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A Regurgitated Wave of Anti-Geactivism in India

Prof. C. Kameswara RaoFoundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

In response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking a ban on the release of genetically modified organisms/seeds, the Supreme Court of India (SCI) directed the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), not to give approvals to genetically modified products until further orders (Indo Asian News Service, The Times of India, The Hindu, Financial Express).  Issues emerging out of this PIL and the order of the SCI were discussed on this blog earlier (September 24, 2006).

In preparation for an upcoming hearing of the PIL, the Petitioners are heaping the same old dust in the hope of strengthening their case.

The major thrust is that their concerns are supported by 6.5 million farmers from across the country, which is unbelievable because the same activists claim that the MNCs are taking the farmers for a ride, as they are totally ignorant of GE crops.  The unverified, probably unverifiable, support of 6.5 millions farmers has attracted international publicity from such media as the Free Speech Radio News, without identifying the obscene politics behind the valorous claim.  Other than the six and half non-farmer professional activist petitioners, one wonders where from the 6.5 million farmers come, unless truck loads of hired and tutored agitators are brought in, like they do for the political rallies in India. 

The activists charged the GEAC and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) with ignoring reports for the third consecutive year, of a suspected link with Bt cotton of the death of sheep, goats, buffaloes and human beings.  These reports are still under investigation by the agencies of the Government of Andhra Pradesh (AP), at the suggestion of the GEAC.  The death of goats, buffalos and human beings is the new spice added to the earlier reports of death of several sheep and a few cattle.  No one has explained why only a couple of Districts of AP, more prominently the Warangal District, are the fountain head of such reports.  The activists have not so far proved that Bt cotton is toxic to any organism other than the American Bollworm. 

The Greenpeace invoked the Right to Information (RtI) Act, seeking toxicity and allergenicity data for GE rice, brinjal, okra and mustard, which was refused on grounds of 'Confidential Business Information' (CBI).  The Central Information Commission (CIC) has ruled on April 19, 2007, that the DBT should disclose toxicity and allergenicity data on transgenic food crops which are under multilocation field trials across the country. The GoI did not give this information earlier, as Section 8 (1) (d) of RtI Act exempts from disclosure ‘information, including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party’. 

The CIC advised the GoI to be proactive and make relevant data public without waiting for applications for disclosure, as per the provisions of Section 4 of the RtI Act.  The CIC, however, declined the request of Greenpeace, for making public the minutes of the meetings of the Review Committee on Genetic Modification (RCGM), under the DBT, which approved the various proposals of multilocation field trials of genetically modified food crops, but left the decision to the GoI.

In a reply to the PIL, the MoEF provided only a list of 144 applications so far approved for field testing, but not the ‘biological results and implications’ sought in the PIL, upsetting the Petitioners.  The MoEF has even questioned the competence of a Court of Law to decide matters of science and technology (Times of India, April 23, 2007).  In a comparable situation, the SCI had ruled on April 22, 2007, that ‘in the field of education, a court of law cannot act as an expert’; science and technology issues are much more complex than those of education.

The activists have earlier argued that the level of expression of Bt toxin in Bt cotton was not adequate to afford the protection claimed but now say the opposite, that GE crops have a concentration of Bt toxin 1000 times greater than in non-GE Bt spray and so there is a risk to human health.   They are blind to all the biosecurity tests conducted on GE crops the world over, including in India, for over one and a half decades and charge the GEAC with facilitating industry objectives of commercializing an array of GE crops, to the detriment of India's national interest and the sovereign issue of the protection of her biodiversity, of which they appear to be the sole custodians.

The issue of biodiversity is emotionalized and sensationalized, by ignorance or mischief, casting science aside. The activists are impervious to the fact that there are no risks to biodiversity on account of any of the crops under development.  Their argument that since India is one of the hotspots or Megadiversity Centres, many plants have their origin here has no basis in science and Chattisgarh is not a Centre of Origin of rice.  It is ridiculous to connect GE crop issue with Climate Change.  

Toxicity and allergenicity issues are raised again, now adding carcinogenicity, in spite of the fact that no food or feed was ever tested as rigorously as GE foods for safety and that 350 million Americans are a living proof of their safety.  The GE food crops have been shown in different contexts, to be safe as food and feed and that there are no environmental risks arising out of their cultivation, no matter what the activists assert.   
How long and how more rigorously these tests should be conducted is any one’s guess, as the activists do not accept positive results of any safety tests as this would jeopardize their agenda of blocking all GE products. 

The new interim prayers to the SCI include protocols sensitive enough to detect GE product contamination at zero detection levels (!?).  Surprisingly, for those who hate all things foreign (except the material comforts), the activists demand for the Swedish, Danish and British Institution of Ombudsman to redress grievances against the GoI.  To cap it, they want the Tort Law/Principle to provide for compensation for out of contract mishaps involving GE products. 

To top all, there is the ‘no GM crops to be grown in India’ demand.   In a country like India, where appeasement of ginger groups is the order of the day, a lesson from banning DDT under activist pressure about three decades ago, and revoking the ban recently by the World Health Organization, on realizing the error after a million deaths and a billion sicknesses, should be kept in mind.

April 23, 2007