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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 28, July 3, 2010

Why are Multinational Companies So Keen to Push Hazardous GM/GE Crops?

Saturday 10 July 2010, by Bharat Dogra

Eminent scientists, who have examined the technology of genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GM) crops, have come to a clear conclusion that it is a highly hazardous and risky technology. For example, eminent scientists from several countries, who comprise the Independent Science Panel (ISP), have drawn this conclusion after studying various aspects of GM crops. “GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm.....GM crops should be firmly rejected now.”

Prof Marcello Buiatti (Plant Genetics Department, University of Florence) has summarised the experience of two decades of genetic engineering: “Plant and animal genetic engineering has developed only two products in more than twenty years—despite the research work of hundreds of thousands of highly skilled technologists and huge financial investments. It can, therefore, be considered the worst failure of the whole history of innovation in agriculture.”

Such examples of the opinion of eminent scientists about the serious risks and hazards of GM crops can be multiplied. The question that arises is: then why are some big multinational companies so eager to promote these hazardous and risky crops? The answer is that these companies are not interested in improving food security, they are only interested in tightening their grip over the world’s food and farming system so that they can squeeze huge profits out of it, regardless of any adverse impacts on farmers, consumers and environment. Hunger may worsen, fertile fields across vast areas may get contaminated, large number of unsuspecting people and animals may fall seriously ill—they are not seriously bothered about all these as long as they can tighten their control and increase their profits.

In fact if we look at the trends in world food and agriculture in the recent decades then these have been dominated by the increasingly desperate efforts of huge multinational companies to increase their dominance of the world food and farming system. The way in which patents were incorporated into the WTO agenda and so in a very clever way almost all countries were forced to change their patent laws in keeping with the interests of developed countries provides a glaring example of the high-powered forces at work to implement this agenda of dominance. The new patent laws helped the food and farming giants to tighten their grip on plants and seeds resources of the developing countries.

Genetic erosion of their plant wealth has also proved very expensive for farmers, particularly those based in developing countries. Due to the combined impact of destruction of natural forests, and the introduction of Green-Revolution type agriculture, which replaced local varieties over large areas by new monocultures, genetic erosion has been taking place on a massive scale even in the countries which have been the original source of much of the plant diversity. Soon thousands of varieties of plants were lost to these countries for ever. However, already several of these had been stored carefully in the labs and gene banks of the developed countries whose scientists had been engaged in these collections for several years. Suddenly, in the time span of a few decades, the natural advantage which some parts of the world had enjoyed for millions of years appeared to have been reversed.

Today several experts agree that most of collected genetic diversity is stored in gene banks in Europe and North America. In a handful of high-security institutions of these and a few other countries, the world’s most valuable raw material is stored, and it is unlikely that the countries of origin from where most of this material came will have free access to it.

Pat Roy Mooney brings out the glaring injustice of this situation thus: “It is a raw material unlike any other in the world. It has not been bought. It has been donated. It has been donated by the poor to the rich. The donation has been made under a noble banner proclaiming that genetic resources form a part of the heritage of all humanity, and thus can be owned by no one. But as the primary building blocks of agriculture, genes have incalculable political and economic importance. Industrialised governments —often overruling the intentions of their scientists—have come to hoard germplasm and to stock seeds as part of the arsenal of inter-national power diplomacy. Private companies in the North—although glad to receive free genes—are loath of divulge or share the adaptations they draw from these donations.”

IT was noticed about two decades back that the nature of the seed industry was changing in several countries, particularly the rich Western countries (although similar changes were soon noticed also in several developing countries). The seed industry had earlier been based on small firms. These firms were now being gobbled by big companies, especially companies which already had big stakes in agri-chemical industry —within a single decade, chemical corporations spent over $ 10 billion in buying up seeds companies. In fact the American Seed Trade Association even organised a special symposium on ‘How to sell your seed company’. Apprehensions were rightly voiced that a small number of giant companies will control seeds as well as agri-chemicals, and that the production of seeds can be given such an orientation as to require high and increasing amounts of agri-chemicals. According to one widely quoted estimate, at least 27 corporations had initiated 63 programmes to develop herbicide tolerant crops. Already a few multinational companies control a very considerable part of the international seeds sector and pesticides.

These trends were strengthened further by the developments in the controversial technology of genetic engineering. A very important part of genetic engineering research has been devoted to herbicide-tolerant plant varieties, for example, cotton which is tolerant to a herbicide called bromoxynil.

Soon the genetic engineering companies shifted to the even more obnoxious technology of introducing pesticide properties within the plants. About these trends, the Independent Science Panel has said: “Bt proteins, incorporated into 25 per cent of all transgenic crops worldwide, have been found harmful to a range of non-target insects. Some of them are also potent immunogens and allergens. A team of scientists has cautioned against releasing Bt crops for human use.”

