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Pro-big business move? Science 'suppressed' in order to promote GM experiment

By Bharat Dogra 

Many eminent scientists who have examined the technology of genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GM) crops have come to a clear conclusion that it is a highly hazardous and risky technology. To give just one example, eminent scientists from several countries who comprise the Independent Science Panel (ISP) have drawn this conclusion after studying various aspects of GM crops, "GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm… GM crops should be firmly rejected now."
Such examples of the opinion of eminent scientists about the serious risks and hazards of GM crops can be multiplied. The question that arises is - then why are some big multinational companies so eager to promote these hazardous and risky crops.
The answer is that these companies are not interested in improving food security, they are only interested in tightening their grip over the world's food and farming system so that they can squeeze huge profits out of it, regardless of any adverse impacts on farmers, consumers and environment. Hunger may worsen, fertile fields across vast areas may get contaminated, large number of unsuspecting people and animals may fall seriously ill-they are not seriously bothered about all this as long as they can tighten their control and increase their profits.
As people's consciousness about the hazards of GM crops grew, many GM products from the USA, the leader in promoting this technology, were refused by its trading partners. This alarmed leading GM companies, and gave them additional reason to push GM crops in important developing countries so that alternative sources for supply of non-GM products, or products not contaminated by GM crops can not emerge. 
It is important to understand that the US Government and the big GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) companies there have close links so that there are unwritten directives from the highest levels not to deny clearance to GMOs on environment, health and related grounds.
Henry Miller, who was formerly in charge of bio-technology at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, USA) stated, "In this area, the US government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked them to do and told them to do." This support given by the governments further greatly increases the power of MNCs to push their hazardous products and technologies in their quest for dominance. Corruption also enables MNCs to achieve quick results.
People wonder why GM crops spread in the USA and from there to some other countries, even though several scientists (in addition to farmers and activists) opposed GMOs there as well. An idea of the various forces responsible for this can be had from a complaint the US Securities and Exchange Commission had filed in the US courts stating that a leading GMO company had bribed 140 officials during 1997-2000 to obtain environmental clearances for its products. The company admitted this charge and paid a penalty of US $ 1.5 million.
Jeffrey M. Smith has explained how safety reports were prepared. The quotation below is from his book 'Genetic Roulette', a book which has been recommended and praised widely by many international experts. Smith writes:
"The industry-funded studies have become notorious for using creative ways to avoid finding problems. They feed older animals instead of more sensitive young ones, keep sample sizes too low to achieve the statistical significance needed for proof in scientific studies, dilute the GM component of the feed, overcook samples, compare results with irrelevant controls, choose obsolete insensitive detection methods, limit the duration of feeding trials, and even ignore animal deaths and sickness."
This opinion on the poor quality of studies is endorsed by others. Erik Millstone, professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex commented: 
“The fundamental problem of the way in which GM foods have been approved is that they haven’t really been tested properly at all. All that has happened is something which I would characterize as an exercise in wishful thinking.”
But what is even more important is that when scientists spoke against GM crops, their voice was stifled using several unethical ways. Jeffrey Smith reports in the context of the experiences in the USA, the country where GM crops have spread the most: 
“The FDA (the Food and Drug Administration of the USA) was fully aware that GM crops were meaningfully different. That, in fact, was the overwhelming consensus among the technical experts in the agency. The scientists agreed that genetic engineering leads to “different risks” than traditional breeding and had repeatedly warned their superiors that GM foods might create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects."
The scientists’ concerns were kept secret in 1992, when FDA policy was put into place. But seven years later, internal records were made public due to a lawsuit and the deception came to light. The agency’s newly released 44,000 pages revealed that government scientists’ “references to the unintended negative effects… were progressively deleted from drafts of the policy statement (over the protests of agency scientists.”
They further revealed that "the FDA was under orders from the White House to promote GM crops and that Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney and later its vice president, was brought into the FDA to oversee policy development. With Taylor in charge, the scientists’ warnings were ignored and denied."
