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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Godless Science

Svarupa Damodara: The promise was about ten years ago that once they synthesized this gene, complete synthesis, then they’ll be able to make life . . . Prabhupada: “They will be.” Again promise. Svarupa Damodara: . . . in the test tube. But it’s not working. They have synthesized now. Prabhupada: Then why do you talk nonsense if it is not working? Therefore you are nonsense. Svarupa Damodara: So actually it is good. But we have come to a point now even in science that their promises are all going to go wrong. Prabhupada: Yes. That we want to prove. That is our propaganda. Therefore we have engaged you. Prove that they are all rascals. They are giving false promise.
Room Conversation January 31, 1977, Bhuvanesvara
On October 14, Rama Ekadasi, the Indian Government’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) gave a green signal for the first commercial release of a genetically modified food crop (Bt eggplant, brinjal), despite widespread disapproval from citizens, NGOs, farmer organizations and scientists. The decision has led to fury, protests and fasts in states across India on October 16, World Food day. How is that relevant to us, the followers of Srila Prabhupada?
Srila Prabhupada is the modern world’s most distinguished teacher of Gaudiya-Vaisnava theology and practice. Referring to the three pramanas he taught (i. e. sabda, anumana, and pratyaksa), we note that as members of contemporary civilization gradually reject their traditional values and advance towards global gross materialism, they also shed the authority of scriptural revelation and reason in favor of direct sense perception. If in the Vedic period debates centered around sastra, and in Lord Caitnaya’s time gravitated towards nyaya and philosophy (as with the succeeding Age of Enlightenment), today’s battle is held on the grounds of naturalism, with scientists officiating as high priests in a speculative sacrifice of morals, for the attainment of a better world than the one presently being destroyed.
The essential characteristics of the atheistic nirvisesa and sunyavadi stances, against which Srila Prabhupada ardently preached, are no longer confined to traditional schools of thought like Advaita, and find direct expression in modern scientific pursuits. The intellectual interest in the origin of life has evolved in recent decades into an economic interest in proprietorship over life. The belief “everything is ultimately one” suggests that existence has no ontological proprietor, and legitimizes the usurpation of collective resources and individual rights. “Everything is ultimately void” allows for a discard of other-worldly destinations or ethics, and the manipulation of matter to one’s best capacity. Even though these could not entirely characterize the multitude of contemporary scientific endeavors, they certainly serve as premises for the recent developments in commercial genetic engineering.
Genes are found in every cell of all living organisms, determining the characteristics, structure, and growth of successive generations. To create genetically modified food, a gene is taken from one organism and forcibly inserted in the genetic code of another unrelated organism, giving it new traits. Overriding ethical and specie barriers, scientists have introduced genes from bacteria, viruses and animals like fish and scorpions into vegetables, and human genes into rice. (www. iamnolabrat. com).
In “a plate full of toxins” (9/11/09), an open letter to M. S. Swaminathan, the chairman of the National Commission on Farmers, agricultural activist Dr. Vandana Shiva writes: “Genetic engineering is a crude and blind technology of shooting genes into an organism through a “gene gun.” It’s like infecting the organism with cancer. It is not known if the transgene is introduced, and that is why antibiotic resistance markers have to be used. Nor is it known where in the genome the transgene gets introduced. This is not “accuracy”, it is literally shooting in the dark.”
Advocates of genetic modification claim that Bt (Bacillus Thuringenesis) is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins lethal only to insect larvae. A brinjal with inbuilt Bt toxin in every cell could kill unwanted pests (like the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer, Leucinodes orbonalis), and theoretically increase yields and reduce hunger, all without the external usage of pesticides. Raju Barwale, the managing director of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd, Mahyco (owned by multinational biotech giant Monsanto) argues that “insect-resistant Bt brinjal has been in development for nine years and has been tested in full compliance with the guidelines and directives of the regulatory authorities to ensure its safety. It is the most rigorously tested vegetable, with 25 environmental biosafety studies supervised by independent and government agencies. It has the same nutritional value and is compositionally identical to non-Bt brinjal, except for the additional Bt protein which is specific in its action against the BFSB.”
