Why US keen to sell Bt brinjal to India
2.Biocon initiative to con consumers on GM food
1.Why the US is so keen to sell Bt brinjal to India
Rediff, November 19 2009
*The conversion of Indian farmers from traditional varieties and public hybrids to commercial hybrids and GM seeds could create a market larger than China, notes Bhavdeep Kang
A fortnight ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in Delhi received a visit from a representative of a US-based multinational seed subsidiary. His mission: To convince party opinion-makers that Bt brinjal was as swadeshi as baingan ka bharta and should therefore receive their endorsement.
That American agri-companies have intensified lobbying with Indian political parties is not surprising, for two reasons. First, the Indian government has yet to greenlight the commercialisation of Bt brinjal -- crucial for the future of these 'Bt brand' companies -- even after a thumbs up from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).
Also, the winter session of Parliament is to take up two crucial pieces of legislation: The Seed Bill and the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill. Both will profoundly impact the agri-business environment in India for agri-MNCs, by facilitating market access.
Small wonder US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it a point to visit the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in July and reiterate her country's commitment to bringing about policy changes in the Indian farm sector that US agri-business would like to see.
Clinton said she favoured a strong intellectual property or patent regime (IPR) to safeguard the ownership of agricultural research, as that would be in 'everyone's interest'. A contention rejected by Indian agri-policy analysts who say it would primarily benefit owners of biotechnology research -- the MNCs who produce 'Bt' seeds, as genetically modified or GM crops have come to be popularly known (patents would ensure that no one else would be allowed to produce or sell these seeds).
Her technology advisor, Nina Federoff, is a strong votary of genetically modified crops, to the extent of being regarded as a spokesperson for US seed multinationals like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont.
In fact, Federoff triumphantly pointed out to a group of US agri-scientists last year that although Europe and Japan [ Images ] were cautious about GM foods, Africa and India were clamouring for them!
The MNCs have the advantage of an unabashedly pro-GM Minister for Agriculture in Sharad Pawar [ Images ]. However, the Bt ball is currently in the court of Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh [ Images ], who is under pressure from the public and the scientific community to delay unleashing the Bt blitzkrieg until a consumer protection regime is in place.
The BJP is divided on the issue and its opposition could delay the passage or alter the shape of the pending Bills. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, its mentor, has made no secret of its strong opposition to GM crops.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh provided the US-based agri-giants with a readymade vehicle for lobbying with Indian policy-makers during his first term in 2006, when he approved the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture.
It was announced with much fanfare during his visit to the USA and evoked a storm of protest at home, mainly from the Left parties and farmers' bodies.
The AKI, as it is known, boasts MNCs (Monsanto, Walmart, Archer Daniels Midland) as official US representatives on its panel. They have set the agenda for the AKI, with development of transgenic strains of rice and wheat forming a major part of the initiative.
Three-quarters of the Rs 400 crore (Rs 4 billion) commitment by India is earmarked for biotechnology products (the US commitment of $8 million for the year 2006 didn't materialise, prompting Pawar to write to the prime minister, seeking his intervention).
A subsequent attempt was made by the US to alter the focus of the AKI from research to policy issues but was scuttled by the Indian bureaucracy.
The AKI was touted as the next logical step in the '50 years of Indo-US cooperation on agriculture' which started with the Green Revolution that opened the doors to US agro-chemical and seed companies. It is part of the much-hyped 'Second Green Revolution', touted by the PM and his agriculture minister as the answer to India's food security concerns.
The fact that this 'revolution' will be based on bio-technology products owned by private corporations had disturbed Indian farmers' bodies, who have described it as a joint US-India effort to promote the interests of bio-technology-driven MNCs.
The AKI worries Indian agri-policy experts because it gives the MNCs access to India's gene-banks, fuelling fears of bio-piracy. Even more, it also gives them an 'in' to India's enormous agricultural research infrastructure, while the ownership of the collaborative research is not yet clear.
