Monday, June 25, 2012


Suman Sahai

According to Gargi Parsai’s report in The Hindu of 31 May, the Center  is making the already  ridiculous Food Security Bill, even more nonsensical by curtailing the food entitlement  further. Going back on its promise of  a smaller allotment of food grains to families above the miserable cut off  line defining poverty, the poor who qualify as above the poverty line (APL category) will not get any food support at all. Far from universalizing the entitlement , the UPA government has squeezed the poor by reducing the amount of food it is prepared to give to the hungry. 

One must question why one should  go through with this farcical Food Security Bill at all. Its primary driving force is the fact that the Congress party made  a poll promise and it sees electoral benefit  in pushing such a legislation through. The government appears to be enacting a pantomime, going through the motions of caring for the hungry by enacting a legislation, hoping that most people would not really look into what the legislation actually contains for the poor, namely very little. 

In a major shift in policy, the Centre now plans to confine food entitlement only to below poverty Line (BPL) households and completely exclude the existing category of the above poverty line families. This is in the face of all demands to make food entitlements universal. Tamil Nadu already has a universal PDS and the Chief Minister, Ms Jayalalitha has therefore rejected the UPA Food Security Bill, saying it undermines the support to the poor that Tamil Nadu is already giving.

The task of identifying the BPL families will be left to the State governments and several States have raised objections to putting a ceiling on the number of poor households. In any case holders of BPL cards in villages are more or less identified by their proximity to powerful persons, not necessarily the extent of their poverty. 

The current Food Security Bill i( FSB) s a parody of legislation. It muddles around with the existing PDS system without in any way suggesting how  the inefficiencies and leakages of the current  structures  can be plugged. 

I have argued elsewhere that the FSB must be redrafted completely and made to rest on three pillars: the production of food, its distribution and ensuring the absorption of food by providing clean drinking water and sanitation.

A Bill to provide food security must be an enabling legislation, not based on dole.  Appropriate conditions must be ensured to the farming community to enable them to produce adequate and nutritious food so that our food security is based on self-reliance. 

The key concepts  for  remodel ling the distribution system are decentralization and diversification . A decentralized system can procure local foods from the region, thus reducing transportation costs and spoilage . A diversified system need not procure only wheat and rice but can expand the basket to include nutricereals  like millets as well as  yams, tubers , sweet potatoes and pumpkins and anything else that the region produces. Dietary diversity will improve nutrition, locally sourced food will be fresher and give farmers an incentive to produce a range of diverse foods since the PDS will be the market to buy up the food.  If the intentions are pure, the way to achieve food and nutrition security  is obvious.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Policy space opens through MNREGA

 Suman Sahai

Jairam Ramesh seems to have (in)advertently opened up a policy space with his comment on MNREGA “ Aap kitna gaddha khodo ge?” Here is an opportunity for people working  on NRM, agriculture and related fields, to intervene in changing policy and make suggestions for what MNREGA funded manpower can be used for , particularly in rainfed areas . Will be a good idea to come up with a list of suggested interventions and send it off to J Ramesh .

We should offer suggestions that definitely include the skill building of rural (young) people and the creation of substantial assets in rural areas. The No- Brainer here is natural resource conservation , especially water. Another is soil conservation….again in its most comprehensive sense. This could involve technology and a ‘barefoot’ type ITI training to create rural engineers who can go from identifying the problems of a terrain, conserving its moisture…etc,   to building up the soil health in its diverse pockets.

One thing I encounter in the fields is the limitation of  programs like the IWMP with its snarls of red tape and pre-set conditions. People tend to set silly do-able targets because of these limitations and the end product becomes unsatisfactory. Could we for instance, propose an allocation for a watershed to develop it comprehensively?  Starting from the water conservation to an agriculture  mix with high value crops that can be cultivated there , value chain building of the produce and its marketing. This should make the watershed an attractive package at several levels and people can be trained along its axis, acquiring different types of skills that will have applications beyond the watershed. One way of retaining young people in agriculture and rural livelihoods is to make them more contemporary and skilled and linked more firmly to the market.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Knowledge Is Survival

Knowledge passed from generation to generation provides a guarantee for the next harvest.

