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No GM please, we are British !

By Devinder Sharma

(Friday, Sept. 26, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Britain has done it. In a historic verdict, the British people have rejected genetically modified crops (GM crops) and foods.

With only 2 per cent of the population saying yes to GM foods, and another 8 per cent not averse to eating GM foods, an overwhelming percentage of the people who participated in one of the biggest ever public debates in Britain have rejected the modified foods. "The GM Nation" report, based on the response received from more than 37,000 people, has not only 'expressed caution and doubt, but also thorough suspicion and scepticism, and even hostility and rejection'.

The rejection of the GM crops and foods in Britain will soon have repercussions in India, where in the name of foreign investment the multinational industry has managed to seek political patronage for a risky science. Despite public outcry, at least ten States have made available prime land at a throwaway price for a nascent biotechnology industry -- a scandal that is sure to be a hundred times bigger than the infamous Taj Mahal corridor scam in Uttar Pradesh that has invited Supreme Court's ire against the former chief minister, Ms Mayawati.

The British outcry against GM crops is also a clear warning for the Indian agricultural scientists. By not listening to the farmers and the civil society, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) too invites scepticism and scorn about the need and relevance of the direction of research in the world's second biggest public sector research infrastructure. In Britain, agricultural biotechnologists have already begun to flee. Aware of the public's mistrust over a science, which has tragically been allowed to slip into the hands of multinational companies, newspapers report that leading biotechnologists have already left the country searching for greener pastures.

The United States too is faced with almost a similar crisis, with many universities unable to fill the vacancies created by molecular biologists opting for the private sector, already in the thick of a recession. For an emerging workforce of molecular biologists in India, unable to find suitable placements abroad, the GM bubble (unlike the IT industry) has burst even before it grew to a respectable size.

A stream of leading GM crop researchers, reports The Guardian, have quit the country, while others are preparing to leave in the next few months, threatening to damage Britain's world-class reputation in the field. "The really committed people who have underpinned our excellence are moving out and that's a real worry," said Professor Chris Leaver, head of plant sciences at the University of Oxford.

Such is the public hatred for anything associated with genetic manipulation that even the multinational plant biotechnology industry has not been spared. "High-profile GM research companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Dow have all closed down research facilities in Britain in recent years, drastically diminishing the career prospects of scientists working on GM crops. Only one multinational company, Syngenta, remains", says John Vidal in the Guardian.

The public mistrust against genetic engineering is the outcome of the aggressiveness with which distinguished agricultural scientists joined the multinational industry in blindly promoting an untested and risky technology at the cost of human health and environment. Not realising that the art of public deception cannot last for long, agricultural scientists -- and that includes the Royal Society in Britain and the National Academy for Agricultural Sciences in India - actually turned into a mouthpiece for the discredited industry.

Scientists (and politicians joined them later) used emotional arguments of eradicating hunger and malnutrition as a justification for introducing modified crops, which actually have nothing to do with hunger. Developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, have been very cleverly forced by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Bank to accept agricultural biotechnology as "the tool for eradicating hunger". And as Dr Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, once said: "Seeking a technological food fix for world hunger may be... the most commercially malevolent wild goose chase of the new century."

The hunger argument continued to flourish and gain ground. As American President George Bush told the June BIO 2003 industry convention, "America and other wealthy nations have a special responsibility to combat hunger and disease in desperate lands". So much so that the United States had actually created a scare of an impending famine in some of the southern African countries in 2002 so as to justify the offloading of GM food grains for which there were no takers.

For an industry, which is being driven out of the rich and industrialised countries, translocation to some of the fast emerging economies and countries like India, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand and Malaysia, among others, remains the only option. Except for South Africa and Egypt, none of the African countries seem suitable because of the absence of an adequate public infrastructure. The focus of the industry therefore is to make the developing countries accept more and more investment in genetic engineering, and at the same time provide markets for the GM products and crops. Such are the high stakes involved that the hunger card still continues to be used with impunity.

No wonder, India is busy preparing a national agricultural biotechnology policy before even ascertaining the national research priorities. Pakistan and Bangladesh have recently been forced to accept genetic engineering as part of a restructuring that is being advised as a pre-condition for financial credit. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and even the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal are being made to accept genetic engineering. Much of the pressure is coming through the donor agencies, which are bringing in development projects weaving in biotechnology and genetic engineering.

# (Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Responses can be mailed at: