Thursday, December 10, 2009

Food corruption in India and China

Suman Sahai

The list of food scares in China just over the past one year includes drug-tainted fish, industrial dye in egg yolks to colour them red, pork tainted with a banned feed additive and melamine laced milk powder. The melamine scandal which is the most recent, involved the adulterating of infant formula with the industrial chemical melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure. Melamine, used in the manufacture of plastics, was mixed with milk powder to show higher protein levels on measurement, in order to get higher prices for the allegedly ‘rich’ milk.

The melamine milk powder was discovered just before the Beijing Olympics, but the Chinese government buried the story so as not to create a scandal ahead of the Olympics when China was showcasing its prowess to the world. But soon after, legal proceedings were instituted and just a few days ago, two people were executed for their involvement in the melamine scandal that killed six and sickened over 300,000 people, some critically. Most of those taken ill were babies and children. The two accused received the death penalty for producing and selling toxic food and for endangering public safety. Apart from them, 19 other people have been jailed in this connection.

In another instance a few months ago, China executed a former director of the food and drug agency for approving fake medicine in exchange for cash. During the tenure of the disgraced drug controller, the state food and drug administration had from 1997 to 2006, approved six untested drugs that turned out to be fake. It was also found that some drug-makers had used falsified documents to apply for approvals, with the knowledge of the drug controller, in order to by pass safety tests.

Compare this with the situation in India where it is common knowledge that milk is adulterated with urea and industrial chemicals and made into a lethal brew risking the health and safety of consumers ranging from children to convalescents and pregnant mothers. Spurious drugs are so prevalent that according to newspaper reports it is impossible to ascertain the authenticity of drugs, even life saving drugs, in smaller towns and cities.

Not just this, people die routinely after drinking adulterated alcohol, or go blind or are paralysed. Pictures of wailing women seated next to corpses, victims of ‘hooch tragedies’

are commonplace. Children are periodically taken ill with food poisoning after eating their mid day meal in school, supplied free by the government. Guests at temple feasts ,

weddings and religious ceremonies are regularly found to have been taken violently ill or poisoned because of some adulterant. The adulteration of food in India is on a scale that can only be described as epic.

This is despite the fact that we have a law on food safety which prescribes food standards and heavy penalties for violators. The Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 spells out in great detail the standards and permissible and banned additives. But all this might as well exist in the ether for all the difference it makes to ensure the safety of food on the market. Contractors and suppliers of food are the worst culprits of breaking the law in ways which are criminal. Government agencies that place such orders are complicit but this malpractice is raging in the private sector as well. Nobody is ever punished.

When talk turns to corruption, there is a large section of the Indian middle class that switches off, saying it is tired of hearing this ‘corruption talk’. Every society is corrupt, so we need not flagellate ourselves. Wasn’t the Prime Minister of this European state charged with corruption, and did not the British MPs inflate their bills? The Chinese are as bad as us they claim, if not worse. This may all be true but the difference is that we in India do not punish our guilty, We condone corruption and let it happen repeatedly and in the case of food adulteration, we over look the fact that innocent lives are lost because of greedy people. The difference between us and them is that when the guilty in other countries pay a severe pricefor their crimes. In the case of China, corrupt people who harm others are executed. In India they wear gold rings on their fingers and go scot free.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Bt brinjal can awaken a sleeping poison

Suman Sahai
What, you may ask, is common between potatoes, tomatoes, brinjal, chilli, datura, tobacco and the deadly nightshade (belladonna)? They all belong to a plant family called Solanaceae. The Solanaceae family contains a number of important agricultural plants as well as many psychoactive and toxic plants. Solanaceae species are rich in complex chemicals called alkaloids and contain some of the most poisonous plants known to mankind. They produce alkaloids in their roots, leaves and flowers. These alkaloids can be hallucinogens, stimulants or outright toxic. For example, when potatoes are exposed to light, a chemical called solanin is produced which appears as a green tinge. Green potatoes can be toxic, damage an unborn foetus and cause abortions. Other plants of this family known for their toxic qualities are belladonna, datura and tobacco.

Farmers have been working for thousands of years to domesticate wild plants like those of the Solanaceae family, to make them safe for eating. Much of this exercise involved breeding out the toxins contained in the wild plants. Scientists too have used careful, selective breeding to "clean up" crop varieties which had good qualities but contained toxins. Now brinjal, a member of this family, has been genetically engineered (GE) to produce a toxin to protect itself against a particular pest. This seems to be a process working to reverse several thousand years of efforts to detoxify natural plants to make them fit for human consumption!

Genetic engineering in plants has not been mastered enough to rule out the creation of dangerous new products in the cells when genes are muddled during the insertion of new, usually foreign genes. Several cases are known when new proteins and toxins were produced in plants which were genetically engineered. For example, when genetically modified (GM) peas were being developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia to protect peas from the pest pea weevil, it was found that newly-formed proteins in the GM peas repeatedly caused immunity problems and lung inflammation when fed to mice. The experiments had to be abandoned. In another case, when mice were fed the genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato, seven out of 40 experimental animals died within 14 days and the others suffered stomach lesions.

Genetic engineering in plants of the Solanaceae family could be dangerous since disturbing their genetic material through the process of inserting new gene constructs containing a battery of genes - including the toxin producing Bt gene - may trigger off metabolic processes that have been lying dormant. There are apprehensions that not only could new toxins develop but that old toxins that were removed by selective breeding may reappear.

Disturbing the cell metabolism (by genetic engineering) of species that are naturally genetically hardwired to produce toxins, is likely to call up old plant toxins in these species.

Testing for food safety is key in genetically engineered plants; it becomes more so with the Solanaceae family. At present biotechnology companies rely on the concept of "substantial equivalence" to demonstrate the safety of genetically engineered foods. In this method, the overall chemical composition of the genetically engineered food is compared to an equivalent conventional food. If there is no significant difference between the two, the GE plant is considered to be safe.

The Mahyco seed company has also tested its Bt brinjal in the same way. However, substantial equivalence is a highly contested paradigm, favoured by the biotech industry but rejected by most countries. This is because there is no mechanism in such an approach to detect unexpected or unintended changes like new toxic compounds in the cell.

