NOW, we have “science” touting GM (genetically modified) foods as safe. A “scientific consensus” has emerged across the world that GM foods are “generally safe” to eat. Several studies have found that GM foods may in fact hurt human health, but they are dismissed out of hand. Studies alleging the safety of GM get far more purchase than those that raise the red flag.

After all, approval of GM foods will yield enormous profits for seed companies which have developed GM seeds.

Cigarettes are good for you, ladies; a few puffs a day keeps you virginia-slim. So are trans-fats – in fact, good mommies bring up their babies on Dalda-soaked treats. As for DDT – it’s so safe, you can eat it. Even Churchill found it astonishingly good.

Warm, fuzzy reassurances have emanated from the scientific establishment over the last century, sanctifying dodgy products pushed by mega-corporations. In the same spirit, we are told that GM (genetically modified) mustard, is good for you. “Science” says so.

The technical panel of the Environment Ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), earlier this week assured the public that GM mustard is “safe” for human consumption. This enables the notoriously pro-GM GEAC to approve the commercial production of GM mustard, thereby opening the floodgates to GM food in India.

The question that immediately springs to mind is: just how long does the “safety” label hold good?

In the case of trans-fats/vanaspati ghee/partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, once sold under the brand name “Dalda”, the “safety” myth survived for nearly a century. Trans-fats were invented in the early 1900s and until the 1990s, the US Food and Drugs Administration found them generally not harmful for human health. Dalda, it may be recalled, was popularised in India through a Lintas advertisement claiming “Mothers who care use Dalda.”

Evidence from clinical and epidemiological studies, to the effect that trans-fats led slowly but surely to heart disease, mounted from the 1970s onwards. In 2003, Denmark banned trans-fats. New York followed suit in 2006, followed by California two years later. The FDA quit faffing around only in 2015 and declared – with palpable reluctance – that partially hydrogenated oils could no longer be regarded as “safe.”

The cigarette story is even better. Back in the 1930s and 40s, tobacco companies in the US used physicians to promote their brands, to allay public fears on the health risks of smoking. “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette,” claimed the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.

“The frequent appearance of physicians in advertisements for cigarettes in this and many other ad campaigns is striking….Through advertisements appearing in the pages of medical journals…tobacco companies worked to develop close, mutually beneficial relationships with physicians and their professional organisations. These advertisements became a ready source of income for numerous medical organisations and journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)” – M N Gardner, 2006.

Lawsuits against tobacco companies were filed from the 1950s onwards, when the link between lung cancer and smoking became increasingly obvious, but the first big penalty levied against Big Tobacco was only in 2000 – a smoker with terminal lung cancer was awarded USD 51.5 million.

DDT was hailed as a miraculous chemical during the second world war. Soldiers were dusted with it. One scientist made it a practice to eat a spoonful to demonstrate its safety. A 1947 clip of a film promoting use of DDT in an African village can be foundon YouTube. Another shows DDT being sprayed on children in a swimming pool. “Science” found DDT safe and to this day, you’ll still find scientists who claim it is.

The US banned DDT in 1972, classifying it as a persistent organic pollutant, after studies showed that it stuck around in the human body for over a decade, accumulating in body fat and playing god-knows-how-much-havoc with our systems. India, which banned use of DDT in agriculture in 1989, strongly opposed a blanket ban at the 2013 Stockholm convention on toxic chemicals. We remain the only country in the world which manufactures DDT.

Now, we have “science” touting GM foods as safe. A “scientific consensus” has emerged across the world that GM foods are “generally safe” to eat. Several studies have found that GM foods may in fact hurt human health, but they are dismissed out of hand. Studies alleging the safety of GM get far more purchase than those that raise the red flag. After all, approval of GM foods will yield enormous profits for seed companies which have developed GM seeds – Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta, for example.

Corporate funding of universities and research facilities which conduct these safety studies may be purely philanthropic, but history teaches us otherwise. If there’s a buck to be made, public health is of no concern and the scientific establishment had better fall in line – or else.

“Science”, it must be noted, has carefully avoided addressing itself to the question of the exploding incidence of heart disease, cancer, allergies, autism, etc and whether these may have to do not merely with altered dietary habits, but with the introduction of new foods. We may have to wait for another century to discover the truth about GM foods.

As for the aam aadmi’s right to choose whether or not to eat GM foods, the government of India is unlikely to protect that right – just as it was unprepared to protect consumers from DDT-dusted atta-dal. Perhaps because labelling norms for GM food products would be hard to implement, but mainly because Indian consumers are likely to reject foods with a “GM” stamp (as consumers have done across Europe). And we can’t have that, can we? After all, “science” says GM is good for you.

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