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High hopes from judiciary to check onslaught of GM food crops in India

By Bharat Dogra 

Since mid-October there has been widespread concern regarding hurried introduction of GM (genetically modified) food crops in India due to the approval of a GM/HT (herbicide tolerant) mustard crop by a regulating agency. Hence there was a feeling of great relief on November 3 when the Supreme Court of India asked the government to maintain the status quo and not to take any further precipitate action.
Such a decision was particularly welcome as the highly resourceful GM lobby had immediately gone on an overdrive of self-promotion soon after the unfortunate decision of the regulating agency, which has faced allegations of bias in the past. The effort of the lobbyists was to present the release of GM Mustard as a fait accompli, a highly undemocratic move which ignores the country’s parliament/parliamentary committees, the state governments and the higher judiciary, all of whom have played an important role in checking the big business driven moves on GM crops, with the Supreme Court specifically asking for any change in the government stand to be placed before it.
So it was good that the eminent public-interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan, appearing for Aruna Rodrigues, widely reputed for her long and courageous legal battle in the Supreme Court of India against GM crops, placed some important facts before the court, including those which recall significant aspects of the long, so far successful, struggle in India to keep away GM food crops in general and GM mustard in particular. Among other things, he quoted from the report of a Technical Experts Committee (TEC) which had firmly opposed the introduction of GM/HT Mustard in India after examining all aspects.
A question bothering many people is--When this issue had been examined in detail and settled only recently, then why has the GM lobby been so over-eager to restart the entire process of somehow pushing in GM Mustard, thereby opening the doors for other GM food crops as well in India. In fact such questions have been strongly raised even by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the RSS farmers’ wing, organizations which are known to be friendly to the union government on most issues, as they realize the irreversibility of the serious harm that will be caused to farming and food system by GM crops.
Some observations of TEC which were recalled by Prashant Bhushan in his court submission recently are —
“The conclusion of TEC is that HT crops would most likely exert a highly adverse impact over time on sustainable agriculture, rural livelihoods and the environment. The TEC finds them completely unsuitable in the Indian context.” (Page 71 of TEC)
In the case of HT crops, “the evidence of harm is significant. ‘Roundup’ (name of a highly controversial herbicide) is also a potent carcinogen, it causes mammary cancers in rats which are equivalent to breast cancers in humans.”
“Having examined the issue of HT crops in the detail required to arrive at a decision, the TEC recommends a complete ban on HT crops.” (Page 93).
These are very firm statements, not leaving room for doubt. If we look at the larger context of the more extensive worldwide campaign against GM crops, again any careful and discerning review would show that the evidence against GM crops is overwhelming. Although the highly resourceful GM lobby has endlessly tried to create confusion by citing only corporate interest oriented research, it is of course possible to distinguish fact from myth, truth from falsehoods.
In fact the Supreme Court of India and special observers/advisers selected by it have also contributed much to facilitating this process of establishing truth. Among these advisers was the eminent scientist, the late Prof. Pushpa M. Bhargava, Founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and the topmost expert on this subject in India with a great reputation for protecting public interest, who emphasized that there are over 500 research publications by scientists of indisputable integrity, that establish harmful impacts of GM crops on human, animal and plant health and on environment and biodiversity. As for the papers which support GM crops, Prof. Bhargava informed on the basis of his detailed study over several decades, that virtually all of them are by scientists who “ have a declared conflict of interest or whose credibility and integrity can be doubted.” Further, Prof. Bhargava has clearly recorded that it is the giant multinational companies trying to dominate the farming and food system who are the main force behind the spread of these crops. He also stated, giving examples, that widespread corrupt practices have been adopted in the course of these high-power efforts.
Prof. Bhargava had special words of timely warning for his own dear country and its farmers. He stated very clearly that the real aim of this attempt in India is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and thus food production. “With 60% 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.”
Ignoring very serious adverse implications of introducing GM food crops is fraught with very heavy irreversible risks for health of food consumers or all people (all the more so in the case of mustard which is used in so many food preparations on daily basis), for environment ( genetic contamination is irreversible) and for farmers’ livelihoods. Even farmers firmly opposed to GM crops with all their instability and hazards have genetic contamination thrust on them when a decision to introduce GM crops is taken. As many studies have shown ( in India, USA and elsewhere), the propaganda of high yield increases related to GM crops has proved to be false, and in addition farmers have been burdened with expensive seeds and expensive as well as hazardous agro-chemicals. Many details of these basic concerns have been highlighted in the context of India by organizations like gmfree India and ASHA Kisanswaraj in recent years. Several left- oriented farmer organizations have opposed GM crops in the past. It is good that some confusion regarding this that was created recently has been cleared now and the opposition of important left farmer organizations to GM food crops has been confirmed.
The serious concerns regarding GM crops are worldwide concerns but currently India has become the biggest target of the forces trying to somehow push high risk GM food crops into India. In the land of Mahatma Gandhi and Shahid Bhagat Singh, strong mobilization of people is certainly expected to oppose this, and people have high hopes from the judiciary in protecting Indian farming and food system.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food’, ‘14 Questions About GM Crops’ (plus its Hindi version) and /Protecting Earth for Children’

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