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Third World Countries & Genetically Modified Crops

By Juan Williams
National Public Radio: TALK OF THE NATION
December 27, 2000


  • John Biewen, Correspondent and Producer, American RadioWorks
  • Channapatna (C.S.) Prakash, Professor, Plant Molecular Genetics, Tuskegee University
  • Anuradha Mittal, Co-Director, Fodd First (Institute for Food and Development Policy)


BIEWEN: Thanks, Juan. Good to be with you.

WILLIAMS: John, genetically modified foods, or GM, as you were saying in the documentary, it's such a hot topic here and in Europe. Why did you decide to go to India to look at it there?

BIEWEN: Well, I think actually, as hot as it is in our part of the world, I think it's--some people would argue that India is perhaps the hottest battleground in the world right now in this worldwide debate. And the reason for that is that the debate has increasingly moved, if not to the developing world as the place where the debate is taking place, but as kind of the--you know, the arguments are increasingly about the developing world. The biotechnology industry and scientists who do genetic engineering have increasingly, as they've come under attack in the West, said, 'Look, let's not kill this technology. It has great potential to do a lot of good in parts of the world where food security is not what it is in the West.' In response, opponents have, you know, sort of met that argument by saying, 'Well, no. On the contrary, in the developing world where people are more vulnerable, that's--then the dangers are even greater and that's the last place we need to introduce this technology.'

So the debate has sort of moved in that direction. And India, the Indian government, has taken a relatively positive view of genetic engineering, has not approved it for commercial use yet, but has started allowing testing, and government officials talk about it in fairly positive terms as far as the potential it has. And given India's--the fact that it has--in addition to having a lot of poor people, it has world-class scientists on the one hand, it has very articulate opponents, and so on. And so it has become just a fascinating place...

WILLIAMS: All right.

BIEWEN: ...and a place where the debate is raging very hotly.

WILLIAMS: We're talking with John Biewen, the correspondent and producer of American RadioWorks' documentary that aired last night on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

John, so let me break down the debate, then. On the one hand you have people who say genetically modified foods could be a solution to much of the world's hunger problem because you can get crops that are sort of invulnerable to pests and to even hot weather or cold weather. So you're gonna get more crop production. On the other hand, you have some people who say that it's not about safety but they're worried about corporate domination of some of these smaller economies. Is that right?

BIEWEN: Right. I wouldn't say it's not about safety. I mean, some of those same concerns about the environment and food safety that are talked about here are talked about there as well. But there's this whole other layer on top of that that says that this is about, right, a kind of new corporate imperialism by Monsanto and the other four or five big biotech corporations. Most of the others are based in Europe. But they're trying to sort of get their hands into Third World agriculture and take control of it by controlling the market for seeds.

WILLIAMS: Well, this is very interesting because in this country, that's not the debate. Here the debate is about safety...

BIEWEN: Right.

WILLIAMS: ...and whether or not it's going to kill off, I guess--I was thinking butterflies, but also kill off human beings. I mean, some people are worried; they don't know what the health effects would be. But I just want to be very clear with you, that's not the debate that's taking place in India.

BIEWEN: By and large it's not. And in India--remember, Juan, of course, India was a non-aligned country in the Cold War years, that it had a highly planned economy, and now, with the Cold War over, there's a real discussion in India among Indian elites about, you know, 'What kind of economy, what kind of country do we want to have?' There's been something of a move toward liberalization, the term the government uses, loosening up markets and bringing in more free market economics. And there's a strong segment of the Indian population that's very uncomfortable with that. So this idea of Monsanto and the other biotech companies coming in and selling their genetically modified seeds to Indian farmers takes on great symbolic importance in this debate. And the question is, do we want to join this global capitalist economy as represented by these kinds of companies and by this technology, or don't we?

WILLIAMS: So really, it's an argument over capitalism. Well, let me quickly ask you, John, about the Indian government and the United Nations. What's their position in all of this?--very quickly.

BIEWEN: The Indian government is, I would say, cautiously pro genetic engineering in agriculture. By and large they are interested in it. They're proceeding fairly cautiously, I think, in part because the consumer and public acceptance is not there, or at least there's a lot of questions being raised. The opposition is quite vocal. But I think it would be fair to say that the central government in India is in favor of at least exploring and seeing if these technologies could be of use.

