India–In July 1998, protests erupted across India when the government announced plans to import 1 million tons of US soybeans to be used as oil seeds. Critics complained that there was no guarantee that these shipments would not be contaminated with genetically engineered (GE) soybeans. Besides, the Agriculture Ministry argued, the imports were unnecessary: India already had an abundant source of edible oils right here at home–mustard seed oil.
“Sarson” (mustard) is central to our Indian culture. The yellow mustard flower is the symbol of spring. Songs on the theme of sarson are an integral part of folk culture. Mustard oil is the olive oil of Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and East Uttar Pradesh and is used for flavoring and cooking.
Mustard is not just an edible oil. It is an important medicine in the indigenous Ayurvedic system of healthcare. It is used for therapeutic massages, muscular and joint problems. Oil with garlic and turmeric is used for rheumatism and joint pains. Mustard oil is also used as a mosquito repellent.
Mustard seed can be processed locally, making it available to the poor at low cost. It is an integral part of India’s food economy, having been integrated into cropping patterns over the centuries. Clearly, as long as India had mustard seed, there was no market for US soybeans.
In early August an unparalleled mass-poisoning tragedy began to unfold in Delhi. The authorities determined the illnesses were caused by the adulteration of mustard oil with seeds of a weed called Argemone mexicana–as well as diesel oil and industrial wastes.
The symptoms included swelling of the feet, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal swelling, liver toxicity, kidney damage, breathlessness due to retention of fluids in the lungs and death due to heart failure. By early September, the official death toll was 41, and 2,300 people had been affected.
On August 27, 1998 the government announced that it was banning the sale of mustard seed oil. It simultaneously announced a policy to import foreign soybeans free of protective trade tariffs. The justification was the mustard oil tragedy.
On September 4, the government banned the sale of all unpackaged edible oils, thus ensuring that all household and community level processing of edible oils was stopped. With this edict, edible oil became fully industrialized. This in effect was the total destruction of the food culture of India and the food economy of the poor who depend on unpackaged oil since it is cheaper and they can buy it in small quantities.
When a crime takes place, the first question asked is who has a motive? Who could gain from the crime?
The mustard oil tragedy is unlike any other. First, while typical cases of adulteration are restricted to particular, local brands and remote, marginalized regions, the mustard oil tragedy simultaneously affected nearly all brands and India’s capital, Delhi, was the worst-affected region.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan stated the mass-poisoning would have been impossible without an organized conspiracy. The adulteration was intended to kill people conspicuously. The Rajasthan Oil Industries Association claimed that a “conspiracy” was being hatched to undermine the mustard oil trade and charged that the “invisible hands of the multinationals” were involved.
The mustard oil tragedy forced India to import soybeans that could be contaminated with GE soy. The soybeans, engineered by Monsanto Corp., contain a bacterial gene that confers tolerance to Monsanto’s herbicide Round up. These soybeans were not genetically engineered to produce better taste or bigger yields: the sole purpose of Round up Ready Soy is to sell more chemicals for seeds tailored to survive Monsanto’s chemicals.
Because the US has been unable to sell its soy to Europe (owing to consumer rejection of GE soybeans and a demand for labeling all GE foods) the US is desperate to dump its GE soy on countries like India. The mustard oil tragedy thus served as a perfect “market opening” for US agribusiness corporations. Now they can make us completely dependent on their soybeans for our edible oil requirements.
If traders cannot sell mustard oil, they will not buy mustard from farmers, and farmers will stop growing mustard. This will lead to the extinction of a crop that is central to our farming system and food culture. Ironically, Calgene (now owned by Monsanto) has patented the Indian brassica mustard seed. Therefore we could find ourselves dependent on Monsanto’s patented mustard seeds.
In effect, the free import of oilseeds sounds a death knell for the entire domestic edible-oil industry.
Genetic engineering is a new kind of food adulteration that takes place at the genetic level and is hence invisible. Genetic engineering allows food adulteration to be done internally by introducing genes for toxins from bacteria, viruses and animals into crops. Genetic engineering is adulterating foods with toxins from rats and scorpions. The new “Verminator” technology uses genes for toxins from rats.
Health professionals are concerned that the mass consumption of GE foods could make treating infections more difficult because most GE foods contain antibiotic-resistant genes. Further, foreign viruses and bacteria from genes introduced into GE foods could interact with bacteria and viruses in our bodies to create “super viruses.”
Since genetically engineered foods use genes from animals and microorganisms, this can also violate the ethical and religious principles of Jews and Muslims who need to avoid foods with substances from specific animals, or of vegetarians who want to avoid substances from any animal. Mixing animal and plant genes should be totally banned both for health reasons and ethical reasons.
Products derived from genetic engineering should carry a label stating that they are made from GE crops. New invisible forms of “food adulteration” and biological pollution should be subjected to specific safety tests so consumers can be provided safe food that is free of GE hazards.
In the aftermath of the mustard oil tragedy, the Pure Food Campaign has begun to conserve and propagate indigenous oil seed crops in all their diversity. The Pure Food Campaign will promote the consumption of chemical-free, GE-free, unadulterated, pure organic foods.
Domestic mustard oil processing and distribution should be carried out with full safeguards so that the ban can be lifted and consumer confidence can be rebuilt. The government must announce a high purchase price for domestic mustard to ensure that the ban does not have a lasting negative impact on our farmers.
Vandana Shiva is director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in New Delhi, India and the author of Stolen Harvest.
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