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

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