WILLIAMS: And what about the United Nations?

BIEWEN: The United Nations, I don't know. I wonder if our other guests could answer that question. I think certainly development groups and the other international groups that previously did the green revolution, the introduction of more use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and so on that dramatically increased agricultural production in places like India, those international institutions are still in place and, for the most part, are interested in taking genetically modified crops to these same places.

WILLIAMS: Thanks so much. John Biewen, the correspondent and producer for American RadioWorks. We're talking about genetically modified crops and whether it's the right answer to the world's food shortage problems. We're also taking your calls at 1 (800) 989-TALK. I'm Juan Williams. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WILLIAMS: It's TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Juan Williams. We're talking about widespread use of genetically engineered crops and foods in developing countries. Is this the best way to increase food supply in the world's poorer regions?

I'm joined now by Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First, an Institute for Food and Development Policy in California, and also C.S. Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Join the discussion, 1 (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.orgtotn@npr.org. John Biewen stays with us. John is the correspondent and producer of an American RadioWorks documentary that aired last night on NPR's "All Things Considered."

Ms.--Mittal, let me begin with you and ask about Food First. This is an Institute for Food and Development Policy. How do you come out on this debate about genetically engineered food?

Ms. ANURADHA MITTAL (Co-Director, Food First): Well, Juan, first of all, it's a pleasure to be on your show, just listening to the report that was presented. Food First has been around for the last 25 years and our research clearly shows one thing, that we need to be right now debunking this poor-washing that is going on, and a lot of corporate bigwigs and agricultural scientists and economists have bought into it. So our response is pretty simple, that when we talk about genetic engineering being a solution to ending hunger, especially in the Third World, we say it is not the shortage of production, it is the shortage of purchasing power. And I can go into details later, specifically in the case of India.

WILLIAMS: So, wait, wait, hang on because I'm so interested. You say it's a lack of purchasing power. In other words, people don't have money to buy food that's not genetically engineered.

Ms. MITTAL: Yes, what we are saying is that abundance and not scarcity best describes the world's food supply. And according to the research done at the institute, right now enough wheat, rice and other grains are produced to provide every human being with 3,500 calories a day. And in addition, you know, we can talk about commonly eaten foods such as vegetables, beans, nuts, root crops. Basically there is enough food to provide 4.3 pounds of food per person a day worldwide. So the reason we see hunger has more to do with politics and social and economic injustice, and biotechnology has virtually no role to play in ending hunger.

WILLIAMS: And biotech, then, is being used, in your opinion, by these corporations to extend their arms into Third World nations.

Ms. MITTAL: Definitely it is being used as a Trojan horse, it is being used as a Third World bullet to end hunger and it is a repeat of the previous mistakes, like the green revolution, which did lead to some increase in yield. But we saw ecological collapse, we saw farmers going into debt and we basically saw socioeconomic devastation following the green revolution and land alienation. And this is going to be a repeat of that with biotechnology in agriculture.

WILLIAMS: We're also joined by C.S. Prakash, who's a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University in Alabama. He's at Peachstate Public Radio. Professor Prakash, I wanted to ask you whether or not you are in support of the idea allowing genetically modified foods to be used in Third World countries.

Dr. C.S. PRAKASH (Professor, Plant Molecular Genetics, Tuskegee University): Well, certainly. I believe this technology holds considerable potential in advancing the cause of food security. And it is not the only solution, so let me say that there are many, many powerful solutions that scientists are using in addressing the problems of world hunger and biotechnology is just one of them. And at this moment, it is just a subject of debate and controversy.

WILLIAMS: Well--but you would not say that in any way genetically modified foods provide a health danger, would you?

Dr. PRAKASH: No. They don't post any unique health dangers. Look, we have been changing plants for 10,000 years. Ever since we walked out of the fields and began this process of civilization we've been changing plants. Every food plant that we eat today has been altered so much through the conventional procedures. In contrast, biotechnology offers matters that are molecularly more precise and more predictable. And in that way it's a continuum of the foods that we have been using and it's not much different from the way we have been doing things.

