Dr. C. Kameswara Rao knows he can’t stop the stream of anti-GMO propaganda that’s flowing into India. But he’s been steadily countering it for a decade and a half as executive secretary of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE).
Rao, who previously chaired the Departments of Botany and Sericulture at Bangalore University and retired in 1998, hadn’t expected to spend his golden years setting the record straight about agricultural biotechnology.
But he became immersed in the late 1990s when, as he recalls, “the ‘terminator technology’ issue blew up,” prompting Monsanto to agree that it wouldn’t commercialize the sterile seed trait. While following the issue, Rao learned that activists had coined the phrase “as a definitely derogatory name for the technology. People really thought that ‘terminator technology’ is there in every crop. Even today people believe that. I thought, this is not a very rational and justifiable situation for biotech, because biotechnology had by that time shown its progress, demonstrating efficacy and safety.”
His former students, many of them doing bench work in biotechnology in the U.S. and Europe, were similarly concerned that activists with no knowledge of the science were perpetuating falsehoods and fears. Ultimately, Rao says, the Bangalore academics came to the point of, "’Let us do something.’ Then the idea of the foundation came.”
They formed FBAE “to create scientific awareness about modern biotechnology and educate the public and various stakeholders about the perceived or potential risks and benefits of this emerging technology.”
To that end, FBAE has hosted some two-dozen informational workshops for students, teachers, media and others. It published booklets and maintains comprehensive websites with links to dozens of examples of anti-GMO “false propaganda.” It also archives Rao’s own prolific writings, which offer a scientific rebuttal to activist arguments against agricultural technology.
“We want to reach the public,” Rao said during an interview at his Bangalore home. “It's a very complex technology, and it is a collaborative work of at least a dozen branches in biology, chemistry, genetics. And the irony is this: A person who spends his lifetime in biology, he himself finds it difficult to understand the intricacies of biotechnology. Now how can somebody without any biology background come and say, ‘I know biotechnology’ more than the scientists? So that is one problem.”
Another problem is that journalists don’t cover genetic engineering stories long enough to understand the technology or discern the validity of anti-GMO claims.
Rao and the other contributors to FBAE seek to fill the education void with credible information about many aspects of biotechnology. They take their work seriously, because they believe the stakes are high.
“Anti-tech activism which opposes GE crops is the most serious threat to India’s future food security,” reads a line in “Genetically Engineered Crops in India: A Gordian Knot Needing an Alexandrian Solution,” a booklet that FABE released in September 2014.
“They [activists] gained political space,” Rao said. “They got money, and they influence government policy without ever knowing anything about either the technology or the product. So the problem is people spread rumors that all the biotech foods are toxic — though that has not been proved in 19 years [of use] when some trillion meals were eaten — then say it is carcinogenic.”
False claims can be hard to dislodge and one cannot prove the negative, Rao said. It may take a year or two to disprove a faulty scientific paper and even longer for a journal to publish a retraction. Meanwhile, activists promote the flawed studies to bolster their claims — and continue to use them even after they’ve been discredited — because the public never knows the papers have been retracted.
“If you say, ‘this is carcinogenic; this is toxic;’ [and] you repeat it a number of times, the people tend to believe that,” Rao said.
Activists are attempting to frighten consumers about biotech crops by magnifying claims that could be made about many foods, he said. Coffee, for example, has about 600 chemicals, 40 to 50 percent of which are shown to be carcinogenic in experiments. “But nothing has happened to any of us after drinking coffee for so many years.” Similarly, about 120 common foods have a proven clinical allergenicity that can be disastrous to some people, and have no effect on others.
Rao sees activism against agricultural technology as driven primarily by economic special interests.
“It is their livelihood, not a calling,” he said. “In fact, all these activists, they are registered lobbyists on European Commission records. Europe is the major funding agency for all these activities here in India. The moves of the Government of India during the past couple of years prove the point.”
European pesticide companies and seed brokers lost substantial business when farmers in India overwhelmingly adopted Bt cotton. “So they have a reason to be angry. The opposition is there only for agriculture biotechnology. Nobody has bothered the work of medical biotechnology.”
“Then there is an organic lobby,” Rao continued. “They’re afraid European markets may refuse their crops if they’re grown near GE crops. But the truth is, these biotech crops can be grown alongside organic crops. In fact, some farmers in Maharashtra, they're growing Bt cotton in an organic way. So there is no contradiction between biotech crops and any other cultivation practice, but people are just [projecting] organic as the greatest. If somebody can pay 50 percent to 100 percent more for the so-called organic foods let them do it, but they don't have to protect that kind of a market by any every means.”
Opposition to agricultural technology ultimately could end up hurting India’s poor by delaying the approval of GE crops.
“It's a question of affordability,” Rao said. “That is the basic issue here. People are hungry because they don't have money to buy the food that is available. Food will become cheaper if your production is more. You have to increase [agriculture] production, and we have not made headway in ten years. In fact, agriculture productivity levels in India are far, far less than the global average.”
Rao has been especially active countering propaganda that has stalled the field testing and deregulation of Bt brinjal (eggplant) in India, even though the National Center for Economic and Policy Research — a government/public sector organization — concluded that Bt brinjal would boost yield of the popular vegetable by 200 percent while benefitting the environment with reduced pesticide applications.
“Now, what the product developers thought is if Bt brinjal passes through [deregulation], a number of other products can go easily,” he said. “And that's exactly the fear of the activists — if this is allowed, a number of other things will follow. What should actually happen is it’s time for the government to make a decision to allow commercialization of Bt brinjal and field trials of other crops.”
Meanwhile, neighboring Bangladesh moved ahead with commercialization of Bt brinjal, raising the specter that Bt brinjal seeds will be smuggled into India.
“A farmer will cultivate what he thinks is beneficial to him,” Rao said. “Whether you approve or you don't approve, it does not matter at all.”
Rao believes India is in danger of being left behind as the technology it develops either languishes in the lab or is taken through deregulation by other nations. “We have I think about 70, 75 products, both in public and private sector, which are stopped. There's no progress in that.”
Though Rao has worked for years to disseminate credible information about agricultural biotechnology, he remains uncertain whether he’s making headway. Falsehoods and propaganda continue to sway some political leaders in India. Still, he has no intention of giving up.
“I believe in what I am doing. I will continue to do this. I have more than 150 blogs, several chapters in specialist volumes and booklets on agricultural biotechnology, which I wrote over a period, and every time I sent them to 250 to 275 people — a number of them outside of India. Only a few respond. I think it's my duty to send, but you can’t be sure that people read, let alone act.”