Apart from the critical safety issues, there are other questions that arise with the impending release of India's first genetically engineered food crop. There is no system in place for labelling these foods. Indeed, how can one in the Indian situation label a vegetable that will be sold from farmers' fields, laden into trucks and taken to wholesale mandis? How will the vegetables on the vendor's cart or the corner shop be labelled as GM? The Government of India recognises the need to label GE food, and its position in the meetings of the Codex Alimentarius has been consistently in favour of mandatory labelling.

Accordingly, the ministry of health has drafted rules under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to include labelling of GE food and food ingredients. But there is as yet no mechanism in place to label GE food, nor have any awareness programmes been conducted to explain the nature of GE foods and the need for labelling them. For most consumers, especially rural consumers, GE foods are a black box and unless they are made aware of the nature of GE foods, labelling would be meaningless. Despite these big gaps in preparedness, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has approved Mahyco's Bt brinjal for commercial production.

Does this mean that the consumer's right to informed choice about their food is about to be trashed? This right is enshrined in India's Consumer Protection Act and the GEAC approval will violate the provisions of this act. Further, labelling is not just about pasting a coloured sticker on a brinjal, it involves a rigorous process of segregation and identity preservation (IP) to keep Bt and non-Bt food segregated. IP is a complex and expensive process requiring separation of a GM food from non-GM food, starting from farmers' fields, all the way to vegetable shops. Without going through this process, labelling cannot be done. Or has the GEAC planned that all brinjals cultivated in this country henceforth will be genetically engineered?

And what about fixing liability for damage? There is no liability law in India. In the event of contamination of organic brinjal with Bt brinjal, what will be the process of recall? Who will be liable to the producers of organic brinjal? There are no provisions for monitoring the long-term impact of GE foods on the health of consumers. In case adverse health impacts are reported from eating Bt brinjal, who would be liable to pay compensation? How would the liability be fixed and what would be the quantum? In the absence of any kind of preparedness or safeguards, what would be the liability of the government for approving such food crops? And in the event of damage caused by Bt brinjal, will Mahyco be put in the dock?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hunger and malnutrition worsen in Asia

Suman Sahai


A recent survey conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the Bangladesh Institute of Public Health Nutrition (IPHN), to assess the impact of rising food prices on the overall nutritional condition of the population revealed some alarming statistics. Two million children under

the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition. A quarter of these suffer from severe acute malnutrition. The survey also reported ‘wasting’ and ‘severe wasting’ - conditions which

require immediate medical attention. Wasting is caused by: ‘a recent and severe process that has led to substantial weight loss, usually associated with starvation and/or disease’.

The survey also found that 25 per cent of the total households were food insecure. Between 2005 and 2008, household income dropped by 12 per cent and expenditure on food rose by 10 per cent. As prices of everyday commodities, especially food and fuel, skyrocketed, an additional 7.5 million people joined the ranks of those who consume less than 2,100 calories, the minimum daily amount of food recommended by WFP, raising the total to 65 million – or 45 percent of the total population. The increasing financial pressure on the poor of the country has reduced the diversity and frequency of food intake drastically - the key reasons for malnutrition among children.

Almost half the children surveyed were diagnosed with stunted growth, 37.4 per cent of them were also underweight. The survey found malnutrition in Bangladesh to be the most

severe in south Asia, amounting to a ‘silent emergency’. Malnutrition is a direct cause of death among children, and a significant underlying cause of child mortality. It affects the development of the child, increases the risk of women dying during pregnancy/childbirth and contributes to neonatal mortality.

Malnutrition impacts the society at large, affecting cognitive performance, healthcare and social costs and productivity. Unless the current level of malnutrition is urgently addressed, Bangladesh is unlikely to achieve any Millennium Development Goals.


Malnutrition - combined with diarrhoea, pneumonia and tuberculosis - is the biggest cause of child mortality in Tharparkar district in Pakistan’s southern Sind province. Infant (children under twelve months) and child mortality (under 5 years) is much worse here than the national average, according to local officials. Infant mortality is 123 per 1,000 live births and the child mortality rate is 140 per 1,000, according to official records at the civil hospital. The figures in Tharparkar are worse than Pakistan’s overall infant mortality rate of 75 per 1,000 live births.

Malnutrition results in low immunity and resistance to infection. Twenty per cent of children at the district hospital have pneumonia, fifty percent have diarrhoea and TB while the rest have other malnutrition-related ailments. The average daily income of most patients at Mithi’s staterun hospital was less than Pakistani Rs150 (US$1.86) and there was little awareness about preventive health. The local doctors said that preventive health programmes were being run by the government and NGOs but people tended not to follow the whole course. So if one parent is infected, or anyone in the family is, the disease takes hold. This laid-back approach makes treatment more difficult.


Myanmar's northern state of Rakhine has had a history of abject poverty, but this year’s food crisis has made it worse. Of the state's nearly one million inhabitants, about 85 per cent are Rohingya, an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority deemed ‘stateless’ as per Myanmar laws. Consequently according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), they are subject to severe restrictions of movement, employment and religious freedom. Much of the food shortage can be attributed to a poor agricultural season in 2007 and 2008, rising food and agricultural inputs, and declining employment opportunities for the landless poor.

The price of rice was 75 per cent higher in June 2008 against 2007, prompting many Rohingya families to forgo one meal a day. Recent field reports of studies done by the WFP indicate a similar, if not worse, situation with respect to household food insecurity in the early months of this year, largely due to growing levels of debt, a reduced harvest in the main 2008-2009 agricultural season, coupled with declining opportunities for wage labour, Exacerbating the problem is the significant drop in village rice stores compared with levels typical for this time of year.

In addition, more Buddhist Rakhine families, as well as other ethnic households in the area, required assistance than before. Until recently food assistance was largely targeted at the Muslim population. According to human rights activists, restrictions imposed by authorities on the Rohingya make their plight particularly dire.