Indian farmers are fighting for their intellectual property.


Large conglomerates take advantage of Indian farmers. The farmers forfeit their claim to their intellectual property and ultimately, to the knowledge that might allow them to resist climate change. The "Gene Campaign" has become their advocate.

Diversity is Nature's "Plan B": it provides a variety of possibilities. Let us suppose that a plant crop no longer grow once its native habitat has become flooded. However, some of its relatives are not afraid to get their feet wet and will take root even in mud. Or say the higher temperatures caused by climate change make it difficult for traditional crops. This is where Mother Nature plays her joker card called biodiversity. If one plant won't grow under these conditions, another will.

A pretty cool thing, this Nature. If only we could put it to use. Well, that's exactly what man has been doing since the beginning of agriculture. We not only know that a certain plant has medicinal properties; we also know that it can withstand drought or rain, or that the wind will easily knock it over. All of this knowledge; acquired by trial and error and passed on from generation to generation, helps to guarantee the next harvest and thus, the survival itself in a constantly changing environment.

"I want to help my country!"
People all over the world are struggling to preserve and protect this knowledge. Dr. Suman Sahai and the "Gene Campaign" NGO*, which she founded, are fighting for the rights of Indian farmers to their intellectual property. Trained in genetics, the scientist can look back on a long and successful career. She performed research and taught at universities in India, Canada, the USA and Germany. "It wasn't a professional mid-life crisis that brought me from research to the 'Gene Campaign'. I was a successful scientist and I really enjoyed my work," says Sahai. "It was my Indian identity. I want to help my country." And just what kind of service to the Indian people does Dr. Sahai find so rewarding?
"Gene Campaign" fights internationally for the fair treatment of indigenous intellectual property. Based on the premise that no one should have to be made to account for his property, Suman Sahai pillories scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and agricultural concerns as "biopirates" and accuses profit- hungry governments.
The "exploiters" not only disregard the moral principles that Sahai stands for but also violate the objectives and duties prescribed by the CBD (Convention on Biodiversity), all under the mantle of the WTO (World Trade Organization). Benefit-sharing remains merely an ideal because there is money in knowing how to use plants. Lots of money. Suman Sahai has estimated what fair benefit-sharing would look like in her view. Pharmaceutical companies might invest a billion dollars from the time a plant is discovered until a product is launched on the market. Deducting the outlays needed for advertising and standardization in Western markets of around 400 million dollars, that would place a value of 600 million dollars on the plant itself. This would provide an equitable basis for negotiations. The only question is: What is fair? Five percent for the people who discovered the knowledge? Or fifty? "Plus a share of the profits, naturally," says Dr. Suman Sahai.

It's no surprise that the "biopirates" are anything but thrilled by this calculation. This is where Sahai's reputation as a scientist is helpful. "Governments listen to me, even though they don't like what I have to say. My career as a scientist confers authority on me." This authority, plus the conviction of doing the right thing are apparent in her entire manner, in the rapid, almost brusque way she counters arguments, or in the way she calls for people to rethink. They are towering demands, made by a towering personality.

Bringing science to the village
The "Gene Campaign", however, doesn't just perform international publicity and stand up for the
rights of farmers. The organization also provides on- site assistance. The marketing of diversity by the industrial nations not only puts farmers at a disadvantage; their valuable know-how is slowly being lost. Optimized seeds dominate the market. Native low- performance varieties and alternative sources of food are slowly being forgotten. To put it drastically, farmers' survival is being pinned to one crop alone. In an effort to preserve indigenous knowledge, the NGO delivers "science where it's needed" — to the villages. Local communities assist in erecting simple seed banks. Villagers receive training in managing their seed supply and ultimately assume responsibility for them. The banks thus provide a guarantee of crop diversity and preserve the knowledge of their uses.

