There’s a Fly Gene in My Soup

Resistance to genetically modified foods heats up in India, where about 500 million people are vegetarians. They don’t want meat proteins injected into their food.

MUMBAI, India — Concerns over genetically modified food aren’t new, but in India they’ve taken a different twist.

Over half the population, or about 500 million people, are purely vegetarian. Therefore the transfer of animal genes into plants has raised an issue that could seriously ruin the chances of this country embracing biotechnology in the near future.

The importation of genetically modified seeds for public consumption has not been approved by the government, although indications are that it’s only a matter of time. India’s Department of Biotechnology has been created to test and approve GM seeds, and with an annual budget of US$40 million, the government isn’t hiding its eagerness to usher in biotechnology.

But opposition is mounting on a number of fronts. There are the greens, who oppose GM foods in general. Then there are those who are concerned about the religious implications.

Green activists like Vandana Shiva — director of the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology — are staunchly resisting it.

Shiva is an important figure on the ecological scene, both inside and outside of India. She recently took Monsanto to court, alleging the multinational corporation had sowed transgenic seeds before obtaining DBT’s approval.

“I don’t believe the government’s stand that food crops that have been genetically modified are imported purely for research purposes,” Shiva said. “GM seeds have already infiltrated the Indian food chain. How can the hapless consumer know the difference? MNCs (multinational corporations) like Monsanto are facing a crisis today because western nations and even East Asian countries are not touching GM seeds. So they want to dump them on India.”

Clearly, the vegetarian issue has taken root. Hindus (82 percent of the population) are supposed to be vegetarian because their religion demands, and Jains (0.4 percent of the population) don’t eat garlic and other roots. Though not all Hindus and Jains adhere strictly to their religious codes, most do.

A bill that would call for mandatory labeling of all food products — not just GM foods — as to whether they use non-vegetarian ingredients is making its way through the parliament.

“India is a complex country,” said Dr. Anil Indulkar, executive director of the Indian Crop Protection Association. “One has to be careful while transferring genes into plants in India so as not to violate religious sentiments which are very strong in this country. I believe that DBT is a very responsible organization.”

“In fact, its guidelines and screening process are more stringent than those in other parts of the world. The laws are not in place yet. As the time comes for GM seeds to reach the masses, I am sure apt laws will be formulated.”

Despite his optimism, many don’t agree with him.

“It’s no secret that corruption is rampant in India and I wouldn’t be surprised if government bodies are manipulated by MNCs who have an interest in this country,” said Pradeep Dave, president of Pesticides Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India.

Dave concedes that part of his opposition to GM seeds is due to the fact that they have greater resistance to pests, making them a financial concern for pesticide makers. “That doesn’t change the fact that if an insect’s gene is transferred into a plant so that it cannot be damaged by that insect, a religious vegetarian is greatly harmed,” he said.

Manju Sharma, the secretary of DBT who is in the middle of all this chaos, took a reassuring tone.

“We understand the sensitive nature of the problem and so we have taken all the required measures while testing the seeds.” She denied that GM seeds have already found their way into consumers’ homes.

“Import of GM seeds are restricted to testing alone,” she said, adding that “various seeds are in advanced stages of testing, but one cannot tell exactly when they will be cleared for general consumption. Certainly all precautions will be taken to safeguard public interest.”

Author: Manu Joseph

News Service: Wired News


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