Saturday, October 2, 2004


Suman Sahai

Agbiotechnology is presented in many forms; the most common being that it will solve world hunger. To reinforce this claim, there is an interesting word play at work. Agbiotechnology is referred to as the ‘Evergreen Revolution’ or the ‘Gene Revolution’; both terms are an attempt to link Agbiotech with the Green Revolution. In the view of most political leaders, policy makers, farmers and citizens, the Green Revolution was a positive happening that brought benefits. It did in fact increase food production, principally cereal production. It made India independent of food exports and firmed up its political spine. It ensured surplus grain that could be stored in buffer stocks to be rushed where need arose and it tried to ensure that famines were not a feature of the Indian reality.

These gains were so visible that the downside, the unequal distribution of the benefits, of land and water degradation, the accompanying loss of genetic diversity and the persisting endemic hunger and poverty, could not take the shine off the Green Revolution. Because of this positive image, the promoters of Agbiotech draw semantic parallels, invoking the earlier agricultural revolution. The subliminal message is, if the Green Revolution brought so many benefits, the Evergreen Revolution would bring all those in perpetuity. The word play has actually been quite successful. Political leaders and policy makers carry over the positive association with the Green Revolution to the Evergreen one. If the earlier version brought such benefits, the newer one (more precise, with greater possibilities, as the industry says) would surely bring even greater benefits to the farmers and the poor. Conveniently left out of this portrayal are the essential and crucial differences between the two ‘Revolutions’.

The Green Revolution was a publicly owned technology, belonging to the people. The research was conducted with public money to fulfil a public need, inadequate food production, and it created public goods to which everyone had access. There were no Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), no patents vested in multinational companies, no proprietary technologies or products. If there was ownership of the GR, it was vested in the farmer. Once the seed reached the farmers, it was theirs; they moved it where they wanted. Therefore despite its faults, the Green Revolution addressed farmers needs and India’s food production showed an upward curve.

The Evergreen Revolution is almost the exact opposite. It is a privately owned technology. Six corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, DuPont , Dow and BASF Plant Science) control practically the entire research and output in the field of transgenic plants. Processes and products, including research methodologies are shackled in patents and the farmer has no say, let alone any control. The technology creates only private goods that can be accessed only at significant cost (a bag of Mahyco- Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds in India costs Rs. 1600 as compared to between Rs. 300 to Rs 400 for superior varieties produced locally).

The seed belongs to the company, which strictly controls its movement. With the development of the popularly termed ‘terminator’ or sterile seed technology, the farmer is reduced to a helpless consumer, not a partner as in the case of the GR. The Evergreen Revolution has in its 20 years, not yet produced a crop variety that has any direct connection to hunger and nutritional needs. The most prevalent crops remain corn, Soya, cotton and canola and the dominant traits are herbicide `tolerance and insect resistance. Despite its other faults, the Green Revolution was able to put out a number of crop varieties in a short span of time that enabled direct yield increases, which brought immediate benefits to farmers. That in short is the contrast between the two Revolutions, so assiduously camouflaged by the Agbiotech spinmeisters.

India had participated enthusiastically in the Green Revolution and is on its way to equally enthusiastically embrace the Gene revolution or Agbiotechnology. Yet there is little debate in the country on whether any lessons have been learnt from the Green Revolution. There is even less debate between policy makers and other stakeholders about the path that Agbiotechnology should take in India. There is no consultation with the public like in many other countries, for example in Europe or any sharing of information, as is done in almost all countries that are implementing GM technology. The Department of Biotechnology has promoted research projects randomly in universities and research institutions, without any assessment of farmers’ needs and the best way to fulfil them; civil society has been uneasy with the lack of transparency and the lack of competence in regulatory bodies; the media is largely uninformed and political leaders remain unaware of the direction this new and controversial technology was taking in India and have no say in determining what it should or should not do.

It is time that the country gave itself a well thought out national policy on agricultural biotechnology. The policy should be framed after widespread consultations with a range of stakeholders. The process of consultations should be inclusive and transparent, allowing a range of expertise and insights to be brought into the decision making process. The greater the ownership of the outcome of the consultative process, the better will be the acceptance of the policy that is framed.

Friday, August 20, 2004


Suman Sahai

The National Biotechnology Committee of Thailand plans to use GM technology to improve the quality and productivity of jasmine rice, ordinary rice and rice for food processing. The plan for jasmine rice is to use genetic engineering and molecular breeding to introduce resistance to flood and drought. This is not a wise move. Flood and drought tolerance can be more easily achieved by conventional breeding than by genetic engineering and the price for adding the GM tag may be too high.

