Food without choice? A Tribune Special

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

Food without choice? A Tribune Special. Pushpa M. Bhargava. The Tribune, 1st November 2009.

We must know what we are eating, says Pushpa M. Bhargava

One of the important outcomes of the democratic traditions set up in many parts of the world in the second half of the last century is that people today do not want to be taken for a ride by the powers that be, within the country or from outside.

However, widespread ignorance, unethical and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, social and religious prejudices, deliberate creation of ever-increasing economic disparity between the top 20 per cent and the bottom 80 per cent, passing lies as truths, emphasis on form rather than function, division of society into a miniscule minority of exploiters and a vast majority of the exploited, and dominance of the selfish interests of a few over the legitimate interests of the vast majority, have created conditions where a small minority in our country is constantly attempting to take for a ride the vast majority.

An outstanding example is the attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified (GM) crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations (MNCs) (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political setup and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools.

The ultimate goal of this attempt in India of which the leader is Monsanto, is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and thus food production. With 60 per cent of our population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would essentially mean not only a control over our food security but also over our farmer security, agricultural security and security of the rural sector.

Suffice it to mention, whosoever controls seed and agro-chemical production in the country, for all purposes, controls India.

The first step of Monsanto was to control cotton production as a test case and to ensure in the process that strategies for removing all barriers that may come in the way of the eventual objective of controlling food production through control of seed production by providing new types of seeds such as GM seeds are removed.

There is no doubt that Bt cotton has benefitted some farmers and, in the balance, there has been a rise in the production of cotton. There is also no doubt that many farmers have suffered because Bt cotton did not work in their case, or caused allergy, or led to the death of their cattle that grazed on the remnants of the cotton plants after cotton had been harvested.

However, all these problems have been pushed under the carpet by the powers that be, that too, in spite of the virtually uninterrupted record of Monsanto over four decades of breaking laws and engaging in unethical acts.

The two Committees, RCGM of the Department of Biotechnology and GEAC of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, that are responsible for the approval of GM crops for environmental release seem to have never questioned what Monsanto has done in the past or wanted to do now nor taken note of any of the numerous scientific research publications by well-known and highly credible scientists working in prestigious institutions and with no personal agenda, that have appeared in some of the world’s best known scientific journals.

Indeed, these publications sound a note of caution against indiscriminate release of GM crops which (like water hyacinth and parthenium that did not exist in the country when we became independent), once released, cannot be recalled, irrespective of the damage they might be doing. This writer has been a nominee of the Supreme Court on GEAC since last year.

No note has also been taken by the RCGM or GEAC of the fact that GM crops are banned in most parts of the world; they are largely confined to four countries: the US, Canada, Argentina and Brazil. They are banned in most countries of the European Union and in the UK. Countries such as Greece, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and even small states such as Tasmania have banned them specially.

An important question that may be asked in regard to Bt cotton and now Bt Brinjal (the first GM food crop cleared by GEAC for environmental release is: Did we need them? We have already shown integrated pest management (IPM) and bio-pesticides that we have developed, to be eminently successful for both cotton and brinjal – in fact, for 85 crops.

The use of IPM is a part of the National Agricultural Policy passed by Parliament in 2001. We have not used it because it has been more rewarding for those in power to have Monsanto propagate its Bt cotton – and now Bt Brinjal.

Another question that we should ask is that if we do need any GM crop, why don’t we develop it on our own, as we did our nuclear energy and space programmes?

We made our own genetically engineered Hepatitis B vaccine which brought down the price of the product in the market 50-fold. Many of our laboratories, both in the private and public sector, have had the ability to develop Bt cotton, Bt brinjal or Bt-whatever.

When I was the Chairman of Avesthagen (the first plant biotechnology company in the country), I had offered to develop Bt Cotton for a couple of crores which would be 3 per cent of the cost that Monsanto had initially asked for giving its own Bt cotton technology to the Department of Biotechnology, when C.R. Bhatia was its Secretary.

In fact, the Cotton Research Institute has developed a variety (not a hybrid like Monsanto, for which seeds have to be purchased for every planting) of Bt cotton. Normally, it should replace Monsanto’s Bt cotton, but I would predict that if the present policy continues, this will not happen, in spite of the fact that when one uses a variety, one can use the seeds one produces himself.

