Global appeal for financial support to feed the hungry
1. Devinder Sharma, CS Prakash and Malcolm Livingstone
2. 'Dear Malcolm Livingstone'
3. Genetic Engineering: SCIENTISTS FAIL TO STAND UP
1. Devinder Sharma, CS Prakash and Malcolm Livingstone
A few weeks ago we posted an interesting reply by Devinder Sharma to points raised by CS Prakash regarding an article of Devinder's on the implications of the sequencing of the rice genome. That posting (including the original article) can be seen at: http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/sharma.htm
What has occurred subsequently has been very revealing. Rather than continuing the dialogue with Devinder, CS Prakash appears to have forwarded Devinder's reply to one of his AgBioWorld supporters, the Australian biotechnologist, Malcolm Livingstone, and then publicly circulated Livingstone's responses.
The effect of this has been to transform what began as an interesting exchange between two Indian scientists with very contrasting views on the contentious issue of the value of GM crops in relation to world hunger, into little short of a "hate" attack.
Devinder notes below how in addition to replying publicly in intemperate fashion, Livingstone also wrote to him privately and in a most perjorative manner.
Below Devinder writes about all the many responses he has received to what he had to say on the role of GM crops with regard to world hunger. He also makes it clear that he is not interested in a slanging match with Livingstone that simply demeans those involved.
What has occurred in this instance, however, in our view, does more than raise questions over Dr Livingstone's behaviour. It focuses attention once more on the claims of CS Prakash and his AgBioWorld supporters that their campaign is all about defending science and reason against the emotive and irrational claims of GM critics.
Over the past few months we have repeatedly remonstrated, both publicly and privately, with Prakash over the character of the attacks made on GM critics in the AgBioView material he circulates. We have cited instances of the posting of allegations against Greenpeace, for example, claiming they have been repsonsible for murder, terrorism, genocide etc.
Prakash replies, always courteously, that he is not responsible either for the content of the material he circulates or the character of those with whom he collaborates. And yet he cannot just wash his hands of his supporters and their behaviour.
Prakash clearly exercises an editorial function, both in terms of what gets included on his AgBioView list and how prominently items are placed in the bulletins. The extraordinary allegations which we've mentioned were all placed prominently.
Of course, what Prakash chooses to include on his list is entirely up to him, but Prakash cannot simultaneously disclaim responsibility for material which he chooses to circulate. In the case of Devinder Sharma, CS Prakash appears, at the very least, to have first brought his comments to Livingstone's attention and then to have actively promoted Livingstone's abusive and insulting responses (the public ones at least). For Prakash this may all be part of promoting science and rationality. Others may view it very differently.
2. 'Dear Malcolm Livingstone'
Dear Malcolm Livingstone,
I am writing this to express my deep gratitude and sincere thanks to the 102 people, a majority of them scientists from the west, who wrote to me saying how delighted they were to find that someone could muster the courage to put the issue in the right perspective. I am unable to write to them individually and so take this opportunity to thank them and look forward in future to their continued support in favour of "good science" -- the science and technology that is socially relevant, environmentally sound and helps pull the poor and marginalised out from from the vicious trap of artificially-induced hunger and malnutrition.
The only nasty letter that I received was from you. I did not respond for the simple reason that using insulting and derogatory language is not part of the INDIAN CULTURE AND TRADITIONS. Nor will I stoop so low in future, I can assure you.
It is often said that ignorance is bliss. If you are not even aware of what Dr Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, had told Monsanto with regard to 'Terminator', don't blame me. If you are not aware of the massive agricultural subsidies being pumped into western agriculture, how can I help? If you do not know what kind of external threats are being used to push the WTO agenda, don't you think you need a course in understanding the political economy of global trade in agriculture? And still worse, you say that you do not know of ANY scientist working for the agricultural companies? Just ask Dr Prakash, and you will get a list which may be several kilometers long!!
This kind of ignorance is not bliss but is dangerous.
It is dangerous because society is being led up the garden path by people who do not even know, for instance, what causes hunger in the first place. They swear by hunger to promote an unproven technology and do not even know whether the technological inputs will actually exacerbate the existing crisis. Instead of retracting and accepting their mistakes, these scientists boil with rage and irritation and fire all kinds of accusations.
I thought the underlying principle of good science was to debate about its virtues and also examine the threats. Good science calls for a public debate on a contentious issue. Instead, the proponents of the technology are now trying to influence the Courts. If uprooting of genetically modified plants by activists and farmers is 'vandalism', what term do you give to the efforts being made by the industry and public-sector agricultural scientists to 'influence' the judiciary? The mere fact that the judiciary is being influenced is a clear indication that all is NOT well with genetic engineering.
In many countries, including the United States, Britain, South Africa, Australia and India, some scientists from respectable scientific institutes have accepted that they have met the judges to tell them how wonderful biotechnology is. It happened recently in India [see article below], when such a group met the Chief Justice of India inviting him and his other colleagues to workshops in the US. And I had always thought that there was something called tampering with justice, which was punishable !!
Further, the USDA is pumping in millions of dollars in 'educating' the media of the developing countries to 'appreciate' biotechnology. Why can't they spend these millions from the tax-payers money to have a public debate, to let the society decide whether or not this technology is required and in what form and to what extent must we allow the trigger-happy biotechnologists to operate?
This is certainly a shameful approach and should be condemned in as strong words as possible.
And finally, what do you want me to say in reply to your statement: "I couldn't give a rat's arse whether you like pornography or not." If you can go to the extent of accepting pornography for the sake of biotechnology, I have nothing left to say. Nor will I have anything more to say in future on this particular dialogue.