With the GM tag, Thailand would jeopardise the special status accorded to Jasmine rice. It would also risk its rice gene pools since the contamination of other rice varieties and their natural relatives with foreign genes from the GM Jasmine rice would be a certainty.

Thailand has been fighting to protect its jasmine rice from biopiracy. It has contested claims by US based companies to use its name in a trademark violation called ‘passing off’ as ‘Jasmati’. The jasmine rice of Thailand, is claimed by the Thai as a special Thai product and the Thai have sought to exercise their rights over this product invoking the IPR protection called ‘Geographically Indicated (GI) Rights, in the WTO. Provided in Articles 22, 23 and 24 of the TRIPs chapter, GI protection can be claimed by countries for products that are exclusively associated with their region. At present, GI protection is available only for wines like Champagne and Spirits like Scotch whiskey. Developing countries are however fighting hard to increase the scope of GI protection so that products of interest to them can also be given GI IPR protection and be considered exclusively theirs. India for example has an interest in Basmati rice and Darjeeling tea, to name just two products. Thailand has claimed Jasmine rice as its own.

Once Jasmine rice becomes a GM variety, not only is Thailand likely to lose its markets in those countries (particularly Europe) that are not favourably inclined to GM food, it will also forfeit its claim to GI protection. Is it willing to do that? Have the Thai authorities thought through the consequences of turning their premium Jasmine rice into a controversial GM food? The Thai thinking is probably like India’s, which has invested in Bt Basmati. The Basmati project in India has been put on hold after protests from rice traders and groups like Gene Campaign which has pointed out that Basmati would acquire an ‘untouchable’ status if it were tainted with the GM label. The intention is to increase production of a premium product like Basmati or Jasmine rice and thus increase earnings in an assured high-end market. This will backfire because consumers will shy away from the GM label.

Jasmine rice is not the food of the masses. It is an expensive premium product, much like India’s Basmati rice. The poor, who cannot afford its high price, consume neither, so there is no pressure to increase its production from the point of view of food security. Like truffles and caviar, Jasmine rice is a luxury food, which brings good revenue for its farmers. Tampering with it by adding the GM label is likely to jeopardise the assured earnings of the farmers who grow Jasmine rice.

Apart from the issue of special protection under GI , in WTO/TRIPs, is the question of environmental safety . Thailand belongs to the Indochina Centre of biological diversity. It has a great deal of diversity in rice, which includes farmer varieties, landraces and wild relatives of rice. One of the principle environmental concerns with respect to GM crops is the matter of gene flow and its consequences for agro-biodiversity. It is a fact of biology that pollen will fly around and along with pollen will fly around the foreign genes contained in the pollen of the GM crop. When there are other rice varieties and wild relatives in the vicinity, the pollen with foreign genes can cross pollinate with them, thus transferring the foreign genes to them . Although rice is largely a self-pollinated crop, high enough rates of cross-pollination have been recorded to cause concern for genes to be transferred from the GM Jasmine rice to the neighbouring rice varieties and the natural rice gene pool.

We do not know yet what the long term consequences of such gene transfer and gene introgression can be since no studies have been done under developing country conditions. Western nations have done gene transfer studies on crops of interest to them but developing countries have not done enough of this kind of basic work. If there is no impact in the long term or the impact is harmless, it does not matter. But should we discover that there is a negative impact, we would have possibly jeopardised the integrity of one of the most important gene pools in the world. The consequences for food security could be unimaginable if the rice gene bank in nature were to be endangered.

The implementation of GM technology is meant be guided by the Precautionary Principle. This Principle was formulated because we know so little about the long-term impact of cultivating GM crops. The Precautionary Principle says that if we do not know enough or if there is uncertainty about the safety of a process or product, then it is best to avoid that product. We know practically nothing about the behaviour of GM rice in a natural agricultural environment, particularly in a centre of diversity. The precautionary principle dictates that we do not take a chance. In my view, no nation should cultivate a GM crop for which it is a centre of diversity. Mexico has taken this intelligent decision. Since 1998, the Mexican government has placed a ban on the cultivation of GM corn since Mexico is a centre of origin and diversity for corn. In 2002, the Mexicans went a step further; they banned even research on GM corn, since they were not prepared to take a risk with their corn gene pool. China does not allow the cultivation of GM soybean for which it is a centre of origin and diversity. Thailand and India should learn from these countries and leave GM rice alone.

Monday, June 14, 2004

The Agbiotech Task Force Report

Suman Sahai

The government had appointed a Task Force to examine Agbiotechnology and make recommendations for its implementation. The Task Force headed by Dr. MS Swaminathan was given the following mandate: to formulate a long-term policy on applications of biotechnology in agriculture; make suggestions for harmonizing decision making; recommend a role for the Agriculture Ministry and generate awareness.


