India’s biodiversity and the Convention on Biodiversity

The Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, meeting in Hyderabad from October 1 to 19, may not achieve much. However, it is an occasion for India to take stock of its biodiversity and think about how to protect it. As the Chair of the Convention now, India can also do much in advancing the cause of conservation of biodiversity across the World though the non-ratification by the United States limits the scope of the Convention.

The Conference of Parties serves as Meeting of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. It meets from October 1 to 5 and will consider a number of issues related to handling, transport, packaging and identification of living modified organisms under the Protocol.

It may also address unintentional transboundary movements of living genetically modified organisms and emergencies arising from that, besides guidelines for risk assessment and management.  Capacity building and technology transfer would also come up for discussions in this regard. The Protocol’s own effectiveness would also be reviewed.

There is demand from NGOs and scientists including the Third World Network and the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) to factor in socio-economic considerations into the risk assessment of living modified organisms.

India has allowed limited entry of genetically modified crops.  GM crops now dominate about 90 per cent of cotton farming in the country. However, the experience had been mixed.  GM crop failures have contributed to suicide of farmers in Andhra Pradesh.  There is nagging doubts that genetically modified cotton is responsible for death of goats that grazed the fields.  More than that, the disappearance of traditional varieties of cotton and even hybrid varieties with the dominance of Bt cotton raises concerns.

Scientific conference

Addressing a complex problem: Chairman of ENSSER Angelika Hilbeck speaking a Scientific Conference on Advancing the Understanding of Biodiversity. Photo: Roy Mathew

India has already imposed a moratorium on Bt Brinjal considering, above all, the fact that the country enjoys a diversity of about 2000 brinjal species. (Biodiversity is of variety in genes, species and ecosystems.) Dr. Puspa Bhargava told a scientific conference organised by ENSSER, and hosted by the Tara Foundation and Aruna Rodrigues, in Hyderabad last week that the moratorium should be extended to all GM trials in the country.

Scientists are worried about contamination of Western Ghats, the store house of India’s biodiversity along with the Himalayas, by artificially introduced genes as result of GM trials. So, it is imperative that we wait and watch whether humans can have control over the technology while allowing laboratory studies.  Otherwise, even our Ayurvedic System of medicine could be in peril if drug companies start genetic experimentation.

It seems that the peers of Ayurveda were even aware of genetic diversity as texts mentioned importance of collecting plants from certain locations and with specified characteristics. If our medicinal plans gets contaminated, the whole system of Ayurveda would have to be re-worked which will be an almost impossible task as it is the knowledge gathered by thousands of generations.

(To be continued)

For further reading: Scientists want inclusion of social economic considerations in risk assessment of GM crops