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March Against Monsanto, Vancouver, Canada; May 25, 2013. (Photo: Wikipedia)

GMOs, Monsanto, and the Galileo Syndrome

Vandana Shiva

Speaking at the launch of the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the Energy and Resources Institute, Union minister of state for environment Prakash Javadekar said: “We have not said no to science. Nobody can say no to science. Yes we have to take proper caution, we have to take proper action. But you cannot deny it. We are not living in Galileo’s times. Galileo was telling the truth and he was punished.”

With genetically modified organisms, we could be having another Galileo moment. American biotechnology corporation Monsanto and its lobbyists are today’s Church. And independent scientists speaking the truth about GMOs and their impact on society, health and environment are today’s Galileos.

GMOs are mired in controversy because their introduction is based on violation of law, democracy and science.

In India, the debate on GMOs started with the illegal introduction of Bt cotton by American biotechnology corporation Monsanto in 1998.

It intensified when Monsanto/Mahyco tried to introduce Bt brinjal in 2010. And when the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh tried to introduced a moratorium, he was removed.

The debate returned when Jayanthi Natarajan was removed as environment minister in December 2013 because she refused to sign on the dotted line with the agriculture minister Sharad Pawar to allow GMO field trials in a joint affidavit to the Supreme Court in the GMO case.

M. Veerappa Moily succeeded her. Mr Moily rushed through approvals just before the term of United Progressive Alliance-2 was nearing its end.

Under the new National Democratic Alliance government, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) approved further trials on July 18. This was contrary to what the Bharatiya Janata Party had stated in its manifesto released on April 7, 2014: “GM foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on the long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers.”

In 1998, the MNC Monsanto — in collaboration with Mahyco — started illegal field trials of Bt cotton with the intention of commercialising it in India. As long as the genetic engineering is taking place in labs, the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) governs the approval. The moment trials are conducted in an open environment, as the case is with these trials, approvals should be sought from the GEAC governed by the ministry of environment and forests active under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

When Monsanto started field trials in 1998, it did not seek approval of the GEAC. So I filed a PIL on January 6, 1999. My NGO Navdanya also started a movement in August 9, 1998 with the call “Monsanto Quit India”. This is still our call because Monsanto and its GMOs can only exist in India by violating India’s democracy, laws and the independence and sovereignty of Indian science.

After a study of GMOs for over four years, the multi-party Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture had recommended for a ban on GM food crops in India stating they had no role in a country of small farmers. A PIL was filed in the Supreme Court by environmentalist Aruna Rodrigues to stop GMO field trials until independent assessment and a robust regulatory process evolved.

The Supreme Court appointed a technical expert committee (TEC) which recommended an indefinite moratorium on the field trials of GM crops till the government came out with a proper regulatory and safety mechanism, the same has not been done till date. So far, all assessments are done by the company itself and the results are cooked up. It was evident in the case Navdanya filed to challenge the illegal Bt cotton trials that pests like Aphids and Jassids were increasing, but the company reported no increase. It was clear in the case of Bt brinjal that there is impact of organ damage, but the company wrote “no impact”. That is why independent assessment is vital for biosafety.

Members of the SC/TEC include top scientists of India, who head high-level scientific institutes specialising in the diverse disciplines. Dr Imran Siddiqui of the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Prof. P.S. Ramakrishnan, professor emeritus at JNU, Prof. P.C. Kesavan Genetics Toxicology are a few names.

The scientific imperative demands that the recommendations of the highest scientific committee of the highest court of the land, the TEC, be implemented. The core recommendations are:

-Moratorium on GMO field trials “the examination/study of the safety dossiers, it is apparent that there are major gaps in the regulatory system. Till such time it would not be advisable to conduct more field trials.
-There should be a moratorium on field trials for Bt in food crops.
-Herbicide Tolerant Crops: The TEC finds them completely unsuitable in the Indian context and recommends that field trials and release of HT crops not be allowed in India.
-Crops in their centre of origin or diversity: The TEC recommends that the release of GM crops for which India is a centre of origin or diversity should not be allowed.

Among the GMO crops approved for field trials are rice, maize, chickpea, sugarcane and brinjal. India is a centre of diversity of all these crops except maize. The experience of GMO cotton has already shown us the high costs to farmers of GMO propriety seeds for which Monsanto collects royalties. GMOs have failed the socio-economic test.

We carried out a study on the soil impact of Bt cotton and found beneficial organisms had been destroyed. In the US, the destruction of beneficial soil organisms has led to emergence of pathogens which are leading to still births and abortions in animals that are fed GMOs as feed.

There is no consensus on safety of GMOs. Tumours, organ failure and damage to the digestive tract have been shown to be associated with GMOs by independent researchers across the world. Monsanto goes after every scientist doing independent research on safety.

Monsanto and the biotechnology industry keeps promoting illegal introduction of untested GMOs as “science”. Suppressing facts is not science. Manipulating truth is not science. Hounding scientists is not science.

Real science is based on full and independent investigations of GMOs on the socio-economic impact on small farmers, ecological impact on the environment, including biodiversity in soil, of pollinators, of plants and health impact on humans and animals. India needs to take up its own safety tests that do not need field trials and can be carried out in the lab.

I call for a moratorium on GMO trials, as recommended by the TEC appointed by the Supreme Court. All we are asking for is full scientific evaluation, in accordance with recommendations of TEC. The GMO lobby is trying to suppress the TEC recommendations. Is it an extension of the Galileo syndrome?


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Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a philosopher, environmental activist and eco feminist. She is the founder/director of Navdanya Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology. She is author of numerous books including, Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis; Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply; Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace; and Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. Shiva has also served as an adviser to governments in India and abroad as well as NGOs, including the International Forum on Globalization, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization and the Third World Network. She has received numerous awards, including 1993 Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) and the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize.

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