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MNCs, collaborators trying to spread GM crops to gain control over world food system

By Bharat Dogra 

As the issues of food safety and health hazards are extremely important, many people are very keen to know the reality of GM (genetically modified) crops but they feel confused by the fact that while on the one hand many scientific papers warn about the very serious risks of these crops, other papers associate these crops with several virtues.
Such a situation exists because of the massive resources of those multinational companies and their collaborators who are trying to spread GM crops to not just earn super profits but in addition also gain control of the world food system. If two very honest scientists conduct very honest research to present the reality regarding the high risk of GM crops, because of their huge resources, these corporations can somehow four others to give a contrary view. . All the time some of the most eminent scientists have been warning against GM crops but at the same time very powerful multinational companies along with their influential collaborators have been spending billions to spread their false claims to confuse people.
This confusion can be cleared by looking at what the most eminent scientist of India on this subject said shortly before his death. Our reference here is to Dr. Pushpa Bhargava. Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava was the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and in addition he was also the Vice Chairperson of the National Knowledge Commission. Many people’s science movements looked upon him as their mentor. He had been appointed by the Supreme Court of India as an observer in the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee as he was widely perceived to be not only a very accomplished expert on this issue and that too of the highest integrity but in addition he was also seen on the basis of his past record as a very strong and persistent defender of public interest.
Therefore it is very useful and interesting to see what this very senior scientist with a comprehensive understanding of this issue had to say about GM crops in an article written for a leading newspaper The Hindustan Times. First of all he made a strong and clear effort to break the myth which had been created by relentless manipulation by the very powerful forces trying to spread GM crops In India. According to this myth most scientific research supports GM crops. While demolishing this myth Dr. Bhargava wrote, “There are over 500 research publications by scientists of indisputable integrity, who have no conflict of interest, that establish harmful effects of GM crops on human, animal and plant health, and on the environment and biodiversity. For example, a recent paper by Indian scientists showed that the Bt gene in both cotton and brinjal leads to inhibition of growth and development of the plant. On the other hand, virtually every paper supporting GM crops is by scientists who have a declared conflict of interest or whose credibility and integrity can be doubted.”
In addition, in a review of recent trends titled 'Food Without Choice' (published in another leading newspaper The Tribune) Prof. Pushpa Bhargava drew pointed attention to the "attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political set-up and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools." Further he 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."
The strong stand of Dr. Bhargava against GM crops is supported by other eminent scientists in various parts of world. A group of eminent scientists organized under the Independent Science Panel have stated in very clear terms, "GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now."
The Independent Science Panel (ISP) is a panel of scientists from many disciplines and countries, committed to the promotion of science for the public good. In a document titled 'The case for a GMO-free Sustainable World' the ISP has stated further, "By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics. This was highlighted, in 2001, by the 'accidental' creation of a killer mouse virus in the course of an apparently innocent genetic engineering experiment. Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.”
Several scientists involved in studying the implications and impacts of genetic engineering got together at the International Conference on 'Redefining of Life Sciences' organised at Penang, Malaysia, by the Third World Network. They issued a statement (the Penang Statement, or PS) which questioned the scientific basis of genetic engineering. This statement said, "The new biotechnology based upon genetic engineering makes the assumption that each specific feature of an organism is encoded in one or a few specific, stable genes, so that the transfer of these genes results in the transfer of a discrete feature. This extreme form of genetic reductionism has already been rejected by the majority of biologists and many other members of the intellectual community because it fails to take into account the complex interactions between genes and their cellular, extracellular and external environments that are involved in the development of all traits.
"It has thus been impossible to predict the consequences of transferring a gene from one type of organism to another in a significant number of cases. The limited ability to transfer identifiable molecular characteristics between organisms through genetic engineering does not constitute the demonstration of any comprehensive or reliable system for predicting all the significant effects of transposing genes."
