Beware the modified wolf

  • 14/07/2000

Beware the modified wolf  the trouble with biotechnology is not that it is irretrievably sinister, but that its controllers have one ruthless and overriding motive in mind - profit. Existing global intellectual property rights (ipr) rules may as well have been ghost written by biotechnology and pharmaceutical mncs. And now, another diplomatic victory was won at Montreal in January this year when the companies and their governments managed to successfully downsize an international protocol to restrict trans-boundary movement of genetically modified organisms (gmos).

The biosafety protocol, agreed to at Montreal, places the onus of assessing risks from gmos on importing countries.Decisions of whether the firms should be held liable for any damage from their products, and pay compensation, were postponed. So governments serious about tackling threats from trans-boundary movement of gmos will have to implement legislation to plug the holes left by the protocol.

As a result, it is now up to the Indian government to defend the country from the hegemony of corporate biotechnology, without a strong international referee. In May, the Indian Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation gave permission to Maharashtra Hybrid Feeds Company Ltd to make a presentation to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. Though, officials from the department of biotechnology claim that final permission for the commercial cultivation of transgenic Bt cotton has to be given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac), non-government organisations feel that it is a mere formality.

Biotechnology companies sell themselves as visionaries working to solve humanity's food problems, but their research focuses exclusively on commercially valuable crops, not crops that are important to the poor, and they would like to 'own' the living cells they produce in every sense of the word.

For instance, to use seeds produced by Monsanto, the infamous chemical, pharmaceutical, agricultural and consumer products company based in Missouri, usa, farmers must first sign a 'technology use agreement' to sell the entire produce, without retaining any seeds for planting in the next season. In the us and Canada, Monsanto has sued about 525 farmers for allegedly replanting the company's patented, gene-altered seeds, without permission. One such farmer ended up having to pay the company us $35,000 and signing an agreement that forbids him from criticising the company.

This presents a potential nightmare scenario for farmers in India and elsewhere in the developing world, where 1.4 billion people depend heavily on seeds saved from the previous year for sowing.

The response of the Indian government to the biosafety issue has vacillated between zero to nil. It has dragged its feet over setting up an effective 'clearinghouse mechanism' that would assess the impact of gmos on the country's biodiversity before giving the go-ahead. Recently, the government introduced a disappointing biodiversity bill in Parliament, which made no mention of the threats to Indian biodiversity from gmos. One of the non-government members of the Bill's drafting committee said that two clauses on biosafety inserted by them were deleted before the Bill was presented.

A decision to allow cultivation of Bt cotton would open the door for biotechnology firms in India. Environmental and health repercussions seem inevitable. Given the shoddy system for assessments, where decisions are based on data presented by the biotechnology firm. An equally important issue that should be considered before the floodgates are opened is whether we have the necessary checks and balances, or whether it is possible at all, to control the agenda of biotechnology firms.

There is no such thing as too much caution when dealing with the devil.