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India Shelves GM Food Crop Plans - While Millions Remain Malnourished

Will Heaven, Daily Telegraph, Feb 9, 2010  http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/
India has dropped plans to release the country's first genetically modified food crop, Dean Nelson reports, because of fears over "the long-term effects on human health". This appalling decision was taken by the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, who said the following:

There is no overriding urgency to introduce it When the public sentiments have been negative, it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary and principle-based approach. I will not impose a decision till such time independent scientific studies establish safety of the product from long-term view of human health.

No urgency to introduce a GM food crop? How about the fact that India has some of the highest rates of child malnutrition and mortality in under-fives in the world? Or the fact that malnutrition has been found to be worse in India than it is in sub-Saharan Africa?

It is wrong, of course, to assume that child malnutrition is solely caused by food insecurity. A recent 2006 World Bank report into India's "persistent malnutrition" found that "child malnutrition is mostly the result of high levels of exposure to infection and inappropriate infant and young child feeding and caring practices."

But food security remains a highly important factor, and the chance to develop a more pest-resistant food crop should have been pounced on by the Indian government. As the BBC reports, the proposed GM aubergine had been tested by India's genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), which approved the crop and found that it was resistant against "fruit and shoot borer pest". It's good for the environment, too, as the number of pesticides used can be dramatically reduced.

Dr PM Salimath, the scientist at the University of Agriculture Sciences in Dharwad, Karnataka, who was in charge of the trials, told the BBC: "There's hardly any danger to human health. This gene is used in corn, canola and soya for the past decade or more, and it's shown that it is totally safe." But campaigners have been using scare tactics to encourage an anti-GM campaign. "We are not guinea pigs - don't use us for research," one activist is reported to have said, adding the old lie that GM crops could cause cancer.

This is, sadly, all too familiar in India. I've written before about how the introduction of GM cotton to India in 2002 was a huge success. But higher crop yields and reduced pesticide use won't silence the conspiracy theorists, who have wrongly blamed GM cotton for high rates of farmer suicides - and even drought.

It would have taken only a little bravery from India's environment minister to approve the GM food crop, paving the way for dozens more. This would have been good for India, good for Indians and good for the environment. How infuriating, then, that he has bowed so quickly to bad science and public pressure.
Will Heaven is a writer who specialises in politics and the internet. He also writes about Catholicism and religion.
Brinjal Blots Ramesh's Copybook
Dhiraj Nayyar, Financial Express (ndia), Feb 11, 2010  Jairam Ramesh has spent the better part of his 8-plus months in office as the environment minister trying to break away from the traditionalist/conservative mould that his ministry has acquired over the years. 

He committed himself to the PM's vision of the ministry not turning into an instrument of a new licence raj of permits and clearances to industry. He went even bolder on climate change, changing India's decade-old negotiating position from per capita emissions to a more reasonable emissions intensity of GDP position. In doing so, he didn't hesitate to take on opposition from within and outside the government. He even took on the once celebrated RK Pachauri on the issue of Himalayan glaciers, a battle that no one gave him a chance to win but win he eventually did.

We applauded him and admired him for all of that, which is why his decision to put an indefinite moratorium on the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal is so disappointing. It seems then that even the most forward-looking ministers of this government are in the end vulnerable to be captured by populist politics.

There is little doubt that the politics of Bt brinjal had turned against the government. The shrillest voices, those of sundry activists and NGOs, hogged the headlines. The voice of the brinjal farmer who loses half his crop to pests and the average consumer who consumes unhealthy amounts of pesticides through regular brinjal were never likely to be heard in the din. Once state governments began to ban the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal even before Jairam Ramesh had a chance to make public his decision, the political dice was loaded against the cultivation of India's first GM food crop. That some Congress-ruled states-prominently Andhra and Haryana-hopped aboard the 'ban' wagon would have put both Ramesh and the Union government under pressure.

But the business of politics is about leading, not following, about moulding public sentiment, rather than being a prisoner to perceived public sentiment. On other issues Jairam Ramesh has shown signs of leadership, but not on brinjal. And it's not that he did not have facts on his side to counter the critics-extensive scientific research over ten years (add to that the research on GM conducted overseas) had yielded no evidence of adverse effects on either the health of the soil or the health of humans; the entire process had gone through rigorous institutional assessment culminating with the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC); this was no multinational conspiracy either-the seed was developed by an Indian company (of which Monsanto held only 26% stake) in collaboration with two publicly funded universities; there was even the spectre of food inflation, particularly in vegetables, that ought to have made it easier to make a case for introducing high-yielding GM crops, something that would eventually quell prices.

Despite the facts, the government caved in. But what is perhaps more important than even the decision are the reasons given to justify it. The argument about the need to further study the long-term health effects on humans is just a stalling tactic with no real basis-this sort of logic can be used to ban cell phones (also a daily use item) where scientific evidence has varied between 'safe' and 'risky'. The minister's argument that there is no immediate hurry or need for Bt brinjal (there is sufficient production anyway) may well be right, but his decision also impacts other GM vegetables/foodgrains where there may be a more urgent need.

But the less frivolous, and more worrying, aspects of the decision are others. And both bring back memories of an era we had assumed Jairam Ramesh, and the wider government, had left well behind.

The first concerns the manner in which the decision on Bt brinjal was made. Interestingly, India already has a vigorous institutional mechanism for the clearance of GM crops. And this was put to test at the time GM cotton was given permission for commercial cultivation. At the apex of this process is the GEAC, a body with technical expertise, which is supposed to take a final decision on GM crops. In the case of Bt cotton, it was GEAC and not the minister for environment that took the decision. 

By turning GEAC into an appraisal, not approval committee, Jairam Ramesh destroyed an important institutional mechanism and put all discretion into the hands of a single minister. This defeats the purpose of specialist bodies and regulators that are mandated to take decisions independent of political considerations. This subverting of institutions that sets a horrible precedent can have a spillover effect elsewhere in government too.

A second concern was the minister's blanket criticism of the research done by private sector scientists in biotechnology. Just because India's first green revolution was heralded by government scientists doesn't mean the next one also has to come from the public sector. In fact, the ongoing research into GM crops, including Bt brinjal, is a great example of public-private partnership. Why turn the clock back? And why turn it back for agriculture when other sectors are powering ahead with private sector research? The UPA, unfortunately, continues to believe that agriculture can survive with an unsatisfactory status quo.

Jairam Ramesh, though, could have, and should have, acted as an agent of change