The Genetically Modified bandwagon
by KP Prabhakaran Nair on 25 Jul 2013 4 Comments

Despite controversies and concerns over the technology of genetically modified crops (GM crops), a selection committee headed by MS Swaminathan very recently decided to give the US $250,000 World Food Prize jointly to the Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto, Robert T Fraley, Marc Van Montagu, Founder of Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach in Belgium, and Mary-Dell Chilton, Founder and Fellow of Syngenta.


Both Monsanto and Syngenta are into GM crops, the former occupying the number one position in the world. This decision, which is an endorsement of Monsanto, comes against the background of much criticism and controversies against GM crops in general and Monsanto in particular, and will fuel a worldwide debate on GM crops.


Reactions in India


The “award” is supposedly to promote global food security, but, opinions expressed by scientists in the field of biotechnology are very different. Dr Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign, a distinguished plant geneticist, said: “The World Food Prize is meant to encourage efforts to enhance the productivity of small farmers with the overall goal of achieving a better level of global food security and it is not meant to reward aggressive promoters of biotechnology, which everybody recognizes is not the answer to food security”.


Kavitha Kuruganti, National Convener of the Alliance For Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture opined, “This mockery of the World Food Prize being given to corporate-sponsored biotech scientists shows a concerted effort to ensure that farmer-controlled sustainable alternatives remain invisible and unsupported”. Yudhvir Singh of the Bharatiya Kisan Union said, “This is like mortgaging farming to MNCs”. He added, “Has the father of the Green Revolution in India lost faith in established agricultural research and is now promoting genetically engineered crops?”, a reference to Dr Swaminathan.


Position in India


In India, a Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) has recommended a 10-year moratorium on open field trials of transgenic food crops until adequate regulatory mechanisms and safety standards are put in place. The entire question of the relevance of GM crops in the Indian context should be examined not only against the background of this, but also the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill that the UPA government is pushing into the Parliament.


The selection of Monsanto and Sygenta for the World Food Prize fits into a clear hidden agenda of the powers-that-be to somehow bring the GM bandwagon, come what may, on Indian soil. Hence the entire question should be examined from different perspectives.


UPA hastily tables Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill in Parliament


In 2003, a task force set up by the Agriculture Ministry, headed by MS Swaminathan, floated the idea of an independent authority for biotechnology regulations called the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA). The idea was mooted following introduction of Bt cotton in the country. Clearly there was a hidden agenda in this idea. Normally, when a new crop variety, bred through conventional plant breeding techniques, has to receive national approval, there are different stages through which it has to pass. The agricultural university/research institute which has played a major role in the breeding of the variety goes through a channel which is administratively controlled at the apex level by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).


The Council is mandated to test the field performance of the crop variety through its own nationally coordinated field trials, for example, when an agricultural university or research institute of the country makes a request that the crop variety it has bred be tested nationally. It is an open exercise where a number of researchers, besides the plant breeder, who bred the variety, are involved. If a specific university comes forward to promote a crop variety, all the concerned crop scientists - the plant breeder, agronomist, soil scientist, entomologist (who tests the resistance of the crop variety to insect attack), pathologist (who tests for resistance against plant diseases), economists etc – all are involved. It is a transparent exercise. What the NBRA aims as its objective is a “single window” clearance for the GM crop variety in question, the one developed through biotechnological means.


This author had warned the country, as early as 2003, that Bt cotton was destined to fail in India during course of time. Notwithstanding the hoopla which has been generated on Bt cotton, and it’s supposedly extensive spread on Indian soil, when one strikes a balance sheet, the larger picture which emerges is one of utter failure. The farmers’ suicides in the cotton belt of Vidarbha district, Maharashtra, and emergence of new pests and weeds are witness to this fact.


The Chinese experience, as observed personally by this author, is no different. That is however, a topic for another day, and for now I shall confine this article to the inherent dangers in the BRAI Bill, and the covert role of Monsanto and its peddlers in promoting GM crops.


In February 2010, the Ministry of Science & Technology suffered a setback when the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh imposed an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal. This started a silent war within the government. There was discomfort in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) too. But, with the UPA government’s term coming to an end in May 2014, a communication emanated from the Ministry of Science & Technology asking it to speed up the process of tabling the BRAI Bill.


There was unrest in the ministry because of five years’ of protests by scientists, activists, and the public at large against GM crops; but, the ministry’s communication could not be ignored. Hence, the BRAI Bill, which aims to provide easy access to GM crops in India, was tabled by Minister Jaipal Reddy on April 22, 2013.