Educating for equity
Villagers are grateful for the attempts to secure their future by preserving diversity but many a battle against powerful adversaries needs to be fought before equitable benefit-sharing can proceed. Sahai hopes that future generations will learn to respect and deal fairly with resources — both intellectual and material — through education and publicity.

Verena Orth

Source : Correcting Images. Protecting and Using Biological Diversity - Preserving Cultural Diversity



Thursday, June 14, 2012


Suman Sahai

All technologies but especially those related to food and agriculture must be adopted in developing countries only if small farmers and rural communities can benefit from them.
It is important to recognize that there are many indigenous technologies and knowledge systems that work well for rural communities because they are affordable, accessible and communities are skilled in their use. New technologies must neither displace nor diminish such indigenous technologies.

A new agricultural technology must have a strong local context to be meaningful and the agenda must be determined by local stakeholders. The research goals must be determined by the needs of local agriculture, not imported as a package as is the case currently with Bt and Herbicide Tolerant  (HT) crops. A technology developed for industrial agriculture is unlikely to work for resource poor farmers in developing countries because it is usually more expensive, it can be irrelevant or even harmful  and it is alien in its application.

Growing Bt cotton which is expensive and has complex requirements of maintaining non Bt refuges and counting insects to determine when an insecticide spray is required, places great financial burdens and provides opportunities for things going wrong.  HT crops constitute a labor saving technology, which is absolutely wrong for labor surplus developing countries where agricultural operations like weeding, threshing and winnowing provide much needed wages to agriculture labor. In addition, weeds that would be destroyed by herbicide application serve as leafy green vegetables for the family, fodder for livestock and medicinal plants for health and veterinary care in rural areas.

The adoption of regulated technologies like Ag biotechnology may not be difficult where regulatory systems can be established and enforced easily. This is not necessarily the case in developing countries where there is a deficit of skilled manpower and finances to run a stringent regulatory system. In the absence of a technically competent, transparent and accountable regulatory system, adoption of Ag biotechnology which has environmental, health and socio-economic implications is not advisable in poor countries.

To develop new technologies relevant to the poor, the public sector must step up spending to create accessible and affordable public goods. International research and development agencies must support such efforts and intervene in the creation of novel approaches to deal with innovation and intellectual property (IP) so that new technologies do not remain shackled in patents, available only to the rich. Countries should develop sensible domestic IP policies incorporating equity and justice.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Need for a different food security law

S U M A N  S A H A I 

THE Union cabinet has recently approved a flawed and inadequate food security bill (FSB) that is, at least in part, driven by the Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council. It was widely reported that Gandhi’s determination to push the bill at all costs was to make good a Congress Party poll promise. To achieve food security, the FSB proposes to revise the Public Distribution System (PDS) and provide 7 kilograms of rice and wheat at Rs 3 and Rs 2 per kg respectively, per person, to people below the poverty line. For a family of five, this will amount to 35 kg of grain per month.[2] To people above the poverty line, the bill proposes to provide three kilograms of cereal per person at half the minimum support price that the government pays at the time of procurement.

This allotment is as yet only proposed and the 15 kg cereal per above poverty line (APL) family is not planned in the first phase.[3] For those who so desire, there is a provision to include millets in lieu of wheat and rice at one rupee per kilogram.

Given the prevalence and persistence of hunger, the country certainly requires a legislation on food security, but a comprehensive one; not one that deals with just a part of the picture.

In order to achieve genuine food security, a legislation must cover all aspects related to it, first and foremost ensuring that sufficient food is produced so that enough is available for everyone. Second, an effective distribution system must be in place so that people can access the food easily, and finally, ensure that food that is eaten is absorbed by the body to provide nutrition. The last can only be achieved by providing clean drinking water and sanitation to slash the incidence of diarrheal disease that prevents nutrition from being absorbed. These then are the three pillars of food security: the production, distribution and absorption of food.

