soyabean have apparently developed ulcers and tumours in their kidneys and liver. That’s what published research says. Approving Bt brinjal for commercial release the way the GEAC was set to was like letting a genie out of a bottle.
In your opinion, is there any need for Bt brinjal at all?
No, BT brinjal’s entry point is itself suspect. The Knowledge Initiative Commission set up under the PM has got three companies as permanent members, among them Monsanto and Dow Chemicals. So naturally they push their point of view. Bt Brinjal was just the entry point. There is talk of BT rice, wheat, potato and what not. If this had gone through, very soon the whole country would have been Bt-ed! When Hillary Clinton came recently, she made no bones about the fact that she was here with the sole purpose of bending India’s agriculture policy to American interests.
Defenders of Bt crops say it’s necessary for our food security. Two decades ago we were applauding the Green Revolution. For a while, with increased pesticide use, crop production went up. But then the land degenerated and we now think of it as a mixed experiment if not complete failure. So it’s not good to think of all this only in terms of short term gain. You remember the thyladomide case? Foreign companies would like to introduce a product as quickly as possible, make money as quickly as possible and get out as quickly as possible. It is our government that has to be more cautious and protect our interests. That’s where our government and regulatory bodies fail to do their duty.
Why are you speaking up now? Why not earlier?
There was no occasion for me to talk until Jairam Ramesh held his public consultations. I have not spoken against Monsanto per se, but against BT technology. I have a lot of doubts about it. I am expressing this as an Indian citizen.