The importance of the recommendations of the Task Force lies in the fact that this is the first effort to formulate a policy. Civil society organizations have been frustrated in the past by the refusal of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to engage in any dialogue on public concerns or be receptive to any suggestions for improving a clearly unsatisfactory system. The former head of DBT is famously on record for doggedly insisting that India did not need a biotechnology policy when all around her, from the most vocal protagonists to the most determined opponents, were demanding a national policy.

The report’s basic recommendation is that the national policy should seek the ‘economic well-being of farm families, food security of the nation, health security of the consumer, protection of the environment and the security of our national and international trade’. If the recommendations of this Task Force are upheld, no policy implementation can deviate from these goals.

The report highlights the need to link transgenic research in India to the international market. Transgenic research should not be done on crops that we sell in the international market, like soybean, Basmati rice and Darjeeling tea. Readers will recall the hare brained schemes of the DBT to promote Bt Basmati and introduce the beta-carotene construct of Golden Rice into Basmati rice. Nobody seemed to be thinking that we are exporters of Basmati (and other) rice as well as soybean (to special niche markets) and that our major trading partners are all rejecting GM foods. So who would buy our Bt Basmati or our GM Soya?

The report is critical of the prevailing gung-ho climate when any proposal for research on a GM crop, however nonsensical the goal, is likely to get sanctioned, often at the cost of conventional research which is more likely to yield results of relevance. It recommends that all alternatives to GM technology should be examined and the GM route used only when other options are not available. There is an explicit injunction against using negative GM traits like herbicide tolerance that can reduce employment ( by taking away the opportunity to earn wages by weeding) and impinge on rural livelihoods (by destroying vegetation that is used as nutritious leafy greens or fodder to support livestock).

The report says that our policy on transgenics should be sensitive to biodiversity conservation and the socio-economic context of our composite agrarian system. In other words, small farmer interests have to be protected. In recommending the breeding of both varieties and hybrids and supporting apomixis as a strategy, the recommendation is clearly in favor of the farmers’ right to save seed from previous harvests.

The recommendation that Centers of Origin and diversity like the Jeypore tract for rice must be protected, is an important one. However the proposed mechanism for earmarking GM and non-GM zones does not appear to be feasible. If the cultivation of GM rice is permitted in certain areas but not in the diversity rich areas of Orissa, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, there is no way of preventing GM rice landing up there. Foreign genes in that case are bound to move to wild relatives of rice in its center of origin. We have seen the speed with which the illegal Bt cotton originally put out by Navbharat seed company has spread to almost all cotton growing areas, despite the fact that its planting is illegal. Similarly, contamination of native corn in Mexico has taken place inspite of the ban on the cultivation of GM corn in the country. Zoning or segregation is unlikely to work. The only way of protecting native germplasm from foreign genes with likely negative impacts is to disallow the GM version of that particular crop.

I have a disagreement on the edible vaccine strategy that forms part of the report. I do not believe India should invest in edible vaccines since it will be impossible to keep vaccine bearing fruit separate from ordinary fruits. Mixture with the food chain is inevitable since one bunch of bananas looks like another. It would be even harder to segregate grains. In the US, Starlink corn, which was not allowed as food but only animal feed, was found mixed up with food corn. In the Prodigene case in the US, a GM corn carrying pig vaccine was found mixed up with soybean for human use, showing segregation is not possible even in the highly regulated conditions of US agriculture. India should have a strict policy of allowing the expression of pharmaceutical molecules like vaccines only in non-edible plants.

With respect to regulation, the report has suggested much needed technical competence and transparency. I would have liked to see a greater role for civil society, as is the case in the Philippines and other ASEAN nations. The structure of the regulatory authority would benefit from greater autonomy. The regulatory structure should be demonstrably competent and independent to inspire confidence. It should be able not just to assess Biosafety, environmental and long term ecological impact but also other aspects like social and economic impacts, particularly the impact on small farmers, of the introduction of a particular GM crop. In my view, it would be best to divide the regulatory function into two parts, one Advisory, the other Statutory.

