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Made to Stick: GM Crop's False Prophets

By Dr. Shanthu Shantharam
Senior Research Scholar
Woodrow Wilson School
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ

"Made to Stick" (Random House, NY) is a recent book (2008) by Chip and Dan Heath to show how lying repeatedly can become a form of widely held belief system or self-evident truth. Mark Twain once observed that "a lie can get half way around the world before the truth can even get its boots on". This seems to be eerily true when one observes several urban myths bandied about India against Genetically Engineered crops (GM crops) and GM foods. In a similar vein, there is an anti-vaccination movement going on in the United States against vaccination to prevent autism. When Jonas Salk invented the polio-vaccine, he was hailed as a hero, but when Dr. John Offit discovered vaccination for rotavirus caused childhood diarrhea that kills 600,000 children worldwide annually, he is being denounced, and even threatened with death. The anti-vaccination movement has its own tool box of "cures" promoted on Oprah Winfrey Show and on Imus in the Morning, radio talk-show. According to vaccination experts, all of them are sham treatments. The counter movement to the anti-vaccination movement is dull and drab couched in scientific jargon with the result a significant percentage of people in the US believe that vaccination for autism is ineffective and even dangerous. This is all because of incessant campaign in the public arena. This has precisely what has happened to GM crops around the world.

India's anti-GM activists cohort with their fraternity in Europe and borrow the slogans and style of the campaigning by the European greens. Bogus public health scares are being spread maliciously using equally bogus "scientific" evidence from fringe scientists who are specially commissioned to provide such reports about GM foods. In the recent past, several non-government organizations like Greenpeace, "GMO-Free India", and now a hitherto unheard of "GM-free Karnataka" have been spreading scientifically baseless messages about the safety of GM foods to scare public. These organizations have launched a nation-wide "I am no lab rat" campaign using some ignorant film celebrities and journalists to seek a ban of a first ever GM food article called Bt-brinjal. Bt brinjal is likely to be commercialized in the next couple of years as it is still undergoing field tests throughout India. This same group roped in Baba Ramdev to issue a condemnatory message about GM foods. The words attributed to Baba Ramdev are a classic lift off from the pages of these same outfits who oppose globalization and scientific and technological development in India's agriculture. The tactics of these groups are simple: just keep repeating loudly the dangers of GM crops and in the absence of any challenge to their claims, they will prevail in the minds of the people. They no doubt wide press coverage as they are stage managed just for that purpose. Even the Supreme Court of India has believed this scientific nonsense, and is conducting a baseless court case against GM crops and India's regulatory authorities. Ordinary public have always found it hard to understand science and much less any cutting edge science, and whatever it reads in the newspapers because of this campaign, they believe that it must be true or at least develop doubts and concerns in their mind, and make things difficult for technology implementation. Already, India is lagging behind most of the world in agriculture, if public sentiments are turned against modern technology, then it will be very difficult for the governments to promote technological intervention into India's moribund agriculture. The ultimate sufferers are the poor farmers and consumers. God knows, India's farmers are in dire need of good technology to improve their productivity, and if they follow these baseless claims of anti-GM activists, they will only be pedaling backwards in their progress.

Greenpeace, the Europe based anti-GM outfit with a multi-million dollar funding has, for years, have been commissioning a select few laboratories in Europe, Hong Kong and USA, to claim that they have scientific evidence to show that GM foods are dangerous and that GM crops have contaminated the food supply. Greenpeace launched a huge campaign in Thailand three years ago by claiming that testing materials of GM papaya have contaminated the country's supply. Follow up tests by Kassetsart University scientists proved them wrong. The funny thing was Greenpeace arranged to dump truck loads of "contaminated" papaya in front of Thai Ministry of Agriculture to raise the hackles of authorities for GM contamination, and everyone watching just grabbed otherwise perfect papaya and took them home, and even ate them standing on the roadside. The same Greenpeace complained that China's rice has been contaminated by GM-rice few years ago, and nothing came out of Chinese government's investigations into the matter. Two years ago Greenpeace commissioned Prof. Seralini of France to assess Monsanto's Bt maize food safety data and got it reinterpreted to show that Bt maize was unsafe. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reexamined Monsanto's data by a separate group of scientific experts which held that EFSA had properly evaluated the original data and Prof. Seralini has erred seriously in reinterpreting the data.

