ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
from the list of Norfolk Genetic Information Network (ngin),
1. Devinder Sharma, CS Prakash and Malcolm Livingstone
2. 'Dear Malcolm Livingstone'
3. Genetic Engineering: SCIENTISTS FAIL TO STAND UP
1. Devinder Sharma, CS Prakash and Malcolm Livingstone

A few weeks ago we posted an interesting reply by Devinder Sharma to
points raised by CS Prakash regarding an article Devinder had written on
the implications of the sequencing of the rice genome. That posting
(including the original article) can be seen at:

What has occurred subsequently has been revealing. Instead of
continuing the dialogue with Devinder, CS Prakash appears to have
forwarded Devinder's reply to one of his AgBioWorld supporters, the
Australian biotechnologist, Malcolm Livingstone, and then publicly
circulated Livingstone's responses. [for the latest of these see the
AgBioView archive: Response to Sharma (May 31) ]

The effect of this has been to transform what began as an interesting
exchange between two Indian scientists with very contrasting views on
the contentious issue of the value of GM crops in relation to world
hunger, into little short of a "hate" attack.

Devinder notes below how in addition to replying publicly in intemperate
terms, Livingstone has also written to him privately in still more
insulting fashion.

In his response below, Devinder writes about all the different responses
he has received (over 100) to what he had to say on this list about the
role of GM crops with regard to world hunger. He also makes it clear
that he is not interested in being drawn further into a demeaning
slanging match with Livingstone.

What has occurred in this instance, however, in our view, goes well
beyond just raising questions over Livingstone's antics. It focuses
attention once more on the claims of CS Prakash and his AgBioWorld
supporters that their campaign is all about defending science and reason
against the emotive and irrational claims of GM critics.

Over the past few months we and others have repeatedly remonstrated,
both publicly and privately, with Prakash over the character of the
attacks made on GM critics in the AgBioView material he circulates. We
have cited instances of the posting of allegations against Greenpeace,
for example, claiming they have been responsible for murder, terrorism,
genocide etc.

Prakash replies, always courteously, that he is not responsible either
for the content of the material he circulates or the character of those
with whom he collaborates. And yet he cannot just wash his hands of his
supporters and their behaviour.

Prakash clearly exercises an editorial function, both in terms of what
gets included on AgBioView and how prominently items are placed in the
bulletins. The extraordinary allegations which we've mentioned were all
placed fairly prominently.

Of course, what Prakash chooses to circulate on his own list is his
business, but he cannot simultaneously disclaim all responsibility for
it. In the case of Devinder Sharma, CS Prakash appears, at the very
least, to have actively promoted Livingstone's abusive responses (the
public ones, at least). For Prakash this may all be part of promoting
science and rationality. Others may view it somewhat differently.
2. 'Dear Malcolm Livingstone'
from Devinder Sharma <>

Dear Malcolm Livingstone,

I am writing this to express my deep gratitude and sincere thanks to the
102 people, a majority of them scientists from the west, who wrote to me
saying how delighted they were to find that someone could muster the
courage to put the issue in the right perspective. I am unable to write
to them individually and so take this opportunity to thank them and look
forward in future to their continued support in favour of "good science"
-- the science and technology that is socially relevant, environmentally
sound and helps pull the poor and marginalised out from from the vicious
trap of artificially-induced hunger and malnutrition.

The only nasty letter that I received was from you. I did not respond for
the simple reason that using insulting and derogatory language is not
part of the INDIAN CULTURE AND TRADITIONS. Nor will I stoop so low in
future, I can assure you.

It is often said that ignorance is bliss. If you are not even aware of
what Dr Gordon Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, had told
Monsanto with regard to 'Terminator', don't blame me. If you are not
aware of the massive agricultural subsidies being pumped into western
agriculture, how can I help? If you do not know what kind of external
threats are being used to push the WTO agenda, don't you think you need
a course in understanding the political economy of global trade in
agriculture? And still worse, you say that you do not know of ANY
scientist working for the agricultural companies? Just ask Dr Prakash,
and you will get a list which may be several kilometers long !!

