Jul 17, 2016

Nobel laureates need to look beyond GM crops, focus on food wastage to fight hunger.



Nobel laureates are a respected lot. So when more than 100 Nobel laureates presented a signed letter defending genetically-modified (GM) crops, blaming Greenpeace in particular for blocking ‘golden rice’ which it claimed has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by Vitamin A deficiency, the world would certainly sit back and take notice.

After reading the letter, addressed to “the Leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments around the world”, I must say I was greatly disappointed. I have had the privilege of meeting, knowing and talking to many a Nobel laureate over the years, and I must acknowledge that while this was a great privilege I did realize from my meetings that a majority of them had rarely moved outside of their laboratories and conference halls, but this letter simply knocks me out. These distinguished scientists, and we salute them for their scholarship, have little idea how the world outside their lab looks like. But I never knew they were so ignorant. 

Coming at a time when the New York Times (July 14, 2016) reports that the demand for organic food in United States is far outstripping the supply, forcing food companies to make payments in advance even taking care of the transition costs, it seems the Nobel laureates are completely out of sync with realities. But let’s get back to the letter.

‘How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”?’ the letter ends on this impassioned note. The question in particular is related to the acceptance of ‘golden rice’ which the GM industry has always been pushing as the answer to childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 to 500,000 children every year. According to UNICEF, half of them die within 12 months of losing their sight. But perhaps what the Nobel laureates were not informed by the biotech industry before they signed on the letter is the fact that Greenpeace has nothing to do with the denial of approval for ‘golden rice’. Prof Glenn Davis of the University of Washington has in an exhaustive study shown that ‘golden rice’ has still not crossed regulatory hurdles.

We will come to that later. But first let’s look at the usual scientific rhetoric that I find is repeated worldwide ad nauseam: “Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.” Whose data? The data produced by GM companies or the data produced based on the research funded by biotech giants? After all, why should scientific bodies, including the Royal Society, always overlook the scientific studies and references challenging these ‘scientific’ claims? I draw their attention to a compilation of more than 400 scientific studies done by the Coalition for GM Free India. This study has a foreword by the well-known scientist-administrator Dr M S Swaminathan. Closer home, the Nobel laureates must see the work of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, which too has questioned the so-called ‘scientific’ claims.

To say that scientific and regulatory agencies around the world, which find GM crops as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production, is a clever ploy to hoodwink public opinion and thereby push harmful and risky crop production technologies. The way the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States and for that matter the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in India have been very conveniently turned into a rubber stamp for the GM industry clearly shows how futile and frustrating the search for scientific truth can be. If you want to see the ‘criminal destruction’ of scientific facts you must do a careful perusal of the FDA (or the GEAC) recommendations.

But why should I blame the regulatory bodies if the public opinion of even the Nobel laureates can be so easily swayed? 

If ever any of the Nobel laureates feels like moving out of his/her laboratory to see the ground realities, I would like to invite them to Punjab, the food bowl, situated in northwest India. Last year, nearly 300 farmers committed suicide after a deadly attack of white-fly insect on Bt cotton ravaged the fields. Bt cotton is the only GM crop approved for cultivation India. This year, drawing a lesson, as much as 40 per cent area under cotton dropped while cotton farmers in more than 72,000 hectares in the northwest States of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, have already shifted to non-Bt native varieties and hybrids. Although I am aware that white-fly is not the insect against which Bt cotton has inbuilt resistance, but the fact remains that the virulent insect attack is primarily confined to Bt cotton. The question I therefore want to ask is why shouldn’t the GM seed companies be held accountable for the death of nearly 300 Punjab farmers?

More gory consequences of GM soya cultivation have been documented from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. I thought the Nobel laureates would at least Google to know how damaging GM crops have been to the environment, animal and human health in some of Latin American countries. This is the least I had expected from them before they signed the letter. If they had done so, I am sure they would instead have written a letter to the GM companies, the United Nations and Governments around the world warning them to be wary of GM crops and at least learn from the Argentina debacle.

If this is a collateral damage for addressing the bigger issue of global hunger, I am afraid the Nobel laureates have never cared to go beyond the newspaper headlines. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the world produced food good enough to meet the requirement of 13.5 billion people. In other words, the world produces food for double the existing population. In US alone, latest studies show that nearly half of all US food produced is thrown away. If only US food wastage was to be minimized, the food requirement of the entire Sub-Saharan Africa can be met. In Europe too, nearly 52 per cent of the food is wasted. The food wasted in Italy, for instance, if saved can feed the hungry in Ethiopia.

Globally, the world wastes 1.6 billion tons of food every year.

I wonder whether the Nobel laureates are aware that US faces its worst hunger, breaking all previous records, with more than 40 million people sleeping hungry at a time when the US is cultivating a number of GM crops. The US is also the Mecca of GM foods. I thought the question Nobel laureates would first ask is how come US has so much of hunger (and malnutrition) if GM crops were the savior? If GM foods could not reduce hunger in America, how do you think it is the solution for hunger in Global South? Isn’t it time therefore that the Nobel laureates focus on the immediate crisis of growing hunger first in their own neighbourhood?

What has to be accepted is that the food crisis the world witness is not because of any shortfall in production. The problem is because of the absence of food justice, which in other words means access and distribution. If the world was to eliminate food wastage there would be enough food available even at the end of the 21st century given the present rate of production. It is therefore high time the Nobel laureates begin to focus where the need is urgent. Come, join the global efforts being spearheaded by the United Nations on reducing food wastage. Isn’t food wastage at a time when millions of people are living in hunger, with some 20,000 succumbing to it daily, a mankind’s crime? 

I am asking the same question that you asked before: How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”? #

Source: GM Crops are not the solution to global hunger. ABPLive.in July 16, 2016.

2 comments:

Rup Chand Thakur said...

Well said.Perhaps business seems to have dominated social responsibilities.The seed companies wish to capture the crop production power of the farmers by making them dependent on these companies for seed material and then the plant protection material produced by them.Same has happened in education field too.Education has been commercialized at the cost of quality education.Number of private universities,colleges,coaching centres charging huge fees but imparting poor quality education, thus spoiling the entire generation next.

Muktigami said...

A perfect reply Devinder Bhai!
Anti-GM campaign is not limited to any one group or organisation, but is a global call to protect our farmers, seeds and food sovereignty.
Congratulations!