Advisory Body

The Advisory body should have a broad based multidisciplinary membership that includes all relevant scientific disciplines, social scientists, environmentalists, civil society groups, members of farming and adivasi communities, representatives of panchayati raj institutions, and legal experts. A person of the highest technical calibre who has experience in the regulation of GM crops should head the body

Statutory Body

The statutory body should be an independent body staffed by people skilled in Bio safety Assessment, Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment. This body should have overall responsibility for all aspects of risk assessment, risk management, risk communication leading up to decision-making about the safety of a GM crop for the environment, human and animal health and post release monitoring. It is important to ensure that there is no conflict of interest and rules should be framed in a clear and unambiguous manner so that it is not possible to stack the Agency with any particular kind of people. Clear-cut channels should be created for the public to participate in the decision-making process and to voice concerns. There should be an annual review of the decisions taken on GM products and the rationale for these decisions. This review should be presented to Parliament.

Overhauling the regulatory system from its currently appalling state should be high priority. Hopefully the process begun by the Task Force will help to establish a competent and participatory system and a more responsible way of evaluating which GM crops could be relevant for Indian farmers.

Tuesday, May 4, 2004


Suman Sahai

The proposed permission to Bayer CropScience Ltd. (which has been held up for now), for importing genetically modified herbicide tolerant rice (LLRice62) into the EU, as animal feed has implications not just for the EU, but far more importantly, for the rice growing regions of the world. Such a step would have grave implications for the natural rice germplasm in rice growing areas of the developing world that are the centres of origin and diversity. It is noteworthy that Bayer’s application is only for the import and processing of genetically modified (GM) rice into the European Union. Bayer has not sought permission for cultivation because it doesn’t intend to grow this GM rice in Europe although rice is cultivated in five EU member states – Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and France. Therefore the rice that Bayer proposes to import would have to be grown in developing countries like India.

Gene Campaign, which is asking for a moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops in their centres of origin and diversity, is alarmed that India could be tempted to produce GM rice for the EU market. It would be particularly ironic that India and other centres of diversity for rice could end up jeopardising their principal food source for producing animal feed to support the meat consumption of the west. There is something decidedly unethical about Bayer wanting to protect the few rice-growing states of the EU by not seeking permission for cultivation in Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal or France. In applying to import GM rice for animal feed from developing countries, the corporation demonstrates its callous disregard for human life and food security in the poorer regions of the world. It is willing to put at risk the food staple of these poor people to support the unsustainable consumption of the west.

There is reason to be concerned about the potential adverse impacts of Bayer’s application for developing countries like India where rice is grown and where the regulatory framework for GMOs is weak or even non-existent. Farmers in such countries are not aware of the larger issues and the possible implications of GM rice in their fields and thus not really able to take an informed decision on whether or not to grow the rice. Opening the EU market for GM rice would be a lure for rice producing nations to cultivate GM rice for the export market. It would be relatively easy to sell this proposal in the domestic context, because of the potential for export earnings, but this would overlook the very critical threat of genetic contamination in the rich rice diversity areas in India like Orissa, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh.

Gene Campaign stresses that India is one of the centres of origin and diversity for rice and has substantial concerns about the possibility of genetic contamination of native rice genepools. A centre of origin is the region from where a particular crop originated a few thousand years ago when indigenous communities developed edible crops from the wild plants found in the forest. The wild relatives and therefore the maximum diversity of crops is found in their centres of origin.

The importance of protecting the genes in centres of origin as a world resource for global food security cannot be overstated. Resistance to two of the four main diseases afflicting rice, comes from a single landrace, Oryza nivara that is found in central India.

Centres of origin are considered high-risk areas for GM crops because if the foreign genes contained in the GM variety were to move into the natural gene pool, the results could be potentially catastrophic. Scientists promoting Agbiotech argue that rice is a self-pollinating crop and will not accept outside pollen and genes. This is simply not true. Several studies exist showing cross-pollination happens in rice. Recent reports from China and Latin America are showing that gene flow between GM rice and other rice happens at rates that are high enough to cause concern. Experiments have also found that the herbicide tolerance gene can move to native varieties and create new, difficult to control, weeds. There are other studies that show that the introduction of foreign genes by the process of genetic engineering can cause a phenomenon called ‘gene silencing’ in the plant that is receiving the foreign gene. This means certain genes in the plant will become silent ( non-functional) and not produce what they normally should. Gene silencing could have very grave implications if it were to spread to the natural gene pool by careless scientists.

Genetic diversity is crucial for the long-term survival of any crop. When a crop variety somewhere becomes vulnerable either due to the onslaught of a disease it cannot fight, or because the soil has become water logged or alkaline, scientists need to breed another variety of the crop for that region. They do this by searching for suitable genes in related varieties and the natural gene pool. If these genes were to be unavailable, the vulnerable variety would perish, depriving people in that region of food. That is why it is important to maintain genetic diversity. If GM rice were to harm the native gene pool of rice by making certain genes non-functional or changing the normal functions of other genes, it would have terrible implications for the food security of the rice eating regions of the world.

