'Transgenic agriculture is not an American conspiracy against India'
There is 'not a shred of evidence' that genetically-modified food is harmful to humans yet a committee appointed by the Supreme Court has advised a halt to field trials of such crops disregarding their extensive cultivation in some of the most safety-conscious nations, and despite the need to meet rising food demand domestically. Geneticist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University Deepak Pental, denounced the committee as 'scientifically immature' and termed its report as 'worthless.' He was 'saddened' that MS Swaminathan, a key scientist behind the Green Revolution, had supported the committee. If the Court heeded its advice it would plug the trickle of scientific talent to an area that holds rich promise, and would make the country already dependent on imported technology a rank supplicant.
Prof Pental was speaking on the issue, 'Is our environment reporting anti-development,' at a lecture organised in Delhi October 27 by the Foundation for Media Professionals, a non-profit set up by a group of senior journalists to promote quality journalism and uphold media freedom.
Journalists, he said, were not only reflecting the anti-science mood created by communists and civil society activists but were also feeding it, some out of ignorance, others for ideological reasons, when they should be acting as referees and reporting on the basis of evidence and not emotion.
Parliament's standing committee on agriculture had recently said that India did not need transgenic crops and had even recommended punishment for the officials who had approved Bt cotton ten years ago (even though it has made India the world's second largest exporter of cotton, and raised farm incomes by cutting down on pesticide sprays and spending). The committee's stand is political; its chairman Basudeb Acharya is a Marxist and the party to which he belongs is viscerally anti-American. Since Mansanto, the supplier of the Bt gene which makes cotton impregnated with it toxic to the bollworm weevil pest, is an American multinational corporation, a reflexive reaction on the part of Communists and their sympathizers can be expected, Pental said. (This is the reason why the Communists oppose foreign direct investment in retailing because, like Monsanto, they see Wal-Mart as a flag bearer of American imperialism. Their disapproval of the civil nuclear agreement with the United States makes them despise nuclear energy and oppose the Kudankulam nuclear plant even through the reactors are Russian).
But the Congress Party is speaking in forked tongues on transgenics. Jairam Ramesh, as environment minister, did immense harm when he suspended field trials of Bt brinjal, apparently to win the applause of the civil society crowd. So we have a confusing situation where the ministry of agriculture headed by Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar supports transgenics, while the ministry of environment does not. 'Our ruling party wants to cover its flanks. This is bad leadership.' Pental said. 'We have made ambivalence an art form.'
Policy cannot be a response to crisis. It has to anticipate and avert it. In Pental's view, Indian policy makers do not move unless pushed. So the Green Revolution was a reaction to the food crisis and 'ship-to-mouth' humiliation inflicted on the country by USA's Johnson administration. Similarly, economic reforms of 1992 happened when the country's dollar reserves had dwindled to a few weeks of imports and we had to suffer the mortification of halving to pledge gold. And the latest flurry of policy activity has occurred when the country is teetering on a fiscal precipice.
In the years following Independence, India was lucky to get agricultural technologies gratis from the United States. The dwarf varieties of wheat where discovered in Japan by occupying American forces. They were brought to the United States and cross bred in Mexico by the agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug. Ameica was motivated by a sense of altruism to check the spread of communism. Much of the research at that time was conducted in government research institutes. But now American publicly-funded discoveries and inventions are no longer available free, because they are sold to profit-seeking multinational corporations.
There was the time when technology could be developed without knowledge of science, and the invention of the wheel is an example. This is no longer the case. Present research, in disciplines like transgenics, is entirely science-based. India has contributed little to it.
But India can profit from transgenics if it does not mulishly believe that they are 'franken' or monster foods against all scientific evidence. While approving such foods for consumption scientists have to assure that they are not toxic or allergenic. These foods are being grown over 160 million hectares across the world, including in countries with robust legal systems and tough scientific protocols like the United States, Canada and Australia. By banning trails, Indians cannot avoid eating such foods. Ninety-three percent of Canada's Canola oil is transgenic. Europe does not allow the cultivation of genetically-modified crops, but feeds its cattle with imported soymeal, some of which is transgenic.
Research published in scientific journals like Nature shows that the world would need forty percent more land to produce the current wheat harvest through conventional agriculture. Prof Pental said science has the ability not only to raise productivity to level necessary to feed the world's growing population but also to deal with any problem it creates in the process. What India needs is a strong regulatory institutions led by people of integrity (and not amenable to bribery), Pental said.
India is paying a terrible price for dithering. Bt mustard has not gone into field trials even ten years after it was crafted. If allowed for commercial cultivation, Punjab farmers could have rotated it with wheat instead of groundwater- depleting rice. How do we improve the productivity of dry land farming? How do we create crops that can withstand salinity in soil without transgenics? Prof Pental wondered.
Speaking at the event, editor BG Verghes said there was a tendency among journalists not to look at issues in any depth but to skim the surface. Few of them go to the field to see for themselves. He said it is a myth that nature is unchanging. A few centuries ago the Teesta was emptying into the Ganges and not the Bramhaputra. And what is apparent need not be real. To protect the Kond tribals and their sacred grove, the Orissa government has not allowed Vedanta to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills. But the Konds are poor for a lack of development, not because of it. The hill is barely forested because water cannot percolate the impervious layers of bauxite. If the mineral were mined, rainwater could recharge the aquifers and rejuvenate the hills. And the aluminum refinery, which is facing closure for want of raw material, could bring prosperity to the region.
The message from the speakers to the media persons and their readers and viewers was to science, rather than regard it as a western conspiracy against the nation.
More about Vivian FernandesVivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
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