Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Once upon a time

Humans discovered that seeds could be put in the soil, to get more fruits and vegetables and grain. This caused humans to settle down in one place. Professional farming led to diverse trades, which led to the world as we know it. Wars were fought; freedoms wrested; empires built and destroyed. And through it all, farmers kept growing food.
When nations like India began to worry about how they were going to feed so many people, they invested in research institutions that would create and test hybrid varieties of seeds suited to local climates.
Then along came some corporations who thought they’d make money off seeds. They took seeds (which an anonymous farmer ‘discovered’), made slight changes at a genetic level, and sold them back to farmers at high prices. Makers of ‘GM’ (genetically modified) seeds invest large sums of money in promoting them as ‘better’.
Then, farmers discovered, there was no guarantee these expensive GM crop seeds would lead to better crops. They often need more chemical support (pesticide and herbicide). There were doubts about how these chemicals impact health. Tests were run and the results were not good news. Glyphosate-based herbicides caused birth defects; GM corn led to organ failure in laboratory rats.
But did the firms who make GM food stop making it? Did they spend money advertising possible damage to animal or human health? Well, what do you think? Which is why it is important for all governments to make GM labeling mandatory. Whether or not it is safe, we have a right to decide whether we want to risk our health or not.
For now, the Indian government is being sensible. The ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution has said through a gazette notification that, starting January 2013, packages containing genetically modified food must say ‘GM’. But the ministry has not said how it will enforce this norm. Still, it is comforting to know that the government prefers to let us decide what we eat.
On the other hand, we should watch out. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Indian Council of Agriculture Research is “seeking to collaborate with multinational seed corporations to develop high-yielding, durable seeds – both for profit and to improve the nation’s poor crop yields.” In exchange for ‘expertise’ and a share in profits, the ICAR offers access to one of the world’s most diverse gene banks.
Let us not, for the moment, question the assumption that crop yields are ‘poor’, although technically, India is a grain surplus nation. If yields are low, it is often because there aren’t enough farmers growing pulses, vegetables or fruits, or because they have moved to cash crops like cotton. Even so, a publicly funded body like the ICAR has no business seeking ‘profits’ that depend on blocking farmers’ access to new seed varieties!
The Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) and the Safe Food Alliance has already sent strongly worded letters about gifting our bio-heritage to multinational corporations on a platter. But in the meantime, we should keep an eye on international developments, especially reports related to GM food.
A farming magazine recently carried a story about a Danish farmer, whose pigs had chronic diarrhea, loss of appetite and reproductive problems. He switched to a GM-free diet and reportedly, the diarrhea disappeared; fewer animals died. In response to this, the Danish National Pig Research Centre has decided to investigate effects of non-GM and GM soya on pigs.
Which makes me wonder what GM soya or corn does to humans. But then, do we really want to find out?

1 comment:

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