India – Who decides what we eat?


The new biotechnology Bill will allow biotech firms to tamper with our food
Devinder Sharma

Devinder Sharma

11-05-2013, Issue 19 Volume 10

Illustration: Vikram NongmaithemIllustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

In March, US President Barack Obama signed the HR 933 continuing resolution — popularly known as the Monsanto Protection Act — that effectively divests the federal courts of their constitutional power to stop the planting or sale of genetically modified (GM) seeds and crops regardless of the health and environmental consequences. In other words, whether you like it or not, despite the havoc it can play with your life and environment, you have no choice but to quietly accept GM foods.

On 22 April, amidst the noise over the 2G Spectrum and Coal blocks scams, the government introduced in Parliament the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, 2013. The jubilation that followed in the Association for Biotechnology-Led Enterprises (ABLE) was telling of how industry and the government work in tandem in this country.

Setting aside all concerns expressed by the 2004 Task Force on Agricultural Biotechnology, led by eminent scientist MS Swaminathan, the Bill is a hurried attempt to remove all possible obstacles in the promotion of the risky and controversial technology. In a lot of ways, the BRAI Bill is a precursor to the Monsanto Protection Act in the US. While the US government has removed all regulatory hurdles in the promotion of GM crops, the BRAI Bill too makes the task much easier for biotech firms by providing a single-window, fast-track clearance for GM crops. In the garb of “confidential commercial information”, it imposes restrictions on the application of the Right to Information Act. It also has certain clauses that limit the jurisdiction of the courts. The BRAI Bill, therefore, provides a strong and legally-tight protective shield to biotechnology companies.

The need to curb transparency and accountability arises only when something dangerous has to be kept hidden from public glare. It first begins by pro-industry scientists occupying senior government and university positions to create scare by misrepresenting facts in the name of ‘science-based’ debates.

Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot points to the particular instance when the chief veterinary officer of UK had “discounted fears that BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) could jump from one species to another”. The failure to acknowledge a scientific fact led to the emergence of mad cow disease.

In India, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has been aggressively pushing for the use of GM crops in the name of food security. When the environment ministry questioned the veracity of scientific claims, and imposed in 2010 a moratorium on the genetically engineered food crop — Bt Brinjal — the GM industry was pushed on the backfoot. Adding to its woes was the 2012 report of the Standing Parliamentary Committee, which found “biotechnology regulation to be too small a focus on the vast canvas of biodiversity, environment, human and livestock health and therefore recommended an all-encompassing Biosafety Authority”.

Subsequently, after seven states — West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Kerala — refused to go in for open field trials of GM crops, the only option left was to bulldoze public resistance through a legally binding mechanism. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) then swung into action, and knowing that the MOEF is no longer a natural ally, moved the introduction of the Bill to the Department of Science & Technology, which incidentally is a promoter of the technology. The conflict of interest is clearly visible. But a defiant PMO continues to look the other way.

At the same time, citing “public interest”, the Bill has taken away the hold states have over agriculture and health. States can no longer refuse permission; they are left with only an advisory role.

What makes the Bill a subject for a serious national debate, besides of course looking into the role being played by the PMO in promoting corporate welfare, is that it impacts everyone in the country. Whether you want to know or not, the Bill provides biotechnology companies with unlimited powers to tamper with your food, health and environment. In the end, the decision is ours whether you would like the government and the GM firms to decide what you eat.

letters@tehelka.com

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 10 Issue 19, Dated 11 May 2013)

 

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