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India's leaders bow to biotech business pressure, put consumers, farmers, agro-ecology at risk

By Binayak Rajbhandari

(Friday, Feb. 28, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) – In spite of the devastating impacts of genetically modified cotton and rapeseed on farms, farmers and the environment in India, the government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) recently decided to allow imports of genetically modified foods on a case-by-case basis. This confirms that India's leaders are bowing to pressure from foreign aid agencies and multinational biotechnology corporations, focused primarily on their profit, to import, distribute and sow genetically modified food and seed. Cast aside are scientists' and farmers' criticism that pushing ahead full throttle with agricultural biotechnology will destroy our ethno-cultural heritage, landscape and deplete agro-biodiversity.

Scientific concerns

On the heels of the government decision to allow transgenic food import, top nutrition experts pointed out the absence of systems to adequately assess human health risks or even to detect unapproved genetic modifications. Ramesh V Bhat, Deputy Director of India's Food and Drug Toxicology Research Centre at the National Institute of Nutrition, says that while kits are available to detect approved genetic modifications, there is no way of knowing if an unapproved variety is being slipped in.

Experts from the Indian Council of Medical Research's foremost institution of nutrition also add that they need to go through "complete risk assessment." However, they say doing that is difficult or impossible given that the purveyors of biotechnology classify their transgenic creations as confidential business information. The department of biotechnology under the Government of India has initiated projects that will help with the detection of genetic modifications. However, Kamala Krishnaswamy, former director and emeritus medical scientist at the Institute of Nutrition, says the process is not easy and that biotech foods should be labeled with information that includes the country of origin.

In addition to labeling, experts say the government should ensure that the onus of safety rests with the company, just as in the case of drugs. The scientific community on the Indian subcontinent fears that unapproved transgenic foods have already entered the country. They point to the recent importation of U.S. genetically modifed corn-soya blend for distribution amongst schoolchildren and the poor by Catholic Relief Services and CARE-India as a prime example. There were apprehensions that the U.S. food consignment could contain traces of transgenic StarLink corn, which the Indian government hasn't approved.

Lessons unlearned

In 1994, the Indian government commissioned its National Institute of Agricultural Botany and Laboratory of the Government Chemist to monitor the first agricultural releases of genetically modified oilseed rape for three years. In 1997, the government ordered the extension of the project; it was to include the previously studied sites and new ones larger than 1 hectare. The field trial results indicated that commercial-scale releases of transgenic canola could cross-pollinate with conventional varieties to varying degrees, depending on environmental, varietal and agronomic factors.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Dr. Stanley Ewen, a consultant histopathologist at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, reported in December 2002 that the cauliflower mosaic virus commonly used in the genetic modification process could increase the risk of stomach and colon cancers. He called for the health of people living near the farm-scale trials of GM crops in Aberdeenshire, Ross-shire and Fife to be monitored. Their food and water might be contaminated by transgenic material, he said, which could hasten the growth of malignant tumors. In his submission to the health and community care committee of Scottish Parliament Ewen expressed "great concern" about the use of the mosaic virus as a promoter in such foods.

The virus functions much like an engine, driving implanted genes to express themselves. But the virus is infectious and could act as a "growth factor" for polyps in the stomach or colon. The faster and bigger polyps grow, the more likely they are to be malignant, he added.

There are also risks in feeding genetically engineered feed, such as maize to cattle, he cautioned: "It is possible cows' milk will contain GM derivatives that can be directly ingested by humans as milk or cheese. Even a lightly cooked, thick fillet steak could contain active GM material."

Dr. Ewen acknowledges that 10 minutes of cooking or boiling, along with the action of stomach acids and enzymes, should destroy engineered proteins. But engineered fruits and vegetables often are consumed raw or lightly cooked, which would allow them to survive the action of the stomach: "It is possible that GM DNA could affect stomach and colonic lining by causing a growth factor effect with the unproven possibility of hastening cancer formation in those organs. The effects are caused not by just one 'bad' DNA fragment, but are a result of the reaction of plant cells to genetic engineering itself. All the major GM food plants currently produced could have the same effect when eaten."


Balkrishna Ajabrao Sawai, a farmer from the Jagona village in Hinghanghat district in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, cultivated GM cotton on his 8 acres (3.2 hectares) of land, and the returns were good until a couple of years ago. On October 30, he was found dead in his field. An autopsy revealed that he had committed suicide. When monsoons failed to materialize over two successive years and Sawai had barely enough money and crops to feed his family, much less repay a debt of Rs.50,000 to bankers and money lenders. Therefore, he ingested pesticides.

Thousands of farmers in the cotton belt of Maharashtra, India are familiar with this tragedy. Increasingly, they reach for the pesticide can as a way out of the misery. More than 80 suicides have been reported since May 2001 in 12 districts, primarily in the Vidarbha region of eastern Maharashtra. More deaths have been reported in 2002 than last year, possibly because a second crop failure and dipping cotton prices left farmers unable to repay their loans. This real story has revealed that GM cotton is not the option for poor farmers to get rid of their poverty, impacts of pesticide in the human health and environment is aside.

Why to say "No" to GM food?

Scientists predominantly use virus and antibiotic resistance genes to genetically engineer plants. Unfortunately, their process is based on the fundamentally flawed principle of genetic determinism, which holds that one gene expresses only one protein and does not influence the expression of other genes. This theory also says that other genes don't influence the expression of the gene that engineers inserted into a plant's genome. However, Dr. Arpad Pusztai claims to have incontestable evidence that this is not true and therefore all present genetically engineered crops are the products of the same imprecise and unpredictable technology that may harm both human health and the environment.

The risk assessment procedure for GM crops currently in place is not sufficiently robust to ensure public health and safety because the regulatory process is fundamentally imperfect. GM-foodstuffs are presently accepted based on their "substantial equivalence" to their non-GM counterparts. This concept is both unscientific and potentially dangerous because the present analytical methods used for establishing equivalence do not allow for the discovery of new antinutrients, toxins and allergens formed as the unintended consequence of the genetic transformation of the crops. This fault is compounded by the practice of the regulatory authorities' almost exclusive reliance on unpublished results of "in house" work of the biotech companies contained in their submissions. Even if these are scientifically valid, they should be transparent to the public and other scientists. The GEAC, India and other such committees in other South Asian countries should pay due consideration to these points.

The Indian government’s decision "to allow imports of genetically modified foods on a case-by-case" needs to be reversed in the interest of the people of Indian sub-continent. India has an open border and open market (seed and food exchange) with Nepal, a Himalayan country rich in biodiversity and unique ethno-cultural heritage and landscape. Any genetic invasion to India also threatens the agro-biodiversity, environment and human life in Nepal. A similar threat exists for the people of Bangladesh and Pakistan. I would therefore like to ask the scientific community and civil society groups as well as the governments of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to exert pressure to the Indian Government, particularly GEAC, to reverse the decision. All of us should use only one language-the language that has only two phrases: "No to GM food"; and "There is no space for GMO invasion in Indian sub-continent."

Binayak Rajbhandari directs the Himalayan College of Agricultural Sciences & Technology (HICAST) in Kathmandu, Nepal. You can contact him at hicast@wlink.com.np.