How a GM debate eludes the Indian media

BY Keya Acharya| IN Media Practice | 21/05/2005
Journalists either lack access to information about GM crop trials or don`t understand the issues at stake.

Keya  Acharya                                                                             

Important decisions and claims are being made about GM technologies which aren¿t covered in the Indian media. Journalists either lack access to information about GM crop trials or don¿t understand the issues at stake. Meanwhile, biotech corporations are pressing ahead, leaving decisions that will affect millions of Indians unexamined.

BANGALORE, INDIA (PANOS RELAY FEATURES) - On 30 September 2004, six Indian environmental activists chained themselves to the railings of the multinational Bayer Crop Science¿s offices in Mumbai. They were demanding more information on the company¿s field trials on genetically modified (GM) crops in India.

Among other things, the Greenpeace-India activists wanted information on Cry 9 Ac, a protein isolated from a soil bacteria. They wanted to know if the company was experimenting with Cry 9 Ac in Indian cabbage and other vegetables.

The gene, permitted in the US in animal-feed caused a controversy in 2000, when traces of it, found in human food, were reported to have caused allergies.

The Mumbai protest was widely reported in the Indian media. Ironically, the story of Greenpeace-India discovering that Bayer Crop Science had withdrawn its GM experiments in India received poor coverage. The company told campaigners in November 2004 that it had discontinued GM research on mustard, tomato, aubergine, cauliflower and cabbage ?a couple of years ago.?

If this is true, it means the field trials were terminated around 2002 but neither the company nor the government had made the matter public, and the media either hadn¿t found out or had ignored the story.

Alok Pradhan, head of Corporate Communications at Bayer Crop Science, fended off queries about why Bayer had not released the news that it had terminated GM research in India. ?We had informed the [government¿s] Biotechnology Department at Delhi and what the government does with that information is not really our concern,? he said. ?We have no reason to be secretive, and we are not required to inform the media on such events.?

Some Indian biotech journalists say there is a general lack of access to information on GM crops and trials in India. Journalists known to be critical of GM biotech issues, in particular, face difficulties, with officials dodging ¿sticky¿ queries until journalists give up.

?It¿s not that the media do not cover these issues,? says Greenpeace¿s Divya Raghunandan. ?It¿s just that they don¿t have a deep knowledge of the subject.?

In India¿s business-friendly climate, biotech and GM issues are not a priority and are often reported in a polarised manner. In the absence of in-depth knowledge and specialisation, it¿s either a business story - technologies are reported as good for food production and export markets - or it¿s a story about NGO protests.

This is ironic because some experts feel developing country media - in India and elsewhere - will have to increasingly deal with GM issues in the future.

??Facing a political climate that is generally hostile to agri-biotech, companies have grown pessimistic about their commercial future in Europe and have begun moving their plant biotechnology divisions elsewhere,? said an editorial in the Scientific American magazine in August last year.

According to some experts, multinational companies engaging in crop-improvement programmes have taken a stronghold in developing countries through locally-influential personages and companies.

A research paper, Biotech firms, biotech policies: negotiating GMOs in India by Peter Newell of the Institute of Development Studies at the university of Sussex in Britain gives several examples.

In 1998 Monsanto bought a 28 per cent equity stake in a Mumbai-based MAHYCO (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company), an Indian firm. MAHYCO is headed by Dr Raju Barwale, a top scientist who has been decorated for his pioneering work in non-GM seed development. His influence in the government spreads into almost every sector of agriculture and biotechnology, and even the environment ministry.

Monsanto is not controversy-free. Its field trials with genetically modified Bt cotton sparked NGO protest between 2001 and 2003. The department of biotechnology gave it permission to produce the seeds even before trials were completed and the company did not make the trial results public.

Monsanto has also entered into research collaboration with The Energy Resources Institute (TERI), headed by the internationally known scientist Rajendra Pachauri, who also heads the powerful Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at Washington DC. Although the research paper is not about how the media reports GM issues, arguably the involvement of powerful scientists and industrial houses in the biotech industry - and only protesters on the other side - makes it that much harder for journalists to cover often-complex issues in a balanced manner.

One claim the Indian media has to deal with is that GM crops will alleviate poverty and hunger in the developing world.

Making the claim, among others, is a non-profit organisation with global clout - the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA). With a mandate to aid technology-transfer from rich to poor countries, and a high-profile board of current and past members, the ISAAA boasts many major Indian biotech firms and multinationals as member-donors.

In a 2004 report on the global status of biotech crops, ISAAA chief Clive James says that 90 per cent of beneficiaries of the increase in acreage of biotech crops have been poor farmers ?whose increased income from biotech crops contributed to the alleviation of poverty.? And India, he says was one of nine ¿mega-biotech¿ developing countries that experienced such increasing acreage.

The ISAAA¿s growing influence in India was apparent when it got the Minister for Science and Technology, Kapil Sibal, to speak at its forum in 2004 on biotechnology and transgenics, where Sibal said these technologies would bring about the ?next green revolution? in India.

The ISAAA, which conducts media study tours and symposia in India, says India saw a 400-percent rise (500,000 hectares) in Bt cotton hectareage in 2004 and that 11 per cent of cotton farmers adopted Bt seeds.

Only a handful of journalists have queried such claims.

?The increase in acreage that the ISAAA refers to is miniscule compared to India¿s 10 million hectares of cotton cultivation,? Ashok Sharma reported in The Financial Express newspaper, adding that just because farmers are experimenting with GM crops in order to assess their benefits does not mean they have accepted the technology.

Such reporting is rare. The media, full of lifestyle news and features, is aimed at catering to India¿s rapidly expanding and economically powerful middle class, which has driven a consumer boom since the 1990s. In general, there is little space for news from or about farms.

Sometimes it is also a question of making use of available data. Sharma, for instance cites data from the government¿s Crop Weather Watch Group to argue that India¿s bumper cotton crop in 2004 was more due to deficient rainfall - low humidity discourages pest-breeding - than to the widespread use of Bt technology as claimed by the ISAAA.

Meanwhile, in the wilting heat of an early Indian summer at the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, 30 km outside the city of Bangalore, plant scientists dismiss fears over biosafety and gene contamination. Natural gene-flow has been happening for centuries, says Akella Vani, Principal Scientist, Biotechnology, who is working on an Indian tomato gene for preventing leaf curl virus.

Her colleague Leela Sahijram adds that as long as there are responsible scientists who are mindful of the issues at stake ?the country need not worry.?

Outside India¿s high-tech laboratories, it remains to be seen whether such individual trust in plant research will also translate into policies that will facilitate the free flow of information on GM-related issues./PANOS RELAY FEATURES

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