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Whose food is it anyway?
Venkatachari Jagannathan
17 January 2003

Chennai: 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 Foundation).

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.

Nevertheless, Sharma, 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.

“Thanks 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 FCI’s (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 GM foods.”

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.

In 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.

Curiously, Cooperation 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.

Though 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 India’s 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.

Long-term impact
While 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.”

Dr 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.”

Earlier, initiating 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 don’ts for the industry.”

send this article to a friend There 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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Whose food is it anyway?