India has traditionally been a huge exporter of eggplant, commonly known as brinjal. The country produces more than 25 percent of the world’s overall supply of brinjal, competing with China and Egypt. Brinjal is a native Indian crop that creates an exuberant amount of jobs in the developing country and helps to strengthen its economy. India harvests over 2,500 different unique varieties of the vegetable and has perfected the art of growing them for generations. So why has this vegetable started such controversy in biotechnology today?
Monsanto, a United States biotechnology corporation, writes on its website, “Producing more, conserving more, improving lives. That’s sustainable agriculture. And that’s what Monsanto is all about. Monsanto could not exist without farmers.” With such a bold statement, it is odd to find that the company has started stepping on the Indian government’s toes in creating Bt brinjal. Allegedly, in its Indian subsidiaries of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, a number of universities are accusing Monsanto of genetically modifying the vegetable without the compliance of India’s National Biodiversity Authority. Without permission, South Indian farmers have started to accuse Monsanto of stealing about nine different varieties of the crop to genetically modify. The company could change their slogan to “Monsanto could not exist without farmers — whether they like it or not.”
Around 2005, Monsanto injected a bacterial gene into brinjal crops that the company works with to form Bt brinjal. For this, India filed a lawsuit against Monsanto in the fall of 2011. India is accusing Monsanto of biopiracy by taking their indigenous crop without permission and re-engineering it to gain patent rights. Monsanto is working on genetically modifying more crops besides brinjal, which is an apparent and insulting violation of India’s Biological Diversity Act. The company has repeatedly tried to market its genetically modified version of brinjal commercially, and by capitalizing on this, they are committing a type of piracy. With the help of many angered activists and hardworking farmers, the Indian government has taken action to sue Monsanto for the first time in history. The lawsuit could lead to criminal prosecution.
Outside of legal issues revolving around Bt brinjal, there remain ethical, environmental and economic concerns not only for India but for all Monsanto customers. Many countries, such as France, have been hesitant on accepting genetically modified crops due to the danger it may cause consumers. There has been little research done on long-term effects on ingesting the re-engineered crops that Monsanto creates. Introduction of these genetically made seeds and plants has already contaminated indigenous crops for local farmers. In a country like India, which is already densely populated, overshadowing agriculture from the tens of thousands farmers that work every day to make ends meet could destroy their subsistence for living. Farming, for most of these families, is their only skill and source of income. Monsanto could cause these families to starve if they proceed further with their plan to capitalize on a more expensive and stolen product. Genetically modified seeds are not practical for small farmers because they cost more to make, which would be a huge rise in cost for local farmers. Genetically modified crops are also riddled with pesticides that Indian farmers are not comfortable using in excess.
Monsanto has denied any foul play and simply believes that what they are doing has caused no harm. Even if Monsanto gets slapped with this heavy lawsuit, it will not be the first time they have run into some type of biotechnology trouble with foreign and developing nations. With the profits the company is making from the genetically modified seeds and plants, it is easy for them to pay off what is owed and continue overruling other nations’ laws. Developing countries are especially vulnerable to this bully move, as they do not have the resources to fight back against large corporations. India hopes its plan of action will make other large multinational corporations weary if they decide to sidestep laws, but as history has a knack for repeating itself, we can only expect further problems will arise.
Gabriella Iannetta is a senior majoring in business entrepreneurship. She can be reached at [email protected]