Wednesday, March 8, 2000


Suman Sahai

Negotiations on the Agreement on Agriculture , part of the built in agenda of the WTO are scheduled to commence sometime in March this year . India has a great interest in this negotiation for the obvious reasons of our vulnerability in food. Apart from the need to protect our agriculture sector and the livelihood base of small farmers, India must also take a view on the new and emerging issues in agriculture, particularly biotechnology.

The last is a subject which has not attracted much attention in India or for that matter in other developing countries. In the context of the WTO specifically, this issue deals with trade in genetically modified crops. Genetically Modified or Genetically Engineered crops are those foods or crops, which contain a foreign gene. Genetic engineers can cut out a gene from anywhere, not even necessarily another plant, and put it into any crop. This way traits that are not present in the particular crop can be brought in from anywhere; another plant, an animal or even a bacteria. In the case of transgenic cotton , the gene that can provide protection against the dreaded cotton pest bollworm , is brought in from a kind of bacterium found in the soil.

Transgenic plants are being made in both food and cash crops. The food crops include cereals, fruits and vegetables. The most prominent food crops are corn, soybean, potato, mustard and tomato. The main cash crops that are being grown are cotton and tobacco. The US is the main producer of transgenic or GM crops followed by Canada, Australia and Argentine and to a smaller extent, Japan.

There are a lot of apprehensions associated with GM foods chiefly relating to the safety aspects, both for the environment and for human health. It is feared that novel genes and genetic constructs could escape into the environment and create monster plants like weeds that can not be destroyed or new, recombinant pathogens like bacteria and virus. Scientific evidence is thin that this has happened or is likely to happen. However, even if the fears are unwarranted, this new technology undoubtedly needs to be tested and appraised cautiously before it is accepted as a safe source of food.

Consumer groups in countries like the US, UK , Canada and Australia have demanded that all GM foods and processed foods made from GM crops should be clearly labeled so that the consumer can decide whether h/she wants to buy these products. The most resistant to mandatory labeling is the United States which still does not labeled processed foods. A major conflict has arisen between the EU and the US on trade in GM foods specially with reference to labeling of these foods.

Large investments have been made by the so called Life Science corporations like Monsanto and Novartis on this technology. Money has been spent on buying up smaller competing firms, on field testing, on obtaining licences and clearances and on promotions and sales pitches for farmers. Farmers on the other hand have planted large numbers of acres with GM crops . If they can not sell their produce because of hostile public reaction, they will vent their spleen on their government. No wonder then that the American government pushed by the gene technology corporates need to find markets for these controversial, frightening foods that nobody seems to want.

It is in this context that the Americans have been pushing for international trade in GM foods using the WTO as a platform where they have been attempting to force the inclusion of this new subject. The strategy to introduce biotechnology products like GM foods is to first set up a Working Group to discuss the subject and then its possible implementation framework. In the WTO, normally once a working group is set up, the subject is certain to be included in the final trade agenda. If that were allowed to happen, GM foods could be dumped as part of food imports in countries like India, without our even knowing . Given the resistance of American and European consumers to GM foods,American resistance to labeling, developing countries could end up being unwilling consumers of GM foods , with no choice in the matter.

In the WTO, there are four major players , each of who have taken divergent approaches on introducing GM foods and products. Japan and the EU support the ‘precautionary principle’ and take a cautious approach to genetically engineered products. The United States and Canada are aggressive about opening markets for their genetically modified crops because both are large producers and are having difficulties getting buyers. Both favour a less stringent approach to GM foods and are keen to see it in the WTO without further delay.

Some discussions took place in Seattle on biotechnology but these will have to be resumed since the talks collapsed. The place where biotechnology will return to the agenda is the negotiation on agriculture. India will need to tackle the situation with sophistication , not losing track of what constitutes its national interest.

Once the negotiations on Agriculture start again, India should strongly oppose the setting up of a Working Group in Biotechnology in the WTO. It would in any case be too premature considering we have scarcely done any homework on this new and controversial area. Our government departments are largely unprepared and uninformed about the ramifications of this rather technical subject. People concerned with the negotiations should start collecting information and preparing a well thought out India position. As a first step we should draw up and articulate our domestic policy and identify our priority areas.

We should craft sensitive and just Intellectual Property legislation, which will protect our scientists and our farming communities. We should satisfy ourselves on the basis of scientific evidence about the long-term safety of these crops for human health and for the environment. And, most of all, we should carry out an awareness generation program and gain public acceptance for this technology and these foods should we decide to adopt them.