Three days later, CPI (M) leader Basudeb Acharya and 15 MPs wrote to Reddy, requesting him to withdraw the Bill for pre-legislative consultations. They argued that there is growing evidence regarding the adverse impact of GM crops on the environment and human health, and the Bill is a “single window” clearance mechanism for GM crops, as suggested by Dr Swaminathan, which is not the normal practice for other crop varieties (explained earlier).


Significantly, Acharya said, “The fact that Reddy chose to introduce the Bill on the first day of the reconvened house, after the budget session recess, a time when there was pandemonium on various matters, raises questions on the true intention of the government”. 


There is also conflict of interest with the Ministry of Science & Technology introducing the Bill. In fact this ministry is the promoter of biotechnology and has now become its protector. The Bill, while it states that it complies with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, signed by India, does not follow it in letter and spirit. The government has also ignored recommendations signed by 32 MPs, cutting across party lines, nine of whom are from the Congress Party. In 2012, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture had also recommended to the government that the Bill was not the way forward to regulate GM crops in India. Instead, it said, there was a need for a watertight biosafety protection regime which puts the safety of citizens first, and then of the environment and the industry.  


No power and no say


The BRAI Bill overrides states’ authority over agriculture and health. It envisages only an advisory role for the states in the form of Biotechnology Regulatory Advisory Committee.  This committee will have no power and no say in vital matters concerning the release of GM crops. To add to the confusion, states like Kerala and Odisha have officially declared themselves as “GM Free States”. This is a governmental order.  At present, the Environment Ministry has given states the right to allow or disallow open field trials with GM crops within their geographical territories. But, states like Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Kerala have said “No” to GM crops.


On May 1, Madhya Pradesh Agriculture Minister wrote to Reddy to protest dilution of the states’ powers. The Bill seeks to violate the spirit of federal policy; agriculture is a state subject. “It is not just about space for states in decision making in the national authority, but, also about decision making powers in the respective states that should be upheld in any regulatory statute,” so wrote agriculture minister Ramakrishna Kusmaria. 


The Bill (Section 28) classifies some information as “confidential commercial information”, and leaves it to the discretion of BRAI officials to share information. It also has a clause where the authority chair and its members will subscribe to an oath of secrecy. This is a clear violation of the basic tenets of the Right to Information (RTI) of citizens. 


Why does the UPA government want an oath of secrecy in the Bill? Whose interests are being guarded and protected – that of Monsanto or of Indian citizens? Why is the UPA in such a hurry to throw India open to the seed giant? Who is behind all these machinations? These are very discomforting questions, and it is the right of each and every Indian to know the truth.


Aruna Roy, member of the National Advisory Council (NAC), says “The Bill is a travesty of transparency and democratic decision making on a matter that will affect every citizen”. More worryingly, there are no mechanisms for risk management and no say on issues related to genetically modified organisms (GMO) imports and overrides the Biodiversity Act which places technology over the environment.


Instead of expressing a mandate to protect biosafety, the Bill accepts modern biotechnology, overlooking the increasing evidence on the impact of GMOs on health and biodiversity. It lacks rigid scientific assessment to critically evaluate safety and need of GMOs before their release for large-scale cultivation in India. Simply put, the Bill is anti-farmer and anti-consumer, and, if passed, will result in people losing control over what food to choose.


Seed sovereignty of India will be completely wiped out, and controlled by seed giants like Monsanto. Under these circumstances, the rising demand is to either withdraw the Bill in toto or send it to a Joint Parliamentary Committee to ensure that all concerns are unambiguously addressed. However, officials in the Ministry of Science & Technology say only Parliament can decide the fate of the Bill.  


Monsanto Legacy


It is against this background that one must examine the legacy of Monsanto, and its Indian peddlers who are behind these machinations. “Evil” is a word most people do not use lightly. Very surprisingly, in a recent survey conducted in the USA where 16000 farmers and others participated, 51 per cent of the participants who polled on the theme “Most Evil Corporation of the Year”, gave this dubious distinction to Monsanto, followed by the Federal Reserve at a distant second position at 20 per cent, followed by British Petroleum with 9 per cent, and Halliburton with 5 per cent.   


Let us look at some of Monsanto’s dubious activities in the country of its origin. In 2006, Monsanto bought Delta and Pineland, a leading producer of cotton seeds, so that it now controls a huge share of the cotton seed market in the USA. The story is similar in India as well, whereby Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company) is now a Monsanto subsidiary, controlling the Bt cotton seed market in India. Interestingly, Mahyco chairman BR Barwale was until recently on the Board of MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. Does it not speak volumes?


