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Opinion - Leader Page Articles

GM crops and the world market
By Mihir Shah & Debashis Banerji

Most countries have imposed bans or very strict regulations on genetically-modified crops... We need to be vigilant against discredited technologies and products being sneaked in.

THERE HAS been much emotional reaction against the recent Government attempt to stop cultivation of illegal Bt cotton in Gujarat. Sections of the media would have us believe that Bt cotton offers a golden opportunity for farmers, which the Government must make available at the earliest. The Union Minister for Agriculture, Mr. Ajit Singh, is of the same view. Even if one were to ignore the compelling weight of scientific evidence against these crops, surely we must respect world opinion, especially as expressed through the markets. Can the Government afford to overlook how consumers the world over are viewing these crops?

World markets have consistently rejected genetically-modified (GM) crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has itself cancelled the registration of StarLink Bt corn and future planting has been prohibited. It is making aggressive efforts to remove StarLink from the U.S. market. The European Union (E.U.) had imposed a three-year moratorium on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in 1998, in view of overwhelming evidence about their dangers. At a Council of Environment Ministers in Luxembourg this October, 12 out of 15 E.U. Governments rejected the idea of lifting this ban on importing and planting new GMOs. It could take another two years for countries to formally adopt the Commission's proposed regulations on traceability and labelling. These rules would make it possible to trace GM crops back to the farm they were grown on, making product recalls possible if health risks were found. The delay would be many years longer if members insisted, as France and Luxembourg said they might, on a major new directive on environmental liability to be drafted and passed into law before new licences were granted.

The E.U. has steadily cut its purchases of U.S. corn from about 2.8 million tonnes in 1995-96 to about 6,300 tonnes in 2000-01. Japan reduced purchases of U.S. corn last year by over 50 million bushels. The U.S. has foregone about 350 million bushels of corn exports to those two markets combined since 1997-98, the year after Bt corn was introduced in America. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agriculture Service Weekly Export Sales Report, total American corn exports as of the week ended November 15, 2001, were 12 per cent lower compared to one year ago. It believes GMO-driven importer alienation has lost the U.S. corn exports.

Bowing to pressure from customers, the grocery chain Trader Joe's agreed last month to ban GM ingredients from thousands of private-label products. Two natural foods chains, Whole Foods Market Inc. of Austin, Texas, and Wild Oats Markets of Boulder, Colorado, dropped GMOs from their house-brand products two years ago. The National Farmers' Union of Canada and the Canadian Wheat Board want to halt GM test plantings, fearing damage to exports.

Meanwhile, Brazil and China are busy, aggressively capturing corn markets. Argentine growers recently announced a move to implement identity preservation plans to ensure the integrity of Flint corn, guaranteeing customers a non-biotech food product. E.U. buyers already prefer Argentine Flint corn. Europe, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea now largely buy non-GM corn and soya from Brazil and China rather than the U.S. Algeria, a large food importer, says it may completely ban the import, manufacture or sale of GM products. Japan, which takes 20 per cent of all U.S. food exports, has imposed tough labelling rules on 24 product categories. It is not surprising, therefore, that a recent survey of the 14,000 members of the American Corn Growers' Association suggested 78 per cent would abandon GM crops to recover lost export markets.

Since States such as Madhya Pradesh are reported to be eyeing the supposedly higher productivity of GM soybeans, it may be useful to mention that European demand for animal feed guaranteed to be free of GMOs has soared in recent years. Supermarket chains such as Tesco and Asda have become sensitive to consumer preferences for non-GM products. Since about 70 per cent of the U.S. soybean crop is GM, Brazil, which bans GMO crops, has become the major source of non-biotech soymeal.

In Mexico, Congress has unanimously demanded that the President, Mr. Vicente Fox, ban the import of GM corn, claiming it could affect the genetic integrity of local crops and threaten the country's food supply. GM corn has been a hot issue in Mexico since genes from U.S. GM corn were found in wild corn in the State of Oaxaca several months ago.

At the same time, in the U.S., Iowa farmers and elevators have received a total of $9.2 million in compensation for losses associated with growing and handling StarLink Bt corn, which contaminated grain supply. Some estimates place total eventual payments, in compensation to farmers and elevators in 17 American States, at more than $200 million. Elevators are being compensated for the GM corn being mixed with traditional corn. Farmers were paid a premium to keep it off the market by feeding it to livestock. Farmers whose corn was contaminated through cross-pollination, or those who purchased corn without being told it contained StarLink genetics, are also being compensated.

Meanwhile, the scientific evidence against GM crops continues to mount, the most chilling of which is perhaps the one just coming in from New Zealand. The Soil & Health Association there says the only means apparently available to clean up after a GM field trail is a highly toxic and antiquated chemical, chloropicrin. Developed in 1917, the U.S. military has used it in chemical warfare. According to the Director of the Soil & Health Association, ``it kills virtually everything - beneficial insects, earthworms, plants, people, as well as bacteria and fungi and nematodes. The vast majority of organisms that it kills are beneficial, not harmful''. There may also be long term, chronic effects on respiratory, eye, skin, heart, gastro-intestinal and musculo-skeletal systems.The New Zealand Government confirmed in October that it would legislate to stop the commercial release of GMOs into the country's environment for two more years.

While the world adopts the path of caution why are we in India in such a hurry to adopt these crops? We are not anti-technology, back-to-nature romantics. We are scientists who believe that science in general and bio-technology in particular have a massive contribution to make in advancing human welfare. But as scientists we also believe it is our duty to conscientise people about technologies and products that are potentially dangerous. Recombinant DNA and transgenic Bt are one such example. They represent a dark chapter in the recent history of bio-technology. Massive evidence available in established scientific journals suggests grave risks for human health in the use of GM products. Because of this, most countries have imposed bans or very strict regulations on GM crops. As a result, companies developing them are ever on the lookout for new markets, in countries where public opinion is still ignorant about the really serious problems of these crops. As a nation, we need to be vigilant against discredited technologies and products being sneaked in. Any decision must be based on full knowledge of all available evidence on the issue to serve the best interests of our farmers and consumers. And not the interests of desperate companies seeking to make a quick buck at our expense.

(The writers are, respectively, Director, Baba Amte Centre for People's Empowerment, and Secretary, Samaj Pragati Sahayog, both based in Madhya Pradesh.)

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