GM battle hotting up

From North to South, the battle for saving our favourite vegetable brinjal from being poisoned with genetic modification is heating up. The day (April 2) a large number of protestors under the banner of Safe Food Alliance, and led by Mr Vellaiyan, a leader of the Tamil Nadu Traders Association, were arrested for staging a peaceful protest against the field trials for GM corn being held inside the premises of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University at Coimbatore, Swami Ramdev launched a nation-wide campaign to protect the country from the influx of dangerous GM crops/foods at an impressive opening ceremony of the 2nd phase of the Patanjali Yogpeeth at Haridwar. A special debate on “swadeshi se swablamban talk” was beamed live on Aastha and Sanskar TV channels in 170 countries.

I had the privilege and honour of being invited to speak at this panel. There were some 10,000 people in the new auditorium, and millions watched it live on TV. We will talk about Swami Ramdev’s vision of village self-reliance some other day, but let us first look at what is happening on the GM front.

The same day, Dr Rajaram Deshmuck, vice-chancellor of the Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth in Kolahapur, announced his university’s decision not to allow any more research trials of GM crops. This is perhaps the first agriculture university in the country that I know of which has taken this bold and beautiful stand. The same day, Sangita Sharma of Annadana, Bangalore, made a presentation on how safe is your food, after screening the film Poison on the Platter, to a large audience in the Ramchandrapuram math in Shimoga/Karnataka. A day later, Sridhar from Thanal and Dr V S Vijayan, chairman of the Kerala Biodiversity Board, spoke at an interactive session with lawyers in Cochin/Kerala, after screening the film ‘Poison on the Platter’.

While all this may look very heartening to those who want to live in harmony with nature, and want to protect their future generations from being turned into slaves of the food companies (and their breed of pets, the insensitive scientists), there is a renewed thrust on pushing GM crops in the United States and Europe. In the last week of February, the Windsor Castle in London hosted a major conference where the focus was on why the need to take a relook at GM crops. And as you guessed it right, they used the guilt arguement that if UK does not go in to GM crops research, millions in developing world will die of hunger.

The US President Obama, who many believe to be an agent of change, has come as a big disappointment. Like Monsanto, which pollutes and contaminates the world with its risky and dangerous GM technology, but keeps its own canteen free of GM ingredients, President Obama too follows the same prescription. His wife Michelle Obama is laying out an organic garden in White House to feed her own children and her guests with safe and healthy food, but have no qualms when it comes to the people of America or for that matter people living in Africa, from where their ancestors came from. Treating the people as subjects who deserve only unhealthy food, because it bolsters the profits of agri-business companies, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed a bill — S 384 — that marks a significant change in the US agricultural research policy. The US will now fund GM crop research for Africa.

This is in complete contravention of the Bumper’s Amendment that the senate had passed in 1980’s. I have written about the Bumper’s Amendment (Bumper was the name of a US senator) in my book GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair (Konark Publishers, New Delhi), and I will bring the salient features of the Bumper’s Amendment to you in the days to come.

It is therefore quite obvious that your fight to save your food from the GM vultures not going to be easy. The biotech industry is gearing up to manipulate public opinion. Clive James, the chairman of a so called international NGO — ISAAA –which in reality is an industry outfit, has sent a couple of DVDs to noted film maker Mahesh Bhatt, explaining how essential GM crops are for the world — a clear indication that the documentary film ‘Poison on the Platter’ has surely unruffled some feathers.

What amazes me is that when ‘Poison on the Platter’ is screened at a number of places, some scientists and cheerleaders will stand up and ask that the film does not carry the ‘other’ opinion, it is therefore not balanced. While Mahesh Bhatt has very clearly said (and it is also in the film) that the industry was approached but they declined to participate in the film, the same question has never been asked to ISAAA or Monsanto. Show me one film produced by Monsanto/Syngenta/Du Pont or ISAAA that provides space for any dissenting voice? And I am not surprised that none of their own team of supporters have ever questioned the need to ‘balance’ out the debate by bringing in the other viewpoint in their own propaganda films. So much so for objectivity in science.

The print and electronic media does the same. When I and my colleagues hold a press conference, reporters are usually told to also take the industry viewpoint before they write the news report. I am have nothing against this approach. But why is that when Monsanto or Mahyco hold a press conference, my view or that of my esteemed colleagues is never taken? Why is it the same objectivity is very conveniently sacrificed when it comes to big business and multinationals?

I am sure you know the answer.

Meanwhile, the BJP election manifesto too comes as a whiff of fresh air. It has expressed confidence in India’s traditional agriculture, has talked of assuring a fixed income for farmers, and has very loudly said that GM crops/foods will not be allowed unless its long-term impact on soil, human health and environment have been ascertained. Well, as expected, this has upset the dominant group within the party, and we will have to wait and watch as to which way the party swings after the elections.

While the GM scene hots up, I am keenly looking forward to a brinjal festival that a Karnataka NGO, Sahaja Samrudha, is planning to organise in Bangalore on April 5. It is with a lot of hope that I view such activities. Creating more awareness, and disseminating the right kind of message across the country is an urgent need. The people of this country have ample wisdom. They have demonstrated it time and again. They were not overawed by the ‘Shining India’ election slogan in 2004. They stood up, and voted the party out of power. They can certainly see through the infectious design of the food companies and agriculture scientists. They too need to be shown the door, and only the people of this great country can do that.

This is where I see Swami Ramdev showing us the path to self-reliance. Like millions in this country, and across the globe, I have tremendous faith in him. He is like a ray of hope emerging from the dark clouds, who has already acquired mass support. The manner in which people are joining him and feel drawned to his honesty and courage of conviction, clearly shows that people are fed up with the present economic, science and agricultural policies. They want a change.

Nevertheless, in the days to come the battle against GM will only get fiercer. Your silence has already cost the nation dearly. I call it as a conspiracy of silence, and you have been party to it knowingly or unknowingly. It is now your chance to stand up and be counted.

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