The story of UK is no less shocking, adds Smith. In the mid-1990s, the UK government commissioned scientists to develop an assessment protocol for GM crop approvals that would be used in the UK and eventually by the EU. In 1998, three years into the project, the scientists discovered that potatoes engineered to produce a supposed-to-be harmless insecticide caused extensive health damage to rats. The pro-GM government immediately cancelled the project, the lead scientist was fired and the research team dismantled.
It is due to the likely use of unfair means to speed up highly hazardous introduction of GMOs that citizens need to be very vigilant on this issue of the greatest importance for food security, livelihoods and environment.
According to a report prepared by the Independent Science Panel, there has been a history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific evidence, especially on horizontal gene transfer. Key experiments failed to be performed, or were performed badly and then misrepresented. Many experiments were not followed up, including investigations on whether the CaMV 35S promoter is responsible for the ‘growth factor-like’ effects observed in young rats fed GM potatoes.
Coming to the debate on Bt brinjal in India, Prof Pushpa Bhargava, India’s top scientist on this subject who was nominated by the Supreme Court to help the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), pointed out that when Monsanto’s dossier containing all the bio-safety tests that they had done was put in the public domain earlier this year (2009), there were serious criticisms of it by many scientists from various parts of the world.
Prof Bhargava's own criticism centered around the following points:
  • A large body of concerned, knowledgeable and reputed scientists have agreed that some 30 or so tests need to be done before a GM plant is cleared for environmental release. Monsanto had done only less than 10 of these tests.
  • Even these tests were done largely by Monsanto, and we have no facility in the country to even determine whether the tests were actually done.
  • There were many scientific errors even in the tests that were done by Monsanto.
  • The GEAC appointed a committee (EC-II) to prepare a report on such criticism. But Dr. Bhargava and others were essentially given just one day to review the 102 page report. Still on the basis of his vast experience he could quickly see that there were "internal inconsistencies in the report, inconsistencies between the report and the earlier data that had been put in public domain and outright scientific absurdities."
  • When Prof Bhargava recommended that adequate time should be allowed for a review meeting of eminent experts who had been involved in this issue, this proposal was completely ignored and the GEAC went ahead to give its hurried approval to Bt brinjal (although the government later imposed a moratorium on Bt brinjal following a process of extensive consultation).
A group of 17 distinguished scientists from the USA, Canada, Europe and New Zealand wrote to India’s Prime Minister in 2009:
“India’s regulators do not require independent bio-safety tests, but uncritically accept as evidence of safety, research conducted by the company who is applying for commercial clearance of the product. This raises serious questions regarding impartiality and conflicts of interest, which are clearly justified, based on published evidence of bias in the research conducted by industry that is contrary to accepted normal scientific conduct.
“GM food compositional analysis is superficial and the minimum required toestablish ‘substantial equivalence’, a scientifically conceptually flawed parameter that is virtually meaningless with respect to determining health risk.
“Experimental design used by the applicant is flawed, almost invariably containing irrelevant “control” non-GM comparator crop varieties, which serve to mask rather than to isolate and reveal the effect of the GM transformation process.
“The biological testing required is not adequate to detect either acute or chronic toxic effects of GM foods. At best, only 90-day feeding studies are required by the government’s SOPs without an obligatory requirement for toxicological and histological evaluation. In order to assess medium and long-term (life-long) health impacts it is necessary to conduct lifetime and multigenerational feeding studies. Only these will reliably determine fertility and chronic health impacts, which is essential because it is the intension that people will be eating GM foods for their whole lifetime.
“Experimental data is invariably not made publicly available for independent scientific scrutiny under the pretext of commercial confidentiality. This has required court action (both in Europe and India) in order to obtain the information needed to assess the quality of the research submitted by industry to be scrutinized by authoritative bio-safety experts. Such independent re-evaluation of submitted industry data has repeatedly found that this research and its interpretation thereof to be flawed, inadequate, biased and thus misleading.”

Despite all the high-power efforts to push GM crops in highly unethical ways and suppress opposition of scientists, the scientific opinion is still very much against GM crops. Dr. Pushpa M Bhargava, who was also the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, prepared a review of the available scientific literature on this subject. Here 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.”
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril’, ‘Protecting Earth for Children’ and ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and healthy Food’

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