Since they have a clear edge in terms of bio-technology research and are pumping out patented Bt seeds, the MNCs want an IPR regime which would give them a hold on the Indian seed market.
The US already has a significant presence in India's agricultural and food sectors, accounting for more than half of the $1 billion organised seed market. Of course, four-fifths of India's farmers do not purchase seeds. They still follow the traditional system of save, exchange and barter. It is this section that the MNCs would like to target.
The conversion of Indian farmers from traditional varieties and public hybrids to commercial hybrids and GM seeds could create a market larger than China. The Seed Bill, 2004, and the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill are the thin end of the wedge.
The NBRA Bill, if it becomes an Act, would demolish a raft of existing bio-safety regulations, which would enable easier access to the Indian markets.
The Seed Bill has been criticised for diluting many provisions of the existing Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, PPVFR, which safeguards the right of Indian farmers to freely save, exchange and barter seeds.
2.Biocon initiative to con consumers on GM food
d-sector, 18 Nov 2009
Amidst increasing discomfort among people about long term health and environment impact of GM food, the biotech industry has now resorted to launch its own 'technology ambassadors' to deceive the unsuspecting consumers.
[image caption: Biotech industry is aggressively supporting GM food]
After scientists and politicians, it is now the turn of biotech pharmaceutical industry to stand up in defence of genetically modified (GM) crops and foods. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director of Biocon, is the latest to board the bandwagon. In an interview to the Bangalore Mirror (October 20, 2009), she has offered a six-course feast on how the pro-biotech propaganda works at its best - a bundle of unscientific assertions.
Donning the cap of a scaremongering activist, Mazumdar-Shaw raises the bogey of doubling agriculture production to meet the food requirements of the nation by 2050. She believes that increasing food production is THE problem and not crop management. As a way out, she asserts that production can be increased through the application of GM technologies. Further, pest-resistant GM crops will reduce the application of pesticide and thereby would be less stressful on the ecosystem.
As is the wont, most controversial technologies in agriculture are pushed in the name of alleviating poverty or increasing production, GM crops being no exception. Every scientist worth her/his mettle knows that yield enhancement is a multi-gene phenomenon and till date there is no clear understanding as to how it happens in nature. Yield increases cannot be achieved by merely tinkering with or inserting some alien gene(s) into the plant. In fact, despite vigorous efforts, not a single GM crop developed till date worldwide can increase yield. Yet several distinguished scientists, including business leaders like Mazumdar-Shaw, never shy from peddling this lie. This misconception in turn is considered gospel truth by politicians, policymakers, and the media. That is how and why GM-spin works so effectively across the globe.
Yield increases cannot be achieved by merely tinkering with or inserting some alien gene(s) into the plant. In fact not a single GM crop developed till date worldwide can increase yield
Contrary to Mazumdar-Shaw's assertion that crop management is not the reason for declining food production, many scientists and experts across the globe are questioning the production system adopted by India way back in the 1960s. Termed as the Green Revolution, while this technology helped India achieve self sufficiency in food grain production, it also left behind a trail of ecological devastation. Severely eroded natural resource base has caused yield levels to plateau and dip. It is therefore surprising that Mazumdar-Shaw does not call for drawing sobering lessons from this experience. Instead, she believes that yet another technological quick fix - GM crops - will help.
In addition to an unsound model of crop production, a major issue of concern is diversion of prime agriculture land which in turn is impacting food production. In the name of "development", hundreds of thousands of hectares of agriculture land is being acquired by authorities to set up industries, dams, highways, etc. The 90 acres of land where Biocon Park is situated on the outskirts of Bangalore was designated a SEZ in 2005 (more than 2 hundred thousand hectares of land have been earmarked to set up SEZs across the country). Does this sort of land grab not affect food security?
Mazumdar-Shaw also takes a dig at activists saying they ought to support GM crops because application of pesticides will go down. It is nothing but an attempt at reaching a bipartisan consensus: if you do not like pesticides you must love GM crops! In any case, experience worldwide has shown that use of chemicals has gone up with the introduction of GM crops.