Monsanto’s genes are in about 95 per cent of commercial soybeans, 80 per cent commercial corn. Attorney Generals of Iowa State (main US corn belt) and Texas State are greatly concerned that Monsanto’s business practices violate Federal anti-trust laws which protect free competition. When it comes to licencing agreements, Monsanto acts like a big time bully. Monsanto’s misdeeds are well chronicled in an article written by an American author titled “Monsanto stomps Down Budding Seed Competitors”. 


The writer says Monsanto pledges integrity and sharing of knowledge and technology as corporate values: “To anyone who knows anything about Monsanto, these words must strike them as particularly nauseous. For a company that thrives on GMO seeds, and is an aggressive opponent to open pollinated seeds, to talk about “sharing knowledge” and “helping farmers” is enough to make you quite literally vomit”. Very strong words, indeed! The strategy of Monsanto is to squeeze competitors, control smaller seed companies and protect its dominance over the multi-billion dollar market for genetically altered crops. 


Failure of Bt corn in the US


It appears that farmers in the US have got the following important message: Biotechnology alone will not solve their root worm problem in corn. Instead of shifting away from those corn hybrids, or from corn altogether, many farmers are doubling on insect-fighting technology, deploying more chemical pesticides than before. Companies that sell soil insecticides for corn are reporting as much as 100 per cent increase in sales.


American farmers are using more insecticides as Bt corn is fast losing resistance to insect pests. India’s experience with Bt cotton is the same. The Bt cotton which was aggressively promoted as a solution to the American pink boll-worm is fast succumbing to other insects, like sucking insects and thrips; this leads to more use of insecticides in Bt cotton fields. Even before, supplementary insecticide sprays were necessary, but now their frequencies have vastly multiplied. 


In the US, all the attention on super insects (like the American pink boll worm on cotton) has shifted to the superweeds which have evolved to beat the Roundup herbicide that is supposed to make Monsanto’s Round Up Ready crops (like Round Up Ready Soybean) immune to weed problems.


The superweeds are gaining ground in Iowa, the main US corn and soybean belt. Tracy Franck, who farms 2400 acres in Buchanan county, said he is applying more Round Up every year to keep the weeds under check, or to kill the same amount of weeds achieved earlier with less herbicide. In fact, many farmers are turning to the earlier strong (but later banned) 2,4-D (widely used in India during the mid 1960 American-aided PL 450 food aid during the Kennedy era, a precursor to the chemical agriculture euphemistically called the “green revolution, which ruined India’s soils, dried its aquifers and made biodiversity vanish due to continuous monoculture of rice-wheat in Punjab, “cradle” of the green revolution).


American corn and soybean farmers have no choice than to buy Monsanto’s Bt hybrids, because other high quality non Bt seeds are simply not available in the market owing to Monsanto’s stranglehold on the seed market! Similar would be the fate of Indian farmers in the years to come if Monsanto is allowed to sway India through its current government and its peddlers, including dubious “scientists”, who receive kickbacks behind the scenes for their “services”. Patriotism is sacrificed at the altar of personal pecuniary gain and self aggrandizement.


Monsanto taken to legal penalty


The South Korean Supreme Court has recently ruled that Monsanto must pay US $ 61 million in compensation to 6975 South Korean Vietnam War Veterans for suffering exposure to Agent Orange, which was widely used during the Vietnam war. The sprays caused “chemical acne” caused by exposure to the dioxin in Agent Orange.  




The self-replicating GMOs, like glyphorate-resistant wheat, have already sparked a genetic apocalypse in the USA, with the potential to threaten global food supply, and possibly open the gate for the destruction of the  human race in the not very distant future, if not, now.  A similar opinion has been expressed by Mike Adams, Editor, Natural News, USA. Human greed is at the centre of all this.


Adams says “Mark my words: there will come a day when Americans will wish they had burned down all the GM corn fields to the ground. But, by then, it will be too late. The blight will be upon us, and, with it, comes the starvation, the suffering, the desperation and the riots. Hunger turns all family men into savages, just as greed turns all corporate men into demons”. A very very disturbing scenario that is slowly, but deliberately, unfolding. Is this what Monsanto and its peddler “scientists” and administrators want to happen in India, which if we go by recorded historical facts, produced enough to eat for all Indians?    

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