At a time when more and more people in the world are becoming concerned about the serious health risks and numerous other adverse impacts of genetically modified (GM) crops and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the enormously powerful billion dollar GMO multinationals tried again to introduce confusion and uncertainty in public mind by coming up with the concept of gene-edited crops and claiming that these should not be subject to the same restrictions as GM crops. However in July 2018 the highest court in Europe ruled that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same strict rules and regulations as GM crops.
Earlier a review of the legal and scientific facts surrounding this debate by Dr. Janet Cotter and Dr. R. Steinbrecher (published in the Ecologist) had concluded, “ It is clear that gene-edited crops and animals need to be assumed as GMOs in the same way as current GM crops.” The court verdict is along similar lines.
With gene editing researchers can add, delete or modify bits of an organism’s genome. The European Court said that any crops edited using CRISPR or other gene-editing techniques must abide by the same laws restricting the use of GMOs. More specifically the Court concluded it “ considers that the risks linked to the use of these new mutagenesis techniques might prove to be similar to those that result from production and release of a GMO through trans-genesis ,since the direct modification of the genetic material of an organism through mutagenesis makes it possible to obtain the same effects as the introduction of foreign gene into the organism (trans-genesis) and these new techniques make it possible to introduce genetically modified varieties at a rate out of all proportion to those resulting from the application of conventional methods of mutagenesis.”
Welcoming the court verdict Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU’s food policy director said, “Releasing these new GMOs into the environment without proper safety measures is illegal and irresponsible, particularly given that gene editing can lead to unintended side-effects… The European Commission and the European governments must now ensure that all new GMOs are fully tested and labeled, and that any field trials are brought under GMO rules.” A spokesperson of Friends of the Earth said, “We applaud the European Court of Justice for this forward looking decision.”
In the context of the increasing threats from climate change, it is also important to emphasize that GM crops aggravate the problems and difficulties relating to climate change. In a letter written to the Prime Minister of India in 2009 at the height of the Bt brinjal debate, as many as 17 distinguished scientists from the USA, Canada, Europe and New Zealand pointed out that the claims relating to higher yield and protection of environment made for GM crops are absolutely false. Due to various problems of GM crops, their spread has been highly limited. This letter says, “More than 95 percent of all GM crops are engineered to either synthesize an insecticide (Bt toxin) or to tolerate a broad spectrum herbicide (e.g. Roundup, Liberty) or both.
“...The basic problem is that GM as employed in agriculture is conceptually flawed, crude, imprecise and poorly controlled technology, that is incapable of generating plants that contain the required multiple, co-ordinately regulated genes that work in an integrated way to respond to environmental challenges.
“...GM has not increased yield potential. Yields from GM crops to date have been no better and in the case of GM soya have been consistently lower…GM crops have led to vast increases in pesticide use, not decreases and therefore reduction of agricultural pollution cannot be claimed.
“...Climate change brings sudden, extreme, and unpredictable changes in weather, which requires that a cropping system be flexible, resilient and as genetically diverse as possible. GM technology offers just the opposite.
“...Stability of productivity and production is much lower with many of the GM crops commercialized today. Herbicide tolerant GM soya is far more sensitive to heat or drought stress than conventional soya.
“...GM crops are designed to be used in conjunction with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, which are manufactured from oil and natural gas.
“GM crops do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Recent data from the US department of agriculture has shown a vast increase in herbicide use since the introduction of GM crops tolerant to the application of these agrochemicals.
“Therefore, the introduction of GM crops has exacerbated rather than reduced agriculture’s carbon footprint and is clearly unsustainable.
“Alternative proven technologies that can reduce the amount of fossil fuel used in farming already exist. This includes methods for reducing fertilizer applications, selecting farm machinery appropriate for each task, managing soil for conservation, limiting irrigation and (using) agro-ecological farming techniques.”
While decentralized farm policies are always good, these are all the more so in times of climate change when weather becomes more uncertain, the phenomenon of freak weather is often seen and weather conditions even within a small region may differ. Hence farmers should be in a better position to make changes in farm decisions in rapidly changing conditions on their own instead of relying on over-centralized systems which may not be in a position to respond to their specific needs, or else their response may be too delayed, or else their response may be influenced by commercial considerations of corporate interests. GM crops being part of highly centralized systems controlled generally by multinational companies and their affiliates are ill suited for times of climate change.
