Monsanto's retreat from Europe may help Indian patent campaign

Monday, 27 October 2003, 08:00 Hrs
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NEW DELHI: Greens and food rights activists believe Monsanto's decision to partially withdraw from Europe will boost an Indian campaign to free a wheat patented by the U.S. biotech giant, reports

Groups such as the New Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) and Greenpeace say a Monsanto patent for a strain of wheat it claims to have invented is derived from a traditional Indian variety.

"We expect Monsanto's withdrawal from Europe to strengthen our case," says RFSTE additional director Afsar H. Jafri.

RFSTE and Greenpeace are planning to challenge the patent in the European Patent office in Munich before the year-end.

"The Monsanto patent pirates the collective cumulative innovation of Indian farmers," says RFSTE. "It is thus a piracy not just of a millennia of breeding by Indian farmers but also of a millennia of innovation in food qualities."

Though Monsanto's decision to withdraw from the European market is being hailed by activists as a victory for the campaign against genetically modified (GM) crops that they claim contaminate the environment, Indian campaigners are also concerned the MNC will now focus more on developing nations.

"Monsanto will be on the lookout for other markets, and since it has already been eyeing India and China, we have to be a lot more vigilant," says Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign, a New Delhi-based group working for Indian farmers.

"And our worry is that the Indian government is in cohorts with Monsanto."

In India, Monsanto's BT cotton is already being cultivated, while trials are underway for the production of GM maize. Recent reports state that cotton cultivation has failed in many parts.

Sahai, who is just back in New Delhi after touring Andhra Pradesh, where BT cotton is being cultivated, says preliminary reports suggest farmers are not happy with the season's modified cotton crop.

But activists expect Monsanto to use India as a lucrative market, despite the agitation over the impact of GM crops.

"We fear Monsanto will get government agencies to clear their operations by hook or by crook," says Jafri.

Sahai believes the European experience -- where pressure from civil society has prompted governments to put a de facto moratorium on the production of GM crops -- can be replicated in India only if the government is more transparent.

"But the problem is that the government of India is as transparent as a brick wall," she states.

The groups, however, stress there will be no let-up in pressurising the Indian government on the hazards of GM crops.

"We are gearing up our campaign, by taking up the issue both locally and internationally," says Jafri. For the wheat patent challenge, samples are being tested to support their claim.

Though Monsanto is reported to have said its last week's decision had nothing to do with a five-year moratorium imposed on the commercial production of biotech crops by the European Union, it came in the wake of a strong move against genetically modified food in Europe.

According to a study released Thursday, GM crops damage as well as protect biodiversity.

The three-year study of three types of crops in 60 sites found that while oilseed, rape and sugar beet plants harmed the environment more than conventional crops, leading to fewer insect groups like bees and butterflies, GM maize was better than conventional maize for weeds, butterflies and bees.

Sahai calls for studies such as the British survey to assess the damage posed by GM crops in India. "Like the Europeans look at issues that concern them, we in India need to focus on our own problems," she says.

"The public pressure on the government has to come in a focussed way," says Sahai.

Food rights activists also stress the need for a dialogue between the government and people on the ramifications of GM crops.

"But forget a dialogue, the government of India is even refusing to take the concerns of civil society into account," she says.

Source: IANS
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