The National Food Security Bill presented by the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government addresses only the distribution of food and should correctly be called the Revised PDS Bill rather than the overly ambitious food security bill. It neither addressesthe production of food nor does it include any features to improve the appalling state of sanitation and clean drinking water that robs the body of nutrition.

Ignoring the aspect of food production in a food security legislation underlines the inadequacy of the bill, especially given that India is in the throes of a severe agrarian crisis. In part, at least, agriculture productivity is declining and fields lie fallow as farmers in distress may prefer to abandon the profession because of its failure to provide either food or a livelihood.

Growth in food grain production has fallen to 1.7 per cent, below the population growth rate of 1.9 per cent. This translated to a decline in per capita availability of food grains by3.5 kg in the period from 1995 to 2001. Concurrently, there has been an unprecedented decline in the availability of cereals and pulses in the 15 years from 1991 to 2004 – from 510 grams per capita per day to 463 gms per capita per day because of a decline in production.[4]

There is a high level of indebtedness in the farming community which is eroding their ability to continue cultivation. According to the finance ministry’s 2007 report, about half of India’s farmers are indebted and the inability to repay loans has in part led to some farmers preferring to end their lives.[5] The debt burden is crushing farm productivity, most of all in the surplus food producing states of Punjab, Kerala, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which feed the country’s buffer stocks and the government’s food support schemes like the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the Mid Day Meal Scheme, Annapoorna for the elderly and Antyodaya for the extremely poor.

The production of food is declining for a number of reasons like stagnation in agriculture, increasing production risks exacerbated by the uncertainties of climate change, unfavourable  prices and a callous neglect by formal institutions, specially those relating to credit and insurance. Agriculture credit has been squeezed and since banks do not lend to farmers, they are forced to seek loans at usurious rates from private lenders. The finance ministry report referred to earlier says that only four per cent of farm households had ever insured their crops and 57 per cent did not even know that crops could be insured.[6] All these factors are making agriculture and food production uncertain and risky and farmers are getting increasingly disenchanted. A food security bill that does not address such central problems cannot be taken seriously.

Farmers are abandoning agriculture because it is unprofitable and risky. The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) in its 2005 report says that 40 per cent of Indian farmers want to forsake farming if they can find another means of livelihood.[7]  Not only is farming the riskiest business in the world, in India it is also a loss making enterprise. Input costs have gone through the roof, even as the government ‘controls’ the price of farm produce. The Minimum Support Price (MSP) in most states does not coverthe cost of production for the crops which are procured by the government. This applies to all the major food crops – paddy, wheat, jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, arhar, moong, urad, chana (gram) and barley.

Neither policy responses nor the food security bill reflect the enormous disaster in the making as the agrarian crisis worsens. In the kharif season of 2011, farmers in Andhra Pradesh declared a crop holiday and refused to plant their fields since, under the present conditions, they end up losing money.[8] In rain fed regions like Jharkhand, farmers have been leaving their upland fields fallow for the last several years.[9] Now the extent of fallow fields has increased; it extends even to the more productive lowland fields which are not cultivated primarily because the economics simply does not add up. The crisis on the farm can be gauged from the fact that in rain fed regions, where only one crop is cultivated in the year, farmers are electing to not even plant this crop. They prefer to abandon their fields and migrate to the cities in search of manual labour which at least brings in some income.

If we do not watch out the production of food will continue to decline at a dangerous rate, making the country food deficient and our people food insecure. For those who assume that any shortfall in food production can be made up by imports and our granaries filled with foreign grain, should study the situation of food availability in the international market. To state it sharply, there is insufficient food on the international market that can be bought to overcome a crisis.