WILLIAMS: Well, so you would condemn even, sort of, Americans and Europeans who are sort of upset about whether or not they know that genetically modified foods are for sale in their markets as sort of arguing over something that really has no justifiable basis for fear.

Dr. PRAKASH: That's correct. I...

WILLIAMS: All right.

Dr. PRAKASH: ...don't think we need to be unduly concerned about it. Almost every scientist--scientific society that's looked into it has had a consensus opinion that this is safe and that this is something that brings vast benefits to the world.

WILLIAMS: All right. But Ms. Mittal has made another point, which is that, in fact, what you're seeing is these large American, in fact, multinational companies, using hunger, world hunger, as a red herring, as they truly try just to extend their corporate reach into some of these developing countries by saying they have the silver bullet to end hunger. Do you have an opinion about what Ms. Mittal is saying?

Dr. PRAKASH: Yes. Sure. See, first of all, the companies that are bringing in these products into countries such as India, are bringing it under the complete purview of the law. And they are submitting all this into the biosafety regulations. And it is the Indian government and the Indian scientists that are testing. And so they're not doing anything illegal. And first of all, if this crop is good to be eaten by Americans, how could it be bad for it to be eaten by Indians?

And secondly, I do agree with Mittal that there is plenty of food in the world, but how did we get there? It is because of the judicious use of the science and technology. It was the development of the high-yielding varieties and use of better farming management practices, the so-called green revolution, that she opposes, that has brought us into the role of abundance here. But again, the food is abundant but it's all in the wrong places. Seventy percent of the corn that we grow in the United States today here is fed to the livestock. So it's kind of disingenuous to say we have plenty of food in the world, those 3,500 calories, but all we have to do is just ask the farmers in Iowa to stop feeding it to the livestock and ask Americans to become vegetarians, and send it all to India. Eighty percent of the people in India are farmers, so any technology that helps them to produce more--little--and cut down the cost of farming and produce better quality food, and grow food under adverse conditions that they are growing now, is going to help them. Let us remember these are--the majority of the consumers in the Third World are farmers. And so...

WILLIAMS: All right. I think we've set the debate out pretty clearly. And I wanted to ask John.

BIEWEN: John, when you hear this kind of contrast of positions between Mr. Prakash and Anuradha Mittal, does this remind you of the kind of debate that you saw taking place in India?

BIEWEN: Absolutely. This is exactly the debate that's taking place in India. And it's shaped by--I mean, some of it is really--there are disagreements about the science and about the safety, but there are also disagreements about--the other distinction I think we ought to make, maybe here fairly close to the top of the hour, is between--most of the debate does focus on this question of corporate genetically modified seeds. And in India, that's just about all you hear about. In fact, just about all you hear about is Monsanto, which has really become the lightning rod, because they're the first to really try to get a crop commercialized there.

But there's another whole strand of work which C.S. Prakash himself does and some other scientists around the world, which is non-corporate development of seeds specifically for humanitarian purposes. And I'd invite you to ask him a little bit more about that. But that's another distinction that tends to get lost in the sort of GM good, GM bad debate that takes place all over the world.

WILLIAMS: You mean, like seeds that would include vitamins or medical--medicines that would help to prevent disease, that kind of thing?

BIEWEN: Right. Nutritionally enhanced crops, things of that kind. And it's not to say that there aren't cautions that can be raised about them, but there is at least a distinction, if you're talking about--if your main objection is that it's corporate and therefore, you know, part of a kind of imperialism, well, there's genetically modified seeds that aren't corporate. So then, the conversation has to shift a little bit there.

WILLIAMS: Well, let me ask Ms. Mittal to respond to that point.

Ms. MITTAL: Well, a couple of things I wanted to respond to, Juan. One was Dr. Prakash had talked about the genetic engineering as merely an extension of traditional breeding. I would just like to point out that with genetic engineering, with transgenic crops, we are actually crossing the limitations. Traditional breeders have never been able to cross fish genes with strawberries, but genetically engineered fish berries are already in the field. So in terms of the whole issue of, say...

