Published on Monday, June 6, 2005 by Inter Press Service
India: Calls to Ban GM Crops Intensify After Rats Suffer
by Ranjit Devraj
NEW DELHI - Environmentalists and food security activists in India have renewed calls for a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) foods and crops after rats reportedly secretly tested with GM corn diets by the U.S. agribusiness and biotech giant Monsanto developed blood and organ abnormalities.
Monsanto's tests are already the subject of brewing controversy in Europe, where the transnational corporation is facing increasing resistance to its products and where legal initiatives are being mounted to compel bureaucrats to make public the full results of the tests.
So far, Monsanto has maintained that its 1,139-page report could not be revealed, even to the European Food Safety Authority, on the grounds that it ''contains confidential business information which could be of commercial use to our competitors.''
In India, a country with 600 million farmers, the results of the tests have been appended to public interest litigation filed in May seeking Supreme Court intervention in India's own GM program by a group of prominent anti-GM activists, including Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security and P.V. Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), based in southern Andhra Pradesh state.
While the litigation is pending Sharma has teamed up with Suman Sahai, who leads the internationally known group Gene Campaign, to demand that the government urgently publish all food and feed safety research on GM crops in India, including cabbage, cauliflower, brinjal (aubergine), potato, tomato and staples like rice.
''The methodology used must be made known, as also the laboratories where safety tests are conducted, and all decisions on GM crops and foods taken in accordance with the provisions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which already requires public participation and to which India is signatory,'' Sharma said in an IPS interview.
Both Sharma and Sahai said it is becoming increasingly important that food and feed safety data not be accepted from companies, but generated in government laboratories and in a transparent manner.
Although India has a string of well-established agricultural laboratories that compare to the finest in the world, Indian authorities had chosen to accept data generated by Monsanto before accepting the company's GM cotton for large-scale cultivation -- and this has already proved disastrous for farmers growing the crop.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) last month banned two varieties of Monsanto's GM cotton for use in southern Andhra Pradesh state, where farmers have committed suicide by the hundred after severe crop failures last year.
And in retaliation for the refusal of Mahyco-Monsanto (the Indian subsidiary) to compensate the farmers, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YSR Reddy last week ordered the company blacklisted in his state. He has also demanded that state authorities be consulted before the GEAC grants approvals for cultivating GM crops in Andhra Pradesh.
''Reddy's courageous decision will serve as an eye-opener for the Parliamentary Select Committee that is presently examining the controversial Seed Bill 2004. The proposed bill allows the seed industry to escape free without paying any compensation for any crop losses. All it suggests is that in case of crop failures, farmers should knock on the doors of the consumer courts,'' said Sharma.
According to Sharma and Sahai, more than growing GM crops in India, the central government needs urgently to address the loosely regulated import of GM foods into this country until clear safety data generated independently and subjected to a public risk-benefit analysis is available.
Both said the question must be asked in this country why transnationals are gaining a reputation for being eager to force genetically altered foods on unsuspecting populations and then shying away from making public the results of research trials -- as Monsanto appears to be doing in the case of the secret trials on rats with GM corn.
In the United States itself, the Center for Food Safety has alerted the Environmental Protection Agency on the Monsanto trials and said that the rat study showed ''unreasonable adverse effects,'' and these should have been drawn to the attention of regulators, because failure do to do so was a potentially criminal offence.
The activists suggest that the Monsanto study should be reason enough for a serious overhaul of a draft Biotechnology Policy drawn up by the Indian government and which has been criticized as jettisoning the elements of precaution, safety and public participation.
They feared that if the new policy is passed, health effects of the kind reported in the leaked Monsanto study would not even be detected since there is no requirement for testing. Entire populations could be exposed to untested foods and it would be too late should health impacts be detected, they said.
''In a country where there is a 50-million-ton food grain surplus there is little reason to invest in costly technology which is of doubtful value and which increasingly is found to be risky,'' said Sahai.
''India is a storehouse of food and agricultural diversity and has many options to offer for food and nutritional security. There appears little reason to opt for potentially dangerous GM foods especially when regulations are demonstrably weak,'' she added.
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