The government insists the Rohingya are Bengali and do not have the same rights as Myanmar citizens. The WFP cancelled its Foodfor- Education programme in northern Rakhine for the year 2008-2009. Although donations from the European Union and the UN are expected, they have yet to be received and the overall funding outlook for 2009 remains uncertain. WFP needs $16 million to support its food assistance activities in Myanmar, which include seven programmes in Rakhine.


There is an acute shortage of food aid being delivered to Afghanistan. Despite an emergency appeal made in July 2008 for US$404 million to help the most vulnerable among the 550,000 pregnant and lactating women and under-five children in Afghanistan, nutritious food aid - specially fortified food -is yet to reach those in need.

Roughly one fourth of lactating women are malnourished and about 19 percent of pregnant women are weak and food insecure, suffering from poor nutritional status (low on minerals and vitamins).

In addition to this, more than half of the children underfive are stunted, according to a survey by UN agencies and the government. Women and children are among the most vulnerable of the millions of Afghans who have been affected by insecurity, high food prices and drought.

Oxfam has called on international donors to boost humanitarian aid deliveries: “The health of over a million young children and half a million women is at serious risk due to malnutrition but a humanitarian rescue package is only 42 per cent funded, with key sectors such as health and education less than two per cent funded.”

WFP hopes that the nutritious food aid programme will begin soon. Logistical hurdles, the security situation and several other factors have often delayed aid delivery. So far little, if any, medical relief had been provided since the emergency appeal was launched in July 2008. Afghanistan is second only to Sierra Leone in terms of having the world’s worst maternal and infant mortality rates.


Agricultural experts in Nepal are concerned that people in already food-insecure Nepal will have to further tighten their belts in view of rising prices. According to local food traders the price of rice, increased by 24 per cent, cooking oil by 30 per cent and wheat flour by 18 per cent in 2008. High dependence on imports, an Indian export ban on key food commodities, and increasing transport costs were the main reasons for the rise in price. According to Nepal’s Rastriya Bank, food inflation in the country reached 17 per cent compared to only 10 per cent in India Natural disasters and civil unrest further worsened matters.

The Nepal WFP country representative expressed concern that the people living on the margins will suffer still further. Many people are already skipping meals and eating less nutritious food.

According to WFP, the rise in food prices has seriously affected people in western hill regions and worsened child malnutrition rates. According to the Demographic and Health Survey Nepal has one of south Asia’s worst malnutrition rates, with almost 50 per cent of children under five stunted and suffering from chronic malnutrition.

Floods and landslides in several districts throughout the country affected summer crop production in 2008, damaged farmland and severely cut crop yields, particularly of rice and millet. The north-western hill region suffered at least 30-50 per cent crop losses. According to a February 2009 FAO report, Nepal is one of the 32 countries with food crises requiring significant external assistance.

Monday, September 14, 2009

GDP and India’s hungry underbelly

Suman Sahai
Finally there is acknowledgement on the part of the government that the country is indeed facing a serious drought and a crisis in food availability. For months we were treated to the Met department statements predicting some shortfall in the rainfall, nowhere close to the calamitous situation that those who work on the ground could see developing. Until recently, the government also assured that all was under control, that the country had sufficient food reserves and there was no cause for panic. Only now have the powers that be admitted that there is indeed cause for panic.

And now that a full-blown drought is upon us, the Planning Commission has given us estimations that though the failed monsoon will shave off some points from the economic growth projections, the impact on the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) will not be significant. The Planning Commission is not overly exercised over the drop in farm output which translates into less food for the poor, more hunger all round, more anaemic mothers and a greater number of low birth weight children who will never grow up to be fully healthy adults. The human suffering that results from a drop in farm output is invisible on the paper on which the Planning Commission calculates that the current reduction in agriculture production will "have some impact but not a very large one" since agriculture contributes less than 20 per cent to the economy.

This cynical callousness is what is at the root of the problem. The real reason why droughts, floods, hunger and deprivation in rural India are year for year, treated with the disdain that we have come to expect from policy circles. Agriculture is neglected because it is not part of the charmed circle that contributes to nine per cent growth rates and to the "Shining India" that is getting ready to become a global power. Already, the government and its many economists have begun to introduce the "feel good" factor. Oh! OK! so the kharif crop has gone to the dogs… but the failed monsoon will not have any impact on the rabi (winter) crop. So now we can quit worrying because the rabi harvest will bring enough and we can stop being bothered with all these dull agriculture issues.

The fact of the matter is that in over 60 per cent of India’s agricultural belt, there will be, by and large, no rabi harvest. Regions which are termed rain-fed, still do not have any irrigation facilities, 60-odd years after Independence. The farmers there can grow only crop in the year, that is in the kharif season, when the monsoons come. If the monsoon fails, like it did this year, then the next crop will come only next year, hopefully when the next monsoon comes. In between there will be hunger.

The government has set up a National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) with a head holding some important rank but the irrigation cover in Jharkhand is all of three per cent. This plateau region, largely rural and populated by adivasis, is one in which there will be no rabi crop in most areas. The poor in Jharkhand and other regions like it, in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Vidarbha and so on, which are dependent on monsoons, will know a worse hunger than they do in most years.

In these regions, it did not rain from June onwards. The farmers could not plant their rice or maize but because it did not rain, the famine foods that the rural poor come to rely on, did not come up either. The bitter gaithi, a tuber that dulls the worst of the hunger, did not grow, nor did the many green plants that spring up as weeds near the crop fields. Such leafy greens like chakor add a lot to rural diets, but they are largely missing this time.

In a survey that Gene Campaign is conducting currently in villages in Jharkhand, food stocks available with families will last another two months at the outside, if the family stretches the food. This usually means, the father eats some rice along with the starchy water it is cooked in, with some salt, the children get some of the rice with what little saag can be found and the mother, gets what is left over, not very much usually. The leafy weeds which are eaten as saag, are missing and there are no fish in the rice fields. Even the mud crabs and snails, which add protein to the family’s food, are missing this year because it has been so dry for so long. These families have not eaten daal for years , even when it was Rs 20 per kg. At the current prices of Rs 60 to 70 per kg, it is not even mentioned as a food.