Gene Campaign considers GM rice to be a particularly sensitive issue for India and one where the Precautionary Principle must be invoked because the implications of genetic contamination in rice can be very grave indeed for farmers and for food security. No studies are being conducted in India to understand the levels of gene flow in rice, to assess what would happen if foreign genes were to escape from GM rice to farmers’ varieties and wild relatives of rice.

The Agbiotech industry is quick to project that there is no danger of foreign gene flow in rice because it is a self pollinating crop ( and would not accept genes from GM crops), but evidence is mounting that this is not the case. Recent studies show that gene flow in rice happens and should be cause for concern.

Recent research from China demonstrates that transgene escape from cultivated rice to wild rice (Oryza rufipogon) occurs at the rate of up to 2.19 % in the field[1]. This is quite significant for rice growing regions and would mean that foreign genes could spread easily in the native population. Another recent study done in Latin America to look at the transfer of herbicide tolerant genes ( same as in Bayer’s rice) to wild relatives of rice, showed that this transfer does indeed take place . The study also predicted that herbicide resistant weedy rice populations would develop quite quickly, within 3 to 8 years[2].

The EU has a moral obligation to undertake the most thorough and exhaustive analysis of the safety of this new GM crop. It is equally bound to assess the social, economic and environmental implications in developing countries, of allowing this import, before considering any permission

Another disturbing development in rice, is the news that a California based Biotechnology Company is starting to plant two rice varieties genetically modified to produce drugs for diarrhoea. The cause for alarm at the planting of a drug producing rice in far away California is the near certain likelihood of contamination of natural rice gene pools by the genetically engineered ones. The American company Ventria Bioscience has produced GM varieties of rice in Sacramento that are engineered to produce two compounds called lactoferrin and lysozyme that are be used as drugs to treat diarrhoea. The plan is to extract these compounds from the GM rice since that would be much cheaper than setting up a factory. As with many other industrial products, the question is ‘cheaper’ for whom? The Ventria

GM rice poses a serious hazard to rice growing regions because as we have seen in the past, crops produced in one region easily land up in other regions through the channels of trade or because people just carry the produce to another country.

The American Starlink corn, which is a GM corn carrying a Bt gene was not approved for use as human food since it had an allergy producing tendency. Starlink corn was however approved by the US department of Agriculture for use as animal feed. To no one’s surprise, Starlink corn was found mixed up in food articles in Japan! The reason is simple and therefore worrying. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to segregate two versions of the same product in real life. One can make complex segregation plans on paper, as Ventria is undoubtedly doing but the likelihood of mix-ups is high because field operations over hundreds of hectare are not like the tightly controlled conditions of laboratories. Contamination of one type of crop produce with another is almost certain. And if American corn could land up in Japan, what is to prevent American rice landing up in India, especially when California is a large exporter of rice.

Another contamination episode with corn should teach us a lesson about centres of origin. Whether through international trade or through human traffic, GM corn has landed up in Mexico, and contaminated the natural gene pool of corn there. Mexico, which is a centre of origin for corn, has had a ban on the planting of GM corn since 1998, yet GM corn found its way there and has crossed with Mexican corn. The contamination is assumed to have come from two sources, one, from American exports of corn to Mexico and two, from Mexicans bringing in American seeds for planting. The fact of the corn contamination has caused great distress in Mexico where corn is not just the staple food but also plays a central role in the cultural heritage of the local people, like rice does for us. Mexico moved to take strong action after the contamination was detected and has banned even research on GM corn, to cut down all sources of contamination. It is however proving to be difficult to contain the situation since corn exports to Mexico are not being stopped due to American pressure.

In the case of the Ventria rice, US rice exports (the US is the second largest exporter of rice in the world and California is the principle rice-growing region in the US) will ensure that it is carried to other countries. A contamination scenario similar to the Mexican corn case would be a highly likely event in rice growing countries and centres of origin, with consequences that cannot be predicted. At the very least, the pharmaceutical rice could end up in the food chain and people could end up eating rice with diarrhoea drugs in it.

Rice is the staple food of over half the world’s population. For about two billion people in Asia alone, rice and rice products are the main source of food. Recognizing the centrality of rice to global food security, the UN has declared 2004 as the International Year of Rice. This is meant to focus on the threats facing rice production across the world and to develop a strategy for ensuring that sufficient rice is produced for the growing world population. The issue of genetic contamination, in the natural gene pools of rice is therefore a serious one. It is the genes found in centres of diversity like India, that enable rice cultivation to remain viable, despite natural stress like disease and drought. If such genes were to be lost or silenced, the future of rice cultivation could be in jeopardy.