WILLIAMS: Slow on a second. I missed something that was so interesting to my ear. You said 'fish berries'?

Ms. MITTAL: That's right. You know when...

WILLIAMS: What's a fish berry?

Ms. MITTAL: Well, you have the genes of the strawberries and the fish mixed together. So when Dr. Prakash is talking about that this is something which has continued for millennia, you know, the cross-breeding--this new technology is very different. The traditional breeders were not crossing genes from a fish into a strawberry, but that is what transgenic crops are doing. We are going--you know, we are crossing those limitations that were set by the traditional breeders, and we do not know the impact of those. Dr. Prakash also says that, 'Well, it's all safe' when we know that no long-term study has actually been done, no funds have been assigned to do that research, to look at the long-term impact on consumers and health and environment of these crops. I'm not saying that there are conclusive evidence, but what I am saying is there is no conclusive evidence that these crops are safe for the environment and for the health of the consumers.

WILLIAMS: So we're all guinea pigs...

Ms. MITTAL: And to talk...

WILLIAMS: ...about what you're saying.

Ms. MITTAL: That's right. And to talk about, you know, the government of India being, you know, an equal state corridor and regulatory process be in place--I would just like to point out that when in a country like United States, regulatory agencies have been fast asleep at the wheel, and the StarLink controversy could take place--and it was proven that corn which was not fit for human consumption had found its way into human food. How do we know that Eastern European countries and countries such as India are actually fit to be able to regulate that? So I think this is a very important public interest matter that has been looked into.

WILLIAMS: Well, not...

Ms. MITTAL: It is not...

WILLIAMS: Let me ask you to respond to what John Biewen was saying, though, about the kind of food that might include vitamins and medicines that could thwart disease that's killing people.

Ms. MITTAL: Well, thank you very much for asking me that. I mean, the case in question would be, say, the vitamin A rice, which is being, again, used as a Trojan horse by the corporations that--you know, you have so many people affected by vitamin A deficiency which causes night blindness, and we have a silver-bullet solution to it.

Now first of all, millions of dollars were spent over a decade to come up with this vitamin A rice. What we do not realize is that it will take millions more and decades more before it can be grown in the farmers' fields, while we have very inexpensive alternatives, alternatives, for example, as UNICEF would say, you know, vitamin A pills which will cost two cents per child, or other alternatives such as green, leafy vegetables which are on the verge of extinction in countries like India thanks to the green revolution. Women farmers in Bengal cultivate over hundred different varieties of green, leafy vegetables.

And also, we are forgetting that people who have vitamin A deficiency also have other deficiencies, which are linked to malnutrition, which is linked to poverty. So we need some kind of medicine against the social disease called poverty instead of providing an easy way out for policy-makers to deal with the real issues of poverty and hunger in a country like India.

WILLIAMS: All right.

Ms. MITTAL: I mean, here is a country...

WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. Well, no--I get the point. I understand the point. I just wanted to make sure that everyone gets a chance here to take a position in what is an interesting debate. Because I think on the surface it's not the debate that most Americans would think, when they hear about genetically modified foods--it's really not about food safety. It's about corporate behavior in the Third World.

Let's take a call, though, from Wayne, who's in San Antonio. Wayne, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

WAYNE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on.


WAYNE: First point: We don't know that pesticides, as part of a food or vegetable molecule, is any safer than regular, chemical pesticides, which are harmful. Another point is that genetic engineering companies' aim, primarily, is to make money. And drug companies commonly test their own products for the government, and that's not--I doubt that the genetic engineering companies will be impartial. And...

WILLIAMS: So you're saying, Wayne, we need impartial test agencies.

WAYNE: There should be some sort of organization outside of government and outside of the companies to do impartial testing.

WILLIAMS: Good point. Thanks for your call, Wayne.

WAYNE: Could I...

WILLIAMS: Let me just say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Professor Prakash, I wanted to ask you about what Wayne just said. He said, you know, 'Pesticides aren't good for pests and they probably aren't good for people. And what makes you think that pesticides that are grown inside of some food'--I think there are potatoes that can grow their own pesticides...

Dr. PRAKASH: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAMS: ...'are good for human consumption?'