A global power with such a large, vulnerable underbelly? Our policymakers must reflect seriously on the price the country will have to pay for the neglect of rural India. The disaffected youth that have abandoned the mainstream are not ideological maniacs, as yet. Most are just hungry and fed-up.


Suman Sahai

It is clear now that the monsoons are severely deficient and have more or less failed in North India. Uttar Pradesh, particularly the western part of the state, Punjab and Haryana are very badly affected, with perhaps UP being the worst affected area. In Bihar only ten percent of the normal rice area has been planted this year. This normally rice surplus state will face an acute shortfall in rice production and the small and marginal farmers have a very difficult time ahead. In fact all the northern rice surplus regions barring Punjab, like UP, Bihar and Haryana have been able to plant only a fraction of their usual paddy area. This means a serious shortfall in rice production this year.

In rainfed areas like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, many farmers have decided not to plant the kharif maize at all since the rains are late and insufficient. They do not expect to get anything from the sowing this season and have decided not to waste precious seed. This way they also save the money that would have to be spent on inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. In Jharkhand barely half the rice area has been planted. Having read the weather, almost before the Met Department, many farmers did not even prepare their rice nurseries. Those that did, have lost the seed. Farmers in these areas know there will be little food this year, and people have begun to migrate to the cities already, in search of work.

Thank God that despite the many plans afoot to do so, the government did not sell the grain reserves that are meant as buffer stocks for crisis situations like the one we are likely to face this year. We have sold buffer stocks before, at a fraction of the cost it took to produce and store the grain, even as people in the country remained hungry. The reason offered to dispose this food grain is that it is rotting in storage. Well, the answer to that is better storage so that the grain does not spoil, not throwing it out, especially when we still have persistent hunger

This time what is disconcerting is the sense of complacency that seems to emanate from the government, which is issuing statements that there is no reason for panic, that even if the monsoon fails, we will manage the situation since we have adequate rice and wheat in our buffer stocks. Fifty five million tons of food grain is not a whole lot of food if the food deficit is significant, as it threatens to be this time. Either the officials in the food ministry are completely ignorant about how many people can be fed, for how long, on fifty five million tons of food grain, or they are deliberately lying , to make the situation look better than it actually is. It is criminal to create this false sense of preparedness because it will lead to complacency in stepping up the efforts to mobilize as much food as possible, to face the crisis.

Depending on the final shortfall in food production, the current grain reserves of approximately fifty five million tons, could help make up some of the kharif shortfall and provide food aid to the most vulnerable for a limited period of three to four months till the winter rabi crop comes in. But this plan overlooks the fact that for all rainfed regions, that are essentially monsoon dependent, there is no rabi crop. The only season when they can grow food is the kharif. When that fails, people in such regions face a serious food shortage for the rest of the year, till the next , hopefully good, monsoon comes.

The buffer stock planning disregards the far larger crisis of livelihoods that will be created for a population with no options but dependence on farming and its allied activities. If the kharif crop fails , agriculture labor and landless peasants who depend on wage labour, will be hard hit. They are able to earn from agriculture operations like weeding, threshing, winnowing, packing and transporting harvested grain. When this is reduced, their earnings are reduced. Apart from wages, the men and women who do the weeding are able to collect many types of nutritious , edible leafy greens that grow throughout the season in and around the cultivated fields. The weeds also provide green fodder for their livestock.

The poor who migrate from Bihar and Orissa every season to work as agriculture hands in Punjab and Haryana, will lose this income opportunity if the rains fail. These earnings form a substantial part of the annual income of such families. A shortfall in the kharif crop also means less straw for fodder, thus hitting at the survival of livestock that marginal farmers and landless peasants are so heavily dependent on. Stover and woody stems from crops like maize and linseed provide fuel for the farm family. These fuel sources will become unavailable if the kharif crops do not provide crop residues for fuel use.

What is barely being mentioned is that if the rains are delayed and late planting is done…the kharif crop will mature late , which means it will push back the planting of the winter rabi crop. The untimely or delayed sowing of the rabi crop will impact the production of winter food grains. In addition to the deficit in rice production , a delayed or poor monsoon also means that the crops that are sown at the tail end of the kharif season , like short duration mustard and linseed, will also not be possible. These are planted either in the last stages of the rice crop or immediately after the rice is harvested, to take advantage of the residual moisture in the fields .This loss will further reduce the food available to farm families and diminish farm incomes still further.

Can the current failure of the monsoon be attributed directly to the climate change that is under way? Or is it the result of a seasonal phenomenon like the El Nino? Whatever the answer, the present crisis certainly highlights one fact quite clearly, that our government is thoroughly unprepared to handle the problems that will be created by disturbances in the weather, that will increase as climate change becomes more manifest. The ICAR system has failed completely to respond to the early warnings about the devastation that climate change would bring for agriculture in South Asia. Nothing was done on the ground, even as the top brass flew around the world, attending meetings on climate change . Climate change warnings have been there for a number of years but the ICAR leadership has still not managed to come up with a coherent strategy that can help farmers today, to cope with the turbulence that climate change will bring and the effect this will have on their crops and fields.

Government departments dealing with agriculture have been talking for a long time about climate proofing our crops, buffering our agriculture systems and supplementing rural incomes through on- farm and off- farm operations. Not much has been done so far. The current crisis underlines the urgent need to shut down the perennial talk shop and put in place systems to support food security and rural livelihoods, because weather shocks will increase, not decrease in the coming years.