The threat of genetic contamination from alien genes like those producing diarrhoea drugs is the last thing that stagnating rice productivity needs. So little is known about the long-term consequences of foreign genes moving into crop species, and almost nothing is known in the case of rice. It would be foolhardy to take a risk with a crop that feeds over half the world. May be nothing will go seriously wrong but if we were to discover 50 years down the line that foreign genes had resulted in the silencing of important genes in rice, there is nothing we could do to rectify the situation then.

The UN has declared 2004 to be the International Year of Rice in acknowledgement of the central role this cereal plays in global food security. Nearly half the world’s population eats rice as its staple food. The reason for focusing on rice is the fear of shortages because of declining productivity in some parts of the world and the burgeoning world population. In this backdrop, genetically modified rice is being discussed as an answer and both public sector and private sector research institutions in India and elsewhere, have launched projects to produce GM rice with various properties. Golden Rice is already well known, there are efforts to introduce resistance to fungal diseases, researchers are working to produce herbicide tolerant rice, similar to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and Mahyco, the company that gave us Bt cotton, is working, along with other research institutions, to produce a Bt rice. Other rice projects are attempting to change the quality of rice starch and disturbingly, a private company is producing rice containing the Bt cry9C gene, which is the gene used in Starlink corn, suspected of having allergenic properties and therefore banned for human use by the USDA!

The UN must protest America’s diarrhoea drug rice and other GM rice, as a challenge to its efforts to secure the future of rice and point out the potential threat of such developments to rice producing regions and global food security. India and other countries in Asia must take the lead in orchestrating such a protest. America’s economic interest in producing cheaper drugs cannot be allowed to jeopardize the food security of half the world.

The author can be reached at and

[1] Chen LJ et al. (2004) Gene flow from cultivated rice (Oryza sativa) to its weedy and wild relatives

Annals of Botany 93 (1): 67-73

[2] Madsen KH, Valverde BE, Jensen JE (2002) Risk assessment of herbicide-resistant crops: A Latin American perspective using rice (Oryza sativa) as a model Weed 16 (1): 215-223

Monday, May 3, 2004



The Task Force on Agbiotechnology chaired by MS Swaminathan has just submitted its report to the government. An important recommendation in the report is that India’s program for developing GM crops should acknowledge the reality of the market. One of the crops mentioned in the report as needing special attention, is soybean. This should be taken serious note of by the policy planners. India is a tiny producer of soybean; the total output peaked last year at about 3.5 million tons. All India’s soybean is GM free. The US alone produces over 32 million tonnes of Soya per year 75% of which is genetically modified, Argentina produces about 28 million tonnes, 98% of which is genetically modified and there are other cultivators like Brazil which are expanding their acreage of GM Soya rapidly.

Should India start to cultivate genetically modified soybean as the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is promoting? What is a better course of action for our farmers? GM Soya or non-GM Soya? At present India’s entire Soybean crop is sold (3 tonnes in 2002-03). If it were to double its production, every single bean would still be sold. The reason is that it is one of the few countries from where non-GM soy can be sourced without risk of contamination, since the country does not cultivate GM soy at all and can easily certify its soybean as GM-free.

The Indian soy is supplied to niche markets that are seeking assured GM free produce. The bulk of the soybean cultivated in the world is now genetically modified and when GM free soya is available, it is from countries that are large producers of GM Soya where mixture is certain. Even in the EU where there was a de facto moratorium on GM foods, 25% of the soya produced is genetically modified and in Japan where there is a growing opposition to GM foods, 40% of the soybean is genetically engineered.

India’s USP is that it is the only country in the world that is producing 100% GM free soybean. Today all the soy that India produces is sold. Even if it were to increase its soy production several fold, all the Soya would still be sold because the international market is increasingly seeking GM free foods due to the growing rejection by consumers. Manufacturers of baby foods and convalescent foods and housewives in countries like Japan and Korea, large soy consumers, are strongly opposed to GM foods and prefer GM free Soya.

Under these circumstances, resolutely remaining a non- GM producer of soybean best serves the interest of Indian farmers. If it were to become a producer of GM soy, it would loose its special markets. Its GM soy would not be able to compete with huge producers like the US and its highly subsidized, low cost Soya. So does it make sense for India to forego its special status, lose a secure market for its produce and incomes for its farmers and start cultivating GM soybean that no one will buy?

In the case of rice, India exports not just Basmati, but non-Basmati rice as well, largely to Europe and West Asia but also to Africa. The total annual value of India’s rice export is in the vicinity of Rs. 6000 crores. The importers of Indian rice are countries where there is mounting opposition to GM foods. Indian rice enjoys assured markets today and there is a distinct upward trend in exports of both Basmati and non-basmati rice. Does it seem like an intelligent act to jeopardize this assured market and start cultivating GM rice? Who will make up for the revenue losses to the farmers that will result from countries declining the import of GM rice from India?

