Lies, Lies And More Lies

Lies, Lies And More Lies

by Shanthu Shantharam - Thursday, December 31, 2015 11:46 PM IST
Lies, Lies And More Lies

Anti-GM activists rely on something called “parallel science”, whose conclusions have been rigorously reviewed by mainstream scientists and leading regulatory bodies, and have been declared invalid.

It is again that time when the India’s usually-in-slumber apex biotechnology regulatory body, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has woken up, dusting itself off to decide whether to approve genetically modified (GM) mustard, an oil crop of considerable economic significance to the country. GM Mustard was developed by the research group of Dr Deepak Pental, former Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University, with funding from the National Dairy Development Board.

Just like Bt Brinjal, which has been put on the back burner permanently, thanks to the shenanigans of former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, there is a very good chance that GM Mustard will be another tragic victim of the political vacillations of the GEAC.

It is no fault of the scientific members of the GEAC, but is the singular fault of Jairam Ramesh for having hijacked the decision making process of a statutory body at the behest of the anti-GM malcontents and other environmental activists, just to please his madam boss who was presiding over the NGO-packed National Advisory Committee (NAC) that was making all decisions for the UPA government.

Not only did Jairam Ramesh take over the final decision making unconstitutionally, but also emasculated the GEAC by changing its name from an “approval” committee to an “appraisal” committee. He was hailed as a national hero by the environmental activists for this courageous action. Since then, GEAC has not done much to regulate agricultural biotechnology in the country.

Lies, Lies And More Lies

This moribund state of the GEAC suits the anti-GM lobby fine as this achieves its avowed goal of tying up technology products in the regulatory quagmire, and hope that the whole technology dies off in due course of time. There was a great deal of hope that the new NDA government was going to brave these environmental activists and take a bold decision.

It has been already 18 months into the new political dispensation in Delhi, but there seems to be no sign of any bravery on this front although it has come down really hard on Greenpeace, a notorious international NGO that is disingenuously in the forefront of the anti-GM campaign all over the world.

Greenpeace is also known to support literally hundreds of small rural-based grassroots NGOs to campaign against GM crops technology. To the credit of these malcontents, they really have created a strong public antipathy toward GM crops in the country.

The latest entrants into the fray are two outfits, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), the two members of the “sangh parivar” who are talking unscientific rubbish about GM crops just like many other anti-GM Luddites.

BKS and SJM seem like they are in no mood to listen to any scientific reasoning. It is the opposition of these two groups that is really making the present Environment Minister hesitate to take a bold decision on GM crops, notwithstanding his statement in Parliament as to how one cannot stop science. A lot was expected from him, but he is turning out to be a disappointment.

The GEAC met on December 11, 2015 to decide on GM Mustard, but no one knows what happened as it is under wraps. The committee has asked Dr. Pental to make a presentation on his product at its next meeting, but the why and what of it is not clear. This product is now almost 10 years old, has undergone all internationally mandated tests and there are reams of data available based on which approving it should be a no-brainer, but to no avail.

The anti-GM lobby led by the voluble Vandana Shiva started a “do not approve GM Mustard” signature campaign on and collected almost 10,000 signatures as against the promised 25,000. On the other hand, the scientific community was able to muster just about 100 signatures for its petition to appeal to GEAC to approve GM Mustard.

As usual, Shiva’s petition comprises all those longstanding lies about GM crops technology plus more. The irony of the situation is that these lies about the safety, utility and environmental risks of GM crops have been repeated so many times and for so long that people have come to believe in them. This is another famous tactic of the anti-GM lobby the world over. Scientists are no match for the brazen anti-GM lobby about science.

It is not that the anti-GM lobby does not have science on its side. It does, and it is called “parallel science” created by a handful of anti-GM scientists like Terje Traavik of Norway, Judy Carmen of Australia, Jack Heinemann of New-Zealand, Eric Seralini of France, Pushpa Bhargava of India, and Angelina Hilbeck of Switzerland. These scientists’ negative researches have been rigorously reviewed by the mainstream scientists and leading regulatory bodies, and have been declared invalid.

In certain cases like that of Eric Seralini’s, papers have been canceled or withdrawn from scientific journals. It is this invalid science that the Indian anti-GM lobby flaunts all the time to prove that GM crops are unsafe and risky. None of these scientists’ positions or views or their scientific data are given any recognition by the mainstream science.

It is just the opinions of this handful of scientists of the anti-GM lobby versus leading scientific academies and regulatory bodies of the world, and usually a sound regulatory body like GEAC will have to make its decision based on international standards of safety and the scientific consensus on the biosafety and environmental risks of GM crops.

Lies, Lies And More Lies

The real tragedy of India’s crackling democratic polity is that the anti-GM activism is heard loudly because some sections of the media amplify them. The anti-GM lobby is blind to stagnating agricultural productivity. Narendra Modi, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, had expressed complete satisfaction over the performance of Bt Cotton in the state, and clearly wanted more such technologies to improve the farmers’ lot.

Bt Cotton has transformed a cotton-laggard India into the No 2 net exporter in the world. This is the kind of transformation that GM Mustard is expected to usher in India, if only the government allows it for commercialization. If large-scale genetic modification is deployed in the case of major field crops, fruits and vegetables, it is estimated that $100 billion worth of exports per annum can be realized.

Shiva’s contention against GM seeds is that they are poisonous and should not be allowed into a developing country’s agriculture sector as most of such seeds are produced by multinational seed companies that wish to enslave our farmers and debase centuries-old traditions in agriculture. She accuses MNCs of imposing “food totalitarianism” on the world.

According to her, the war against agricultural biotechnology is a war against giant seed companies that push for industrial agriculture, monoculture and create a world of death. She promotes biodiversity, greater care of the soil, more support for traditional agriculture and agriculturists.