Suman Sahai can be reached at


India set itself apart from all other nations when it passed a unique legislation giving its farmers legal and formal rights over seed. The Farmers Rights law came after a hard won battle against the global and Indian seed industry which was backed by the IPR provisions demanded in the GATT/WTO. The latter required member countries to provide intellectual property protection in the form of either patents or plant breeders’ rights on seeds. Indian civil society refused to accept that the law would permit seeds to be patented, since this would hurt the interests of farmers. It demanded that not only plant breeders should be given rights but that farmers too must have rights in the law that would allow them to continue to have as much control over their seed as they always did. The Farmers Rights provision acknowledges the farmer as a cultivator, conserver and producer of seed. This independence as we will see , will become a crucial coping mechanism in the hands of farmers when confronted with the vagaries of global warming and climate change.
Had the farmers rights not come into being and India had accepted seed patents, we would gradually be flooded with seeds produced by companies. If these were under patents, the farmer would need to buy fresh seed for every season. This is not the case today. Apart from farm saved seed, Farmers Rights allow farmers to save seed even of varieties protected by Breeders Rights under the law. The company’s right over the seed is limited to the first sale ,after that the seed belongs to the farmers and they can plant it , share it with other farmers , even sell it in an informal arrangement as they have always done with other seed .
Climate change will bring unpredictable weather, there can be both droughts and floods, high and low rainfall and uneven distribution of what rain comes . All the agriculture practices that have been developed over time, in consonance with the local weather and the region’s climate, will probably be made to stand on their head. New responses will have to be found , both , on the part of scientists, but more so , from within the farming community, to find strategies to continue agriculture and food production when faced with the crisis of climate change. The greater the flexibility the farmers have with respect to the seeds they plant, the more able they will be to adjust their agriculture to floods or droughts, heavy or scanty rainfall. Farmers Rights ensures that farmers can select their seed at will. Their choices have not been eroded by the limited seeds that company’s could put out. A monoculture, promoted by the limited seed offer of commercial companies, is the most vulnerable type of agriculture and the least able to cope with the turbulence of climate change. Because we have so far deferred that situation, farmers can in fact go back to the mixed farming approach that has been a traditional strategy to minimize the risk from biotic and abiotic stresses that farmers always face. This is the exact opposite of monocultures where large swathes of fields are planted with only one type of seed. The farmer used to prefer to plant a mixture of seeds, say about 3 to 4 kinds of rice in the same field. These could include some that were high yielding, some perhaps not so high yielding but resistant to disease. If the farmer’s field was in an area that could get flooded occasionally, the farmer’s choice would include some seed that could tolerate standing water. In such a situation, regardless of flood or disease, the farmer would always get some harvest and some food for the family. In a good year, the harvest would be good but in a flood year, the harvest may not be that good but all would not be lost. This is exactly the coping strategy that farmers need today, as they prepare to face climate change. Farmers can even today plant such a mixture of seeds because they have the freedom to do so and the Farmers Rights law defends this freedom.
The importance of maintaining and strengthening Farmers Right is more obvious today than it ever was. Yet the efforts of the national and international seed industry, in complicity with elements within the government is to have the scope and strength of the Farmers Rights reduced, if not done away with altogether . The challenge to Farmers Rights comes essentially from the move to make India a member of the UPOV. This effort was made , prompted by the seed industry pressure, already in May 2002, just months after the Farmers Rights legislation was finally passed by Parliament. The attack has been renewed more recently through the bilateral treaties coming in the form of Free Trade Agreements. The bilateral trade agreement with the EU and with EFTA are both asking for India to harmonise its Farmers Rights law with UPOV. This will mean doing away with the comprehensive set of rights granted under the current legislation and the flexibility that the farmer has to chose seed and keep control over it.

Gene Patents: What lies ahead?

Suman Sahai
During my summer at Princeton this year, two issues took up a lot of newsprint. One was the outbreak of flu, the other, an extraordinary law suit that challenges human gene patents. The gene patent story has lessons for India since our patent laws appear to be under a lot of pressure to allow the patenting of genes.

The gene patent challenge in the US deals with a breast cancer patient who took a genetic test to see if her genes also put her at higher risk for ovarian cancer, in which case she would have had to get her ovaries removed. The test was positive but the patient wanted a second test as a reconfirmation. She could not do so since the test had been patented by a company called Myriad Genetics, and would cost thousands of dollars. Myriad Genetics owns the patents for two breast cancer genes, BRCA 1 and BRCA2 and controls all aspects related to these genes including testing for their presence. Women, who carry mutations of these two genes, come into the high risk category for breast and ovarian cancer. Early detection is crucial to save lives.

Doctors can scan women with a family history and those found to have defective copies of the genes can be regularly screened for early detection of any cancers. Angered by the power of corporations to deny lifesaving diagnosis and treatment to people, the American Civil Liberties Union filed the unique lawsuit against Myriad Genetics. Plaintiffs in this unusual case include breast cancer patients and professional scientific and medical
organizations. The case was filed in the federal court in New York in May 2009 and the outcome is eagerly awaited by public interest groups who have been long fighting for a
fairer, more egalitarian healthcare system.

Scientists at the human genetics program at the New York University School of Medicine, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, say that many laboratories have the capacity to conduct BRCA tests faster than Myriad Genetics and at a cost that is a fraction of the $3000 that Myriad charges. The scientific community in general is of the view that
market forces should be allowed to operate in such cases, which would ensure better and cheaper BRCA gene tests. The court’s verdict in the case will decide whether testing for
fairly prevalent diseases like breast cancer will become more accessible to patients or whether they will continue to be shackled by patents and monopolies.

The United States Patents Office has maintained a pro active and aggressive stand on granting gene patents. The decoding of the human genome resulted in a flurry of patent activities chiefly in the US. After a few ups and downs regarding how much genetic material could be patented without knowledge of its functions, a less frenetic but nevertheless substantial patent activity has become the established norm. Almost three million gene related patents have been issued in the United States alone. Patents can be
taken out on genes, on gene mutations and any investigative or therapeutic procedures linked to these genes or their mutants.

Over 20 percent of the human genome has already been patented. This includes genes for Alzheimer's, colon cancer, breast cancer, asthma and some other diseases. The implications of these patents are that pharmaceutical companies and researchers in universities can control the kind of research can be done on those genes, the diagnostic
tests that can be developed from that research and how much those diagnostic tests and treatments will cost. The fall out of such patents has been to stifle clinical research on the genetic predisposition and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer leading to avoidable suffering for women and hugely expensive testing, out of the reach of the average person.

