DR ANBUMANI Ramadoss, the Union Health Minister, is not just being targeted by smokers who feel their rights are being violated, but also by thousands of Indian consumers who feel strongly about Genetically Modified (GM) foods and want to tell him that they are not lab rats. As a unique consumer awareness campaign called ‘I Am No Lab Rat’, (www.iamnolabrat.com) launched by the Coalition for a GM-Free India, unfolds in city after city, the number of people writing to him daily is swelling.
The Health Ministry is represented in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC): One bureaucrat (a Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare), the Drug Controller- General of India, and a scientist from the Indian Council for Medical Research. However, there are no records of their participation in discussions on health safety within the GEAC. There is also no evidence of any independent research by the ministry on GM crops and their safety. In fact, the Health Ministry is getting inputs from a Canadian company called AGBIOS, with funding from USAID, on how our regulatory regime should be designed or modified (needless to say, to suit American interests)!
Meanwhile, adequate evidence exists of the adverse health impacts of foreign GM crops and foods. When foreign genes are inserted randomly into a host organism’s genome through genetic engineering, insertion-site as well as genome-wide mutations can occur. This results in changes at various levels, starting from protein networks. Studies with GM foods have found various adverse health effects like stunted growth, impaired immune systems, misshapen cell structures, liver and kidney lesions, reduced digestive enzymes, inflamed lung tissues, higher offspring mortality, etc. Further, genetic engineering is altering the nutritional composition of our foods. For instance, beneficial nutrients like phyto-estrogen compounds could be lower in GM than in non-GM foods.
In India, the industry claims that Bt Brinjal is ready to be introduced into the markets. Bt Brinjal is only one such crop in the pipeline — others like Bt Rice, Bt Tomato, Bt Cauliflower, Bt Cabbage, Bt Okra, GM Potato, GM Mustard, etc, are moving inexorably from stage to stage towards commercial release in India. As for Bt Brinjal, no such vegetable crop, one that is more or less directly consumed, has been allowed and cultivated anywhere else in the world.
India is the Centre of Origin and Diversity (COD) for Bt Brinjal, though this issue has been made into an unnecessary scientific controversy. There is a special context to this — other countries that are CODs for particular crops have active bans against genetically modified versions of those crops being tested in that country.For instance, Peru, the COD for potato, does not allow a GM version of this vegetable. Similarly with maize in Mexico. While literature on brinjal in India has more than unequivocally established that we are its COD, and while the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) has more than 2,200 accessions of brinjal in its germplasm collection, an expert committee on Bt Brinjal, set up by the GEAC, concluded otherwise. It is clear that the biotech industry and its supporters do not want an issue like COD to come in the way of Bt Brinjal.
AT ANOTHER level, there is also evidence within the Indian Council of Agricultural Research that there are non-chemical Integrated Pest Management methods for controlling major pests in brinjal crops that require neither chemical pesticides nor GM seeds. These include neem oil, pheromone traps, mechanical clipping of infested shoots, mass trapping using water traps, use of biological control agents, intercropping with coriander, etc. When there are such alternatives, why can’t the agricultural extension system advise farmers on the use of these safer, more affordable options? What makes the government look at genetic engineering as the only solution?
It is here that an understanding of the political economy of genetic engineering as a technology, and the corporate and trade forces behind it needs to be understood. It is the same political economy that, for decades, drove the belief that without chemical pesticides, farming would be impossible. It is ironic that the same entities that peddled agrochemicals are now talking about agrochemicals being bad for us, without being made liable for the environmental and health disaster caused so far. Without closing down the agro-chemical business, they would now like to sell GM seeds. GM seeds are part of the same treadmill-technologies culture that resulted in thousands of farmers in India committing suicide.
It is time that each Indian paused and asked — who is deciding about my food on my behalf? Are they trustworthy? Will they make decisions keeping the best interests of citizens in mind, and are they actually doing so? Are alternatives being ignored? And, am I being made a lab rat in a giant experiment?
Remember that if Bt Brinjal is allowed in, there will be no choices left for you — even if you do not want to consume Bt Brinjal, it will not look any different from normal brinjal when you go shopping for your vegetables. The only way to avoid Bt Brinjal would be to boycott brinjal itself. Are you ready to do that? How about the fact that after Bt Brinjal, the industry wants to introduce Bt Rice, Bt Tomato and other GM crops? Ready to give up your right to choose safe food? If not, then join thousands of other Indians who are letting the Union Health Minister know that they are not lab rats.
Kuruganti is Member-Secretary, Coalition for a GM-Free India