As against this push GM at all costs approach, it would be wise to take cognizance of the burgeoning organic sector and respond to it. The hill states have understood this simple logic. Sikkim, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Uttaranchal have decided to go organic rather than GM. The international organic market does not permit GM contamination in organic produce, so organic and GM free has to go hand in hand. This would appear to be the future that the markets are pointing to but India’s biotech policy makers seem to be oblivious to the reality of the world. Full of misplaced zeal and the desire to join the GM bandwagon at all costs, even if through copy cat research with borrowed genes, the biotech bunch are willing to play with the livelihoods of farmers by chasing a personal agenda rather that looking for the public interest.

Given the ad hoc and apparently mindless nature of decisions that are being taken on GM crops and foods by a small coterie of people, it has become a critical imperative to conduct a broad based and transparent debate on what should constitute the nation’s policy on GM crops. It is embarrassing that a country of this size and with once formidable skills, with such agricultural strengths and dependencies, is lurching from biotech product to product with no defined policy to guide it and no consultation with the public to ask what it wants.

Monday, April 5, 2004



In the last couple of years, all manner of organizations, especially industry federations, have begun to call brainstorming session on biotechnology. The usually well-attended meetings with a focus on GM crops, indicates the entrepreneurial interest in this new technology. Civil society groups are sometimes invited to present their concerns at such meetings but this does not normally happen unless there has been some pressure, either because of a protest or a strongly worded comment in the media.

An increasing number of Indian NGOs are becoming quite vocal in their criticism of GM technology, chiefly GM crops. Many do little more than making sensational statements, expressing a gut level rejection; others are well informed and analytical, basing their criticism on an analysis of the facts. Apart from the reaction from civil society organizations, individual viewpoints are being heard from a variety of age groups and backgrounds against GM foods.

The reaction of Indian civil society is in consonance with international resistance and a common perception that GM foods are bad. Why is that so? It is important to understand the anatomy of the resistance against GM foods since it is a strong and valid resistance. In particular, it needs to be understood that apart from scientific concerns, principally related to the environment and human and animal health, there are ethical, social and economic concerns as well. In addition there is an emotional and historical baggage associated with genetic manipulation, which is expressing itself as a rejection of genetically manipulated crops. The genesis of the opposition to genetically modified foods is to be found in Europe and with reason.

Public distrust of GM Foods is currently most visible in Europe, especially Britain where public action succeeded in getting Bayer CropScience, a multinational concern, to with draw its GM corn from UK. It is not so bad in the US although consumer concerns have been voiced and international NGOs like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have carried the protest against GM foods across the Atlantic. There is a reason why unlike Europe, public acceptance of GM foods is higher in the US. Surveys have been conducted which show that respondents are willing to eat GM foods and do not feel threatened by it.

Perhaps one reason for this is that US citizens do not distrust their government on this subject the way Europeans distrust their governments. When the technology of recombinant DNA was established and its potential for applications in agriculture and pharmaceuticals began to unfold, American scientists and regulatory agencies conducted a series of public discussions called the Asilomar conferences in the early seventies. These discussions included an analysis of the risks and benefits of this exciting new technology by which genes could be shifted around across the species barrier. The public was included in the debate to quite an extent. Unlike the US, European nations did not engage in such an exercise. Discussions with the public were not held. Scientists remained in ivory towers doing science and the public was not aware of what was happening in the laboratories. They feared the worst - perhaps monsters were being hatched in test tubes.

In addition to this, in some sections of Europe, there is distrust, even aversion, to the science of genetics and genetic engineering, strongest perhaps in countries like Germany and the Netherlands. During the Nazi regime, Germans saw the science of genetics abused in the name of Eugenics, Hitler's mad and rotten plan for racial cleansing. Genetically 'inferior' races like gypsies were gassed along with the genetically 'inferior' jews ( over 6 million of them ) in death chambers. Many in Germany's scientific community supported Hitler's views and some German geneticists were partners in the unspeakable crimes of the Third Reich. Understandably, for the Germans today, genetics is a tainted science, its manipulation for any purpose, undesirable.