The situation gets worse when patent holding companies like Myriad Genetics licence out rights to other companies to extend the areas where their patents will operate. The Australian biotechnology company, Genetic Technologies, obtained the Australian and New Zealand rights to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes from Myriad Genetics in 2003.

The company initially said it would not enforce its legal claim over the gene, and described it as their “gift to the Australian people”. But this has changed. Unable to resist the lure of profits, Genetic Technologies is now charging $2100 per scan of the breast cancer genes.

India's healthcare system is fragile to begin with and the poor already find it very difficult to get medical care. We must ensure that further injustice is not done to patients in the name of promoting innovation. Gene patents should not be permitted in our IPR system. In fact such patents should be deemed illegal, unconstitutional, obstructive of scientific
progress and violative of human rights.

Norway takes high moral ground on IPR issues

Suman Sahai
Norway has become a more frequent destination of my travels in recent months than the other European countries that I used to visit more regularly. On a recent trip, I visited the permafrost Gene Bank in the Arctic region of Svalbard. This Gene Bank set up by the Norwegian government is termed the 'doomsday vault'. It is a place where seeds of major food crops have been stored in rooms cut out of an ice mountain. The doomsday vault is meant as a safeguard against catastrophes, a situation when so much damage has been inflicted on earth that agriculture and food production will have to start afresh

Most of my other visits to Norway were related to advocacy meetings with civil society organisations and members of the Norwegian government on issues relating to intellectual property rights (IPR). There is an ongoing bilateral trade negotiation between India and EFTA, the India-EFTA Free Trade Agreement, in which EFTA has made demands for stronger IPR protection than is currently provided by Indian legislation. EFTA, which is the European Free Trade Association, consists of Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Lichtenstein. It wants India to provide a higher level of protection for seeds (plant varieties), more specifically, the kind of protection that is contained in the UPOV contract of 1991.

India’s sui generic legislation on seeds, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, has consciously kept away from UPOV style legislation because the latter does not have any concept of farmers’ rights. It just has breeders’ rights. Civil society groups in India have fought very hard since the Uruguay GATT Round introduced IPRs for seeds to craft a legal regime that has greater equity for farmers than the UPOV permits. This long-drawn battle saw three changes in the government in Delhi and two joint Parliamentary Committees, where issues were raised and heard from the seed industry, scientists and civil society. This process lasted about seven years, till 2001, when Parliament finally passed the law. The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act grants equal rights to plant breeders and farmers.

In my meetings in Norway, I explained why the IPR demands made in the EFTA bilateral will hurt Indian farmers and Indian food security; why acquiescing to UPOV style legislation, especially the 1991 contract, which practically amounts to seed patents, will strike at the reliance of farmers as both seed producers and seed consumers. I also explained that not acknowledging farmers’ rights will be unjust, given the enormous contribution they have made to the creation, refinement and conservation of valuable crop diversity. During these meetings with government officials and civil society groups, I had the opportunity to explain the nuances of India’s farmers’ rights legislation and that the Indian law was the only one in the world in which farmers had legal rights.

It was, therefore, with great satisfaction that I read about Norway’s decision to withdraw its demands on the IPR part of the EFTA negotiation. The government of Norway, through its Ministry of Trade and Commerce, announced that Norway had withdrawn from negotiations on patent rights in the ongoing FTA. In her statement, the State Secretary of Trade and Commerce, Ms. Rikke Lind, said “we have chosen to withdraw from the negotiations. We have a different policy on this topic, compared to the other EFTA countries. It was not a major issue in recent negotiations, but in the agreement with India, it has turned out to be a serious problem.”

With this action, Norway has seized a high moral ground and taken a principled stand in not forcing an IPR position on India that goes beyond what was agreed in the multilateral platform of the WTO. How this plays out with the other EFTA members remains to be seen.

Switzerland is known to be aggressive on matters of IPR and there can be problems within EFTA later on with respect to a joint position. But for now, Norway’s position has been greatly welcomed by those working for an equitable IPR regime.

India should play a leadership role in reversing the trend of bilateral negotiations, especially in sensitive fields where claims are being made in excess of WTO commitments. The gains made in the EFTA negotiations are a good start. The next step will be to lobby with our own government to insist on the removal of a similar IPR clause in the ongoing bilateral negotiations with the EU. The original demand for a UPOV 1991 style IPR for plant varieties was made in the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU. EFTA really modeled its demands based on the EU bilateral negotiations.

No winners in the global food crisis

Suman Sahai
These days I often hear that the global food crisis is not bad for everyone. Whereas consumers may not be able to afford food, it is being suggested that farmers at such times will benefit because they will get a better price for their produce. This is a dangerous argument. When there is a crisis of food and its availability is starkly reduced, it is the poor who suffer the most. This includes the small and marginal farmers, who count among the worst victims of such a crisis, specially in developing countries. Perhaps bigger farmers can benefit from high prices of food staples like rice, wheat and corn, but they benefit anyway from agriculture because they have access to resources and know how to utilise the opportunities presented by the market. The small farmers usually have little surplus to benefit from such price surges and they are also consumers of foods they do not cultivate. These farmers suffer disproportionately when prices of food go up.

Recently, the Deputy Director-General of Africa Rice Center (WARDA) made a statement that the global food crisis which sent rice prices above $1,000 per tonne last year, is a great opportunity for Africans to improve their economic situation, because the price crisis has actually made rice farming profitable. As he made this assertion, there was no mention of the fact that if the farmers kept their rice for home consumption, there was nothing to sell and benefit from and if they sold the rice they needed to feed their families, they may get some cash, but what would they eat?

The fact is that there is a food deficit in sub-Saharan Africa which in anycase is one of the most vulnerable parts of Africa. This region imports about 40 per cent of its rice requirement from Asia, at an annual cost of around 2 billion dollars. The anticipated impact of climate change is projected to be particularly severe in Asia and it is likely that rice production could be negatively impacted. In this case, there may not be much surplus for export. Africa too is slated to be hard hit by climate change. Instead of drawing red herrings about the high market price of rice at a time of food shortage and the possibility of making big profits, policy makers and scientists should focus on increasing agriculture productivity at home and ensure that food production is stabilised to avert hunger.

