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February 16, 2010

India balks at genetically modified crops

by Erika Kinetz

It began quietly in America a decade ago, with a tomato. Since the introduction of the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered for long shelf life, genetically modified food has become a fact of American life.

Not so in India. The debate over GM food, long settled in America, is noisily beginning here. Last week, India halted the commercial release of the world's first genetically engineered eggplant, called Bt brinjal. The environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, said that given the lack of consensus within the scientific community and the pitch of public opposition, further study was needed to guarantee consumer safety.

Why the skepticism over a technology many scientists say is crucial for feeding the 9 billion people who will populate the planet by 2050?

To many in India, embracing Bt brinjal — which has a gene owned by Monsanto Co — also means embracing corporate farming and surrendering some control of the nation's food supply to a powerful foreign company. They worry this could have disastrous consequences for the nation's 100 million small farming families.

"It would not be an exaggeration to say that public concerns about Bt brinjal have been influenced very heavily by perceptions of Monsanto itself," Ramesh wrote in his report.

Some also feel the U.S. has been too quick to embrace GM food and are demanding tougher approval processes, more extensive health studies and mandatory labeling, which the U.S. does not have.

Whether India, like China, will ultimately embrace GM food is a question with profound implications. At issue is how India — which the U.N. says will surpass China as the world's most populous country by 2030 — will feed itself.

Many other transgenic food crops are in the works, including staples like rice. Advocates say these new strains will boost yields and stabilize supply by, for example, improving drought resistance. Their fate now hangs in the balance, scientists say.

Rising wealth has increased India's appetite, even as agricultural productivity languishes. Food inflation is at 18 percent, due to supply bottlenecks and widespread drought. And the World Health Organization says 21 percent of Indians still don't get enough to eat every day, with 46 percent of children underweight.

Despite its high-tech image, India remains a nation of small, mostly poor farmers, many of whom are skeptical of the promises of industrialization. At least 45 percent of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood, and most have small, family run farms — a far cry from the U.S., where less than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living.

The fate of these small farmers is at the center of the Bt brinjal debate.

While many embrace new technologies and their promise of higher profits, others fear international corporations could run roughshod over the nation's small farmers.

India remains sharply divided over the legacy of Bt cotton, the only transgenic crop now under commercial cultivation in the country. The genetically altered cotton seeds have increased productivity, but they are more expensive than traditional seeds and have left some farmers deeply in debt.

"The essential issue of livelihood makes a difference," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a history professor at the University of Delhi. "The farmer's concern is dependence on the seed company. That's a genuine concern."

Bt brinjal incorporates a pest-resistant gene owned by Monsanto and was developed by Mahyco, an Indian company 26 percent owned by the St. Louis-based multinational.

The referendum on Bt brinjal was also, in effect, a referendum on Monsanto — despite the company's best efforts to distance itself from the product.

"There has always been in India a critique of industrialization — the idea that high energy, high capacity, high-tech development will not generate enough jobs and will harm the dignity of the self-employed," Rangarajan said.

Gyanendra Shukla, director of Monsanto India, said genetic technology can improve productivity and farmer incomes, and he argued that Monsanto doesn't have a monopoly on the Bt gene — hundreds of variants are available from public and private sources.

Although there are many varieties of cotton seeds available, Shukla said Indian farmers have chosen Bt cotton in droves.

"No one on this earth can sell any technology which does not deliver value to the farmer," he said.

Critics in India say America, where most soybeans and corn have some genetic modification, is not asking tough enough questions about GM food.

The debate also rages on in Europe, where the 27-member European Union has approved only one genetically modified crop, maize Monsanto 810. Illustrating the deep divide, despite the approval, six countries have imposed a moratorium on the corn crop: France, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece, Austria and Hungary. And even in countries like Italy, where no formal ban applies, no one chooses to plant the crop, cultivated most prevalently in Spain.

The transgenic landscape is remarkably different in the U.S.

"By the early '90s we had a working (regulatory) framework in place that allowed developers to go to the agencies and say, 'I've got this new product, here's my data, do you approve it?'" said Bruce Chassy, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois.

That's exactly what some Indians don't want.

Ramesh, the environment minister, said that allowing companies to conduct tests of their own products "does raise legitimate doubts on the reliability of the tests, doubts that I cannot ignore." He said the moratorium on Bt brinjal would be extended until independent studies establish its safety.

Many want mandatory labeling, but fear India's unorganized retail sector — most people buy their food from baskets or stalls at local markets — would make that almost impossible.

Peggy Lemaux, of the University of California, Berkeley, said the Internet — with its glut of sometimes unreliable information — has driven much of the outcry over transgenic food in Africa and Europe.

India, too, is awash in conflicting studies and irreconcilable opinions.

Lemaux added that there's no guarantee all GM foods will remain widely accepted in the United States. She noted the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case in which a federal judge blocked the use of genetically modified alfalfa seeds over concerns the government hadn't properly evaluated the potential impact of the crop.

Similarly, there's no guarantee India will remain permanently opposed.

"We need gene technology," said P.G. Chengappa, vice chancellor at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore. "We are looking forward for drought-resistant varieties — disease, pests, salinity. We need gene technology to combat these problems. We're in a very confused state."


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