Michael Specter, author of “Seeds of Doubt” in the The New Yorker in August 2014 clearly shows that between 1996 and 2014, GM crops were planted on 1.7 million acres, an unprecedented rate of adoption of any new technology anywhere in the world. Shiva told Specter that Green Revolution destroyed India’s way of life.

In The Violence of Green Revolution, Shiva writes that the Green Revolution was responsible for killing Indian farmers and continues to maintain that recent episodes of farmer suicides are due to the debt incurred due to Green Revolution technologies that did not work.

Suman Sahai, founder of a farmer rights organization, the Gene Campaign, holds more or less the same view. Sahai, a trained plant geneticist, also believes in the scientifically nonsensical genetic pollution or genetic contamination. Pushpa Bhargava believes that all public health problems in the world are due to the large-scale commercialization of GM crops in the US.

He draws a ridiculous analogy between the problem of obesity in the US and GM crops becoming commercialized in 1996. For a “founding father” of India’s biotechnology programme, he seems to be oblivious of the need to demonstrate any cause-and-effect relationship.

A simple correlation is not scientifically acceptable. But, the anti-GM lobby in India goes on merrily without being challenged. For that they need to appear on a credible scientific platform, which they will never do. Few agricultural experts knowledgeable in the field accept this interpretation.

What is clear through empirical data analysis is that but for the Green Revolution, millions would have died in South Asia, which is why Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1970s. But these arguments against the Green Revolution have been extended to GM technology by the anti-GM firmament.

Scientifically, it has been shown that genetic engineering is an extension of classical plant breeding technologies, a lot more precise set of tools to manipulate gene-coding DNA. The latest technology to arrive on the scene is the gene editing technology that is even more accurate and targeted to get rid of unwanted DNA-coded traits.

It will only be a matter of a few more years before genome-edited crops will be grown all over the world, as such plants have already been declared non-GMOs (genetically modified organism). One can bet that India’s anti-GM lobby will fight hard to stop gene-edited crops as well.

The anti-GM lobby’s contention is that biotech seeds are patented and therefore become too costly for the poor farmers to afford. But, that is far from the truth. Seeds account for less than 3 per cent of the total cost of all inputs. Indian farmers do not complain about the costs of input when once they know that this is the best seed available and they can reap profits by planting them.

The only people who complain are the anti-tech activists without doing any proper cost analysis. They also complain of genetic pollution of native varieties from GM crops, which is unscientific nonsense.

Almost all anti-GM folks believe in organic agriculture and they have been active at the state level in India to convince gullible politicians that organic agriculture can feed the world and give food security. This is not accepted by most established agricultural scientists. Most farmers’ organizations in India, including BKS and SJM, are champions of organic farming, and organic farming completely prohibits the use of GM seeds.

So, if the country accepts organic farming, there is no place for GM technology, and therefore they want it to be banned. India will pay a heavy price if they heed the anti-GM lobby on organic farming, a niche mode of cultivating crops on a small scale or in kitchen gardens.

If GM crops contaminate organic crops, then it would have to be a legal-political construct, and not scientific. Not a single organic crop anywhere in the US or Canada or Europe has been decertified because of GM contamination. Organickers insist on 100 per cent purity that is absolutely free of GM, but quietly accept pesticide-contaminated organic crops.

Organickers like Vandana Shiva and Aruna Rodrigues, another organicker who is fighting a case in the Supreme Court against GM crops, have business interests to protect. That is true of organickers all over the world. It is essential to stop organickers from creating a controversy where none exists.

Anti-GM activists use bombastic language to denigrate modern science and modern scientists who are striving to use cutting-edge technologies to solve egregious agricultural problems. They call scientists murderers and thieves, and Devinder Sharma, another anti-GM crops crusader, wants all members of GEAC to be put behind bars.

Vandana Shiva termed Mark Lynas, a recent pro-GM convert after being a long-time anti-GM crusader, as someone who would allow “freedom to rape” because her organic crops could be pollinated by GM pollen.

She has used the term “seed slavery” comparing it to black slavery in the US. Gordon Conway, former head of Rockefeller Foundation’s agricultural programme, is amazed at how people are suckered by Shiva’s lies and innuendos about GM crops.

The anti-GM crowd treats anyone who supports GM crops technology as an industry hack bought and paid for, and dismisses all leading regulatory agencies as handmaidens of the mighty biotech industry lobby. For them, a good regulatory body is one that will buy into the world of parallel science and stop the release of GM seeds even for testing purposes. If a regulatory agency clears a GM seed, then it is incompetent and corrupt. The anti-GM lobby has not seen a good regulator yet in the world. No wonder they hailed Jairam Ramesh as a national hero when he stopped Bt Brinjal.

Almost all anti-GM gangs in India are given to aggressive lying and misleading the general public and gullible politicians. In a post-colonial country, a war cry of the freedom movement seems to come in handy to drive home their campaign against GM seeds produced by MNCs. It is akin to believing in “local” (made in India) anesthesia.

The government of India invests millions of dollars on biotech research and public sector institutions have developed or are developing dozens of GM crops, Bt Brinjal and GM Mustard being the best examples. All the national academies of science have fully endorsed GM crops for Indian agriculture.

In matters of science and technology, it is best evaluated by experts, instead of relying on environmental activists’ bombast and sloganeering. Indian agriculture is in dire need of new technologies to improve its productivity, and face challenges of food security. The nation must not be denied the best possible safe technology that is available and affordable.

Shanthu Shantharam is a Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. A former biotechnology regulator with the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Shantharam has served as a consultant to UN-FAO, UNIDO, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank. He was responsible for initiating the development of India’s biotech regulations in the early 1990s when he was a Fulbright Scholar at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

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