Best regards, Devinder Sharma
3. Genetic Engineering: SCIENTISTS FAIL TO STAND UP
(Jan 19, 2001)
By Devinder Sharma
A private Television Channel had sought my comment the other day to the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) demand to let the contentious issue of genetic engineering be finally decided by the Supreme Court. The CII's suggestion was ostensibly in light of the recent uprooting of the genetically engineered cotton plants from a farmer's field in Karnataka in early January.
I did not quite understand the relevance of the question till I saw a news report in The Hindu the following day. The report stated that an American delegation of 10 judges and scientitsts met the Chief Justice of India, Mr. Justice A.S. Anand to impress upon him -- to the judicial fraternity, the benefits of biotechnology. It quoted Dr.Franklin M. Zweig, president of Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts in the United States, who spoke in favour of genetic engineering at the 88th session of the Indian Science Congress in New Delhi. Asked pointedly, Dr. Zweig denied that the two-hour meeting was to "influence" the judiciary, but said it was to "educate" the judge(s) about the basic principles of public information for use of courts and court systems.
The delegation, the report said, invited the Chief Justice to the US and offered to hold for the judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court "workshops" in America for educating them about transgenics, and safety protocols in biotechnology research. The delegation, which also comprised some Indian-born US scientists, explained its intention to work out agreements between nations to set "ethical guidelines" on genetic engineering. Similar attempts had been made by the working groups of the Institute in the Philippines, South Africa, Israel, Italy, the UK, Netherlands, and Canada.
At the same time, the British Council had invited a team of six biotechnologists under its annual "bright sparks" feature. These scientists had travelled to various parts of the country trying to promote British biotechnology in the name of creating wider scientific awareness. Interestingly, faced with an unprecedented consumer backlash against genetic foods in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, the British government is making desperate efforts to keep the biotechnology industry afloat. What better way then to push the untested and extremely risky technology onto an unsuspecting Indian bureaucracy and the illiterate polity?
At the recently concluded Indian Science Congress, a sophisticated methodology was deftly employed to provide a public impression that the scientific community was completely in favour of genetic engineering. The Congress had invited a host of biotechnologists, scientists and science administrators who are known to be sympethatic towards genetic engineering. With no scientist or an NGO known to be critical of the technology invited, the Science Congress obviously conveyed the political correct message: genetic engineering is the answer for India's food security.
Surprisingly, while the scientists think that genetic engineering, despite the risks involved for human health and environment, is essential for meeting the food requirements in the next quarter of the century, the Indian government has lately begun asking farmers to diversify from staple foods to other commercial crops. It was during the paddy harvesting season in September-October that the Food Corporation of India (FCI) was reluctant to purchase surplus paddy flowing into the mandis in Punjab, Haryana. western Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, and Andhra Pradesh. Already saddled with a record foodgrain surplus of about 50 million tonnes, the government is telling the farmers not to produce more.
It is, therefore, obvious that either the government does not know of the threat on the food front that lies ahead or the scientists are not aware of the ground realities. The fact is that it is the scientists, more importantly the biotechnologists, refuse to look beyond their research laboratories. Scientists have to understand that under the changing global economic scenario, biotechnology is being promoted as a tool to maximise production in the developed countries. Nowhere in the world is the focus of research directed to improve agriculture and food production in the developing countries. Given the pathetically small land holdings in the developing countries and with the mounting farm debt, it is futile to expect that the technology can rescue resource-poor farmers and rebuild their confidence in agriculture.
Food production will have to come from agricultural systems in countries with huge populations like India. Farmers are not only resource poor _ with no or little access to credit, and markets but also a majority of them live in arid and semi-arid zones or in steeply sloped areas. In the past, such farmers were bypassed by advances in agriculture known as the Green Revolution because their soil, water and labour methods were unsuited to the demanding and costly management practices of improved seeds and accompanying need for pesticides and fertilisers. Biotechnology will further exacerbate the problem.
Scientists have to understand that the needed food can be produced throughout India by small farmers using agro-ecological technologies. Larger investments in biotechnology on the other hand will not yield the desired results. Corporate legal rights to biotechnology is sure to affect the development of transgenic crops by public institutions. Moreover, the seed distribution channels and networks to reach farmers are being privatised, focusing on commercial farms rather than on poor farmers. Who will explain this to the learned judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts?
As genetic engineering has gone commercial, academics have followed, and today most senior science researchers have ties to biotechnology companies that would complicate any attempts to self-scrutiny. A disturbing evidence to this effect was recently provided by the Royal Society in UK. Obviously offended by media reports of the way a researcher in Scotland was suspended in 1998, and his results were publicly attacked by industry connected scientists, the Royal Society came to the rescue of the corporate interests. News editors were reminded that they should quote only certain scientists, whose names will be supplied by the Society!!
"Sound science" is a misnomer being used by politicians and corporations to distract public attention. The tragedy is that even distinguished scientists and science academies have begun to chant the mantra of "sound science". Any results that suggest unfavourable predictions are attacked and disputed, often by attempting to discredit the integrity of the scientist. "Good science" is in the process being gradually replaced by "sound science". And more often than not, the regulating agencies too join in to deflect public attention and gaze. The Food and Drug Administration of the United States (FDA), for instance, has often brushed aside the potential environmental effects from the genetically manipulated products, and there have been cases when appropriate specialists were excluded from the review process.
In India too, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has for the last three years been publicly stating that the genetically engineered cotton being produced by Monsanto-Mahyco is promising and needs to be immediately commercialised. Strange that these pronouncements have been made even before the research trials have been completed. But what is more worrisome is that not many of scientists and researchers, working in the public funded institutes and universities, have contested the claims being made. Scientists are refusing to stand up and be counted. And therein lies a grave danger for the future of science. #
(Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst)