FOCUS ON ASIA
Excellent article from the Pakististani press and highly pertinent as the big GM rice jamboree gets underway in Hyderabad today.
Is Asia becoming a 'dustbin' for biotechnology?
By Ashfak Bokhari
Dawn (Pakistan), 4 October 2004
In a strange turn of events - reflecting a deepening crisis in the Third World over whether to accept or not the planting of genetically modified (GM) crops - Thailand's cabinet rejected on August 31 a decision, taken by a panel headed by its prime minister, to lift three-year ban on GM crops.
It is for the first time that a government in a developing country was so sharply divided on the use of this controversial technology marketed by powerful transnational corporations but largely considered harmful to human health.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's committee had only a week earlier decided to allow open-field trials of GM crops alongside non-GM plants and the next day Thaksin had used part of his weekly radio address to laud Thailand as a country technologically capable of developing GM organisms, saying, "If we don't start now, we will miss this scientific train and lose out in the world."
Following Thaksin's decision, anti-GMO activists, including Greenpeace, came out on the streets chanting slogans to seek reversal of the government's decision which they feared would hit hard the country's organic food export industry.
Meanwhile, to head off the divide, the Thai government decided to set up a committee to hear arguments for and against GM crops from state agencies and university professors and then decide about the future of biotechnology in Thailand.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been accused by critics of bowing to pressure from US corporate giants like Monsanto, which are pushing the country to test GM corn strains, to reverse a ban on its trials.
The United States is the world's biggest GMO producer but has struggled, without much success, to persuade other nations to accept the products. Europe has been its bitter critic and opponent and largely responsible for restricting this technology to Americas.
This relatively new technology has become a central means by which multinational corporations are expanding their control over the food supply, personal health, and environmental security of the people throughout the world.
The claims that biotechnology is poised to "feed the world, cure diseases and reduce sufferings" are the false hopes that the developers of this technology sell to the developing world. But it's not Thailand alone which is facing stiff opposition to any plan of introducing genetic engineering in agriculture. Even some states in the United States, the home of this technology, are turning against it.
Mendocino county in California state became America's first to ban the raising and keeping of genetically engineered crops or animals. And in March, the state of Vermont, in a historic decision, voted overwhelmingly to support a bill to hold biotech corporations liable for contamination of conventional or organic crops by genetically engineered plant materials.
This bill is the first of its kind in the world that aims to protect a farmer from being sued by the seed companies if his crops are contaminated with GMO material.
In March, Western Australia became the first Australian state to ban planting of GM food crops with a view to protecting its canola industry at a time when international consumer sentiment was opposed to GM crops.
A few days later, Victoria state imposed a four year moratorium on the cultivation of GM oilseeds rape. South Australia and Tasmania have already banned GM crops. It is interesting to note that four states imposed a ban on GM crops in a space of five days.
In Japan, consumer groups intend to present a petition signed by over 1,000,000 people to Canadian agriculture minister calling for a ban on GE wheat in Canada. Japan is one of the biggest markets for Canadian wheat.
In Britain, Bayer Crop Science has given up attempts to commercialize GM maize till at least 2008. Monsanto is one of the world's leading developers of this technology but faces trouble in getting some of its biotech crops approved in developing countries. But, of late, one finds a visible relaxation in opposition to the widely condemned technology and much of Asia, it looks, is coming forward with the development and cultivation of GM crops.
What happened in Thailand is part of the same development. The three most populous countries in Asia - China, India and Indonesia - are now planting genetically modified cotton. [this is what you'd believe from ISAAA prpaganda but, in fact, it's already been abandoned in Indonesia, the first Asian country to experiment with it, because it was so unsuccessful]
Several other Asian countries including Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Pakistan are earmarking huge funds for private and government-sponsored research on biotech crops. On the face of it, the new development looks like a shift in embracing the new technology from Americas to Asia.
In April this year, India approved another Bt cotton variety for the central and southern regions amidst reports that the go-ahead came without adequate scientific testing.
Although Davinder Sharma, a well-known Indian agricultural scientist and activist, finds India fast turning into a "dustbin" for the new technology, it seems it's not the India alone, the whole of Asia is becoming a GM 'dustbin'.
In a recent commentary, Sharma observed that while Britain has set in place a tough regulatory regime making the companies liable for any environmental mishap, India continues to ignore the warning. The regulations announced at the time of according approval to Bt cotton in 2002 were only aimed at pacifying the media.
India, Sharma says, has become a favoured destination for the biotechnology industry that is, otherwise, on the run from the US, European Union and Australia. In Europe, a 2002 survey showed 61 per cent of the private sector cancelled R&D as a result of moratorium actions.
With highly critical reports of regulatory mechanism coming in from respectable independent institutions, the trend in US is also towards still tougher regulations thereby forcing biotechnology companies to grow the next generation of GM crops in abandoned mines, using artificial lighting and air filtration to prevent pollen movement.
In India, on the other hand, genetic engineering experiments are being conducted on cotton, maize, mustard, sugar cane, sorghum, pigeonpea, chickpea, rice, tomato, brinjal, potato, banana, papaya, cauliflower, oilseeds, castor, soyabean and medicinal plants.
Experiments are also underway on several species of fish. In fact, says Sharma, such is the desperation that scientists are trying to insert Bt gene into any crop they can lay their hands on, not knowing whether this is desirable or not.
The mad race for GM experiments is the outcome of more funding from the biotech companies as well as support from the World Bank, FAO and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
In Britain, food companies still stick to non-GM alternatives as new evidence shows that the British consumer continues to refuse to buy foods containing biotech ingredients. More than sixty per cent of those polled on behalf of a consumer magazine said they were concerned about the use of GM material in food production.
Switzerland does not think that genetically modified crops are the only way to combat global hunger and that not enough research has been carried out into the impact of gene technology.
The Ethics Committee on Non-Human Gene Technology set up recently by the Swiss government has recommended closer coordination of state-funded research programmes in an effort to help improve the provision of food in the developing world.
The committee's report comes less than four months after the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a study into the environmental effects of GM crops and found that biotechnology could help farmers in the developing world by increasing both the amount and quality of crops grown.
It is for the first time that the FAO has favoured biotechnology in food production. Its report says that genetic modification could even create crops that target the specific problems and needs of developing countries.
But the Swiss ethics committee said that it is a simplification to assume that the food situation will fundamentally improve by relying on gene technology. The scientific community, it said, must consider other options, because alternative methods are often more promising and produced better results.
The fact remains that people in both the developed and developing countries have the same right to a sufficient and healthy diet and that they were entitled to decide for themselves how the food they eat should be produced. But it is vital to ensure that the use of gene technology in developing countries does not lead to tensions within a society or between states.
Is Asia becoming a 'dustbin' for biotechnology? (4/10/2004)
FOCUS ON ASIA