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GM and its public sector servants in India

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[Continued from part one.]

The facade of sophisticated science carries with it an appeal to the technocrats within our central government and major ministries, and to those in industry circles, with the apparently boundless production and yield vistas of biotechnology seeming to complement our successes in space applications, in information technology, in nuclear power and complementing the vision of GDP growth.

Framed by such science, the messages delivered by the biotech MNC negotiators and their compradors in local industry appear to be able to help us fulfil the most pressing national agendas: ensure that food production keeps pace with the needs of a growing and more demanding population, provide more crop per drop, deliver substantially higher yield per acre, certified and high-performing seeds will give farmers twice their income, consumers will benefit from standardised produce at low rates, crops will perform even in more arid conditions, the use of inputs will decrease, and the litany of promised marvels goes on.

Yet it is an all-round ignorance that has allowed such messages to take root and allowed their messengers to thrive in a country that has, in its National Gene Bank over 157,000 accessions of cereals (including 95,000 of paddy and 40,000 of wheat), over 56,000 accessions of millets (the true pearls of our semi-arid zones), over 58,000 accessions (an accession is a location-specific variety of a crop species) of pulses, over 57,000 of oilseeds (more than 10,000 of mustard), and over 25,000 of vegetables.

And even so the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources reminds us that while the number of cultivated plant species is “relatively small and seemingly insignificant”, nature in India has evolved an extraordinary genetic diversity in crop plants and their wild relatives which is responsible for every agro-ecological sub-region, and every climatic variation and soil type that may be found in such a sub-region, being well supplied with food.

With such a cornucopia, every single ‘framed by great science’ claim about a GM crop made by the biotech MNCs must fall immediately flat because we possess the crop diversity that can already deliver it. Without the crippling monopolies that underlie the science claim, for these monopolies and licensing traps are what not only drove desi cotton out when Bt cotton was introduced but it did so while destroying farming households.

Without the deadly risk of risk of genetic contamination and genetic pollution of a native crop (such as, GM mustard’s risk to the many varieties of native ‘sarson’). Without the flooding of soil with a poison, glufosinate, that is the herbicide Bayer-Monsanto will force the sale of together with its GM seed (‘Basta’ is Bayer’s herbicide that is analogous to Monsanto’s fatal Glyphosate, which is carcinogenic to humans and destroys other plant life – our farmers routinely intercrop up to three crop species, for example mustard with chana and wheat, as doing so stabilises income).

Whereas the veil of ignorance is slowly lifting, the immediate questions that should be asked by food grower and consumer alike – how safe is it for plants, soil, humans, animals, pollinating insects and birds? what are the intended consequences? what unintended consequences are being studied? – are still uncommon when the subject is crop and food. This is what has formed an ethical and social vacuum around food, which has been cunningly exploited by the biotech MNCs and indeed which India’s retail, processed and packaged foods industry have profited from too.

When in October 2016 our National Academy of Agricultural Sciences shamefully and brazenly assured the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on the safety of GM mustard, it did so specifically “To allay the general public concerns”. What followed was outright lies, such as “herbicide is used in the process only in hybrid production plot”, “The normal activity of bees is not affected”, “GE Mustard provides yield advantage”, “no adverse effect on environment or human and animal health”. None of these statements was based on study.

India grows food enough to feed its population ten years hence. What affects such security – crop choices made at the level of a tehsil and balancing the demands on land in our 60 agro-ecological sub-zones and 94 river sub-basins – is still influenced by political position, the grip of the agricultural ‘inputs’ industry on farmers, economic pressures at the household level, and the seasonal cycle. In dealing with these influences, ethics, safety and social considerations are rarely if ever in the foreground. Yet India is a signatory to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, whose Article 17 requires countries to prevent or minimise the risks of unintentional transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms.

Neither the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), in the case of GM mustard, nor the Department of Biotechnology, the Department of Science and Technology (whose Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council in a 2016 report saw great promise in genetic engineering for India), the Ministries of Environment and Agriculture, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR, with its 64 specialised institutions, 15 national research centres, 13 directorates, six national bureaux and four deemed universities), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have mentioned ethics, consumer and environment safety, or social considerations when cheering GM.

This group of agencies and institutions which too often takes its cue from the west, particularly the USA (which has since the 1950s dangled visiting professorships and research partnerships before the dazzled eyes of our scientific community) may find it instructive to note that caution is expressed even by the proponents of genetic engineering technologies in the country that so inspires them. In 2016 a report on ‘Past Experience and Future Prospects’ by the Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine of the USA, recognised that the public is sceptical about GE crops “because of concerns that many experiments and results have been conducted or influenced by the industries that are profiting from these crops” and recommended that “ultimately, however, decisions about how to govern new crops need to be made by societies”.

Practices and regulations need to be informed by accurate scientific information, but recent history makes clear that what is held up as unassailable ‘science’ is unfortunately rarely untainted by interests for whom neither environment nor human health matter.

[This is the second part of an article that was published by Swadeshi Patrika, the monthly journal of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Part one is here.]

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”.

Tiffin: GM in China, land in Colombia, soya republic, the dodgiest food prize

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1) China is the world’s biggest grain producer and maintains a standing policy that forbids growing GM grain. But China does allow imports of certain GM products. In 2012, China imported over 58 million tons of soybeans – mostly genetically modified. Public opinions on GM crops in China are polarised, with a great number of people holding suspicions toward GM products.
Rao Yi, a professor and dean of Peking University’s School of Life Sciences, said that while some GM-related concerns still need to be discussed, there are also rumors that need to be dispelled. Domestically-grown soybean is scarce in China, as China’s imports of GM soybeans rocketed to 58 million tons from less than 3 million tons in 1997. Many farmers have abandoned soybeans for other crops, as imported soybeans are cheaper. GM technology is the future of agriculture, said Fang Zhouzi, a biochemist and vocal supporter of GM technology, adding that it will be harder for China “to catch up with the USA” if China does not recognize this fact.

