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14 March 1999

Death to Monsanto, Say World Scientists

By Ranjit Dev Raj NEW DELHI

Mar 11 (IPS) - Conscientious genetic engineers and activists from across the world Thursday called for a slow but sure death for Monsanto, the U.S seed giant they say threatens life on earth with its genetically modified crops.

''It must be death by a thousand cuts,'' said Tony Clarke, director of the Polaris Institute in Canada which assists social movements to develop tools, skills and strategies for fighting economic globalisation and corporate power.

Clarke was among participants selected to devise future strategies against 'Genetic Engineering and Patents on Life' at the close of the two-day 'Biodevastation II' meet here.

Monsanto figured high on the agenda because of stiff resistance put up in this country by farmers and activists to field trials in 40 widely separate locations of genetically engineered Bt cotton carried out by the corporation on doubtful authorisation.

Said Pushpa Bhargava, a distinguished India biotechnologist who has the French Legion d'Honneur to his credit, ''clearance for the trials should have come from Indian Council of Agricultural research (ICAR) - instead clearance came from the Department of Biotechnology and after the trials had begun.''

Under pressure from Monsanto, India has also been forced to freely import genetically modified crops such as soyabeans and foist it on an unsuspecting consuming public without proper labelling.

''The only way to tackle Monsanto which has 300 million dollars to play around with and regularly buys out scientists and policy makers is to slowly bleed it by burning crops, sueing it in court and occupying its offices,'' Clarke advised.

Endorsing the strategy, Claude Alvarez, an Indian activist said ''Gandhi taught us to break to break immoral laws and explain later in court.''   Alvarez said the best place to begin the fight against biotechnology giants was in India itself where Gandhi perfected civil disobedience and where patents are routinely ignored. ''We should teach Monsanto a lesson right here,'' he said.

The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Environment which hosted Biodevastation II has filed a writ petition in the Indian Supreme Court against the government for allowing Monsanto to carry out trials ''illegally''.

In response, participants from Malaysia, Japan, Bangladesh, U.K, Germany, Austria, Norway, France, U.S, Sri Lanka and Belgium pledged support for the local efforts to stop Bt Cotton trials and the 'Monsanto, Quit India' movement.

Farhad Mazhar, from the 'UBINIG' group in Bangladesh reminded participants that South Asia had one of the last remnants of traditional farming carried out by small farmers whose knowledge and seeds can ''recreate sustainable agriculture from the ashes that will be left behind by multinationals.''

Mika Iba, leader of the Seikotsu Club, a 300,000-member consumer cooperative from Japan said her organisation would now work to help farmers in southern Andhra Pradesh who were ruined through adoption of Monsanto's techniques.

Immediately before the meet began Wednesday, Iba and 17 other members of the Seikotsu club toured the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh where several hundred farmers committed suicide last year after their crops failed.

''We saw huge differences between farmers in Japan and India but we also felt that farmers were everywhere an exploited lot - though at different levels,'' said Mitsuko Tachikama, woman farmer.

During the scientific deliberations, like Prof Terje Travik from Norway stressed that the first generation of genetically engineered organisms were unsafe because the science and technology involved were completely unknown.

''We have to take an ecological view because of the proven possibilities of horizontal gene transfer,'' Prof Travik who teaches virology at the University of Tromso said.  He was joined by Mae Wan Ho, professor of biology of the Open University in the United Kingdom in demanding a five-year moratorium on commercialisation so that more research can be done and safety systems put in place.

''Corporations are manipulating science and promoting scientific fraud to silence and censor the safety debate which they see as an interference in their profits,'' said Prof Ho who heads bio-electrodynamics at her university.

Scientists talked of how their colleagues were victimised for speaking out loud against corporations like Monsanto or given lucrative assignments if they unethically supported genetic engineering projects.  They noted that, Linda Bullard of the 'IFOAM' foundation in Belgium was denied an Indian visa to attend Biodevastation II apparently after she said she would be attending a 'strategy session' against biotechnology corporations in New Delhi.

''We stand on the edge of a Biotech century where a runaway technology wielded by Monsanto and other transnationals threaten food security and biodiversity in both the North and South,'' said Ronnie Cummins, director of the U.S-based Campaign for Food Safety.

Cummins said it was important to ensure that the next millennium was not a 'Multinationals Millennium' as dictated by the Geneva-based, World Trade Organisation (WTO) but one with a citizens' agenda.

''While the WTO is supposed to dismantle protectionism, it is actually promoting corporate protectionism,'' said Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Environment.

Shiva said she was glad that India and the EU were now in the same boat being threatened by Super 301 a U.S domestic trade law imposed through WTO. India has reserved the right to sit in on hearings of a case challenging Super 301.

The conference also expressed support for the initiative of countries like the Netherlands, Italy and Norway which have challenged the European Patents on Life Law.  Of particular concern was the move by the United States, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Australia to block a global treaty to regulate trade in genetically modified products at the Biosafety Protocol Talks at Cartagena, Colombia in February.

Said Beth Burrows, director of the Edmonds Institute in Washington, ''There cannot be a better example of injustice when six nations impose their will on the rest of the world.''

The issue widened a growing rift between the EU and U.S over agricultural products. The European nations have resisted genetically modified crops while the U.S and its allies felt that an agreement could threaten food exports.

Burrows said what is even more significant than the refusal by the EU to go along with U.S transnationals is resistance from countries in the South, more particularly from intellectually resourceful countries like India.

''Increasingly it is the South which is teaching countries like the U.S lessons in ethics and morality and in sustainable development,'' Burrows said. (END/IPS/rdr/an/99)