Burdened with this past, people in European countries had to suffer the abominations of the food scandals stemming from the Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) when the British government defended the infected beef as perfectly safe for human consumption. Then the link was shown to a human disorder called Jacob- Creuzfeldt syndrome and all hell broke lose. The British government was shown to be lying to its people and engaged in a cover up exercise to protect beef revenues at the cost of risking the health and lives of its people. As if this was not enough, close on the heels of the beef scandal came the revelations, long denied, that dioxin laced animal feed was fed to cattle in Belgium. What made everything insupportable was the denial by the government and regulatory authorities that there was no wrongdoing, there was no dioxin. The trust between government and people, if any was left after the Mad Cow terror, vanished. In the eyes of the people, specially the radicals, the government lied routinely to the people and could not be trusted.

Against this backdrop, came GM technology and the effort to market GM foods. The government said it was safe. The regulatory authorities said it was safe. Nobody believed a word. The crescendo of the protests rose. NGOs like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace took up cudgels on behalf of what was seen as a people betrayed by their government. Activists and law-abiding citizens applauded as fields with GM crops were destroyed in the UK. In a final blow, the courts let off those charged with tearing up fields planted with GM crops. The protest gradually began to spread across the world.

These are some of the reasons why GM technology is being treated with suspicion in the west. On top of this, it does not help at all that the technology is controlled almost entirely by six mega- corporations who have styled themselves the Life Science Corporations, the most notorious of which is Monsanto. Actually there are somewhat more complex issues involved in the European rejection of this science. John Durant, a public policy analyst in the UK points out that even though GM food technology is science based and strategically significant, it is significantly out of step with public opinion, particularly in highly industrialized Western Europe. According to him, citizens of industrial democracies are essentially skeptical. They tend to be well informed and access data efficiently, they are mindful of special interests, distrustful of governments and disinclined to defer to the opinion of experts who they do not hold in any special awe.

If one looks for a common thread in the attitudes to GM technology in the industrial or developing countries, it is seen in the striking lack of credibility of the purveyors of this technology. The governments are disbelieved and the industry is resented for its monopoly. Monsanto has so attracted the ire of civil society for its attempts to promote the so-called 'terminator' technology, that it has been made the Frankenstein of corporations. The aggressive intellectual property rights regime pushed by the corporations has raised the hackles of even moderate campaigners.

Apart from this crisis of confidence, there is the fully understandable resistance of consumers. The fact is that GM products do not show any overwhelming advantage over conventional foods. They are not better tasting, more nutritious or cheaper. It is not as though this technology has increased the choice or the quality of foods available. With none of these advantages on offer, the consumer has to deal with fears of safety of the food, whether real or imagined and possible damage to the environment, if not today, perhaps tomorrow. For the average person, GM foods do not offer any overwhelming advantages. There are no tangible benefits but there may be quite serious risks.

The real reasons for the many strands of resistance to GM foods will have to be understood and taken on board if the current impasse is to be bridged and the dialogue is to continue to some point of resolution. It is silly for protagonists of the technology to accuse the public of simplicity. There is no point in charging people who protest, with ignorance, chiefly because that is usually untrue. It also serves little purpose to go on about how the public can not understand the complex technicality of the subject or that there are vested interests behind the lobbying positions of NGOs. This last is most often heard in the context of Bt cotton, which is supposed to decrease pesticide use because the Bt toxin is supposed to function as an in-built pesticide in the cotton crop. GM wallahs charge that the pesticide lobby is using NGOs to resist Bt cotton so that pesticide sales can continue unabated. This is a juvenile argument and invokes ridicule.

Accusations by the biotech supporters that there are maverick, irresponsible scientists who put out unscientific data and scare the public and that the media is interested in nothing but exaggerating and sensationalizing issues it does not understand, adds nothing to the credibility of the biotech lobby. Hounding Arpad Puzstai, the scientist at Rowett Institute for showing a possible health danger from GM potatoes or pillorying Chapela and Quist for reporting that GM corn had contaminated native corn in Mexico is finally counter-productive.

Aggressive assertions in the face of public apprehensions that all is well in the world of GM technology, will continue to backfire. Public relations efforts undertaken at great cost by companies like Monsanto ( 50 million dollars according to the grapevine ) have not transported them an inch out of the doghouse simply because they failed to address the real issues and the crisis of confidence that they face.

To break down the barriers and allow a fair and critical evaluation of GM technology, policy making in this area will have to be open to public scrutiny. Equity and justice will have to define regimes for intellectual property protection. Risk benefit analysis must be conducted in an open and transparent manner. Monitoring of field trials should be done by independent experts and include NGOs. The informed public will have to become a partner in the GM dialogue and in decision-making. The agenda of research on GM crops will have to be determined after consultations with stakeholders. In India and the developing world, the system for regulation, monitoring and oversight of GM technology must be entrusted to people with the highest technical skills, not handed over to a clutch of bureaucrats as at present.