Dr. PRAKASH: Well, you know, compared to chemical pesticides, the kind of pesticides that plants produce, these are all proteins. They're much safer because they're very specific. If you spray a chemical pesticide on potato, it's going to kill that pest and it may kill few other insects too, whereas the protein that this potato, the genetically altered potato produces, is very, very specific against the potato beetle. And we know from all the studies that we have done it has no other toxicity against any other--and, for instance, the organic farmers have been spraying that pesticide for 30 years, and without any harmful effects ever been documented on any other non-target organisms. So this is a much safer, much precise method; the way that Mother Nature does. After all, plants produce literally thousands of compounds, primarily to keep the pests away, like caffeine in coffee, for instance.

WILLIAMS: Hmm. Well, this is a good point. Let's go back to the phones to Michael, who's in Louisville, Kentucky. Michael, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello, Juan. Thank you for taking my call.

WILLIAMS: Good afternoon, sir.

MICHAEL: Hi. What I wanted to comment about was in the promo to your show, I believe you stated that we, here in the United States or in the Western world, have a choice about whether we choose GE foods or not. And, you know, that just--well, it sort of brustled me in that we do not have a choice in choosing GE foods as they are not labeled, and there's no standard for labeling these kind of foods. And, you know, I just wanted to make that point clear, that I believe there should be some sort of labeling so that we do have a choice as to what we choose to consume.

WILLIAMS: No. I think you're right. In fact, I made the point in the introduction that there's a large percentage of Americans who think there is not, there is not--to repeat--any genetically modified food on sale in American markets. But in fact, 60 percent of the processed food in American markets include genetically modified foodstuffs. That's the point I was making.

MICHAEL: Oh. Well, perhaps I misunderstood. I'm sorry. But my point is, too, then, that these foods should be labeled, and that whether or not they're safe is yet to proved. The jury's still out. And, you know, I believe the fact--I mean, it's like an appeal to ignorance.

WILLIAMS: Well, Michael, hang on a second. I'm going to put it to you in a different way.


WILLIAMS: Michael, if I said to you that Professor Prakash and other scientists have looked at these foods, they have fed them to test animals, they fed them to human beings, nothing has gone wrong, and you say, 'Well, it's not proven yet,' and I think that Anuradha Mittal, who's with Food First, would say, 'Yes, and, therefore, we're all guinea pigs waiting to see what could go wrong and what will go wrong,' isn't that unfair, isn't that like asking someone to prove a negative?

Ms. MITTAL: Well, Juan--no, Juan, what I'm saying is...

MICHAEL: Well...

Ms. MITTAL: ...that neither the FDA nor the USDA or the EPA has done any long-term testing--I repeat--long-term testing--of GMOs in food or the environment. And there's no long-term study...

Dr. PRAKASH: How long would be a long time?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. That's the question: How long is long? Because these foods have been out there.

Ms. MITTAL: Well, I think if you take the instance of the bovine growth hormone where the USDA had said it was safe for us, the same study as done in Canada for a period longer than three months showed that it was not safe, and the mice which were injected were BGH were actually developing all kind of problems. So I think it's the public interest at stake, and it is the consumer health which is at stake, and it has to be explored longer rather than giving in to the quick short-term profits for corporations.

WILLIAMS: OK. Let me ask Michael then. Michael, how would you respond?

MICHAEL: Well, it's also, I feel, a matter of choice for the individual to be able to choose these foods. If one chooses not to--I mean, people can test...

Dr. PRAKASH: Right.

MICHAEL: ...and test for ages and ages and come up with, you know, different evidence to--you know, both sides can have evidence contradicting the other.

WILLIAMS: All right. Hang on a second. We're going to continue this conversation. Michael, thanks for your call. We're talking about genetically modified crops and whether widespread use would adversely affect human health and the environment. I'm Juan Williams. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


WILLIAMS: It's TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Juan Williams. Amid all the talk about lucrative sports contracts and big-time college sports, there's one division of one college basketball league where students play just for the love of the game. Tomorrow, author John Feinstein will be here to talk about the state of college basketball and "The Patriot League."

Today we're talking about the use of genetically modified crops in the Third World. Are they a miracle for increasing food production, or a health and environmental disaster in the making?