One of the main problems for farmers, particularly small and medium farmers, which has led to crisis conditions and indebtedness relates to imposition of expensive technologies requiring high input expenses and disrupting their practices of higher self-reliance. This trend can increase greatly further with the spread of GM crops as this is a technology controlled by multinational companies which try to impose expensive seeds and agro-chemicals as a package involving patents and high profits. There is hardly any escape for farmers who get caught in this system of high costs and debts.
Hence while the case against GM crops in any case is very strong, it becomes even stronger when examined in the context of climate change. The entire system of GM cops is a system of heavy dependence for farmers, that too on corporate interests for fleecing farmers. Instead what farmers really need are systems of increasing self-reliance of farming communities, a requirement highly compatible with systems of agro-ecology.
While several reputed scientists of great integrity have consistently spoken against GM crops and a lot of evidence regarding their harmful impacts has accumulated, one argument that has been often used to still promote their spread is that after all GM crops have been spread the most widely in the USA, and so there must have been some case for allowing such wide approval. The reality is that the way in which GM crops have been approved in the USA presents an alarming case of collusion between government authorities and very high levels and big corporate interests. Both of them have seen patented, centralized GM crops as a means of increasing control on world farm and food system. Due to this reason and on the basis of this understanding between both sides a system of collusion and mutual support has evolved, leading to government regulators either neglecting their duty of careful scrutiny and regulation, or else they being removed to make room for other more pliable persons in regulation posts.
In this context it is very interesting and very useful to hear what Robert Kennedy, Jr., nephew of former President John Kennedy, has stated very recently in an interview regarding environment and health regulating authorities in the USA. Robert Kennedy Jr. has for long been a senior environmental lawyer who is widely admired for his uncompromising efforts to protect health and environment from the profit driven agenda of very powerful interests. He has stated (interview with Freddie Sayers, May 2023)-“I have spent 40 years litigating against the agencies, the regulating agencies in the US, so that I can tell you that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is effectively run by the oil industry, the coal industry and the pesticide industry. When I was on the trial team that brought the Monsanto cases, and we ended up with a $13 billion settlement after winning three trials, we uncovered that the head of the pesticide division at the EPA was secretly working for Monsanto and was running that agency to promote the mercantile ambitions of that business rather than the public interest. He was killing studies, he was fixing studies, he was ghost writing studies, and that is true throughout the agencies.”
As people's consciousness about the hazards of GM crops grew, many GM products from the USA were being refused by its trading partners. This alarmed 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 cannot 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 biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, USA) stated, "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 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.
What is even more important is that when scientists spoke against GM crops, their voice was stifled using several unethical ways. Jeffrey Smith reports in the context of the experiences in the USA, the country where GM crops have spread the most, “The FDA (the Food and Drug Administration of the USA) was fully aware that GM crops were meaningfully different. That, in fact, was the overwhelming consensus among the technical experts in the agency. The scientists agreed that genetic engineering leads to “different risks” than traditional breeding and had repeatedly warned their superiors that GM foods might create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects."
The scientists’ concerns were kept secret in 1992, when FDA policy was put into place. But seven years later, internal records were made public due to a lawsuit and the deception came to light. The agency’s newly released 44,000 pages revealed that government scientists’ “references to the unintended negative effects….were progressively deleted from drafts of the policy statement (over the protests of agency scientists.” They further revealed that "the FDA was under orders from the White House to promote GM crops and that Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney and later its vice president, was brought into the FDA to oversee policy development. With Taylor in charge, the scientists’ warnings were ignored and denied."
Due to the likely use of unfair means to speed up highly hazardous introduction of GMOs citizens need to be very vigilant on this issue of the greatest importance for food security, livelihoods and environment.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food

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