Despite this clear view, shared by many eminent scientists, the main company involved is willing to go to any length—bribery, coercion, lies, manipulations to spread its obnoxious technology because its objective is not food security, its objective is only to tighten its grip on food and farming system.

Genetic engineering is so important in this quest for dominance as this complex and expensive technology is concentrated to a large extent in the hands of a few giant multinational companies and their subsidiaries. The story that started with snatching the plant resources of tropical/developing/poor countries, then proceeded with new patent/IPR laws, gets completed with genetic engineering. This is the carefully manipulated route which these companies, blessed by their governments in several cases (particularly the USA), have followed in their race for dominance of the world food system.

This quest for dominance is seen perhaps most clearly in the pursuit of what has been called the ‘terminator technology’. In a widely discussed paper (published in the Ecologist, September/October 1998), Ricarda A Steinbrecker (Science Director of the Genetics Forum, UK) and Pat Roy Mooney (widely acclaimed winner of the Right to Livelihood Award) summarise the implications of this most controversial use of genetic engineering:

“On March 3rd, 1998 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a little-known cotton-seed enterprise called Delta and Pine Land Company, acquired US patent 5,723,765—or the Technology Protection System (TPS). Within days, the rest of the world knew TPS as Terminator Technology. Its declared goal is to promulgate plants that will produce self terminating offspring-suicide seeds. Terminator Technology epitomises what the genetic engineering of food crops is all about and gives an insight into the driving forces behind the corporate campaign to control and own life.

“The Terminator does more than ensure that farmers can’t successfully replant their harvested seed. It is the ‘platform’ upon which companies can load their proprietary genetic traits—patented genes for herbicide-tolerance or insect-resistance and get the farmers hooked on their seeds and caught in the chemical treadmill.”

Further, this paper says: “Most alarming through is the possibility that the Terminator genes themselves could infect the agricultural gene pool of the neighbour’s crops and of wild and weedy relatives, placing a time bomb. Temporary ‘gene silencing’ of the poison gene or failed activation of the Terminator countdown enables such infection.

“Between 15 and 20 per cent of the world’s food supply is grown by poor farmers who save their seed. These farmers feed at least 1.4 billion people. The Terminator ‘protects’ companies by risking the lives of these people. Since Terminator Technology has absolutely zero agronomic benefit, there is no reason to jeopardize the food security of the poor by gambling with genetic engineering in the field. Whether the Terminator works immediately or later, in either instance it is biological warfare on farmers and food security.”

IT is good that several eminent scientists are now coming forward to warn their governments against the potentially disastrous impacts of this quest for dominance by powerful multi-national companies.

In a review of recent trends titled ‘Food Without Choice’ (Tribune, November 1), Prof Pushpa M. Bhargava (who was nominated by the Supreme Court of India in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to protect safety concerns), internationally acclaimed authority on this subject, drew pointed attention to the “attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified (GM) crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations (MNCs) (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political setup and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools”. Further, he has warned: “The ultimate goal of this attempt in India of which the leader is Monsanto, is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and thus food production. With 60 per cent of our population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would essentially mean not only a control over our food security but also over our farmer security, agricultural security and security of the rural sector.”

As people’s consciousness about the hazards of GM crops grew, many US products were refused by its trading partners. This alarmed the GM giants, and gave them additional reason to push GM crops in important developing countries so that alternative sources for supply of non-GM products, or products not contaminated by GM crops can not emerge. The crucial thing to understand is that the US Govt. and the big GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) companies there have established close links so that there are unwritten directives from the highest levels not to deny clearance to GMOs on environment, health and related grounds. Henry Miller, who was formerly in charge of biotechology at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, USA), says: “In this area, the US Government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked them to do and told them to do.”

This support given by the governments further greatly increases the power of the MNCs to push their hazardous products and technologies in their quest for dominance.

Corruption also enables MNCs to achieve quick results. People wonder why there has been a rapid spread of GM crops in the USA, even though several scientists (in addition to farmers and activists) have opposed GMOs there as well. An idea of the various forces responsible for this can be had from a complaint the US Securities and Exchange Commission had filed in the US courts stating that a leading GMO company had bribed 140 officials between 1997-2000 to obtain environmental clearances for its products. The company admitted this charge and paid a penalty of US $ 1.5 million.

A report by a major US financial risk assessor, Innovest, has stated: “It is understandable that the US Government has essentially taken the industry position on GE (Genetic Engineering) safety and labelling... US Government support for GE crops appears to stem from the fact that the crops are mostly US-developed and the GE companies have made substantial financial contributions to US politicians and political parties. This is not said as a criticism of politicians, but rather of the campaign finance-system, which allows politicians to accept money from the firms they are supposed to regulate. Money flowing from GE companies to politicians as well as the frequency with which GE company employees take jobs with US regulatory agencies (and vice versa) creates large bias potential and reduces the ability of investors to rely on safety claims made by the US Government. It also helps to clarify why the US Government has not taken a precautionary approach to GE and continues to suppress GE labelling in the face of overwhelming public support for it.”