Despite Africa’s favourable climatic conditions, it does not produce enough rice for its needs. This situation must change so that Africa can become selfsufficient in rice production. For this to happen, African governments must invest substantially in research and the international research community must be forthcoming with germplasm and technologies to improve yields on farmers’ fields. This is not the time to think of linking scarce food to the market. It is the time to keep a strong focus on joining hands across the world to stabilise food production in vulnerable areas and prepare strategies to cope with the impact of climate change so that food production does not become a major casualty of global warming and the changing climate.

So far the international effort has simply not been enough to minimise the global food crisis or develop mechanisms to prepare agriculture to cope with the impact of the changing climate. It is disconcerting to hear this ‘winners of the food crisis’ view at international meetings. Its almost as if the global community which has responded shamefully to the food crisis, is making out the case that it is actually not such a disturbing situation after all, and that there are in fact categories of the so-far deprived who will reap a bonanza from the food crisis.

Instead of this cynical hypocrisy, a mission mode intervention is needed to tackle this crisis. At the High Level Conference on World Food Security in June 2008, the UN Comprehensive Framework for Action estimated that US$25-40 billion per year in additional funding is required to restore global food and nutritional security. Given the scale of the crisis, this figure is woefully inadequate. Conservative estimates suggest that
at least US$60-70 billion per year would be needed for the implementation of an “essential minimum package” to effectively combat hunger worldwide.

Following the High Level Conference, world leaders pledged a mere US$12.3 billion to tackle the food crisis, but have donated only US$1billion so far. This is the lowest ratio of actual funds to funds pledged, of any global appeal in recent history. This disappointing
amount illustrates once again that hunger is nowhere on the global agenda. This is sending the dangerous message that the rich nations are not seriously concerned about tackling the food crisis. Serious effort and effective interventions to combat global hunger will need adequate funding and international coordination. This is an ethical and moral imperative.

Bt cotton or Organic cotton?

Suman Sahai
A multi-agency group involving government departments and trading bodies as well as the industry has been set up under the aegis of the Textiles Ministry to promote organic cotton in the country. If the Textiles Ministry promoting organic cotton and the Department of Biotechnology promoting genetically engineered Bt cotton are at odds with each other and working at cross purposes, it should not surprise anyone, since it is the norm rather than the exception for government departments to work in isolation, without any coordination and in ways that contradict each other. This is not the first case in which the proverbial left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, nor will it be the last.

Organic produce and genetically engineered produce are mutually self excluding commodities. A country can chose to go either way for a given product but not both. But that does not stop the Government of India from bumbling along in two contradictory directions, one arm promoting a product that will cancel out the markets of the other. If Bt cotton were to contaminate traces of organic cotton, the consignments of organic cotton would lose the certification that would get them the premium price advantage and be rejected by markets interested in buying organic cotton.

Although coexistence of GM and non-GM produce has been mooted as a possible way to reconcile two contradicting situations, in reality it has never worked. The fact is that it is impossible to keep agricultural produce like cotton or rice or strawberries apart once they are ready for the market. Bt and organic cotton are as bound to get mixed up as are Bt rice and organic rice. Gene Watch, UK, and Greenpeace maintain a register of instances where genetically engineered crops have contaminated conventional or organic crops. The contamination cases run into hundreds across the world, often with grave economic consequences. Not so long ago, consignments of US rice exported to several countries had to be recalled because traces of GM rice was found in rice that was declared as conventional, non GM rice. The cost of recall was prohibitive but the greater damage was done to America's future rice exports. Once countries returned the contaminated US rice, other rice exporting nations like Thailand entered the newly available markets in Europe, Japan and South Korea and established themselves there.

The new organic cotton agency has set itself the task of preparing a road map to increase the production of organic cotton in the country, without taking a view on what is to happen to the promotion of Bt cotton, which it acknowledges to be inimical to the growth of the sector they are advancing. If government sources and Monsanto are to be believed, Bt cotton has taken over a very large percentage of the cotton growing area in India. So is the organic cotton agency a story without a future? Or should India stand back from Bt cotton and present a range of organic cotton products to the world?

India is home to a large diversity in cotton. It cultivates the arboreum, the hirsutum and the barbadense cottons. Not many would associate the North-East of India with cotton, but the famed arboreum cotton of the Garo Hills in present Meghalaya was well known for its large, elongated bolls and strong fibres. Apart from the genetic diversity, there exists a great deal of indigenous knowledge about the cultivation of cotton and the processing of the fibre into fabric. Remember, cotton is an ancient Indian product, its quality famed and desired through the ancient world. There have been attempts to grow cotton with naturally coloured fibres so that the fabric does not have to be dyed. This approach is in line with organic cotton. Cotton is well understood in India. Organic cotton would be its USP because of a combination of past and present skills. And then there is the market.

The Cotton Advisory Board has set up this special organic cotton group to take advantage of the rapidly growing market for textiles made from organic cotton. Such textiles command a premium price in countries of Europe and in the US and Japan. The global market for organic cotton is growing by as much as 150 per cent per year, going by last year's figures. India is the No.1 producer of organic cotton in the world, followed by Syria, Turkey and China. It would make sense for India to follow the route of organic cotton where it is already a market leader in a product for which an assured market exists already and is growing. The story of cotton in India must be scripted by the ground reality of the market.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Meat Based Diseases: The Rise of Zoonosis

Suman Sahai

Whether swine flu originated on a pig farm in Mexico or in Asia, as is being suggested now, the fact remains that a disease that can infect both pigs and humans is circling the globe; whether it will assume epidemic proportions or not, remains to be seen. Diseases like SARS, avian flu, the ebola virus, and mad cow disease have shown us that evolutionary barriers between human and animal diseases are breaking down regularly and increasingly. Humans have become more vulnerable to cross-species illnesses today than ever before because in our globalised world, a pathogen is only a plane ride away.