2) Cargill, the world’s largest food company, has been secretly amassing land from small farmers in eastern Colombia, despite a law prohibiting the practice. When the two countries signed a free trade agreement last year, Cargill emerged as the owner of 52,574 hectares where it grows corn and soybeans. The small farms in the isolated high plains of Vichada department in eastern Colombia were given to poor peasants in the 1990s under a scheme to convert ‘wasteland’ in an area that had become a stronghold for the lucrative cocaine trade. Colombian law prohibits any one person or entity from owning more than one “agricultural family unit” of this land in an effort to diversify land ownership in a country where most land is owned by a small wealthy minority.

3) The profound impacts of the agribusiness model know no borders between rural and urban. In rural areas and outer suburbs they are measured in terms of agrotoxin poisoning, displaced farmers (who swell the ranks of the urban poor), ruined regional economies, correspondingly high urban food prices, and contamination of the food supply. Ultimately, what we are looking at is a social and environmental catastrophe settling like a plague over the entire region. Wherever you live, you cannot ignore it.
The handful of people and companies responsible for this chain of destruction have names: Monsanto and a few other biotech corporations (Syngenta, Bayer) leading the pack; large landowners and planting pools that control millions of hectares (Los Grobo, CRESUD, El Tejar, Maggi, and others); and the cartels that move grain around the world (Cargill, ADM, and Bunge). Not to mention the governments of each of these countries and their enthusiastic support for this model. To these should be added the many auxiliary businesses providing services, machinery, spraying, and inputs that have enriched themselves as a result of the model.
To put some numbers on the phenomenon, there are currently over 46 million ha of GE soy monoculture in the region. These are sprayed with over 600 million litres of glyphosate and are causing deforestation at a rate of at least 500,000 ha per year.

4) The 2013 World Food Prize has gone to three chemical company executives, including Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer, Robert Fraley, responsible for development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Yet, GMO seeds have not been designed to meet the Prize’s mandate and function in ways that actually impede progress toward the stated goals of the World Food Prize.
Almost twenty years after commercialisation of the first GMO seeds, by far the most widely used are not engineered to enhance nutrient content, but to produce a specific pesticide or to resist a proprietary herbicide, or a combination of these traits. Even in reducing weeds, the technology is failing, for it has led to herbicide-resistant “super weeds” now appearing on nearly half of American farms.
This award not only communicates a false connection between GMOs and solutions to hunger and agricultural degradation, but it also diverts attention from truly “nutritious and sustainable” agroecological approaches already proving effective, especially in the face of extreme weather. Developed and controlled by a handful of companies, genetically engineered seeds further the concentration of power and the extreme inequality at the root of this crisis of food inaccessibility.

Monsanto, get out of India!

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On 9th August 2011, which is 69 years since the Quit India movement was launched in India as part of the freedom struggle, marches will be held in major Indian cities to throw out GM crops, industrial agriculture, corporate land grabs, and the multinational companies who are profiting at the expense of millions of small farming families.

India’s kisan swaraj movement – farmers’ independent self-reliance – has said that the question of who controls our agriculture – our crores of farmers or a few big corporations – has deep ramifications for the whole society.

“We all have a big stake in whether unsafe genetically modified foods will be thrust on us, whether unsafe agri-chemicals would further damage our water, soil and health, whether 10 crore (100 million) farmer families will lose their livelihoods, whether our rural and urban areas will be sustainable and whether we would have safe, diverse and nutritious food to eat.”

The 9th of August 2011 is to be a day of action which aims to strengthen the broader struggle against corporate domination of agriculture by focusing on its most potent symbol. From Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai and other towns and cities in India, a strong signal will be sent that citizens will not tolerate corporate domination of our food and farming systems.

This call is being put out by Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), an all-India network of about 400 organisations of farmers, agricultural workers, consumers, social activists and academics, working to promote ecologically sustainable agriculture and secure livelihoods for farmers, and stop corporate domination of our agriculture and food system.

Monsanto’s Misdeeds and Growing Threat in India – A few indications about the dangers of Monsanto and the extent of its control [get the English pamphlet here / get the Hindi pamphlet here]:
1. Mahyco-Monsanto used its Bt cotton seed monopoly to set exorbitant prices. The Andhra Pradesh government had to use the MRTP Commission,  Essential Commodities Act and then a special Act to finally push its price from Rs.1800 per packet to Rs.750.
2. Monsanto actually sued Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat state governments that they have no right to control seed prices – with Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi as its lawyer! How can individual farmers protect themselves from its legal machine?
3. Monsanto entered into licensing agreements with most seed companies so that out of 225 lakh acres of GM cotton, 210 lakh acres is planted with its Bollgard. During 2002-2006, Monsanto earned Rs.1600 crores just in the form of royalties.
4. Monsanto is on the Board of US-India Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, under which bio-safety regime for GM crops was sought to be weakened; repeating its US strategy where its lawyers practically wrote the policies on GM seeds and patents.
5. Monsanto entered into hushed-up agreements with several states  (Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir) under which the states spend hundreds of crores of public funds every year to purchase Hybrid Maize seeds from Monsanto and distributing them free of cost to farmers, creating a ready market.
6. 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.
7. Recently, gross violations were exposed in its GM maize field trials in Karnataka.

Written by makanaka

August 8, 2011 at 20:23