ORGANIC FOOD FOR THE PRINCE AND
GM FOOD FOR THE MASSES?
By Umendra Dutt
"I personally have no wish to eat anything produced by genetic modification nor do I knowingly offer this sort of produce to my family or guests."
"We need a GM-free Wales and a GM-free Britain as well, for that matter. We simply do not know the long-term consequences for human health and the wider environment, of releasing plants bred in this way." “I hope we understand the vital importance of working in harmony with nature and not against it”.
These are the words of none other than Prince Charles, who will be visiting Punjab soon and would be having an interface with organic farmers of Punjab. Maharaja Amarinder Singh at the Royal Palace of Moti Bagh will also serve an organic dinner in the Prince’s honour. It is well known that the Prince is an experienced and successful organic gardener and supporter of organic agriculture.
Interestingly enough, Maharaja Amrinder Singh, the Chief Minister of Punjab, is a staunch supporter of GM crops. While Prince Charles had demanded that GM crops should be banned, the Chief Minister of Punjab is using public funds to promote the cultivation of Bt Cotton, a GM crop. It is ironical that a strong GM-supporter is hosting an organic dinner in the honour of a known opponent of GM crops. Probably the Maharaja cannot rationally explain this contradiction?
If the Prince wants to know what the results of organic agriculture in Punjab are and what the government is pro-actively doing to support its full potential, will the Chief Minister have satisfactory and conscientious answers? Can the government at least say that it has laid down some regulations and implemented them, related to the spread of GM agriculture so that organic farmers’ interests can be protected [given that there are stringent standards for organic certification, including distance from the nearest GM field]? Can the government here say that it is aware of the need for bio-safety during research and trials and that it is ensuring that there is no compromise on bio-safety issues? How will it justify the gross violations related to biosafety violations in GM crop research in many locations in this state and the fact that untested GM products are routinely contaminating our supply chain?
The CM would very probably find that he is dealing with a knowledgeable person on this subject. The Prince of Wales has been closely following research on both GM foods and organic agriculture and has vociferously argued for best use of labour and management skills for even trebling yields from traditional farming systems and has always questioned the need for GM agriculture. He even brought in a political perspective into his analysis of GM agriculture and questioned the benefits accruing to the companies promoting such agriculture.
At the outset, we should warn the visiting Prince that many scientists and other technocrats in Punjab are conveniently interpreting GM as organic, at least in their unofficial conversations. It is not very clear whether it is plain ignorance or self-deceit or a deliberate misleading of farmers and consumers.
The visiting dignitary should also be informed that any efforts from the government’s side in promoting organic agriculture are very half-hearted with a lot of reservations built in. However, we hope that when our worthy Chief Minister shows glimpses of rural Punjab to Prince Charles, he would do so with full faith in the potential of organic agriculture. Organic is not a fashion nor it is meant for high-society and just the affluent and royal classes. The ordinary Punjabi deserves organic too. Instead, s/he is consuming food with one of the highest levels of pesticide residues in the world. There are many pesticide-related illnesses that ordinary Punjabis are suffering from, given the heavy pesticide load in the state. And on a population already bearing the brunt of faulty agricultural technologies, instead of taking a precautionary approach, the government of Punjab wants to impose GM technology. Can the Chief Minister, on this occasion, promise that ordinary Punjabis will be taken care of also? That there would be no double standards imposed on them, especially when it comes to Safe Food?
It is the right of every Punjabi to eat safe, healthy and contamination-free food. So, Hon’ble CM, when you are hosting an organic dinner for Prince Charles, please do it from the core of your heart, with belief in the principles of organic agriculture, of going along with nature and not against it.
Poised as we are on what is being termed as the second green revolution, Punjab – its government and its people – should decide whether they want to chart a similar disastrous course as with the earlier Green Revolution. Or would Punjab, with the rich skills and knowledge that its farmers have, show a more sustainable path to food, livelihood and resource security for the rest of the country by embracing an ecological, organic approach?
We also have to concede that the Maharaja’s contradictory approaches to the masses and the visiting dignitaries is not very different from the official policy framework of the GoI, which seems to promote similar double standards – ‘GM food is ok for domestic consumers, but organic is the way to go for the consumers in the North’.
Let us pay heed to what Prince Charles has once warned about - "Once genetic material has been released into the environment it cannot be recalled. The likelihood of a major problem may, as some people suggest, be slight, but if something does go badly wrong we will be faced with the problem of clearing up a kind of pollution which is self-perpetuating. I am not convinced that anyone has the first idea of how this could be done, or indeed, who would have to pay. "
Prince Charles also expressed his views on BT like crops; he says, "GM crop plants are also being developed to produce their own pesticide. This is predicted to cause the rapid appearance of resistant insects. Worse still, such pesticide-producing plants have already been shown to kill some beneficial predator insects as well as pests. To give just two examples, inserting a gene from a snowdrop into a potato made the potato resistant to greenfly, but also killed the ladybirds feeding on the greenfly. And lacewings, a natural predator of the corn borer and food for farmland birds, died when fed on pest insects raised on GM maize. "
Prince Charles took his dislike of GM crops to the ultimate level as he called for the British ban, although he has frequently expressed strong views on the issue "I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God and to God alone," he has written. "Apart from certain highly beneficial and specific medical applications, do we have the right to experiment with, and commercialise, the building blocks of life?
We hope that the Chief Minister and the state of Punjab would pick up a few tips from the visiting Prince on organic agriculture and its benefits and why a precautionary approach is needed to the GM technology in agriculture.