When it premiered in February this year, the documentary film 'Poison on the Platter' directed by Ajay Kanchan and presented by Mahesh Bhatt, opened to mixed reviews. Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy expert based in New Delhi, reviews the film against the backdrop of the controversies surrounding Genetically Modified (GM) food in India
It couldn’t have been better timed. Mahesh Bhatt’s powerful documentary film Poison on the Platter comes at a time when India’s first genetically modified (GM) food crop – Bt brinjal – awaits commercialization. A few more months of sponsored research trials, and an unwanted and unhealthy food crop would be ready for its first serving.
Mahesh Bhatt has awakened the nation to the emerging dangers from consuming GM foods. Piecing together some of the startling cases of food poisoning, which for obvious reasons the GM food industry doesn’t want to talk about, the film does force the people to think. It provides thought for GM food.
While the jury is still not out about the safety of GM foods, the biotech industry is in a tearing hurry to force it down the throat of gullible consumers. After the European Union resisted the take-over of the food chain by the GM industry, especially in the aftermath of the disastrous impact of first the mad cow disease and then the foot-and-mouth disease, the GM industry shifted its focus to developing countries. India, with a lax regulatory regime and an easily manipulative agricultural scientific system, became an easy target.
In fact, India has become the world’s biggest dustbin for GM technology. In addition to Bt cotton, and now with the likelihood of the introduction of Bt brinjal, there are some 56 crops, mostly staple foods and vegetables, are in the advanced stages of research and field trials. And this includes rice, sugarcane, soybean, tomato, cauliflower, bhindi, and potato. Poison on the Platter therefore comes as a timely warning.
What worries me is that like the cigarette industry, which kept the safety data away from public glare for several decades, the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), which developed Bt brinjal, too is unwilling to disclose the human safety data citing confidentiality and commercial interests as the reasons. It was only after the courts intervened that the company has been forced to make public the data from research trials. The underlying message is crystal clear. The public must believe the companies. People have no right to know what they are eating.
In a way it is true. The hush-hush manner, in which the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex approval authority for genetically altered crops/foods, has been clearing and allowing large-scale field trials of GM crops, is enough of an indication that it is merely a rubber stamp for the biotechnology industry. Throwing all scientific norms of research and evaluation to wind, and not even bothering to analyse the toxicity data for human and animal health, it has been blindly accepting the data presented by the companies.
I wonder how the public can be a silent spectator. After all, the Bt gene in brinjal makes the fruit 1000 times more toxic than the toxins that exists in the normal sprays of Bt bio-pesticides. To say that the Bt toxin in brinjal is safe for human health, when its much-paler bio-pesticides sprays can kill insects, is certainly not palatable. Moreover, brinjal is not only cooked, it is also used raw and the toxin would remain in such cases. As I said in the film, imagine keeping a Bt brinjal in a glass container along with a few shoot borer insects that normally feed on brinjal. You will see that these insects will die. If these insects can die from feeding on Bt brinjal, I wonder what will happen when the same Bt brinjal goes into our stomach.
The company of course claims that 5 to 10 minutes of cooking kills the Bt toxin. Is it 5 minute cooking that is safe enough or do we have to go in for 10 minutes? If this is true, than shouldn’t the GEAC make it mandatory for housewives to keep thermometer in their kitchens? And what will happen if my child for instance eats raw Bt brinjal while playing around? Will he survive? Still worse, do we have adequate medical tests prescribed that can detect the damage done by Bt toxin in the human body?
Besides Bt brinjal, most of the GM crops are being promoted as an alternative to chemical pesticides. That the GM crops reduce the application of chemical pesticides too has been proven incorrect. In China, where Bt cotton was hailed as a silver-bullet for cotton farmers, a Cornell University study has shown that cotton farmers in China growing Bt crop, are actually using more pesticides and therefore incurring losses. In India too, Bt cotton has not reduced the application of pesticides.
In the United States, GM corn, soybean and cotton have reportedly led to 122 million pounds increase in pesticides usage since 1996. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) now admits that yields of GM soyabean and corn have actually fallen. The University of Nebraska and the Kansas University have also made similar conclusions.
Moreover, weed resistance to ‘herbicide-tolerant’ GM crops in the US exists in 15 million acres. At least 30 ‘super weeds’ – which cannot be controlled by any means – have developed in North America. In India, several new pests have emerged on Bt cotton. Reports of failure of Bt cotton, including hundreds of Bt cotton farmers committing suicide, have also poured in. But who cares? The GEAC goes on merrily putting its stamp of approval on company studies.
With the former Science and Technology minister Kapil Sibal repeatedly asserting that the government is “pro-GM crops”, it is quite obvious as to whose interests is it promoting. The entire regulatory system therefore is eyewash, and borders on sham. The only way to see that the government-biotechnology industry nexus does not play havoc with human health is to hold the Minister as well as the GEAC members liable for any mishap. Put them behind bars if any untoward bio-safety accident takes place. Someone has to be held accountable for playing with human safety.
Make the liability clause absolutely stringent and you will see the biotechnology industry closing shop. That is what the essential message from Mahesh Bhatt’s film is.