Importing the US system of food regulation to India could prove injurious to health.
For several years now, a beef producer in the US has been trying its best to test its cattle for mad cow disease. The brain-wasting disease is rare, but deadly, since it can kill people who eat infected meat. After the first outbreak of mad cow disease in the US, the beef producer, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, set up a testing laboratory, the first inside an American meatpacking factory, in 2004 to reassure customers, especially those in overseas markets, that its meat was safe. But guess who has been thwarting the company from taking this basic precaution? None other the US government regulator!
In a strange twist of reasoning, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) contends that Creekstone Farms, by testing of all its cattle, would raise questions about the safety of other meat. It has, therefore, blocked the sale of testing kits to the company by citing an obscure law.
The USDA’s official position is that allowing the meatpacker to test every cow would undermine its position that random testing is adequate to assure safety. However, many believe that it has buckled to pressure from the big boys of the industry, represented by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Why it should not become the rule is something that the USDA has not explained, more so since the testing would add a mere trifle (10 cents per pound of beef) to the cost. Yet, although some countries have banned American beef, the USDA tests less than 1 per cent of the 100,000 cattle slaughtered daily.
This is not the only case where US food regulations have resulted in a welter of court cases or provoked protests from scientists and consumer groups. There have been sharp criticisms of the functioning regulatory agencies, specially of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which plays a larger role in food safety. Censure of the FDA has become widespread in the wake of the current crisis over salmonella poisoning from contaminated peanuts, but while this relates to shoddy inspection procedures and lax systems, the graver charges against the agency concern regulations which are seen as promoting the interests of large corporations against those of small companies and for ignoring consumer concerns, particularly on biotech products.
Many of these regulations were rushed through by the US government in the 1990s in order to help American companies to commercialise biotechnology before the others. Instead of establishing strict, precautionary regulations that would protect public health and safeguard the environment, the government cobbled together a regulatory system that ironically relied on the companies’ reports of risk assessment and safety tests — a process aided by the revolving door between industry and government.
Employees or consultants for powerful biotech companies were routinely given berths in the regulatory agencies and vice-versa. Take just a couple of examples. Former USDA secretary Ann Veneman served as a director with Calgene before she joined the government, first as the secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Calgene was the company that pioneered the world’s first genetically modified (GM) food, the Flavr Savr tomato. Another one to make the switch was Linda Fisher, who was head of government affairs at Monsanto before she was appointed deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a key regulator in approving GM plants.
The most controversial case, however, is that of Michael R Taylor whose career has swung pendulum-like between Monsanto, for whom he worked as a lawyer for seven years, and the regulatory agencies (the FDA and USDA) during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Taylor, it is widely reported, wrote the FDA’s guidelines on recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, while serving as its deputy commissioner for policy. The rules virtually ban dairies from making any distinction between products derived from rBGH milk and others. rBGH has become a bitterly contested issue in the US — it is banned in most other countries — because of its links to human cancer and serious health problems in cows.
The hazards are infinitely worse in the case of GM foods, warns Jeffery M Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology who was in India recently to caution the country against emulating the US example. “Policymakers assume, wrongly, that the FDA has approved (GM crops)on the basis of extensive tests. The truth is that the regulator has depended entirely on the data provided by the developer company,” says Smith. Worse, most of the research is kept secret under the guise of business confidentiality and very little data is open to public scrutiny.
Unfortunately, the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC), the apex regulator for GM foods in India, has chosen to follow the US precept as it prepares to release its first GM food crop, the Bt brinjal. The GM version of the widely-used brinjal is being promoted by Mahyco, the Indian partner of Monsanto, whose data the GEAC had accepted without question. It was only after a Right To Information petition was filed by an environmental group and a challenge by the company was rejected by the courts that Mahyco agreed to make its safety tests public. Serious questions have now been raised on this data by several leading international scientists whose testimonies have been submitted to the Supreme Court.
Experts are, therefore, advising caution on importing US regulations wholesale. American systems warrant a closer look not merely because the FDA is set to open an open office in this country but because an agricultural partnership launched during the Bush regime is seeking to replicate American policies here through different forums. One such is the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA), which has just completed its first three-year phase. Kavitha Kuruganti, convener of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, finds that the KIA is focused not so much on technology transfer as on changes in India’s regulatory regime.
Based on a study of the minutes of the six KIA board meetings undertaken while she was at the Secunderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Kuruganti says the forum is recommending changes in Indian regulation, including the critical Seeds Bill, to suit US commercial interests in three important areas: GM organisms, contract farming and intellectual property rights. With US multinationals such as Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland Co on the KIA board, it is only to be expected that the companies will “drive as many changes as possible to suit their business interests”, she claims.
There is a strong body of opinion which says the KIA should be put under parliamentary scrutiny so that a proper assessment can be made of its contribution to Indian agriculture, specially to the small farmer. But this is an issue that could easily turn into an ideological debate and deflect attention from the key concerns on regulation.
One worrying issue is whether revolving doors are opening up here, too. Making a presentation at a recent Delhi briefing of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) along with its founder Clive James, was C D Mayee, one of India’s top agriculture scientists. Mayee is a director of the ISAAA, which describes itself as a not-for-profit organisation that “delivers the benefits of agricultural biotechnology to resource-poor farmers in developing countries.” However, among the 21 donors to ISAAA are a clutch of biotech seed companies which are seeking to expand their markets. These include Monsanto and Indian companies which come to the GEAC for approvals. Mayee is also co-chair of the regulatory body. Not a few believe there is a patent conflict of interest here.