Biotech industry is aggressively supporting GM food
After scientists and politicians, it is now the turn of biotech pharmaceutical industry to stand up in defence of genetically modified (GM) crops and foods. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman and Managing Director of Biocon, is the latest to board the bandwagon. In an interview to the Bangalore Mirror (October 20, 2009) (http://www.bangaloremirror.com/index.aspx?Page=article§name=News%20-%20City§id=10&contentid=20091020200910200013214377ec3f118), she has offered a six-course feast on how the pro-biotech propaganda works at its best - a bundle of unscientific assertions.
Donning the cap of a scaremongering activist, Mazumdar-Shaw raises the bogey of doubling agriculture production to meet the food requirements of the nation by 2050. She believes that increasing food production is THE problem and not crop management. As a way out, she asserts that production can be increased through the application of GM technologies. Further, pest-resistant GM crops will reduce the application of pesticide and thereby would be less stressful on the ecosystem.
As is the wont, most controversial technologies in agriculture are pushed in the name of alleviating poverty or increasing production, GM crops being no exception. Every scientist worth her/his mettle knows that yield enhancement is a multi-gene phenomenon and till date there is no clear understanding as to how it happens in nature. Yield increases cannot be achieved by merely tinkering with or inserting some alien gene(s) into the plant. In fact, despite vigorous efforts, not a single GM crop developed till date worldwide can increase yield. Yet several distinguished scientists, including business leaders like Mazumdar-Shaw, never shy from peddling this lie. This misconception in turn is considered gospel truth by politicians, policymakers, and the media. That is how and why GM-spin works so effectively across the globe.
Yield increases cannot be achieved by merely tinkering with or inserting some alien gene(s) into the plant. In fact not a single GM crop developed till date worldwide can increase yield
Contrary to Mazumdar-Shaw's assertion that crop management is not the reason for declining food production, many scientists and experts across the globe are questioning the production system adopted by India way back in the 1960s. Termed as the Green Revolution, while this technology helped India achieve self sufficiency in food grain production, it also left behind a trail of ecological devastation. Severely eroded natural resource base has caused yield levels to plateau and dip. It is therefore surprising that Mazumdar-Shaw does not call for drawing sobering lessons from this experience. Instead, she believes that yet another technological quick fix - GM crops - will help.
In addition to an unsound model of crop production, a major issue of concern is diversion of prime agriculture land which in turn is impacting food production. In the name of "development", hundreds of thousands of hectares of agriculture land is being acquired by authorities to set up industries, dams, highways, etc. The 90 acres of land where Biocon Park is situated on the outskirts of Bangalore was designated a SEZ in 2005 (more than 2 hundred thousand hectares of land have been earmarked to set up SEZs across the country). Does this sort of land grab not affect food security?
Mazumdar-Shaw also takes a dig at activists saying they ought to support GM crops because application of pesticides will go down. It is nothing but an attempt at reaching a bipartisan consensus: if you do not like pesticides you must love GM crops! In any case, experience worldwide has shown that use of chemicals has gone up with the introduction of GM crops.
The lies do not end with increased productivity and lesser application of chemicals alone. Mazumdar-Shaw says, "GM crops are in layman's speak, nothing but accelerated natural evolution which is also what hybridisation technology is all about". A tenth grade student of biology would also sit up in disbelief: when was the last time in nature bacteria mated with a cotton or egg-plant? or human beings with maize? or an arctic fish with tomato? A scientist equating the process of hybridisation with genetic manipulation wherein an alien gene is being inserted is being patently dishonest with science.
Sidestepping the issue of bio-safety, Mazumdar-Shaw says that there are plenty of peer-reviewed independent studies that establish the safety of GM crops. While most of these reports have been prepared by GM crop developers themselves, the fact also is that there are numerous studies that suggest otherwise. She then further beats up support for those engaged in GM research by saying, "Scientists developing GM crops are all committed to safe science. I do believe every scientist can hold his hands on his heart and vouch for the safety of GM crops."
Yes, there are many scientists engaged in research and development of GM crops who live with a clear conscience. In 1998 Dr. Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute, Scotland publicly announced that his research demonstrated harm to rats fed on GM potato. He was dismissed. In 1998, Dr. Shiv Chopra along with two co-workers testified to the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry that they were pressurised by senior colleagues to approve the genetically modified Bovine Growth Hormone. In 2004 all three whistleblowers were fired.
Intimidation of scientists is becoming so regular that even conscientious ones are hesitant to step up and speak the truth.
Dr. Ignacio Chapela of University of California, Berkeley, reported contamination of wild Mexican Maize with GM Maize in Nature; under pressure from the biotech industry, the prestigious journal retracted the paper - a first in the journal's history. Chapela also criticised the close ties between the university and the biotech industry and was denied a tenure in 2003 (he was finally awarded tenure in 2005 after a public outcry against UCB). In April 2009, Andrés Carrasco, scientist at the Argentine Ministry of Sciences, announced that the herbicide glyphosate, which is widely applied on GM herbicide tolerant crops, can cause brain damage as well as intestinal and heart damage in foetuses. He is facing a smear campaign by biotech corporations and their local allies.
Such cases of intimidation of scientists are becoming so regular that even conscientious ones are hesitant to step up and speak the truth. It is therefore not surprising that hardly any serving scientist in India has ever publicly spoken out against GM crops and foods. The fear of research grants being frozen, derision in public by colleagues and peers, or losing their jobs weighs higher than their conscience. One therefore finds it difficult to share Mazumdar-Shaw's confidence in scientists. After all, is it not the same breed of agriculture scientists who routinely vouch for the safety of pesticides and chemicals in our food?
While asserting that Bt Cotton is bringing prosperity to Indian farmers, Mazumdar-Shaw shies away from stating the obvious. Only a small bunch of medium and large farmers have benefited while small and marginal farmers, who constitute 80 per cent of the farming population, have largely been bypassed. Bt Cotton has spiked cost of inputs and thereby indebtedness. However there is not a kind word for the thousands of indebted Bt Cotton farmers of central and western India who killed themselves with pesticide bought on borrowed money.
While batting for GM crops and their developers, Mazumdar-Shaw must ponder on drawing a distinction between GM pharmaceuticals, a major area of interest of Biocon, and GM crops and foods. If something goes wrong with GM pharmaceuticals, it can be recalled from the shelves, as was done when a GM food supplement - L. Tryptophan - killed 37 people and permanently disabled 1,500 more in USA. In the case of a GM crop, once it is released into the environment, it can never be recalled, which is why there are calls for long-term impact assessment which have fallen on deaf ears. Mazumdar-Shaw's advocating "responsible introduction" of GM crops sounds great so long as there is some "responsible expression" of science instead of lies and deception.