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Desperate food gambits and the danger to India

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India’s Republic Day in 2015 will also see the visit of the president of the USA, Barack Obama, accompanied by the usual large delegation of business persons, lobbyists and functionaries of the American government. They will use this visit to demand many things, and amongst the demands will be that the NDA-BJP government ‘reform’ all that is hindering the agriculture and food transformation in Bharat.

A couple tending their stack of rice stalks residue in the Konkan.

A couple tending their stack of rice stalks residue in the Konkan.

We must resist this with strength and perseverance. So far, the NDA-BJP government has not shown that it recognises or understands the threats and dangers, which are very very serious indeed. The American delegation will push this government to clear the way for genetically modified seed and crop (including in food staples such as cereals), for the further industrialisation and mechanisation of crop production (which will mean the removal of smallholder ‘kisans’ from their plots, all in the name of market efficiency), and the deepening of the food processing and food retail industries’ grip on what we eat.

The Prime Minister’s Office, the Union Cabinet and the seniormost bureaucrats of the major ministries involved must wake up to this threat and be firm against it. The signals from elsewhere are many and they are clear about what lies in store for Bharat if the NDA-BJP government at the centre and if state governments do not discharge their duty – which is, safeguard the sovereignty of Bharat.

Already in Europe, the German Environment Ministry is insisting on a complete ban on green genetic engineering in Germany. Under a new European Parliament directive, member states of the European Union will now be able to restrict or completely ban GMO cultivation within their borders. One of the leading proponents of such a legal ban in Germany is its Ministry of Agriculture, which also supports a national ban on cultivation.

soilatlas2015_main_1Moreover, in a position paper from the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Minister Barbara Hendricks said she does not want to leave any back doors open for genetic engineering. The GMO law must be changed, so that controversial green genetic engineering cannot be used under any pretext in Germany, she stated in the document. “Green genetic engineering has turned out to be the wrong track,” Hendricks said. “It is risky for nature and the environment and is not desired by consumers.”

Worldwide, the project to fully industrialise global food production is far from complete, yet already it is responsible for most deforestation, most marine pollution, most coral reef destruction, much of greenhouse gas emissions, most habitat loss, most of the degradation of streams and rivers, most food insecurity, most immigration, most water depletion, and massive human health problems.

Relationships between soil, urbanisation, fertiliser use, farming, ecology and health. Images from the Soil Atlas, 2015, Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Relationships between soil, urbanisation, fertiliser use, farming, ecology and health. Images from the Soil Atlas, 2015, Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Under GM- and tech-centric industrial agriculture and food systems – which is what the Americans will demand from us – countries are becoming literally uninhabitable as a result of the social and ecological consequences.

Wherever industrial and genetically engineered agriculture is found, landscapes are left progressively emptier of life. Eventually, the soil turns either into mud that washes into the rivers or into dust that blows away on the wind. Industrial agriculture has no long term future and is ecological suicide. But those who profit from it cannot allow all this to become broadly understood – and unfortunately that has included our NDA-BJP government. That is why they have continued to peddle the lie of food scarcity in India, which the previous Congress government employed so recklessly.

The agriculture and food problem – which will become a more extreme problem for us if the Obama group is given its way – is closely interlinked with growing demand for land. Land is a lucrative investment and has fuelled the real estate boom in India for the last decade. But for our smallholder kisans it is the source of livelihood, as it is for our shepherd groups and tribal communities. Rising demand for land also harms the ecosystem – as is seen in each and every one of the 63 cities whose populations this year are at least one million. The more intensive the farming, the more damage it does to the environment. This is the main reason for the decline in biological diversity, above and below the ground.

The American push will be for agri-food systems in accordance with the new international trade agreements. These are nothing but colonial ways of thinking – that food should be produced for international export as a tool of foreign policy and to control populations (especially through GM) and as a byproduct financially benefit powerful corporations that act as agents of such colonial ways of thinking. Thus it is a direct assault on people’s sovereignty over their natural resources, farming systems and food access as well as their human right to dignified living standards free of exploitation and dependence.

Such treaties (such as the TTP which is facing opposition even amongst those the USA calls allies) are dangerous because they are negotiated in secret. But what has emerged (thanks to leaks) is appalling. Some of the texts in these treaties wants the outright patenting of plants and animals, many draft agreements come with severe punishments for farmers who break intellectual property laws, they deliberately undermine local agriculture (as seen with NAFTA), commons lands are proposed for privatisation, labelling of GM foods will be prohibited, and the governments of countries that try to undo the damage will be liable to be sued by the multi-national corporations. This is the extent of the danger facing Bharat, which will become more clear come Republic Day 2015.

Scientists’ statement deflates the bogus idea of ‘safe’ GM

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ENSSER_GMO_statement_10More scientists, physicians and legal experts have signed the group statement issued by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The number of initial signatories to the statement, titled ‘No scientific consensus on GMO safety’, was almost 100 on the day it was released, 2013 October 21, and has more than doubled since.

