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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 27

Some Concerns about GM Foods

Wednesday 25 June 2008, by S G Vombatkere


Genetically modified (GM) foods are food products whose genetic content has been changed by use of recombinant DNA technology. This genetic change is made so as to give the food crop or food product certain defined, definite characteristics such as increased yield, pest resistance, attractive colour, enhanced taste, increased shelf life, increased nutritional content, etc., as claimed by the company that has obtained the patent for it. The company thus claims that either the farmer or the end consumer benefits and that this justifies the price and the conditions of use that the patent-holding company imposes on the agricultural or processed food product. Whatever the claims and justifications and whatever the price, there is an aspect of this matter that pertains to consumer rights, which are explicitly stated under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.

The Government of India has insisted that if GM foods are to be imported, the exporter must make a declaration to that effect and label the products accordingly. This is very much in keeping with consumers’ rights to safety, to be informed and to know what he/she is purchasing. However, strangely, the USA has opposed this condition of the Indian Government, challenging it in the WTO as unfair trade practice. This opposition to elementary transparency causes suspicion in the minds of discerning and informed consumers regarding what facts concerning GM foods in general or specific GM products are being withheld from the public domain and the reason why.

The USA is the leader in bio-technology (BT) and the Monsanto Corporation is possibly the leader of the pack of MNCs in BT. [BT is not to be confused with Bt, which stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, the DNA of which has been spliced into cotton and some food plant crops to provide specific properties.] In India , the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Corporation (also known as the MAHYCO) has close commercial links with the Monsanto Corporation. The MAHYCO is conducting field trials of GM food crops in various States. At this stage, two questions arise, namely, what is the need to conduct field trials and who is entitled to see the reports of the field trials. Let us try to briefly address these questions without going into unnecessary technical details.

Field trials are necessary because recombinant DNA technology or gene splicing has scientifically demonstrable possibilities of uncontrolled and uncontrollable gene transfer to other organisms through the natural process of plant pollination. If the field trials show that unwanted transfer of the spliced gene does not in fact occur, then permission may be granted for wider planting and full-scale cultivation of the GM crop. (The near impossibility of proving a negative, namely, that something does not happen, remains). The uncontrolled or uncontrollable transfer of the spliced gene has risks not only of violating consumer protection laws but also serious long-term risks to public health, and hence in the interest of natural justice, the results of field trials should be available in the public domain.

WE may have succeeded in answering the two questions, but at this stage another matter needs to be understood, the events of which are important. In February 2006, Divya Raghunandan of the NGO Greenpeace made an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act for details of the results of GM crop field trials in India , asking for the following information:

1. Details of location of GM field trials of brinjal, okra (ladies finger), mustard and rice.

2. Data on tests carried out to ascertain the toxicity and allergenicity of the GM crops.

3. Minutes of the meetings of the Department of Bio-technology (DBT)’s Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation.

The DBT gave information on the first point but denied the other information. Divya appealed against this decision to the DBTs Appellate Authority which asked its Public Information Officer to provide the data on toxicity of Bt brinjal by June 15, 2006. Being unsatisfied with incomplete information, Divya complained in August 2006 to the Central Information Commission (CIC) and as a consequence, the DBT asked the MAHYCO whether certain information on Bt brinjal trials could be disclosed. The MAHYCO responded in the negative. In April 2007, the CIC asked the DBT to disclose the information applied for since it was for public good. But since the DBT did not oblige, Divya approached the CIC again in May 2007, and as a result a joint meeting between the CIC, DBT, MAHYCO and Greenpeace took place in November 2007. At this meeting, the MAHYCO insisted that the information asked for was proprietary and should not be disclosed by the DBT since it violates TRIPS, but the CIC insisted that it should be disclosed since it concerned public safety. One of the arguments in favour of disclosure was that since the product was already patented, commercial interests under TRIPS would not be harmed. As an outcome of the inconclusive meeting, the MAHYCO moved the Delhi High Court in December 2007 against the CIC. [Down to Earth, April 15, 2008, pages 15-16]

The demand for information in the public interest is because GM foods can have two major consequences, the risks of which have not been assessed. One, at the crop stage, the spliced gene can migrate to non-GM crops by the pollination process, affecting them in unpredictable ways including affecting food security in a potentially devastating manner. And two, at the consumption stage, it may cause disease or unpredictable pathological conditions as evidenced by reported deaths of sheep and cattle that ate the GM cotton plants after the cotton was harvested.

The Delhi High Court case has been dubbed as a conflict between commercial interests and public health. It is clear that national strategic interests are not involved in the information demanded, and the government’s and MAHYCO’s resistance to transparency in the public interest is questionable. The straightforward deduction of any discerning consumer would be that opposition to transparency is a matter of suppressing issues relating to public health for the thinly veiled purpose of corporate profit and growth.

One question remains: Is there a case to implead in the Delhi High Court case in the context of the Consumer Protection Act?

Major General S.G. Vombatkere retired from military service in 1996, from the post of Additional DG (Discipline and Vigilance) in Army HQ, New Delhi. The President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal (VSM) in 1993 for distinguished services rendered in Ladakh, in which region he has had over five years’ experience.

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