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Poisoning food and science

Documentary>>Poison on the Platter directed by Ajay Kanchan presented by Mahesh Bhatt

Published: Friday 31 July 2009

-- (Credit: Divya)
Governments have a way of ignoring inconvenient facts. Scientists from the National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow, and Cambridge University, UK, have separately published scientific research results about arsenic in rice produced in parts of Bangladesh, India and Nepal. They have also spoken to decision-makers. The risks of poisoning from arsenic rice consumption are well quantified. If silence greets quantifiable risks, what should people expect from governments in cases where ambiguities, uncertainties and profit driven research methods prevail? This is the question posed by the film, Poison on the platter.

Directed by Ajay Kanchan and presented by Bollywood filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, the film takes us through the ignorance and complacence of the Indian middle class, presents evidence of allergies, cancers, and other hazards of genetically modified (GM) foods.

The film begins with a quotation from the early 19th century US president Thomas Jefferson. This is somewhat against its thrust. For the film challenges American standards of food safety; it points to the Indian consumerist middle class happily feeding on GM contaminated Doritos corn chips, though the government of India has not permitted GM foods. In the current world of financial meltdowns, food crises, energy constraints and other natural disasters, a Jeffersonian--anti-state and blindly pro-market--philosophy is not what we need.

In the 20th century, faith in science to deliver development goods marks almost all the decisions made by governments in sectors as varied as agriculture, health and communication. True, the world has witnessed Chernobyls and Challengers. But there is little doubt it is a different place because of science. There are countless benefits--including GM drugs that save millions of lives. It is science that tells us gene transfers between different species does take place in nature. But the film defies such understanding by positing genetic recombination across species as a problem. The problem with GM foods is not that it violates nature because of genetic recombination. When genetic recombination occurs naturally, toxicity or susceptibility to weather changes or other pests are reduced or eliminated by natural selection. But GM foods industry (in the private and public sector) has no time or patience to allow for such evolutionary safeguards. When a plant is engineered to repel a pest, withstand a disease or survive a toxin sprayed to selectively kill weeds, products from the plant are tested against conventional plant products using the principle of substantial equivalence. But the principle leaves out something significant: genetic expression of the inserted gene also varies according to location specificity and agricultural production process. Besides this, testing for toxic chemicals in food is still an under-researched area.

Decisions based on flimsy evidence reduce faith in science. The film could have shown how GM food poisons science. But it does provoke a rethinking about decisions about our food.

Rajeswari S Raina is at the Centre for Policy Research

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