A few words about Bt brinjal that has been in the news since the afternoon of October 14, 2009, when the GEAC cleared it for environmental release. When Monsanto’s dossier containing all the bio-safety tests that they had done was put in the public domain earlier this year, there were serious criticisms of it by many scientists from various parts of the world including me. This writer’s criticism centred around the following:

lA large body of concerned, knowledgeable and reputed scientists have agreed that some 30 or so tests need to be done before a GM plant is cleared for environmental release. Monsanto had done only less than 10 of these tests.

lEven these tests were done largely by Monsanto, and we have no facility in the country to even determine whether the tests were actually done, leave aside decide their validity. All attempts made by us to have such a setup in the country have been deliberately thwarted or put in a spin — as has been done by the GEAC recently.

lSome of these tests were done by accredited laboratories but on samples provided by Monsanto — a company which has proved itself to be most untrustworthy.

lThere were many scientific errors even in the tests that were done by Monsanto.

In view of these criticisms from within the country and abroad which were all made in writing, the GEAC appointed a committee (EC-II) to review the criticisms. Its report was circulated to the members late in the afternoon of October 9. October 10 and 11 were holidays on account of the week-end.

Consequently, we were essentially given just one day — October 12 (Monday) — for reviewing the 102-page fairly dense report.

The person most affected was this writer as most of the other members of GEAC were either a part of EC-II or already strongly committed to GM crops irrespective of any criticism. I had to travel to Delhi on October 13 to attend the meeting of the GEAC on October 14. I, therefore, did not have time to go through this report in detail.

However, with the editorial experience that I have had, a quick scan through the report made it clear that there were internal consistencies in the report, inconsistencies between the report and the earlier data that had been put in public domain and outright scientific absurdities.

My suggestion at the GEAC meeting on October 14 that as we were not given enough time to go through the report, discussion on it should be postponed for a month or so, and a meeting specially called to discuss it to which all those who had commented on Monsanto’s bio-safety studies earlier and whose comments EC-II had attempted to answer in the report, should be invited; this meeting should also be attended by members of the GEAC, members of the EC-II, and scientists from Monsanto. Those invited from outside India could be told that the Government of India will be unable to take care of their travel expenses.

This proposal was completely ignored. Besides this writer, the rest of the opposition to the approval of the report of EC-II came from two members of the GEAC who were not a part of the EC-II.

Dr Ramesh Sonti of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, who is a Bhatnagar Prize winner and a member of all the national science academies, even made the point that there was something fundamentally wrong with the technology used by Monsanto to generate its Bt brinjal. Another member of the GEAC said that we should first determine whether we need Bt brinjal from the socio-economic point of view — a very wise suggestion which was also ignored.

It is interesting that Monsanto has been saying all along with confidence that Bt brinjal will be ready for marketing after the October 14 meeting. But what happened after 2.30 pm on October 14 was what neither Monsanto nor the GEAC (nor I) expected. There was a huge reaction to it by the people and the media.

What was, perhaps, most satisfying was the statement that Mr Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Environment and Forests issued on October 15, that put off any decision on the recommendations of the GEAC till everyone concerned had enough time to comment on the report of EC-II and the required discussion had taken place.

I can understand the pressure Jairam Ramesh must have been under not to issue the above statement. If he had not done so, we would have had Bt brinjal on our table without knowing that what we may be eating could be injurious to our health. It was as much a personal victory for him as for democracy and sanity in the country.

In fact, it is perfectly possible that the increased health problems in the US in the last decade have been due to increased consumption of GM-corn and GM-soya. It took a long time to find out that smoking causes cancer, or Kesari dal causes lathyrism in our country.

Genetic engineering is one of the most powerful technologies in the world. However, like nuclear technologies or space technologies, we need to ensure that it is used not to fill the coffers of a few but for public good. For this, we would need to do the following:

lWe must set up our own laboratory which would have high public credibility and which could do all the required bio-safety and related tests.

lWe should determine whether we need Bt brinjal at all. In other words, we must do a socio-economic survey.

lWe must determine if there are alternatives to genetic modification for fighting pest attack on brinjal in the country. This writer will be happy to give anyone who asks, all the details that establish that integrated pest management and biopesticides work better than genetic modification for preventing or alleviating pest attack on brinjal.

lIf, in spite of all the above, we find that we need Bt brinjal, then we should set up an appropriate testing mechanism that would ensure that all the required safety tests can be done — and then make our own Bt-brinjal.

lWe must pass labelling laws according to which any product that contains more than 0.01 per cent of GM food material must be labelled as GM. We must know what we are eating.

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