This kind of ignorance is not bliss but is dangerous.

It is dangerous because society is being led up the garden path by
people who do not even know, for instance, what causes hunger in the
first place. They swear by hunger to promote an unproven technology and
do not even know whether the technological inputs will actually
exacerbate the existing crisis. Instead of retracting and accepting
their mistakes, these scientists boil with rage and irritation and fire
all kinds of accusations.

I thought the underlying principle of good science was to debate about
its virtues and also examine the threats. Good science calls for a
public debate on a contentious issue. Instead, the proponents of the
technology are now trying to influence the Courts. If uprooting of
genetically modified plants by activists and farmers is 'vandalism',
what term do you give to the efforts being made by the industry and
public-sector agricultural scientists to 'influence' the judiciary? The
mere fact that the judiciary is being influenced is a clear indication
that all is NOT well with genetic engineering.

In many countries, including the United States, Britain, South Africa,
Australia and India, some scientists from respectable scientific
institutes have accepted that they have met the judges to tell them how
wonderful biotechnology is. It happened recently in India [see article
below], when such a group met the Chief Justice of India inviting him
and his other colleagues to workshops in the US. And I had always
thought that there was something called tampering with justice, which
was punishable !!

Further, the USDA is pumping in millions of dollars in 'educating' the
media of the developing countries to 'appreciate' biotechnology. Why
can't they spend these millions from the tax-payers money to have a
public debate, to let the society decide whether or not this technology
is required and in what form and to what extent must we allow the
trigger-happy biotechnologists to operate?

This is certainly a shameful approach and should be condemned in as
strong words as possible.

And finally, what do you want me to say in reply to your statement: "I
couldn't give a rat's arse whether you like pornography or not." If you
can go to the extent of accepting pornography for the sake of
biotechnology, I have nothing left to say. Nor will I have anything more
to say in future on this particular dialogue.

Best regards
Devinder Sharma
3. Genetic Engineering
(Jan 19, 2001)
By Devinder Sharma

A private Television Channel had sought my comment the other day to the
Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) demand to let the contentious
issue of genetic engineering be finally decided by the Supreme Court.
The CII's suggestion was ostensibly in light of the recent uprooting of
the genetically engineered cotton plants from a farmer's field in
Karnataka in early January.

I did not quite understand the relevance of the question till I saw a
news report in The Hindu the following day. The report stated that an
American delegation of 10 judges and scientists met the Chief Justice
of India, Mr. Justice A.S. Anand to impress upon him -- to the judicial
fraternity, the benefits of biotechnology. It quoted Dr. Franklin M.
Zweig, president of Einstein Institute for Science, Health and the
Courts in the United States, who spoke in favour of genetic engineering
at the 88th session of the Indian Science Congress in New Delhi. Asked
pointedly, Dr. Zweig denied that the two-hour meeting was to
"influence" the judiciary, but said it was to "educate" the judge(s)
about the basic principles of public information for use of courts and
court systems.

The delegation, the report said, invited the Chief Justice to the US and
offered to hold for the judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court
"workshops" in America for educating them about transgenics, and safety
protocols in biotechnology research. The delegation, which also
comprised some Indian-born US scientists, explained its intention to
work out agreements between nations to set "ethical guidelines" on
genetic engineering. Similar attempts had been made by the working
groups of the Institute in the Philippines, South Africa, Israel, Italy,
the UK,
Netherlands, and Canada.

At the same time, the British Council had invited a team of six
biotechnologists under its annual "bright sparks" feature. These
scientists had travelled to various parts of the country trying to
promote British biotechnology in the name of creating wider scientific
awareness. Interestingly, faced with an unprecedented consumer backlash
against genetic foods in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, the
British government is making desperate efforts to keep the biotechnology
industry afloat. What better way then to push the untested and extremely
risky technology onto an unsuspecting Indian bureaucracy and the
illiterate polity?