The ENSSER group has reminded us that crop genetic engineering is dominated not by ecological experts but by molecular biologists: “Many are not knowledgeable about ecological risks and – more importantly – they fail to recognise the limitations of their expertise.”

ENSSER_GMO_statement_13Regarding the environmental risk of GM crops, ENSSER has said, the negative effects now documented empirically have been predicted since about 25 years.

For instance, while naturally occurring Bt toxins come in a diversity of variants, GM crops necessarily have to choose one Bt toxin to be transferred, significantly enhancing the probability of resistance development. Such effects are analysed by community ecology researchers and not visible on the genetic level.

“So it is a shame that, more than 20 years after the international academic societies of ecologists and molecular biologists agreed on the complementarity of their competences, and the necessity to assess ecosystem impacts in a systemic fashion, today’s molecular biologists still do neither recognise nor respect the limits of their competencies (not to speak about the influence of funding). Ignoring one’s own blind spots is what can turn science into a social risk.”

ENSSER_GMO_statement_11Those who have signed the statement “strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is ‘over’.”

The signatories have said they “feel compelled to issue this statement because the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist. The claim that it does exist is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue. Moreover, the claim encourages a climate of complacency that could lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigour and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment”.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_16ENSSER members and non-members alike who have signed the statement have collectively said that science and society do not proceed on the basis of a constructed consensus, as current knowledge is always open to well-founded challenge and disagreement. They endorse the need for further independent scientific inquiry and informed public discussion on GM product safety and urge GM proponents to do the same.

Regarding the safety of GM crops and foods for human and animal health, a comprehensive review of animal feeding studies of GM crops found that most studies concluding that GM foods were as safe and nutritious as those obtained by conventional breeding were “performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible [for] commercialising these GM plants”.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_12It is often claimed that “trillions of GM meals” have been eaten in the US with no ill effects. However, no epidemiological studies in human populations have been carried out to establish whether there are any health effects associated with GM food consumption. As GM foods are not labelled in North America, a major producer and consumer of GM crops, it is scientifically impossible to trace, let alone study, patterns of consumption and their impacts. Therefore, claims that GM foods are safe for human health based on the experience of North American populations have no scientific basis.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_15A report by the British Medical Association concluded that with regard to the long-term effects of GM foods on human health and the environment, “many unanswered questions remain” and that “safety concerns cannot, as yet, be dismissed completely on the basis of information currently available”. The report called for more research, especially on potential impacts on human health and the environment.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_14Likewise, a statement by the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health acknowledged “a small potential for adverse events … due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity” and recommended that the current voluntary notification procedure practised in the US prior to market release of GM crops be made mandatory. The ENSSER group has said that even a “small potential for adverse events” may turn out to be significant, given the widespread exposure of human and animal populations to GM crops.

India marches against Monsanto, hauls it back into court

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The anti-GM and anti-Monsanto protest in Bangalore outside the Town Hall on 2013 October 15

The anti-GM and anti-Monsanto protest in Bangalore outside the Town Hall on 2013 October 15

This is an important week for the public movement in India against genetically-modified seed and food, and against the corporate control of agriculture. Just ahead of World Food Day 2013, the Coalition for GM Free India has held public protests, marches and events in major cities – Bangalore, Mumbai, New Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai.

“Today, India is also under threat from the hazardous products that Monsanto wants to profiteer from – these are products that affect the very food that we eat to survive and stay healthy and our environment. These are products that have the potential to jeopardise future generations too,” said the Coalition at the protest meetings and marches.

These actions have come when, in a very significant ruling by the High Court of Karnataka, a petition to dispose criminal prosecution of the Monsanto subsidiary in India, representatives of an agricultural university and a partner company, has been dismissed.

RG-Monsanto_BLR_protest_10Mahyco-Monsanto, the Indian seed company, the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad (which is in the state of Karnataka), and Monsanto collaborating partners Sathguru Consultants were accused by the National Biodiversity Authority and the Karnataka State Biodiversity Board of committing serious criminal acts of biopiracy in promoting B.t. Brinjal, India’s first food GMO.

The Bangalore-based Environment Support Group (ESG) had said to the court that the entire process by which the product had been developed violated the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992, and “constituted an outrageous act of biopiracy of India’s endemic brinjal (eggplant) varieties”.

To substantiate this charge, the ESG produced evidence that all the endemic varieties of brinjal that had been accessed by the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad and Monsanto-Mahyco, with technical support from Sathguru Consultants and USAID, and the act of inserting the B.t. gene (a proprietary product of Monsanto), were undertaken without any consent of local Biodiversity Management Committees, the State Biodiversity Board and the National Biodiversity Authority.

