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On defence in the North, biotech infiltrating the South

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 15 Jan 2001 --   As consumer concerns and challenges from within the scientific community itself, and the reactions among parliamentarians and legislative bodies  are placing the biotech industry in the North, and the intellectual property system itself on the defensive, reports suggest that the industry is making a concerted effort to influence governments, legislatures  and the judiciary in the countries of the South.

In the Philippines, according to a press release of MASIPAG, a Philippines NGO, the University of the Philippines in Los Banos has cancelled a permit to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to undertake field experiments on genetically modified rice within the university grounds.

“There are uncertainties on the safety of the genetic engineering technology, so we believe IRRI should confine its experiment on a controlled environment outside of the university premises,” MASIPAG quoted Dr. Casiano Abrigo Jr, UPLB’s vice chancellor for Planning and Development, as explaining the action in an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The UPLB and IRRI have been partners for a long time in agricultural research, and IRRI has been issued a permit to use the close to 4,000-square-metre experimental station of the university for the open-field testing of the genetically engineered bacterial blight rice or BB Rice.

The UPLB is “neither anti-science nor anti-farmer,” Abrigol said in the interview.

The revocation of the permit, he explained, was meant to prevent any possible environmental and genetic contamination of neighbouring farms posed by the “still immature technology,” he added.

A number of civil society groups and farmers are opposing the genetic engineering experiments and field testing of the genetically modified BB rice (to test resistance to bacterial blight disease) on the ground that “genetic engineering is far from an exact science and can produce any number of unintended side-effects.”

The GMO BB rise contains a controversial antibiotic resistance marker.  For this reason, Gordon Conway, chair of the Rockefeller Foundation, has refused to recommend its use because of its adverse effects on health and the environment.

The UPLB’s Abrigo explained: “We are not barring IRRI from conducting the experiment. But it has to be outside of the university premises.”

Civil society groups say that even if the technology is proven to be safe, farmers don’t need it; other safe and alternative methods to combat bacterial blight are being practised by farmers long before the introduction of the Green Revolution in the country.

While the UPLB’s withdrawal of the permit to the IRRI is a setback, other experiments are going ahead.

Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world’s largest producer of hybrid corn seeds is conducting field trials in Polomolok and in Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon in collaboration with the UPLB’s Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB). The trials are intended to test the efficacy of MON 810 on the Asiatic corn borer.

The experiment was cleared and permission was given by the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP), which ignored the strong opposition from small farmers, the church sector, other non-government organizations and local government officials in Polomolok.

This is a blatant mockery of peoples’ participation in democratic processes, said Sister Susan Bolanios, head of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Desk of the Diocese of Marbel. The Municipal Council of Polomolok had unanimously adopted a resolution on 13 December (in reacting to an urgent petition from farmers in the area) strongly opposing “the open-field testing” of GMOs, particularly Bt-corn.

The Philippine Guidelines for Field Release of GMOs only requires public notification on planned release of GMOs in targeted areas.  However, the local government code mandates national government agencies to consult with local government units and local organizations on projects and programs that may impact on the ecological or environmental balance. The code also requires prior approval of the local council before such programs or projects are implemented. 

Meanwhile, in India, where the seed transnationals (like Monsanto) are facing opposition from farmers and civil society organisations, Novartis and Monsanto sponsored a section at the Indian Science Congress, and got the Indian scientists to endorse and support genetic engineering.

A report in the Hindu (posted on an environment journalists listserver) about the Science Congress, said that over and above the attempts to influence the government, there are attempts to ‘educate’ the judiciary.

According to the report, an American delegation of 10 judges and scientists met the Chief Justice of India, Mr. Justice A.S. Anand to impress on him, and the judicial fraternity, about the benefits of biotechnology.

The report of the meeting was revealed at the Science Congress by Dr.Franklin M. Zweig, president of the Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the Courts in the USA.

The subject of genetic engineering and introduction of GMO seeds is currently pending before the Supreme Court of India on a case filed by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) against Monsanto, its local subsidiary MAHYCO and the Government of India.

The meeting of the US delegation with the Chief Justice could thus come under the mischief of the Contempts of Courts Act.

Answering pointed questions, Zweig denied (according to the Hindu report) that the two-hour meeting of the US delegation was intended to “influence” the judiciary, but was to “educate” the judges about the basic principles of public information for use in courts and court systems.

Zweig revealed that the US delegation had invited the Chief Justice of India to the US, and offered to hold "workshops" in America for the judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court, to educate them about transgenics, and safety protocols in biotech research.

While the Indian Science Congress, and some of the scientists in a session on this issue, threw their weight behind genetic engineering, a parallel People’s Science Congress issued a declaration challenging the view of genetic engineering and highlighted the genuine problems of farmers and farming and the crisis of hunger in India, in the context of seed and agricultural monopolies.

The declaration of the “People's Science Congress” underlined the contribution of innovation, ingenuity and wisdom of small farmers in meeting India’s food security. It noted that while the Green Revolution, through short-term high monoculture, had raised production, it was at the cost of the destruction of soil, water and biodiversity. The initial benefits had reached a plateau and the promises of the Green Revolution were declining. But without learning the lessons of non-sustainable farming, the government was blindly promoting genetic engineering on the false premise that this will increase food production and the availability of nutrition, the Declaration of the “People's Congress,” said.

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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