At the recently concluded Indian Science Congress, a sophisticated
methodology was deftly employed to provide a public impression that the
scientific community was completely in favour of genetic engineering.
The Congress had invited a host of biotechnologists, scientists and
science administrators who are known to be sympathetic towards genetic
engineering. With no scientist or any NGO known to be critical of the
technology invited, the Science Congress obviously conveyed the
political correct message: genetic engineering is the answer for India's
food security.

Surprisingly, while the scientists think that genetic engineering,
despite the risks involved for human health and environment, is
essential for meeting the food requirements in the next quarter of the
century, the Indian government has lately begun asking farmers to
diversify from staple foods to other commercial crops. It was during the
paddy harvesting season in September-October that the Food Corporation of
India (FCI) was reluctant to purchase surplus paddy flowing into the
mandis in

Punjab, Haryana. western Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, and Andhra
Pradesh. Already saddled with a record foodgrain surplus of about 50
million tonnes, the government is telling the farmers not to produce

It is, therefore, obvious that either the government does not know of
the threat on the food front that lies ahead or the scientists are not
aware of the ground realities. The fact is that it is the scientists,
more importantly the biotechnologists, refuse to look beyond their
research laboratories. Scientists have to understand that under the
changing global economic scenario, biotechnology is being promoted as a
tool to maximise production in the developed countries. Nowhere in the
world is the focus of research directed to improve agriculture and food
production in the developing countries. Given the pathetically small
land holdings in the developing countries and with the mounting farm
debt, it is futile to expect that the technology can rescue
resource-poor farmers and rebuild their confidence in agriculture.

Food production will have to come from agricultural systems in countries
with huge populations like India. Farmers are not only resource poor 
with no or little access to credit, and markets but also a majority of
them live in arid and semi-arid zones or in steeply sloped areas. In the
past, such farmers were bypassed by advances in agriculture known as the
Green Revolution because their soil, water and labour methods were
unsuited to the demanding and costly management practices of improved
seeds and accompanying need for pesticides and fertilisers.
Biotechnology will further exacerbate the problem.

Scientists have to understand that the needed food can be produced
throughout India by small farmers using agro-ecological technologies.
Larger investments in biotechnology on the other hand will not yield the
desired results. Corporate legal rights to biotechnology is sure to
affect the development of transgenic crops by public institutions.
Moreover, the seed distribution channels and networks to reach farmers
are being privatised, focusing on commercial farms rather than on poor
farmers. Who will explain this to the learned judges of the Supreme
Court and the High Courts?

As genetic engineering has gone commercial, academics have followed, and
today most senior science researchers have ties to biotechnology
companies that would complicate any attempts to self-scrutiny. A
disturbing evidence to this effect was recently provided by the Royal
Society in UK. Obviously offended by media reports of the way a
researcher in Scotland was suspended in 1998, and his results were
publicly attacked by industry connected scientists, the Royal Society
came to the rescue of the corporate interests. News editors were
reminded that they should quote only certain scientists, whose names
will be supplied by the Society!!

"Sound science" is a misnomer being used by politicians and corporations
to distract public attention. The tragedy is that even distinguished
scientists and science academies have begun to chant the mantra of
"sound science". Any results that suggest unfavourable predictions are
attacked and disputed, often by attempting to discredit the integrity of
the scientist. "Good science" is in the process being gradually replaced
by "sound science". And more often than not, the regulating agencies too
join in to deflect public attention and gaze. The Food and Drug
Administration of the United States (FDA), for instance, has often
brushed aside the potential environmental effects from the genetically
manipulated products, and there have been cases when appropriate
specialists were excluded from the review process.

In India too, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has for the last
three years been publicly stating that the genetically engineered cotton
being produced by Monsanto-Mahyco is promising and needs to be
immediately commercialised. Strange that these pronouncements have been
made even before the research trials have been completed. But what is
more worrisome is that not many of scientists and researchers, working
in the public funded institutes and universities, have contested the
claims being made. Scientists are refusing to stand up and be counted.
And therein lies a grave danger for the future of science. #

(Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst)