Millennium Post

‘Food Sovereignty’ and GM crops

It is a grave cause of concern; F. William Engdahl’s evocative book titled “Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation” seeks to suggest a sci-fi being played out on the world stage by the USA and four Anglo-American agribusiness giants: Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Agrisciences, and Syngenta, who are planning world domination by patenting animal and vegetable life forms and food by using it as a weapon of ultimate control. A case of controlling the Food Sovereignty of the world.

Control which can be as suffocating as Schmeisers’ case in Canada showed. Schmeisers received a legal notice from Monsanto that they were growing Roundup Ready Canola patented by Monsanto without a license from them. It so happened that Schmeisers’ crops had got air pollinated from the nearby fields and thus, it was a case of Monsanto being liable. However, Monsanto pursued the case against them and won the lawsuit. And then followed it up with three predatory lawsuits against them to seize their farmland, farm equipment, and house!

Attempts to inform people have been ruthlessly crushed. Two distinguished scientists – UC Berkeley’s Ignacio Chapela and former Scotland Rowett Research Institute researcher and world’s leading lectins and plant genetic modification expert, Arpad Pusztai were vilified, hounded, and threatened for their research, and Pusztai was fired from his job. Pusztai who had believed in the promise of GM foods was commissioned to study them. He conducted the first ever independent study on them anywhere. And was astonished at his findings. “Rats fed GM potatoes had smaller livers, hearts, testicles, brains, damaged immune systems, and showed structural changes in their white blood cells making them more vulnerable to infection and disease compared to other rats fed non-GMO potatoes. Thymus and spleen damage showed up; enlarged tissues, including the pancreas and intestines; and there were cases of liver atrophy as well as significant proliferation of stomach and intestines cells that could be a sign of greater future risk of cancer. Equally alarming, results showed up after 10 days of testing, and they persisted after 110 days that’s the human equivalent of 10 years.” Later independent studies confirmed Pusztai’s findings. These were documented in a 2007 book by Jeffrey Smith called “Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods.”

The problem gets compounded because policy makers in a lot of countries rely on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) statements and FDA statement that it was “not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way” paved the way for a largescale proliferation of genetically modified food. Normally nuanced and nitpicking bureaucratic FDA did not find anything amiss in taking refuge behind the bureaucratic phraseology.

Various independent studies have documented the health hazards of GM Foods: stunted growth, impaired immune systems, bleeding stomachs, abnormal and potentially precancerous cell growth in the intestines, impaired blood cell development, misshaped cell structures in the liver, pancreas and testicles, altered gene expression and cell metabolism, liver and kidney lesions, partially atrophied livers, inflamed kidneys, less developed organs, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar, inflamed lung tissue, increased death rates and higher offspring mortality as well. Two dozen farmers reported that their pigs and cows fed GM corn became sterile, 71 shepherds said 25 percent of their sheep fed Bt cotton plants died, and other reports showed the same effects on cows, chickens, water buffaloes, and horses. After GM soy was introduced in the UK, allergies from the product skyrocketed by 50 percent, and in the US in the 1980s, a GM food supplement killed dozens and left five to ten thousand others sick or disabled. Workers in India handling Bt cotton while picking, loading, weighing, and separating the fiber from seeds developed allergies. In four Indian villages, 25 percent of sheep grazing on Bt cotton developed unusual systems and died within a week. Nearly all 100 Filipinos living adjacent to a Bt Corn field became ill. Iowa farmers reported a conception rate drop  from 80 percent to 20 percent among sows (female pigs) fed GM corn and male pigs fed on GM corn became sterile. Mice fed Monsanto Roundup Ready soybeans developed significant liver cell changes and pancreatic problems. The death rate for chickens fed GM Liberty Link corn for 42 days doubled. The list goes on, and even without considering the unintended monsters like super weeds being created by accidental pollination. And these are just a few documented cases. Many would have gone undocumented in the absence of a rigorous procedure.

The GM industry rejects the suggestion of potential harm by claiming that millions of people in the US and worldwide have eaten GM food for a decade and no one got sick. But ask them who are those millions who have eaten these and what documentation has been kept and they would evade answers. They also forget that absence of evidence doesn’t amount to evidence of its absence. As the genetically modified foods are not labelled and its consumption not being documented and monitored, even if there are diseases and conditions attributable to it, it will take years to establish the cause-and-effect relationship. And by then many L-Tryptophans may have taken place.

It is often said that GM is the panacea for the hunger problem of the world. Or of India. And the apologists immediately point to the famines in past. But the past famines were not caused due to a scarcity of foodgrains but because of unavailability of the same at the concerned location. It was the failure of the distribution system, not the unavailability of food grain. Hence, the argument of famine prevention will not hold. Additionally, food insecurity has risen in the world wherever genetically modified food have been adopted:
“Macroeconomic data for the largest adopters of GM food indicate the opposite. In the U.S., food insecurity has risen from 12 percent in pre-GM 1995 to 15 percent in 2011. In Paraguay, where nearly 65 percent of the land is under GM crops, hunger increased from 12.6 percent in 2004-06 to 25.5 percent in 2010-12. In Brazil and Argentina, GM food has not reduced hunger. In any event, GM does not increase yields, as the Union of Concerned Scientists established through a review of 12 years of GM in the US.”

Genetic engineering is a wonderful tool and holds untold promise for the future. There is no gain in saying that it needs to be carefully adopted. There are data on both the sides of the divide. And all data cannot be wrong. Even if the intent of the big four agro firms is altruistic and noble, one cannot kill with noble intents! The denial of basic disclosure regarding labelling of the genetically modified food as such seems to be an original sin which questions the righteousness of intent. (The Indian government has made it mandatory to label all genetically modified foods sold in a packaged form, but the regulation does not specify the tolerance level or the range of products it will cover.) Practices like Terminator Technology, whereby the harvest would be sterile and unusable as the seed for the next season indeed point to a profit motive as against altruistic motive. More so in poor countries like India where farmers like my father are used to keeping a part of harvest as seeds for the next season, and violently against Terminator Technology. And here comes the connection to my original rhetorical question: genetically modifying the seeds to be sterile in first harvest strikes at the root of our basic Food Sovereignty. And even if some Big Private company were to profess
Science can extend the frontiers of knowledge but must not risk bringing the doomsday closer. Our enthusiasm to rush things up may have horrific consequences. We must at first establish the safety and efficacy of GM foods before unleashing it on the uninformed populace. As Alexander Hamilton says, “A power over a man’s subsistence amounts to a power over his will.” We can ill-afford this concentration of power over the will of the world in Big Four and surrender of “Food Sovereignty”. Time to contain The Andromeda Strain.

(This is the concluding part of the two-part article by SC Mitra, a bureaucrat in the Indian Railways. Views expressed are personal.)
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