My guests are: Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First, an Institute for Food and Development Policy in California, John Biewen, producer of American RadioWorks documentary on genetically modified food use in India, which aired last night on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Also with us, C.S. Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics as the Tuskegee University in Alabama. Join the conversation. (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.orgtotn@npr.org.

Professor Prakash, I wanted to come back to the point that Mittal was making...

Dr. PRAKASH: Mm-hmm. Sure.

WILLIAMS: ...about how long is long enough to test these genetically modified foods.

Dr. PRAKASH: Well, these foods have been tested very thoroughly. And you should remember, Juan, when we develop a new variety of crop before with earlier conventional method, we never used to test these crops. And it is not that--like she said, we were not crossing within the species. Wheat and rye are two different species that do not intermingle in nature, and we brought it together 60 years ago and made a new crop called triticale, that is grown in about two and a half million acres in Europe. And so this kind of operation has been going on for a long time; and so asking the kind of questions, like the safety in the environment, we are doing it for the first time. And three agencies, the FDA, EPA and USDA oversee the testing, the regulation of the biotechnology developed plants. And it takes over nine years of testing for a biotechnology crop before they are approved; in contrast to four years for testing of a drug by just one agency, that is FDA.

So to say this is not tested, it is not right. And you can't do the kind of tests with the food like you can do with the drug, for instance. You know, you cannot have guinea pigs of people and just feed them this genetically modified food and to test them. And so we test them on animals. And also do allergy test, because allergy is the only major concern that we need to be worried about.

WILLIAMS: Well, let me ask...

Dr. PRAKASH: And...

WILLIAMS: ...Anuradha Mittal, what about this? Professor Prakash says nine years and by various agencies this testing goes on. This seems rather thorough to me.

Ms. MITTAL: Well, you know, Juan, I would say if you have read the recent issue of Science--the scientific journal, it's actually put out a call for the need for further testing. Now the problem is when Dr. Michael Phillips, who is the executive director for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industrial Organization which is a trade organization representing the biotech companies, you know, he seconded that call. But then he said that the public should not look to the private sector to foot the bill. Now here is a private sector which is already reaping profits, but is not willing to foot the bill.

The public source for such money for risk assessment is the Department of Agricultural's Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants, which typically finances just over $ 1 million in research a year, which is the mandated one percent of total dollars which is spent on biotechnology research. And this covers everything from biotech fish, to insects, to plants, to viruses. We just do not have the right amount of money being put in, even by our regulatory agencies, to be able to ascertain if they're really safe to be put out there.

The controversy of StarLink made it obvious that genetic pollution cannot be contained, it cannot be cleaned up; it breeds, it escapes. So...

WILLIAMS: Well, let me just make clear for the listeners that what happened in that case was that genetically modified corn that was intended, or approved I should say--approved for use as feed for animals ended up in taco shells. And I think it was about one percent of the taco shells, is that right?

Dr. PRAKASH: That's right, yeah.

Ms. MITTAL: Well, what happened--and in the studies that were done later by FDA, it was found in Safeway taco shells and about 350 flour mills had to basically send back the corn. We did not know how that corn got in. It could have got in through wind pollination, it could have happened because some of the GM corn was left in the trucks that were carrying the other varieties then.

Dr. PRAKASH: Yeah.

Ms. MITTAL: We cannot control it. We know that these are alive...

Dr. PRAKASH: Yeah. Right. Yeah. But still there was no problem. You see, this corns were--it was a regulated technicality on a very minor issue that they had a little higher heat resistance in an internal digestion studies and so they were just approved for animal.

Ms. MITTAL: No. They had the Bt insecticide protein.

Dr. PRAKASH: The point is: they posed no single risk to any human being. They have no similarity to any known allergen. And so all of this wastage and all of this fuss was made over nothing.

WILLIAMS: All right. Let me...

Dr. PRAKASH: And two trillion plants--yeah, go ahead.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Let me take a call. Let's get some other folks in the conversation. Leah(ph) in Washington state, please join the conversation here on TALK OF THE NATION.

LEAH (Caller): Hi. Well, thanks for taking my call.