The lies do not end with increased productivity and lesser application of chemicals alone. Mazumdar-Shaw says, "GM crops are in layman's speak, nothing but accelerated natural evolution which is also what hybridisation technology is all about". A tenth grade student of biology would also sit up in disbelief: when was the last time in nature bacteria mated with a cotton or egg-plant? or human beings with maize? or an arctic fish with tomato? A scientist equating the process of hybridisation with genetic manipulation wherein an alien gene is being inserted is being patently dishonest with science.
Sidestepping the issue of bio-safety, Mazumdar-Shaw says that there are plenty of peer-reviewed independent studies that establish the safety of GM crops. While most of these reports have been prepared by GM crop developers themselves, the fact also is that there are numerous studies that suggest otherwise. She then further beats up support for those engaged in GM research by saying, "Scientists developing GM crops are all committed to safe science. I do believe every scientist can hold his hands on his heart and vouch for the safety of GM crops."
Yes, there are many scientists engaged in research and development of GM crops who live with a clear conscience. In 1998 Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute, Scotland publicly announced that his research demonstrated harm to rats fed on GM potato. He was dismissed. In 1998, Dr. Shiv Chopra along with two co-workers testified to the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry that they were pressurised by senior colleagues to approve the genetically modified Bovine Growth Hormone. In 2004 all three whistleblowers were fired.
Intimidation of scientists is becoming so regular that even conscientious ones are hesitant to step up and speak the truth.
Dr. Ignacio Chapela of University of California, Berkeley, reported contamination of wild Mexican Maize with GM Maize in Nature; under pressure from the biotech industry, the prestigious journal retracted the paper - a first in the journal's history. Chapela also criticised the close ties between the university and the biotech industry and was denied a tenure in 2003 (he was finally awarded tenure in 2005 after a public outcry against UCB). In April 2009, Andrés Carrasco, scientist at the Argentine Ministry of Sciences, announced that the herbicide glyphosate, which is widely applied on GM herbicide tolerant crops, can cause brain damage as well as intestinal and heart damage in foetuses. He is facing a smear campaign by biotech corporations and their local allies.
Such cases of intimidation of scientists are becoming so regular that even conscientious ones are hesitant to step up and speak the truth. It is therefore not surprising that hardly any serving scientist in India has ever publicly spoken out against GM crops and foods. The fear of research grants being frozen, derision in public by colleagues and peers, or losing their jobs weighs higher than their conscience. One therefore finds it difficult to share Mazumdar-Shaw's confidence in scientists. After all, is it not the same breed of agriculture scientists who routinely vouch for the safety of pesticides and chemicals in our food?
While asserting that Bt Cotton is bringing prosperity to Indian farmers, Mazumdar-Shaw shies away from stating the obvious. Only a small bunch of medium and large farmers have benefited while small and marginal farmers, who constitute 80 per cent of the farming population, have largely been bypassed. Bt Cotton has spiked cost of inputs and thereby indebtedness. However there is not a kind word for the thousands of indebted Bt Cotton farmers of central and western India who killed themselves with pesticide bought on borrowed money.
While batting for GM crops and their developers, Mazumdar-Shaw must ponder on drawing a distinction between GM pharmaceuticals, a major area of interest of Biocon, and GM crops and foods. If something goes wrong with GM pharmaceuticals, it can be recalled from the shelves, as was done when a GM food supplement - L. Tryptophan - killed 37 people and permanently disabled 1,500 more in USA. In the case of a GM crop, once it is released into the environment, it can never be recalled, which is why there are calls for long-term impact assessment which have fallen on deaf ears. Mazumdar-Shaw's advocating "responsible introduction" of GM crops sounds great so long as there is some "responsible expression" of science instead of lies and deception.
Bhaskar Goswami researches and writes on agriculture and trade related issues. He has worked with several national and international development agencies. Presently he is associated with the Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security, New Delhi.