Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 49, November 21, 2009
Genetically Engineered India
Tuesday 24 November 2009, by
Prolonged court cases, the Supreme Court’s intervention, scientists’ arguments and vociferous campaigns by civic groups have amounted to nothing. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has allowed commercial cultivation of the dreaded Bt brinjal. If this decision is ratified by the Government of India, some 170 of our commonest food items will also become chemically altered. Rice and wheat, potatoes and onions, mustard and bananas will all be genetically manipulated for us.
What’s wrong with that? Basically two things. First, GE’s benefits are temporary. In six to nine years the pests develop resistance and the technology falls flat, necessitating increased doses of pesticides. This is already happening in Gujarat where Bt cotton conquered the market. Sheep grazing in Bt cotton fields have died. In the case of food crops, GE causes direct health hazards, a fact that has persuaded Japan and Europe to ban GE foods. An Austrian Government report warns that GE foods can cause infertility in humans. The highly rated National Academy of Science in the US has published a finding that dietary DNA can find its way into our blood and transform our body cells. French molecular biologists said, among other things, that rats fed on Bt brinjal suffered diarrhoea and liver weight loss.
Secondly, the technology forces farmers to buy the engineered seeds separately each season. Which means that the company that supplies the seeds can not only manipulate the prices at will, but also control the entire food security of the country by, for example, supplying inadequate or faulty seeds of rice and wheat one season. Monsanto did use its monopoly to increase prices in 2006 and make excessive profits. The company was taken to court under the Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Act. It lost the case.
The brazenness of Monsanto and its Indian face, Mahyco, has been evident in other forms also. Field trials of Bt okra were started in a village in West Bengal on the basis of “permission” given by the local panchayat which of course had no authority to do such things. At another level, the biosafety studies data submitted by Mahyco to GEAC were kept secret. It took a legal battle lasting more than two years to bring them to light. What’s GEAC’s game?
The Biotechnology Regulatory Committee had ruled against Bt cotton field testing. GEAC ignored it. Open-field testing of Bt brinjal, not allowed in any other country, was allowed in India under GEAC pressure. The main reason seems to be that GEAC has members who have either done assignments for Mahyco or have partnership agreements with it to develop Bt brinjal. The names of such members have been made public. The “architect of biotechnology in India”, P.M. Bhargava, who was named by the Supreme Court as a special nominee to attend the GEAC meetings, found that test data given to the GEAC was given by the applicant company itself. “At every stage there is a bias if not deceipt all the way,” he said.
K.P. Prabhakaran Nair, Professor at a German Foundation, who chaired a Supreme Court ordered experts committee, asked: “Why is the GEAC in such a hurry in this matter? When the scientific truths about GE products are as clear as daylight, why is there hesitation to try alternatives to GE food? Have we learned nothing from the setbacks caused by excessive use of pesticides? In Mexico where the traditional staple is corn, American attempts to introduce genetically engineered corn were rejected. Why is India’s response different?”
Because in India the interests of the few take precedence over the interests of the country. Because India is the paradise of manipulators who can make the impossible possible. Because India, alas, has genetically engineered Indians in key positions.