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Corporates pushing domination of GM crops, ‘gravely harming' farmers, food, health

By Bharat Dogra* 

Recent times have witnessed constant constant lobbying by very powerful corporate interest lobbies for the introduction of GM (genetically modified) crops and technology in India. These corporate interests have been promoting GM technology and GE (genetic engineering) technology in food and farming which has been exposed by eminent experts to be extremely harmful for food, health and farmers and useful only for strengthening corporate grip on world farming and food system.
On the other hand various groups struggling for the protection of farmers and farming, as well as for protecting health and environment have been opposing these powerful corporate lobbies.
Unfortunately some scientists (in fact one hesitates to call them scientists) devoted only to career and narrow benefits have sold their soul to the corporate lobby, looking only to find excuses dressed up as evidence to promote corporate interests.
As there are increasing warnings of several distinguished scientists of great integrity against Genetically Modified (GM) crops, the strong GM lobby led by some of the biggest corporate interests (who are bent on dominating world food system using GM technology) have tried to get over these objections of distinguished scientists by seeking and to a considerable extent obtaining the support of some very influential political leaders of some of the richest and most powerful countries.
This makes the GM lobby very strong as in several secretive ways, the richest and most powerful countries try to exert pressure on the countries of the global south to decide in favor of GM technology promoted by their multinational companies, peddlers of dangerous technology which they are using just to strengthen their grip on world food system.
Here it should be mentioned that these multinational companies have already succeeded in dominating the critical seed sector to a considerable extent, and if they succeed in spreading GM technology in global south, particularly in important countries like India, it will be difficult to stop them from their realizing their objective of dominating world food and farming system, with disastrous results for humanity, environment and all biodiversity.
A very senior scientist who tried to give a timely warning on all this was the late Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava. He was the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and in addition he was also the Vice Chairperson of the National Knowledge Commission in India. Many people’s science movements looked upon him as their mentor.
He had been appointed by the Supreme Court of India as an observer in the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee as he was widely perceived to be a very accomplished expert on this issue and that too of the highest integrity.
Therefore, it is very useful and interesting to see what this very senior scientist with a comprehensive understanding of this issue had to say about GM crops. He stated, “There are over 500 research publications by scientists of indisputable integrity, who have no conflict of interest, that establish harmful effects of GM crops on human, animal and plant health, and on the environment and biodiversity.
For example, a recent paper by Indian scientists showed that the Bt gene in both cotton and brinjal leads to inhibition of growth and development of the plant. On the other hand, virtually every paper supporting GM crops is by scientists who have a declared conflict of interest or whose credibility and integrity can be doubted.”
Further he commented, “The central government departments that have been acting as peddlers of GM technology -- probably in collusion with MNCs marketing GM seeds—have shown little respect for law.”
In a review of recent trends titled 'Food Without Choice' Prof Pushpa M Bhargava drew pointed attention to the "attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political setup and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools."Further warned:
"The ultimate goal of this attempt in India of which the leader is Monsanto, is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and thus food production. With 60 per cent of our population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would essentially mean not only a control over our food security but also over our farmer security, agricultural security and security of the rural sector."
The strong stand of Dr Bhargava against GM crops is supported by other eminent scientists in various parts of world. A group of eminent scientists organized under the Independent Science Panel have stated in very clear terms:
"GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now."
The Independent Science Panel (ISP) is a panel of scientists from many disciplines and countries, committed to the promotion of science for the public good. In a document titled 'The case for a GMO-free Sustainable World' the ISP has stated further:
"By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics. This was highlighted, in 2001, by the 'accidental' creation of a killer mouse virus in the course of an apparently innocent genetic engineering experiment.
“Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.”

