From California to India the GM Battle Rolls On
GM Education, 23 Nov 2011 (Revised 24 Nov)

After defeating attempts in California to label GM food the industry war chest seems set to be moved to India to defeat parliamentary and Supreme Court curbs on GMOs. Reports say that a "billion-dollar perception battle" over genetically engineered crops has started as opponents clash in the courts, at public forums, in the media, and the internet.

"This is a survival battle now," Ram Kaundinya, who heads the Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), said.

So, according to Indian press reports, ABLE-AG is summoning some global help. Financial support is expected from biotech companies and pro-GM scientists from the US and the UK are said to be being drafted in. And the government is putting pressure on its scientists to add to the pro-voices.

On other side Greenpeace, NGOs and farmer groups, with far less money to spend, are still managing to recruit outside experts to help them win their case.

Mounting opposition to GM throughout India

Despite massive central government support - the public sector spends nearly GBP130 million compared to industry's GBP64 million on GMO research – the GM industry has had a number of significant setbacks in recent years as opposition to the technology has increased.

Three years ago, permission to grow Bt Brinjal (an aubergine that produces its own pesticide) was refused. This would have been India's first GM food crop but it was put on hold after safety and environmental assessments were found to be inadequate.

Earlier this year the prestigious all party Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture produced a report which recommended that: "for the time being all research and development activities on transgenic crops should be carried out only in containment, the ongoing field trials in all States should be discontinued forthwith."

And in the last month a technical expert committee of the Indian Supreme Court has recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of genetically engineered crops; setting up a powerful regulatory system; studies on long-term impacts of GM crops on food and environment; and bio-safety tests, including sub-chronic toxicity in small animals prior to field trials.

According to commentator Devinder Sharma, “This is hardly surprising, considering that the expert panel had merely echoed the concerns and apprehensions that society at large has towards such crops.”

This concern has caused many state governments to defy central government pressure and refuse permission for field trials of GM crops in recent years. However the Indian government seems determined to line up with the GM industry and is attempting to thwart the expert committee's recommendations.

Central government's GM push

Appearing before the Supreme Court, the Attorney General argued that that suspending trials on GM food would have serious consequences. He said that "India will be set back by decades" and would not be able to meet the millennium development goals. He claimed that a ten-year moratorium would have a cascading effect in all aspects of food security and other aspects of human life in the country. 

This argument is fiercely disputed by anti-GM campaigners. According to Devinder Sharma:

"In India, on June 1 2012, a record 82.3 million tonnes surplus of wheat and rice was stored. This surplus existed at a time when an estimated 320 million people went to bed hungry. In fact, since 2001-03, India has been holding on an average 50 to 60 million tonnes of food grains, and yet its ranking in the Global Hunger Index shows no improvement.

Food insecurity, therefore, is not the result of any production shortfall, and the fact remains that food production is being deliberately kept low, and only enough to meet basic food security needs. If market price was provided to wheat and rice growers, and there is little doubt that production would go up manifold."

The Supreme Court is expected to make a final decision in about six weeks time between now and then the GM juggernaut that ran down the labelling initiative in California can be expected to get into gear in New Delhi.