food is it anyway?
17 January 2003
It was scientists and technologists versus the green
activists at the media workshop on Future of Biotechnology:
Partnerships and Public Acceptance, organised by the
Hindu Media Resource Centre, MSSRF (MS Swaminathan Research
While the scientists
were assembled in good strength, pitted against them was
Environmental Journalists Forum president Devinder Sharma.
Ironically, two biotechnology scientists, Dr Purvi Mehta
Bhat of the Baroda-based Science Ashram, Dr Latha Rangan
of the UK-based Norman Borlaug Institute, were dressed
in green attire.
taking cudgels against the biotech industry in general
and the genetically modified (GM) seed industry in particular,
warned that biotech will make food costly.
With the European
Union (EU) withdrawing agricultural subsidies, farming
has become costly and the biotech seed companies are now
looking at newer markets. Today the EU wants India
to dismantle its food procurement system. This will leave
the small farmers in the lurch, said Sharma.
to the industry, scientists have lost touch with masses.
And the scientific community is coming in the way of eradicating
hunger, thundered Sharma. According to him the surplus
food in FCIs (Food Corporation of India) godown
could be sent to famine-prone African countries where
children die of hunger. But the West says that our
stock consists of just rice and wheat which are not the
staple diet of starving Africans. They want to sell their
Note of discontent
Continuing further, he added: Scientists cannot
absolve themselves from the excess food grain in our granaries,
while millions starve to death. At a time when Indian
farmers commit suicides after having bumper crops where
is the need for GM crops that promises higher yields,
Sharma posed this question to the participants. He passionately
appealed to the government and scientists to be wary of
the multibillion GM food industry lobby as the safety
of such food is yet to be established.
this context one should note that Starlink Corn, a GM
corn by Aventis CropScience, has not been given the human
consumption sanction by the US government as the food
is said to cause allergic reactions in humans.
for American Relief Everywhere (CARE) and Catholic Relief
Services (CRS) have appealed against the decision of the
Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to import
23,000 tonnes of soya-corn blend for distribution among
Indian school children.
The GEAC had refused
permission as it fears that the consignment would contain
GM corn Starlink, which the US government has approved
only for animal consumption and not for humans.
drugs undergo multi-phased elaborate clinical trials the
same cannot be said to be true in respect of GM foods.
For instance, there are no direct human trials as in the
case of medicine.
Further, it takes
at least 15-20 years for a drug to be cleared for human
consumption after toxicology tests, animal trials and
finally the tests on humans. Many drugs that have been
found having long-term harmful effects on human beings
have been withdrawn from the market after being around
for several decades.
Dr S R Rao, the
director of Indias department of biotechnology,
said: There are various committees and tests to
ascertain the safety of the GM food before it is introduced
into the market for human consumption. According
to him it takes anything between three-10 years to develop
and market a GM food.
several drugs have been banned after selling for 20 years
on safety grounds, the long-term impact of GM crop on
human and animal health and the environment and plants
is still unknown. Unlike in the West, India has a tradition
of using plants to treat ailments and the impact of GM
crops on such medicinal plants due to pollination over
a period time is not known.
Said Dr Krishna
R Dronam Raju, president, Foundation for Genetic Research,
USA: Unlike cold climes, DNA is highly unstable
in tropical countries and there need not be fear of cross-pollination.
According to Dr
Rao, GM food companies want India to accept the test results
done in other countries. We are not agreeable for
that as our intake and cooking methods are different and
we should see what the company promises in terms of nutritional
content after food gets cooked in our traditional way.
Rangan faulted the green brigade for opposing
the modern tools to prevent starvation, while Dr Bhat
said scientists should communicate to the common man about
the scientific developments and take them into confidence.
We should work with the people and not for the people.
the dialogue, MSSRF chairman M S Swaminathan said India
should have a National Food and Agriculture Biotechnology
Policy through political consensus. The policy should
provide the terms of reference to an autonomous and professional
Biotechnology Regulatory and Advancement Commission, developing
and enforcing a code on dos and donts for the industry.
should also be a National Research Centre for Safe and
Responsible Use of Genetically Modified Crops to build
the national capacity in areas of risk assessment and
bio-safety valuation and monitoring, he summed up.
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