As the Coalition for GM Free India has pointed out repeatedly, Monsanto’s misdeeds in India and its growing threat to food security and the right to food cultivation and consumption choices are considerable:
* Mahyco-Monsanto used its Bt cotton seed monopoly to set exorbitant prices. The Andhra Pradesh government had to use the MRTP (Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices) Commission, which observed that Monsanto-Mahyco was using unfair trade practices in India, while asking the company to reduce the royalty/sub-licensing fee being charged in India.
* Monsanto-Mahyco did not hesitate to sue governments in India on issues related to compensation for loss-incurring farmers or price-regulation.
* After the advent of Bt cotton, Monsanto entered into licensing agreements with most seed companies in India so that out of 22.5 million acres of GM cotton, 21 million acres is planted with its seed, Bollgard. Today it controls nearly 93% of the market share of cotton seeds in India, with little choice left to farmers.
* Monsanto is on the Board of the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, under which bio-safety regime for GM crops was sought to be weakened.
* Monsanto entered into agreements with several states (Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir) under which the states spend hundreds of crore rupees of public funds every year to purchase hybrid maize seeds from them. Such agreements were found to have no scientific or funding rationale to support them. Appraisals have shown these to be risky for farmers. However, the corporation has found huge, ready markets supported by taxpayers’ funds!
* Monsanto is pushing the sales of its herbicide glyphosate which is known to cause reproductive problems. Approval for its herbicide-tolerant GM crops would skyrocket the use of this hazardous chemical in our fields.

The action in court and on the streets of major cities must be recognised by the central and state governments in order to pursue the criminal prosecution against biopiracy in B.t. brinjal. This is critical, said the ESG, because it is for the “first time that India has sought to implement the provisions of the Biodiversity Act tackling biopiracy, and thus the effort constitutes a major precedent to secure India’s bio-resources, associated traditional knowledge and biodiversity for the benefit of present and future generations”.

Formation of the ‘Big 6’ seed-biotech-crop companies

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Over the past 15 years, the world seed industry has consolidated through mergers and acquisitions. This graphic, extracted from a 2011 December USDA report, shows how the ‘Big 6’ got to the positions they now occupy (I have added colour to make it easier to distinguish each dominant conglomerate’s consolidation history).

Formation of the 'Big 6' seed-biotech-crop companies. Graphic from: Research Investments and Market Structure in the Food Processing, Agricultural Input, and Biofuel Industries Worldwide / ERR-130. Economic Research Service / U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (Report Number 130, December 2011) (click for the full size png image, 652kb).

Over the past 15 years, the world seed industry has consolidated through mergers and acquisitions. This graphic, extracted from a 2011 December USDA report, shows how the ‘Big 6’ got to the positions they now occupy (I have added colour to make it easier to distinguish each dominant conglomerate’s consolidation history).

An excerpt from the USDA report has explained some of the features of changes to the seed industry which can be summarised as follows:

1. Among the largest firms in terms of total product sales, the close relationships between seed and agricultural chemicals industries have continued. This applies to the Big 6 firms in particular. These relationships may result partially from complementarity of product lines such as herbicide-tolerant seeds and chemical herbicides, or possibly from economies of scope in marketing as well. Chemical companies also realized GM crops with pest resistance traits would compete with the crop protection chemicals, which helped drive these companies’ interest first in biotechnology and eventually in seed, thus changing their business models to meet farmer demand for crop pest management as technological opportunities changed.

2. On the other hand, the “life science industry” model suggested a decade ago has not become the dominant paradigm. This model stemmed from the likelihood that technologies underlying pharmaceutical discovery were the same as those underlying gene discovery for seeds. Differences in business models and types of customer, however, prevented firms from combining both pharmaceuticals and agricultural biotechnology. Of the current Big 6 companies, only one — Bayer — has pharmaceuticals as its primary product line.

Detail from the graphic, 'Formation of the 'Big 6' seed-biotech-crop companies'

Even when Bayer expanded into the seed/biotechnology industry in 2002 with its acquisition of Aventis Crop Science, Aventis pharmaceuticals eventually became a component of Sanofi-Aventis pharmaceuticals, not Bayer. Monsanto, which entered pharmaceuticals in the mid-1980s with its acquisition of Searle, was briefly held by Pharmacia before the agricultural enterprise was spun off as the “new Monsanto”; Pharmacia retained the pharmaceutical business segments. When Novartis’s chemical and seed businesses were merged with Zeneca’s agricultural chemical business in 2000 to form Syngenta, the pharmaceutical portion of Novartis remained intact as a separate large pharmaceutical company. BASF and DuPont ended their relatively smaller pharmaceutical investments after 2000 and 2001, respectively, and Dow had already sold its pharmaceutical subsidiary Marion Merrell Dow to Hoechst in 1996.

3. Agricultural chemicals have been an important part of product sales for all the Big 6 companies. However, positions in markets for non-agricultural chemicals have not remained constant, with some companies shedding these nonagricultural products. Monsanto divested this portion of its business to Solutia in 1997. When Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz merged to form Novartis in 1996, nonagricultural chemicals were spun off to Ciba Specialty Chemicals, which eventually was acquired by BASF. In response to antitrust considerations, Bayer sold selected insecticides and fungicides to BASF in 2003. DuPont sold its polymers business in the early 2000s.