It is in the context of this background that the recent renewed attempts to introduce genetically modified varieties of mustard crop (GM mustard) should be seen. According to very recent reports, the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) has given its approval to genetically modified mustard although of course the final decision will only be taken by the Government of India.
As reported, according to minutes of its October 18 meeting, the GEAC, India’s regulator for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), recommended the “environmental release of mustard hybrid DMH-11 for its seed production and testing” as per existing rules, regulations and guidelines before commercial release. The transgenic mustard hybrid DMH-11 has been developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants of Delhi University.
This should be seen as a part of the persistent efforts by the GM lobby to introduce a GM food crop in India after its earlier efforts to introduce GM brinjal and GM mustard had failed, to be followed by other GM food crops once the gates have been unlocked. The only GM crop grown in India so far is cotton and this too has been very controversial.
Several activists and scientists have already pointed out how these various efforts to introduce GM crops In India, particularly GM food crops, including the latest one, have involved misrepresentation and even fraud. There have been several official reports on why GM crops can be very harmful.
These include the Jairam Ramesh Report of February 2010, written in the context of imposing a moratorium on Bt. brinjal; the Sopory Committee Report ( August 2012), the Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on GM Crops of August 2012 and again of 2017 which was more specific regarding the dangers of GM Mustard, and the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) Final Report ( June-July 2013).
While all GM food crops and particularly GM food crops are dangerous, this is particularly true in the context of oilseed crops including mustard. This is because oilseeds provide edible oils which are used in preparing almost all our cooked meals to a lesser or greater extent. In addition mustard also has important medicinal uses in India. Its leaves are consumed directly as food and its oilcake is widely fed to dairy animals.
India is particularly well-endowed with a diversity of high nutrition value oilseeds including groundnuts, mustard, sesame and a host of other oilseeds, which fit in well with local crop rotations and soil conditions in various parts of country. Several of these oilseeds have important medicinal value as well. 
Past experience shows that when sincere efforts to make the country self-reliant in terms of meeting its edible oil needs on the basis of the diversity of these traditional oilseeds have been made, these have been quite successful.
However, due to the pressure of powerful business interests and multinational companies, these sincere attempts are being discarded in favor of an oilseeds development path based on GM crops and palm oil trees despite the well-documented environmental, safety and health hazards of this growth path favored by big business interests.
Several experts, activists and groups, with long experience of studying this issue, have criticized the recent decision of the GEAC to approve genetically modified mustard. The Coalition for GM Free India, which represents several groups committed to agro ecology and safe, healthy food has commented, “This compromises biosafety in serious and objectionable ways, and we ask the government not to move forward in allowing this dangerous herbicide tolerant food crop in India.”
In a letter to the environment minister this group has drawn attention to the fact that a highly hazardous herbicide will be used along with this GMO with very adverse impacts on health and environment.
Kavitha Kuruganti of ASHA, a leading agro-ecology group, has questioned claims made regarding the higher yield by the promoters of this GM-crop. Aruna Rodrigues, a leading petitioner in the Supreme Court on bio-safety, GMOs and related issues, has raised serious questions about the way in which yield comparisons have been made.
Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, allow geneticists to create in matter of minutes in laboratory millions of recombinant viruses
The similarity of this GM crop with the efforts made by a leading multinational company has also been noted. It appears that several centers of factual manipulation have been at work to facilitate this crop involving genetic manipulation!
The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, a group advocating self-reliance which is also close to the present government in India, has also condemned the repeated attempts to bring in GM Mustard despite widespread opposition of people. This group has also raised questions about attitudes and trends of the GEAC in this context.
This should also be seen in the context of some wider objections raised recently regarding promoters of GM crops. As Mute Schimpf, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, Europe says, “Big biotech’s strategy is to apply for wide patents that would also cover plants which naturally present the same genetic characteristics as the GMOs they engineered. They will be lining their pockets from farmers and plant breeders, who in turn will have a restricted access to what they grow and work with.” This looks like the great gene robbery continuing and in fact worsening.
At a time when more and more people in the world are becoming concerned about the serious health risks and numerous other adverse impacts of genetically modified crops and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the enormously powerful billion dollar GMO multinationals have also tried to introduce confusion and uncertainty in public mind by coming up with the concept of gene-edited crops and claiming that these should not be subject to the same restrictions as GM crops. However in July 2018 the highest court in Europe ruled that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same strict rules and regulations as GM crops.
Earlier a review of the legal and scientific facts surrounding this debate by Dr Janet Cotter and Dr R Steinbrecher (published in the Ecologist) had concluded, “ It is clear that gene-edited crops and animals need to be assumed as GMOs in the same way as current GM crops.” The court verdict is along similar lines.
With gene editing researchers can add, delete or modify bits of an organism’s genome. The European Court has said that any crops edited using CRISPR or other gene-editing techniques must abide by the same laws restricting the use of GMOs. More specifically the Court concluded:
“The risks linked to the use of these new mutagenesis techniques might prove to be similar to those that result from production and release of a GMO through trans-genesis, since the direct modification of the genetic material of an organism through mutagenesis makes it possible to obtain the same effects as the introduction of foreign gene into the organism (trans-genesis) and these new techniques make it possible to introduce genetically modified varieties at a rate out of all proportion to those resulting from the application of conventional methods of mutagenesis.”
Welcoming the court verdict Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU’s food policy director said:
“Releasing these new GMOs into the environment without proper safety measures is illegal and irresponsible, particularly given that gene editing can lead to unintended side-effects… The European Commission and the European governments must now ensure that all new GMOs are fully tested and labeled, and that any field trials are brought under GMO rules.”
A spokesperson of Friends of the Earth said, “We applaud the European Court of Justice for this forward looking decision.”
There is need for a lot of caution in India as very powerful interests are promoting the possibilities of introduction of several GM food crops and they are also trying to use gene-editing as a means of getting approval.
The recent contexts of gene-edited crops and GM Mustard provide examples of how several multinational companies are attaching huge importance to invading India with their sinister technologies, while also using several local scientists and other local collaborators as their supporters and covers. 
These are not issues relating to just mustard or brinjal or cotton. The wider context of what the forces pushing this are trying to achieve should not be lost to us and hence our opposition should be more determined and united.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; recent books include ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food’, 'Planet in Peril’ and ‘14 Crucial Questions on GM Crops’ (and its Hindi version)

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