Unlike the old days when India could go out and buy (expensive) food from the international market to plug a shortfall, it may find it difficult do so today since there is almost no food to buy. There are two principal reasons for this. One is the speculation in food grains that has led to high prices and hoarding. The other, more pervasive one, is the American policy on biofuels (now copied by other countries, including India ) because of which American corn is being diverted to produce ethanol to run cars. With corn, the staple of animal and poultry feed, going to biofuel production, there is a shortage of feed in the livestock sector which in turn is buying wheat and rice for animal feed, causing their prices to shoot up and stocks to vanish.

American farmers now find it more profitable to plant corn than wheat and rice because of the demand from the biofuel sector as a result of which cultivation of wheat and rice has declined. Natural calamities like the fires in Ukraine and floods in Australia, both food exporting nations, have also created a huge dent in assured grain supplies on the international market. Climate change will continue to take its toll on food production and supply as uncertainties rise. Availability of grain in the international market in the years to come is likely to take a further beating when countries hold back supplies to fulfil domestic needs due to climate turbulence caused upheavals in production. This happened in 2008 when countries like Thailand, Vietnam and India banned rice exports fearing shortages. This led to a shrinking of global rice supply and rice became unavailable for food imports and crisis relief.[10] Such developments have led to severely diminished food stocks on the global market, further adding to expense and unreliability. In addition to all these reasons, there is the most basic one – food security is only possible with food sovereignty. It is only when we are self-reliant in food production that we can be truly food secure.

Despite all these developments and food production getting pushed into an increasingly difficult place, the advocates of the food security bill wander around in wonderland  hoping that someone will hand them a large pot of grain from somewhere, which they can
then disburse in their preferred way.

Whatever little debate there is only skirts around the nitty gritty of distribution – whether it should be universal or targeted, and around the dangerous and highly undesirable concept of cash transfers. The proposed legislation largely bypasses both the larger picture and the crucial features that need to be addressed to achieve food security for all citizens. The one aspect that all agree on is that a component of food aid is essential for our legislation and that certain categories of people must be specially looked after.  Possibly, a universal system with self-exclusion, as in Tamil Nadu, should be our approach to food access.

The framers of this truncated draft law should realize that by shifting focus on increasing food production in a sustainable manner, many farmers who produce food would become either fully or partially food secure themselves. They would, thus, become either partially or completely independent of the government’s food support schemes, thus diminishing the burden on food stocks and reducing the numbers in need of food aid. Currently impoverished because agriculture is devastated, they swell the ranks of the BPL lists and have been reduced to seeking dole when they should actually be sovereign producers of food, able to feed their families and the rest of the nation.

Tackling food security will certainly mean treading on influential toes. Conflicts will arise over who will have preferential access to productive resources like land and water. Will Coca Cola get the water for its bottling plant or will farmers be given preference for cultivation? Will small farmers in the drylands get the required investments to create water bodies to enable them to take a second crop in the winter? The conflicts will be over such issues like fertilizer subsidies. Will Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu continue as the principal beneficiaries of the government’s subsidies or will nutrient based subsidy be directed at poor quality soils in rain fed areas that most need  intervention? The smallest, most marginal farmers have the worst soils and the least access to water. A food security bill will have meaning only if it tries to swing things in their favour for them to become more productive.

The food security bill must tackle the fundamental question of common property resources and the right of access to them. It must be able to speak out against jatropha plantations on common lands that are  conveniently designated as ‘wasteland’. The biofuel produced in the name of clean energy takes away key grazing lands of herders and pastoralists, the place where they can park their livestock because they have no other land. It will also take away the source of leafy green vegetables and medicinal plants that the poor rely on only to grow fuel for the cars of the rich. Just as it will have to tackle the Coca Colas, the food security bill must also take a position against the conglomerates who are grabbing agricultural land in the name of special economic zones (SEZs) to set up industrial estates (or just corner real estate).

India’s most productive lands, the two crop and three crop zones, must be reserved for food production but these are being snapped up to build urban estates. If this is not stopped, where will we grow our food?

