Response to Dr Kameshwar Rao from Dr Suman Sahai (20/4/2004)

Interesting response to an attack on an article by Dr Sahai published in an Indian national newspaper.

Response to Dr Kameshwar Rao from Dr Suman Sahai

This is a brief response to the several page diatribe put out by Dr. Kameshwar Rao in response to an article 'Should India cultivate GM rice' written by me. Rao produces reams of text punctuated with selected references to make a passionate case for starting cultivation of GM rice forthwith in India, without getting into any further studies because 'GM crops are the best studied ever' and there is no need to do any more studies. The fact is that no basic studies have been done on transgene flow in rice in India. Rao’s case, despite all international conventions, which urge caution in centres of crop diversity, is that no such caution is needed here!

For any scholar, a large variety of literature is available on many aspects of GM technology, like pollen and gene flow, weediness, impact of herbicide tolerance etc. The literature shows that scientific evidence for many of the points raised in the debate on GM technology can be mixed. To pick out the studies that suit you and condemn the others that do not fit your case, as 'unscientific', is a stratagem that has consistently been used by the more aggressive supporters of GM technology.

Here, is what the highly regarded J Gressel had to say recently on herbicide tolerance and rice…..

"When it was assumed that a herbicide resistant rice would have a five year lifetime in S-USA the industry was ready to release to make a quick buck. That is not long-term product stewardship, which is the stockholders problem. 5 years is not good product life with a rice-red rice system because there are only three potential herbicides for red rice control. Therefore regulators must sit on industry when it is in the public benefit - because industry's interests are the director's benefits (not even the stockholders...). Industry did not put in any of the failsafe mechanisms "because it wasn't required". With rice they listened only when it was found that introgression was so fast that the whole fields were covered with herbicide resistant red rice after 2 years...."

Rao and his colleagues like to raise the issue of 'consensus' reached at the 2002 International Rice Workshop which Rao quotes as the meeting conducted by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences of India (NAAS). It was Syngenta, as is well known, that organized this meeting, in partnership with the NAAS. Why does Rao omit Syngenta from the credits in his reference? At this meeting, where I was present, certain key issues like herbicide tolerance and gene flow in rice were handled in the last evening panel discussion lasting about an hour, terminated quickly because a catamaran ride was to follow! There was almost no discussion, let alone a thorough one and certainly no consensus. Rao engages in deliberate misrepresentation when he quotes exhaustive discussions and consensus.

In fact, there was disquiet among some participants of the above meeting at the fact that the final recommendations that emerged some weeks later, were different on certain key aspects from the draft recommendations that were put together at the end of the meeting, I had raised this matter then and recorded my dissent on certain points.

Rao quotes government agencies supporting all sorts of things in GM technology to make the case for their validity. This is disingenuous. The recognised conflict between what governments end up doing as against what the people want in this sector, has led to many international agreements like the Cartagena Protocol and the Aarhus Convention, along with other national and regional agreements, recommending public participation or even making it mandatory.  It is disingenuous to pretend that there are no pressures on developing country governments or to pretend that governments are always neutral players and that their decisions are independent and well thought out.

The question has to be asked when faced by this kind of combative posture assumed by Rao and others like him when discussing the negative aspects of Agbiotech; is it really their case that all is well in paradise and there is no cause for concern? That all who question Agbiotech are stupid, unscientific, uninformed or variants thereof? Is it seriously their case that the biotech lobby has figured out everything in the twenty odd years of research on GM crops?  Do they actually believe they are the sole custodians of the truth and all the others are lying Luddites?  I could for a second understand the industry attempting to suggest this since their dollars are riding on the technology but Rao and his colleagues? Is there a case here of being more royal than the king? And why?   

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