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The Murky GMO Scene in India
Uma Shankari

The chances of genetically-modified food, finding a place on your dining table are not remote. As consumers, we have a right to ensure that the food we eat and serve our family lovingly is not

If you thought that the chances of genetically-modified food finding a place on your dining table are remote, chew this. GM rice trials have been approved in 10 out of India's 25 states. The GM crops under field trials in India are: Brinjal, cabbage, cauliflower, chickpea, cotton, groundnut, maize, mustard, okra, pigeon pea, potato, rice, sorghum and tomato (source- Press Information Bureau, July 26, 2007).

Multinational seed companies have promoted GM seeds as a key technology for feeding growing populations. But GM seeds do not solve the world's hunger problem; these merely destroy soil and the biodiversity.

Fewer than half a dozen giant multinational companies control the world market in GM seeds- Monsanto, Cargill and DuPont of the America and Syngenta of Switzerland.

GM technology arrived in India in 1995, when the American biotech giant Monsanto formed a joint venture with India's Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (MAHYCO). In 1998, Monsanto-Mahyco Biotech (India) Pvt Ltd introduced BT cotton across 40 locations in the country that carried a gene from a naturally occurring toxic bacterium bacillus thurigensis (BT) to resist a notorious pest - boll weevil. The government had allowed the field trials without scientifically carrying out mandatory bio-safety tests. The trials created a controversy and a petition was filed in the Supreme Court in 1999 by Vandana Shiva, president of the New Delhi-based research foundation for science technology and ecology, who said the field trials had violated the 1989 rules for the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) under the Environmental Protection Act 1986.

Without waiting for the outcome of the petition pending in the Supreme Court, the department of biotechnology gave the bio-safety clearance in March 2000, and Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) granted permission in July 2000, for large-scale field trials.

Here's data to ponder if you would like to question the objectivity of GEAC - GEAC co-chairman CD Mayee is the sole Indian representative on the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech
Applications (ISAAA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is funded by biotech giants like Bayer Cropscience, Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer hi-bred and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research (BBSRC) whose field trial proposals come to the GEAC for approval time and again.

In one single meeting held on May 22, 2006, GEAC approved an astonishing array of 24 items for 91 field trials.

Smuggling transgenic material

Lax monitoring mechanisms could not stop the cross-flow of pollen to non-BT crops in field trials.

Greenpeace provided evidence in June 2001, to show that genetically modified (GM) food had illegally entered the Indian market - Hong Kong DNA Chips, an independent laboratory, conducted tests and showed the presence of Monsanto's GM roundup ready crops in Pringles potato chips and Isomil baby food.

Another instance:

In 2001, MAHYCO's investigators found BT gene in Navbharat 151, a special variety of cotton seeds sold by Desai, a farmer in Gujarat that were resistant to cotton plant's main enemy, the bollworm.

GEAC ordered the government of Gujarat to recall and destroy every stock of the offending seeds and burn every field where this variety was growing.

Perhaps as a result of the publicity over Navbharat 151, GEAC granted licence in 2002 to Monsanto to market GM cotton.

The yields from GM seeds were high for a short initial period in India, creating a rush for the new seeds, but later the yields became low. Large-scale crop failures caused enormous miseries to debt-ridden cotton farmers from the northern state of Punjab to Karnataka in the south. Many farmers borrowed heavily to buy expensive GM seeds and herbicides and the low yield left them saddled with debts.

Intellectual property rights and patents

Amendments were made in 2005 to the 1970 Patent Act. These now allow for the production or propagation of genetically engineered plants to count as an invention.

Methods of agriculture and plants were excluded from patentability in the Indian Patent Act 1970 to ensure that the seed was held as a common property resource in the public domain. In this manner, it guaranteed farmers the inalienable right to save, exchange and improve upon the seed.

Monsanto used its influence in the American government circles to shape the trade related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) of World Trade Organisation (WTO). Under WTO rules on free trade in agriculture, countries cannot impose their own national health restrictions on GMO imports as it is considered to be an 'unfair trade barrier'.

Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is being used as a protectionist instrument to promote corporate monopolies over technologies, seeds, genes and medicines. Through TRIPS, large corporations use intellectual property rights to protect their markets, and to prevent competition.

Wishes of industry cannot be put above the needs of consumers. Yet America fights the EU 'moratorium' on importing GMOs to be discriminatory to its trade interests, and says GMOs are 'substantially equivalent' to conventional foods. It does not favour labelling of food stuffs carrying the GM products.

Environmentalists' concern

Critics claim that BT cotton will become vulnerable to pest attack in the long run and that the BT genes escaping from pollen grains might harm other crops in the neighbourhood and the environment.

Though the prime target for the BT is the cotton boll weevil, it does not discriminate between 'pests' and other beneficial insects and organisms.

Environmentalists feel that BT cotton is no cure to the pest infestation while crop rotation is. And that as pest control measures, neem and garlic have proved more potent than pyrethroids and endosulphan.

London Institute of Science in Society chief biologist, Dr Mae-Wan Ho says that the technology is uncontrollable and unreliable, and typically ends up damaging and scrambling the host genome, with entirely unpredictable consequences that might unleash a deadly 'andromeda strain'.

GM food on the menu?

Readers, wouldn't you be concerned if the food you so lovingly serve your family is just 'frankenfood'? As consumers, we have a right to know what we eat, and to eat what we know, or believe, is right.

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