The food production part of the food security bill will have to focus on rain fed farming because that is where the big crisis has unfolded. It will have to define our adaptation priorities to ensure food security when faced with climate change. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, the impact of climate change on food production will be most severe in Africa and South Asia, especially their rain fed areas.[11] We cannot continue to behave as though this is someone else’s problem even as we debate the finer points of universal versus targeted distribution of food grains, and believe that someone will step in and make the climate problem go away. security legislation and incentives provided to improve the lagging coverage. The emphasis on motivating the communities is well intended but not enough. It must be accompanied by financial support to achieve targets.

According to UNICEF, the combined effect of inadequate sanitation and unsafe drinking water is responsible for 88 per cent of childhood deaths from diarrhoea; out of every thousand children born, about seventy die before they reach five years of age.[12] Poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water also cause intestinal worm infections, which lead to malnutrition, anaemia and retarded growth among children, condemning them to  inadequacy for the rest of their lives.

The fact is that to draft a truly comprehensive food security bill, a lot of people will have to be asked to give up some of what they have cornered. The bill under consideration clearly fights shy of that. Instead of fiddling with the easiest of the three broad sectors that constitute food security, the government must demonstrate commitment and take on the challenge of drafting a sound, inclusive legislation, focusing on the tough areas of food production and clean water and sanitation, along with distribution.

If the government is serious about achieving zero hunger, it must commit 20 per cent of the national GDP to the agriculture sector until hunger has been banished and bring in a law that lays out a road map to comprehensively tackle the food and nutrition question. Short of that, the food security bill will likely be seen as a political gimmick rather than an effort at governance that is just and equitable.

Source: SEMINAR 6 3 4 – J u n e 2 0 1 2

* Suman Sahai has several years of research and teaching experience in genetics. She works with Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organization working on food and livelihood security and can be reached at and

[2] Sunil Prabhu, ‘Cabinet Clears Food Security Bill; to be Introduced in Parliament in this Session’, NDTV. Com, 18 December 2011. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[3] ‘Government to Take States on Board Over Food Security Bill’, The Economic Times, 10 January 2012. http://articles.economic Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[4] Nationl Commission on Farmers (NCF), ‘Saving Farmers and Saving Farming’, in Towards Faster and  More Inclusive Growth of Farmers’ Welfare. Fifth and Final Report (2006), Government of India, Ministry of Agriculture, p. 42. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[5] Report of the Expert Group on Agricultural Indebtedness. Ministry of Finance (MOF), Government of India, July 2007. Accessed on 10 May 2011.
[6] NSS 59th Round (January-December 2003), Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers: Some Aspects of Farming, p. 11. Report No 496(59/33/3). http://mospi.nic. in/mospi_ new/upload/496_final.pdf. Accessed
on 10 May 2012.
[7] Ibid., p. i.
[8]  M. Suchitra, ‘Farmers on Holiday’, Down to Earth, 15 July 2011. Accessed on 10 May 2012.
[9] Suman Sahai, M. Gautam, U. Sajjad, A. Kumar and J. Hill, ‘Impact on Farm Economics of Changing Seed Use. A Study in Jharkhand. Genecampaign. http://www.genecampaign. org/Sub%20pages/Seed%
20Study.pdf. Accesssed on 10 May 2012.
[10] M. Raja, ‘Asia Faces Growing Rice Crisis’, Asia Times Online, 14 February 2008. Accessed on 10 February
[11] Findings of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007), ‘Climate Change Impacts’. Accessed on 10 May 2012.