Dr Pushpa Bhargava has written: “According to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Monsanto bribed at least 140 Indonesian officials or their families to get Bt cotton approved without environmental impact assessment. In 2005, the firm paid $ 1.5 million in fine to to the US justice department for the graft. This is one of the many penalties that Monsanto has paid in its country of origin in spite of its close ties with the US government and its various regulatory agencies.”

In the case of a genetically engineered drug to increase milk production, the FDA approved this drug despite being in possession of highly damaging information of its adverse impact on animal and human health. In 1990 The House Committee of the US investigated the issue and charged that the concerned company and the FDA “have chosen to suppress and manipulate animal health test data—in efforts to approve commercial use”.

DESPITE all this cronyism and corruption, it needs to be noted that in the USA GM crops have only been given the status of ‘GRAS’ or ‘Generally recognised as safe’ instead of the stronger, clearer clearance of ‘safe for human consumption’.

In India also linkages between officials and GMO companies can be seen in several instances such as the illegal release of GMOs to start with and the way in which estimates of damages suffered by Bt cotton crop were brought down. Unknown to most people and even neighbourhood farmers, several highly unsafe and questionable trials of GM crops were permitted.

Another serious concern is the efforts of MNCs to penetrate, influence, corrupt and dominate the national farm research. Seedling is considered one of the world’s best journals on seeds and farmers’ rights. In the context of the Bt brinjal episode, this journal recently wrote: “Indian farmers have good reason to be particularly concerned about this. They have for years in good faith allowed scientists to gather genetic material from their crops and store it in agricultural universities and research institutes.” All this cross-institute movement of plant material is making many ask some very fundamental questions: to whom do seed and crop materials really belong? Does the public sector National Agricultural Research System (NARS), entrusted with farmers’ varieties, have the power to pass on the material to private corporations? And even if there is acknowledgement of the years of local farming knowledge behind the folk varieties of brinjal by sharing any “benefits”, can the loss of pure, natural, genetically untampered —with indigenous varieties be reversed or recompensed? Most of all, can large corporations backed by their governments be allowed to take over farming?

There was also a series of “transfers” and “approvals”, which happened with characteristic lack of transparency. First, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources authorised Mahyco to import parental lines from Bangladesh, and then in 2007 the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), India’s main decision-making authority in this field, gave Mahyco clearance to send back the material, now genetically modified, to East West Seeds Bangladesh Ltd for seed distribution. Mahyco has operations in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. In other words, the NBA actually authorised a multinational company to use Indian germplasm to develop a GM product that would not only be used in India but also exported to India’s neighbours, endangering Asia’s biodiversity.

“Some farmers believe that Mahyco’s offer to ‘provide the technology free of cost’ to the NARS is nothing less than a ploy by the GM industry to penetrate the NARS and to leave farmers with little option but accept Mahyco’s products. For all the talk of the benefits of Bt brinjal, farmers clearly see that the introduction of this first GM food crop would start a process that would seriously jeopardise India’s food and farm systems and the biodiversity that sustains them. They are determined to struggle against it.” (Reproduced in Combat Law, March-April 2010—special issue on ‘Bt brinjal saga’)

In developing countries large-scale corrupt practices of these GMO companies have been documented. In India there are many tell-tale signs that this corruption has reached up to very high levels, including some ministers known to be very ruthless. So learning from Gandhiji, we should prepare for a nationwide satyagraha to save our nation from the very serious danger of GM/GE crops. No power on earth can be allowed to inflict such serious permanent damage on our people, our agriculture and our environment.

Due to the threat of contamination, it is difficult for normal crops or organic crops to remain free from the impact of GM crops once these have been released. As worldwide concern for food safety grows, it is likely that there will be increasing demand for organically grown crops and crops which are not contaminated by GM crops. Therefore we will be surrendering premium world markets if we allow our crops to be contaminated by GMOs. This is why organisations like those of rice exporters have also got involved in the campaigns against GMOs.

On the one hand many eminent scientists are rejecting these crops and their view is supported by the adverse reports from farmers. On the other hand the GE companies have invested billions and billions in using genetic engineering to tighten their grip on world food and farming system and squeezing it for record profits. In order to be able to do so, they’ve to make very serious hazards acceptable. They are investing billions in making their blatant lies appear as scientific truth. Their campaign is particularly strong in big countries like India because they want to destroy the capability of leading farming countries to supply GMO-free food to the world market. Only then these companies will be able to sell their hazardous crops and seeds, as there will be no alternatives.

So the stakes are very high for these giant multinational companies. But they are even higher for our people and farmers as our very survival, our future and the future of our children is threatened by GM crops. So we’ve to prepare for a big struggle along Gandhian lines to expose the lies of the GMO companies and to protect our food system.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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