LEAH: I just want to say from the beginning of the show you said that the argument from the side of agriculture isn't an issue in this country, and I just wanted to say that that's only because the media hasn't clued in to the side of the farmers. American farmers are facing really tough times as well, and American farmers are in trouble, too. And, you know, to say that it's not an issue in this country is sidestepping.

WILLIAMS: Oh wait. Hang on. Hang on, Leah. You said that I said it wasn't an issue in this country. I think it's a big issue. Lots of people are concerned about whether or not they would consume genetically modified foods because they worry about the impact on their bodies. But what I'm saying is it's not an issue in terms of dealing with hunger or disease, which is the issue in some Third World countries.

LEAH: All right. All right. You're right. OK. Well, thanks.

WILLIAMS: Oh, all right. Thanks.

Dr. PRAKASH: OK. OK. Juan, can I just...

WILLIAMS: Sure. Go...

Dr. PRAKASH: ...address the issue of labor and choice quickly, because we didn't--I didn't get...

WILLIAMS: Certainly, Professor Prakash, go right ahead.

Dr. PRAKASH: OK. The one caller, I think it was Michael, who said that--you know, I agreed with him, that consumers should have a choice, and we do. We have what we call as a USDA 'organic standards.' And so those were opposed to eating any genetically modified food through that common DNA technology can buy organic food. And organic food, by definition, is not--does not use any genetically modified ingredients in it. And so there is a choice here.

And the labeling is not a simple issue. So on the surface of it, you know, it seems innocuous. Why shouldn't I know what I'm eating? But traditionally, we don't know what we're eating. We only label from a nutritional point of view in this world. Labeling--there are a lot of marketing concerns, there are cost issues involved here, so we don't label. I don't know if the corn flakes that I had this morning how it was produced, whether the plant variety was developed by using irradiation or chemicals, did the farmers use the tractors, what type of pesticides he used. The production information traditionally has never been included.


Dr. PRAKASH: So that it...

Ms. MITTAL: Juan...

WILLIAMS: But it might be an advance for us to know how the food we are eating is produced.

Dr. PRAKASH: Right. Exactly

WILLIAMS: Well--OK. All right.

Dr. PRAKASH: You see, the FDA does mandate labeling if the product is different. And so if the genetically modified corn is in no way different, it is substantially equivalent to the regular corn, then there is no need for labeling...

WILLIAMS: All right. Mittal...

Dr. PRAKASH: ...because they conduce to market malpractices.

Ms. MITTAL: Well, Juan, I would just actually say, you know, I think Dr. Prakash has made a very important point here, that with genetically-engineered crops, there is no way, as industry says, to segregate it from the other crop. So that's why they're against labeling.

And to kind of keep reaffirming that it is safe for human consumption, even when scientific journals are claiming that there is no conclusive evidence, we need to follow the precautionary principle, it seems absolutely to be by blindness and a rush for profits that we are putting human health at stake.

WILLIAMS: John Biewen, let me ask you...

Ms. MITTAL: We cannot segregate it.

WILLIAMS: All right. John Biewen, let me ask you about the seeds, literally the seeds that the farmers use. Is it possible with genetically modified crops for the farmers to save seed and use it again at the next planting season, or is it the case that they have to go back to the corporation to buy the next crop, the next crop of seeds?

BIEWEN: Generally, it's the latter. And in this country where we have intellectual property rights laws that the seed companies can require and do and sometimes aggressively enforce it, that farmers not plant seeds from their crop, but come back and buy them again the next year. That's been part of--a key part of the debate in India as well, because in India many farmers still--many more than in the United States, do still save seeds from one crop to plant the next. And the argument then becomes those proponents of GM crops say there's nothing about introducing GM crops that would change that. People will still have that option. People on the other side worry that either through environmental--what they would call contamination of traditional varieties, or because of changes in the market, that those seeds would become hard to find and then all farmers would be forced to buy seeds every year.

WILLIAMS: All right.

Let's go to Dave in Boston. Dave, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Welcome.