[12] UNICEF, A Report Card on Water and Sanitation (2006), ‘Progress for Children’. Accessed on 10 May 2012.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Monsanto back to its old games

Suman Sahai

You have to admire the gumption of Monsanto Company, called not without reason the world’s most hated corporation. According to a report some weeks ago, Monsanto threatened to sue the state of Vermont in the US in yet another display of its unbridled power. Why? Due to overwhelming public demand, the elected representatives of Vermont, its legislators are contemplating passing a legislation that will require mandatory labelling of all genetically modified (GM) foods! But the legislators have been frozen in their tracks and are beginning to back off because representatives from the Monsanto Company threatened public officials that the biotechnology behemoth would sue the state of Vermont if they dared to pass a law that would require GM foods to be labelled. Legislators admitted privately that they were apprehensive of attracting the ire of this huge and influential corporation since they know that Monsanto would launch a vicious and prolonged attack on the state of Vermont, if the government went against their diktat.

Monsanto and other biotech corporations oppose labelling of GM foods because they fear, and rightly so, that the public would reject GM foods if they could tell it apart from normal foods that had not been tampered with. Monsanto has so far successfully blocked every effort to allow the labelling of GM foods in the US, despite overwhelming public demand for it. Such is its influence in the corridors of power (and not just in the US), that the US food and drug administration, America’s ombudsman body on all matters related to food, including its safety, has consistently upheld the Monsanto line of “substantial equivalence”. This line is Monsanto’s ploy to deny the very basis of labelling. Briefly explained, the theory of substantial equivalence says that there is no great difference between GM and non-GM foods, that they are substantially the same, or substantially equivalent to one another. Since normal, non-GM foods are not required to be labelled, their substantially equivalent counterpart, the GM foods, need not be labelled either! So what happened to consumer choice? If this perverse and manipulative logic does not make any sense to you… well… go figure!

Substantial equivalence is the biggest public lie being shamelessly told across the world. Unfortunately, Washington puts its weight behind this lie to intimidate other governments to toe the Monsanto line. Despite consistent evidence from laboratory studies with experimental animals that serious, often fatal conditions can result from consuming GM foods, Monsanto is able to get its way, thanks to Washington’s support.

Vermont legislators know to take Monsanto’s threats seriously since the company has a record of threatening people with lawsuits in their sustained and successful campaign to ensure that the consumer is not allowed to choose between GM and non-GM foods. This is simply done by not allowing GM foods to be labelled. Vermont’s history of past run-ins with Monsanto makes it cautious. In 1994, the state gave in to public demand for clean milk from cows that had not been injected with genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). The legislators passed for the first time in the US, a law requiring mandatory labelling of milk and dairy produce that had been derived from cows treated with the highly controversial rBGH.

rBGH is banned in countries like Canada and Europe because it is found to cause severe health damage in the milch animals and poses a higher cancer risk for humans. Monsanto sued the state promptly as the law came. Shockingly, the US federal court ruled in the company’s favour, saying that milk producers have the right under the American statute called the First Amendment to remain silent on what their milk contains and whether their cows are injected with rBGH or not. The First Amendment gives a person or agency the right to withhold information in a court of law that it thinks will damage its case. This strange law enabled Monsanto to defeat the Vermont legislators and squash the public’s desire to have milk that was not treated with growth hormones.

Monsanto and its junior partner and ally in India, the Mahyco Seed Company, are flexing their muscles in India too to see how far they can go. Their blatant violation of field testing RR Flex cotton without permission was noted by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) but they managed to get out of that without any punishment. Similarly, their violations in field trials of GM rice in Jharkhand — in defiance of regulatory guidelines — was overlooked by the regulators. Much is whispered along the grapevine about the strategies that Monsanto-Mahyco use to get their way. Whatever these may be, the company must be warned that they and their cohorts in government and outside it will not be allowed to get away with the kind of practices that they are used to getting away with in other places.

India has a vibrant and vigilant civil society, which has demonstrated that it is committed to protecting the interests of the common citizen and upholding their right to clean and safe food. Whereas the Indian civil society is strongly supportive of good science, it equally condemns the manipulation and distortion of science to line the pockets of corporations.

The writer, a genetic scientist who has served on the faculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, is convenor of the Gene Campaign

Source : Asian Age, New Delhi, June 06, 2012