International trade and the global transport of animals and animal products for food, creates easy channels for disease transfer between animals and humans. In addition, the transport of hundreds of species of wildlife, often as clandestine food, enables the transfer of the harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi which infect both people and animals in far away places. The rapid transportation of both animal products and people has ensured that disease causing agents from infected meat do not remain confined to where they originated, but very quickly reach far away continents. Today, of the roughly 1400 documented infectious diseases, more than half are capable of infecting both animals and humans. Most of these diseases such as anthrax, bubonic plague, Lyme disease, and monkey pox are "zoonotic," that is, they originated in animals but have acquired the ability to infect people. Others, like tuberculosis, and measles are "anthropozoonotic," meaning they are typically found in humans but can infect animals as well.

Countries with Highest Incidence of Swine Flu


Swine Flu Incidence










































United Kingdom



United States of America









Source: World Health Organisation

Consuming different types of meat, some quite unconventional, has often been the cause of diseases spreading from animals to humans. Scientists now believe HIV/AIDS arose in Africa when humans ate the meat of primates that were infected with Simian Immunodeficiency Viruses. The Ebola virus has a similar history of spreading via infected bush meat. The disease first came to light in 1976, when it appeared around the Ebola River in Africa. Along with humans, the virus infects primates like gorillas, chimpanzees, and monkeys, causing severe internal and external haemorrhaging and

leading to death in up to 90 percent of its human victims. When African hunters discovered a sick or dead animal in the forest, they brought it home to feed their families or sell on the market. The Ebola virus infected all the people who handled the meat, and a chain of infections was the result. Each of the human outbreaks in central Africa during the late 1990s and after was traced to humans handling infected great apes for bush meat.

SARS (Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome) also arose from contact with wild animals being used for food. The illness first appeared in late 2002 in China's Guangdong Province.

Human monkey pox is a rare viral zoonosis endemic to central and western Africa that has recently emerged in the USA. Patients, many of whom had been in close contact

with pet prairie dogs, started coming down with skin ulcers and fevers. It emerged that a prairie-dog dealer in Wisconsin had allowed his animals to mix with rodents imported from Ghana that were, as it turned out, carrying the monkey pox virus. An animal distributor had then sold the infected prairie dogs to pet stores in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Within about a month, 71 human cases of monkey pox in six Midwestern states had been reported.

The SARS causing virus was traced to a small mammal called the palm civet, which is farmed in the Guangdong region and sold for human consumption. Later the virus was also found in raccoons, ferrets, and badgers being sold in Guangdong's wildlife markets.

Tens of millions of wild mammals, birds, and reptiles are traded globally every year. The number of these animals that end up as food is staggering. Experts estimate that in central Africa alone consumers eat 579 million individual wild animals a year, for a total of more than a billion kilograms of meat. People in the Amazon basin are thought to consume between 67 and 164 million kilograms of wild animal meat a year, accounting for between 6.4 million and 15.8 million individual mammals alone.

Infectious agents are also being transferred from domestic to wild animals. Tuberculosis originating from domestic cattle has now infected herds of wild bison in Canada, deer in the US, and cape buffalo and lions in South Africa. In 1999, rinderpest, a disease that came to Africa with domestic cattle imported from India, killed more wild buffalo in Kenya than had been slain by poachers in twenty years.

Is it safe to eat pork and other foods derived from pigs? You cannot get influenza by eating properly handled and cooked pork or other foods derived from pigs like bacon and sausages. However, good food hygiene helps to prevent a wide range of infections, so it is important that all food is always prepared hygienically.

• Never eat raw or poorly cooked meat.

• Keep raw meat away from cooked and ready-to-eat foods.

• Use a separate chopping board and knife to prepare raw meat.

• Wash your hands immediately after handling raw meat.

• Wash and clean surfaces and utensils thoroughly after contact with raw meat.

In addition to the more unusual bush meat in Africa and exotic wild meats in China, the growing, near insatiable demand for ‘conventional’ meat , has promoted the intensive rearing , or ‘factory farming’ of livestock and poultry in, conditions which are ideal for diseases jumping from animals to humans. The international demand for meat and poultry has given rise to an ultra intensive industry in the west, with swine, poultry, and cattle farmers now packing huge numbers of animals into limited spaces. This necessitates extensive use of antibiotics to control the spread of infections in animals confined in small cages leading to rising numbers of antibiotic resistant bacteria. When antibiotics are washed out from factory farms, they escape into water supplies and give rise to even more resistant pathogenic populations. So factory farms not only raise animals like pigs and chicken, they also raise drug resistant bacteria which are becoming a big problem in fighting infectious diseases.

The key issues of over population, population density and over consumption have created a situation in which animal-human diseases are becoming more and more prevalent. This is unfortunately accompanied by a weakening of our ability to fight these diseases because disease fighting antibiotics are becoming ineffective in the face of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

We are witnessing a sharp rise in the incidence of zoonotic diseases but we are yet to put in place an effective system to predict and control the spread of such diseases. A small start has been made by the Rockefeller Foundation which has made a grant of US $100,000 to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). This money is to help establish a National One Health Commission and a global One Health Initiative to fight zoonotic diseases like avian influenza and West Nile virus through the collaborative efforts of work being done locally, nationally, and globally. Such an initiative however will require much greater financial support if it is to make any dent in the understanding and controlling of zoonotic diseases.

Early warning system for emerging human diseases: The Canary Database. The Yale School of Medicine has launched a database containing scientific evidence about how animal disease events can be an early warning system for emerging human diseases. The

database known as the Canary Database draws its name from the practice of miners who carried canaries into coal mines as an early warning signal for carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases. The birds being more sensitive would sicken before the miners, who would then have a chance to escape or put on protective respirators.

It is known that animals succumb to environmental hazards before humans show any signs of illness. The Canary Database is a web-based collection of animal sentinel studies that have been organized in terms of their relevance to human health. The database has compiled studies on the use of animal sentinel data in human health decisionmaking

and is applying this to the interface of animal and human health. Animal health experts provide the background information on potential disease transmission between humans and wildlife for emerging diseases such as monkey pox, SARS, Avian influenza, and West Nile Virus. The information in the database should help to join the dots from incidents across the world and make predictions of looming zoonotic diseases as early as possible.