DAVE (Caller): Yes. Thank you. I'm concerned about the farmers' risk. And Monsanto and local lenders in India--places like India, for example, encourage farmers to take the risk of using GM seeds as if--almost as if there were hardly any risk and that they're almost guaranteed a bigger crop. And since this hasn't worked out for many, many farmers, these suicides have resulted. And so my question is: Who will provide free or cheap insurance to protect millions of farmers from disaster, particularly during the first three or four seasons of use of GM seeds?

WILLIAMS: Now wait, wait, wait. Insurance against crop failure or against someone consuming a product and becoming ill or dying?

DAVE: No. Against--call it crop failure, or call it just failure to make enough money to cover their cost of seed, fertilizer, insecticide and bank interest and fee--or lender interest and fees.

WILLIAMS: OK. All right. Thanks for your call, Dave. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Go right ahead, Mittal.

Ms. MITTAL: I would say, Dave, thank you very much for raising that question. When a farmer buys seeds from Monsanto and plants it in his or her field, it is considered the property of Monsanto. He or she cannot save seeds. You know, the crop--nobody can do research on it. But when it comes to the liability issue, whether it's crop failure, whether it's environmental and health impact, it's the farmers responsibility. So when farmers are buying seeds...

Dr. PRAKASH: No, that's not true.

Ms. MITTAL: ...and signing of the contracts, that's what they have to do, that it is a property of Monsanto. But when it comes to liability issue, that's not where the corporations are taking responsibility for it.

WILLIAMS: All right. Somebody just said, 'That's not true.' Was that you, John?

Dr. PRAKASH: Yeah, I did. Yeah.


Dr. PRAKASH: See, that maybe true here in the United States, but in a country like India, they are going to be putting these seeds out in hybrid crops where you have to go--you know, than when they're sold by the companies, you--one has to go back, and that is not any different. Almost all of our tomato and corn that we grow today are hybrid crops where you have to go back every year and buy the seed. And the farmers don't mind paying more because they get quality seed. See the issue here is choice.

Ms. MITTAL: Oh, I have to actually...

Dr. PRAKASH: The issue here is one of choice, and there is nothing wrong in giving more choice to the farmer. And we don't have to be paternalistic here. Some hold that the farmers in India are gullible and we need to protect them. They understand. And what this is about is a choice. In India, when we started the privatization of the seed about 10 years ago, our productivity levels endorsed crops where the privacy companies had an input, increased tremendously...

WILLIAMS: All right.

Dr. PRAKASH: ...in soybean and corn products.

WILLIAMS: Let me take another call quickly. Let's go to Deborah(ph) who's in El Cerrito. Deborah, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DEBORAH (Caller): Yes. Thank you. A comment and then a question for...

WILLIAMS: You have to be brief, though, Deborah.

DEBORAH: Yes. This isn't about solving world hunger. It's about dominating new markets and making the rest of the world dependent on chemically-based crops. And frankly, predatory transgenic species, like the whopper salmon(ph), that's going to wipe out the natural when they escape into the environment.

I'd like to ask the Food First guest if she sees a parallel between this corporate behavior and dumping into the Third World the pesticides that are banned here as unsafe and no longer used, but used in the Third World?

WILLIAMS: OK. Let's get an answer. Thanks for your call, Deborah.

Ms. MITTAL: Thank you, Deborah. Yeah, you've said it. I think genetic engineering of a food system is, once again, going to put farmers on the tread mill in the Third World, on the tread mill of pesticides. We start with the green revolution, how they were basically, you know, first, seduced with increased crop production and then they were forced to buy more chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the rest, putting them in more and more debt. And we see the same situation now where these corporations are going into the Third World countries, wooing the farmers, again with the promise of high yields. Never mind just recently when I returned from India, farmers were burning crops in their fields because nobody--not even the government is -- buying it from them.

WILLIAMS: All right.

Ms. MITTAL: So we see the same situation again.

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.

Thank you Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First, an Institute for Food and Development Policy in California. She spoke to us from the NPR bureau in San Francisco. And thank you to C.S. Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University in Alabama. He joined us from the studios of Peachstate Public Radio. Also thanks to John Biewen, correspondent and producer for American RadioWorks. He joined us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in Minneapolis. In Washington, I'm Juan Williams, NPR News.