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The Indian GM industry In Panic

By Devinder Sharma

18 December, 2009

When the going gets tough, the loser's panic. And the desperation grows.

Well, this is the story of the duo -- Dr Ron Herring (from Cornell) and Dr Shantu Shantaram -- doing the rounds across the country on behalf of the GM industry. After the New Delhi panel discussion organised by the Institute of Economic Growth on Dec 3, the duo went to Ahmedabad and from there to Thiruvanthapuram in Kerala.

You have probably read about the New Delhi meet, and the FAQs that come up again and again, on this blog earlier. Just in case you missed it, here is the link:

My colleague Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty was in Thiruvanthapuram early this week and did manage to attend for sometime the two-day conference where both Ron Herring and Shantu Shantaram were present. She sends me this report.

I was in Kerala on a vacation last week and during that time came across this workshop on "Modern biotechnology in Indian Agriculture” (on Dec 13-14). This was organised under the banner of AICBA Delhi and FBAE Bangalore. This was a pro-GM industry conference, where Monsanto also made a presentation.

Interestingly, when the GM industry organises a conference, no one (and that includes the scientists and the media) ever question the need for the other perspective to be heard so that a balanced view can be evolved. But when the civil society holds a conference on the relevance of GM foods/crops, the first question asked is that why is the industry not represented. Double standards, isn't it?

Anyway, much of what transpired at the conference was pro-GM propaganda. Such was the extent of the bias that any difficult question from the audience invited the wrath of the speakers whose effort was to silence the questioner in a quelling and patronizing manner. Still I sat through the proceeding, and interestingly was a witness to the presentation by Dr Shantaram, who was full of vitriol and venom, and this happens only when you lack substance.

Dr Shantaram’s presentation was on “The desperate saga of anti-GM activism in India”. By the end of his talk, Dr Shantaram's desperation was at its peak. Speaking before an audience whic was was predominantly bio-tech students from various colleges in Kerala and college teachers from various science/biotech and related departments, he had no reasons to feel so panicky.

He began his tirade listing naming the various segments of society who are against GM crops (NGOs, INGOs, environmentalists, particularly urban environmentalists whom he called the “environmental taliban”, farmer groups, leftists, socialists, disgruntled scientists, journalists, mediocre science professors, literauteurs, film stars, religious heads and so on - he had a very sarcastic expression on his face when he listed these much hated groups). It was quite amusing to know from Dr Shantaram that almost the entire society was opposed to GM technology.

He talked about "organikers -- agriculture fundamentalists” with a lot of scorn, and said that throughout the world they were creating a lot of problems for the introduction of GM crops. In the US, because of the "organikers," the government had stopped allowing GM content in labeled organic foods.

According to his own argument, except for the companies and scientists working on GM crop development, pretty much everyone is against GM crops. Well, what more reasons you need, I thought, for the GM industry and its own breed of genetically modified scientists to stop researching on what the society does not want.

Dr Shantaram explained that the objections to GM crops were primarily due to an organized and orchestrated effort of a bunch of people who are against GM crops “for no reason except to oppose them”. His opined that nothing except the science put forward by the promoters of GM crops is valid and the GM crops should be accepted based on that. The opinion of the society does not matter. He pooh-poohed science related, health related, social, economic, ethical or environmental concerns regarding GM crops. He said that we (human beings) are all about conquering nature.

Dr Shantaram went on so say that the concern being voiced about the need to buy seeds repeatedly by farmers is not an issue at all. He said that if any of us (the audience) are the seed companies or in the seed business, would we like our customers to approach us only once? Why wouldn't we like our business to multiply? Wouldn't it be economically viable for us to ensure that farmers buy seed from us every year?

He then blamed Dr Pushpa Bhargava for his note about the 29 tests required before introducing a GM crop and then told the audience that these tests require a couple of decades and if any of us were to start bio-tech businesses can we afford that kind of time and money before we can bring a product to market?

At least inside the closed door environs of that workshop Dr.Shantaram spelt out his agenda. He is in the GM fray for the bio-tech businesses; in his talk there was no mention of social good, larger interests of society, consumer safety, precautionary principle or any such thing!

In addition to Dr Bhargava, he named Devinder Sharma, Dr Suman Sahai and Dr V S Vijayan of the Kerala Bio-diversity Board (since he was in Kerala that day) for obstructing the march of the GM industry in India. They were openly criticized in absentia for their stand on GM crops. He then castigated the Kerala govt’s decision to keep Kerala GM free and said that it was a move that was very distressing for him. However he believed that “GM crops will find their way into the State”.

Such was his desperation that he said that if Kerala doesn’t allow GM crops, the State should not grow any crops as none are traditional crops.

When the session was opened for Q&A, the otherwise acquiescent audience had a few things to say. The first comment was from a college professor who stood up and said that the decision of the Kerala government to keep Kerala GM free is very wise move as the Western Ghats is one of the mega bio-diversity hotspots of the world and it is essential to preserve it. Some others seconded it and the rest of the audience spontaneously applauded. This of course irked Dr Shantaram, whic clearly reflected on his face.

Some more hands went up and many stood up to ask questions. By then, Dr Shantaram and his team were on the defensive. Another agricultural scientist on the panel, Dr Ananda Kumar from IARI New Delhi (who is known to be a big supporter of the GM industry) was on the aggressive asking another member of the audience to explain how Kerala was protecting its bio-diversity.

Someone from the panel asked sarcastically: "what use is bio-diversity to Kerala?” In response, another professor stood up and talked about bio-diversity conservation particularly the Silent Valley (curiously he was not given the microphone to speak and therefore many could not hear him clearly). By then the audience was pretty incensed and it was clear that the organizers had lost control over their own invited and hand-picked audience and abruptly a tea break was announced.

Then mysteriously a person stood up and was given the microphone. He identified himself as Jayapal Reddy, a farmer from Andhra Pradesh, and said that he is a cotton farmer who moved over to Bt cotton. He has observed that in his pre-Bt cotton days, he had no birds on his farm and now he finds many birds appearing. He then turned to Dr Shantaram and dis-ingenuously asked him to explain this phenomenon.

Dr Shantaram mumbled something in response and did not take up the opportunity. However the audience clearly thought that the farmer was brought in by the organizers. This was proven beyond doubt when post the tea-break (almost 60% of the audience didn’t return) this “farmer” was provided an unscheduled session (he was not listed on the agenda).

Well, if you think the GM industry has only these faces to represent them, you are mistaken. The Biocon queen Kiran Mazumdar Shaw has also stepped on the podium. She has been making completely flawed statements in favour of the technology, and has unabashedly been lying. Why do you have to tell a hundred lies, Madam Shaw? Why can't you say that you don't know anything about agriculture and farming rather than make stupid statements?

I have received several requests from readers to put the record straight, and I will surely do that in the days to come.

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