Now, the same Greenpeace has gone back to the same Prof. Seralini to review the Bt brinjal food safety data, and he has promptly complied with them by concluding the Bt brinjal is unsafe and that it must not be allowed to be commercialized in India. It is this Prof. Seralini's "bought and paid" for scientific analysis that GM-free India activists are using to scare the state's citizens. This is a travesty of scientific facts and truths. India's regulatory authority for GM crops and foods, GEAC in the Ministry of Environment and Forests is fully cognizant of all these shenanigans, and has stood by their correct and proper decision to go ahead with advance testing of Bt brinjal. Two years ago, Government of India appointed a high powered scientific committee to look into the Bt brinjal safety tests and GEAC is following those guidelines to the letter and spirit of those recommendations. India has some of the worlds' best biotechnologists and food safety and toxicology experts and none of them have raised any objection to Bt brinjal or any other GM crop or GM food, and yet most of these anti-GM activists who have no scientific expertise, and much less understand the scientific nuances and finer complexities of the technology are needlessly scaring the public about one of the revolutionary technologies to come about in recent times. This anti-technology campaign is simply an ideological battle for the activists who are opposed to globalization and multi-nationals, and they don't shy of using all means fair or foul to denigrate a perfectly useful technology product that country's farmers are in dire need. By their activism, these activists will only be pushing Indian's agriculture and farmers backwards, and increase the gulf between technology haves and have-nots. If India's productivity has to increase from its pathetic 2% GDP, it needs all sorts of science and technology that it can muster, not slogans of these activists.

What the Indian public don't know, and never told by the anti-GM activists is that they cherry pick scientific data, and quote only those scientists who they have commissioned to give reports that they want to publicize. The anti-GM lobby in India has found a nice scientific comrade in Dr. PM Bhargava, a nationally recognized scientist for some other good reason. He keeps harping on the same old worn out themes handed to him by these activists, as he has no expertise in agricultural biotechnology or food safety analysis. Unfortunately, at the behest of petitioners (these same activists), the Supreme Court appointed Dr. Bhargava to sit as an observer at GEAC meetings where he makes same noises which the experts on the committee give the kind of "attention" it deserves! He has been unable to defend any of his critiques in front of real experts on the committee. It is really a pity that some film personalities Hyderabad and Bangalore signed up for this "I am no lab rat" campaign along with some journalists none of who have any scientific background or credentials. Even a controversial public figure like litterateur Dr. UR Anantha Murthy, and former Agricultural University Vice-Chancellor Prof. GK Veeresh are gullible to fall for these false campaigns by lending their names to this scientifically baseless activism. Profs. Anantha Murthy and Veeresh, recently released a book "Genetic Roulette" by Jeffrey Smith, a scientific charlatan, follower of Maharishi Maheshyogi, and claims levitation powers due to transcendental meditation. He claims to have recorded all damages of GM foods in his book. The book is nothing but a compendium of every possible cherry picked falsifiable data, information, and so-called scientific publications to prove that GM foods are safe. The real and competent scientists who are on top of GM food safety analysis in USA and Europe have trashed Jeffrey Smith's book. But, he is one activist who is working tirelessly to discredit modern biotechnology around the world. Who knows, it may or may not stick!

What Indian public should know is that 300 million US citizens have been eating GM foods daily since 1996, and there has not been a single instance of any proven ill effect or fatality due to GM food consumption. Nearly 80% of all foods consumed in USA are GM food. The funny thing is that if any of these globe-trotting activists have visited USA in the past 12 years, would have surely consumed GM food and obviously have survived. It is for no good reason that they say proof of pudding is in eating! It is utterly disingenuous and hypocritical of these activists to campaign against a perfectly safe and tested technology without even understanding its basics. Citizens of India should know one thing that all responsible scientific academies of the world, India included, UN-WHO and UN-FAO, have all endorsed modern biotechnology and GM crops as safe and have recognized them as one of the options to solve some of the intransigent problems of agriculture. Hundreds and thousands of scientists are working on this technology in India and around the world to develop useful products under close scientific scrutiny and none of these products are being allowed to enter the market place without testing. The public must know that in the history of foods, no other food has been tested as much as GM foods. It is high time knowledgeable scientists working in the field of biotechnology in the country come forward to assure the public that GM technology and its products are as safe as, as or even safer as any other food on the market.

The author is a trained agricultural biotechnologist and a former biotechnology regulator with USDA, APHIS. He is the convener of Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and education (www.fabe.org), Bangalore.