To this Vandana Shiva replies, “while it is true that the naturally-occurring Bt (which is an endo toxin) becomes a toxin only in the gut of insect larvae, the genetically-engineered Bt is a readymade toxin. Navdanya’s research in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, has shown that Bt cotton is killing beneficial micro-organisms in the soil. Reports of deaths of animals grazing in Bt cotton fields are also related to the fact that Bt in plants is a broad spectrum, readymade toxin unlike the naturally occurring Bt.”
According to Sangita Sharma, who leads My Right to Safe Food campaign in India, “genes that are inserted into GE crops transfer into the DNA of the bacteria inside your intestines and might turn it into living pesticide factories, possibly for the rest of your life. This means that long after you stop eating GE foods, your own gut bacteria might be producing these foreign proteins, which might be allergenic, toxic or carcinogenic.” (www. myrighttosafefood. blogspot. com). In addition, the antibiotic resistant marker gene (used to mark cells in the host organism that have successfully received the alien genes) can spread to other disease-causing organisms in the environment, making them immune to antibiotics as well.
A study conducted in January 2009 by Gilles-Eric Seralini, professor of molecular biology at the University of Caen in France, concluded that “Bt brinjal cannot be considered as safe. The agreement for Bt brinjal release into the environment, for food, feed or cultures, may present a serious risk for human and animal health and the release should be forbidden.” He also added that the tests conducted by Mahyco were simply not valid and raised serious health concerns.
Additional studies linked genetically modified food to stunted growth, impaired immune systems, potentially precancerous cell growth in the intestines, enlarged livers, pancreases and intestines, higher blood sugar and reduced fertility. These encouraged over 175 regions and 4,500 municipalities in Europe to declare themselves GM-free zones and oppose genetically modified exports from the US, which grows 57 percent of the world’s transgenic crops.
In India, poor farmers are promised higher yields by converting from traditional seed saving to Bt cotton. However, often times they are not told that Bt cotton also requires costly artificial inputs, like irrigation and industrial pesticides, which only a few of them can afford. Although the exact figures and circumstances are subject to much debate between civil and scientific organizations, the fact remains that in the last decade thousands of farmers in the Bt cotton belt of Punjab, Vidarbha, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka committed suicide due to repeatedly failing crops and increasing debts.
In light of such unfulfilled promises, why would anyone support and grow genetically modified crops? Well, huge amounts of money are at stake. The global market in 2000 was worth over two-thousand billion dollars a year, with Monsanto producing 90 percent of the world’s genetically modified crops. Genetic modification provides companies like Monsatno exclusive rights to biotechnology patents under the title of “intellectual property”, allowing them to extract high prices from farmers, either through increasingly expensive research products
(e. g. Round-up herbicide, “Golden Rice”, and sterile “Terminator” seeds) or lawsuits.
The genetic engineering industry is a well-organized system of collaboration between scientific educational facilities, government legislative support, and industry-dependent agricultural subsidies that encourage developing countries to compete over trade instead of meeting their food requirements locally. As Sreedhara Bhasin wrote for the Tribune in “Caution! GM foods may be on the way” (10/11/2009): “Days after the government announced introduction of genetically modified food crops in the country, Hillary Clinton who happened to be on her first visit as the US Secretary of State, which included a trip to India’s leading agriculture institute (PUSA), heartily supported transferring ‘cutting-edge technology’ to raise crop yields. Like many proponents of GM industry, Hillary Clinton mouthed the shibboleths - world hunger and high yielding crops . . . GM research and production are costly ventures and the biotech companies expect to make substantial profits on their investment. Many GM technology, plants and seeds are already patented by the leading GM companies, and it would be childish to believe that the ex-gratia support of the US government is for the future of a hunger-free India.” Besides, do profits really justify the patenting of living organisms and claiming false proprietorship over life?
With this in mind, a few words about brinjal in our own spiritual practice. The Ayurveda-sastra recommends avoiding vegetables of the nightshade family, like tomatoes and potatoes, and especially eggplant, the skin of which is considered inauspicious for brahmacarya. The Hari-bhakti-vilasa’s list of unofferable vegetables includes eggplants, turnips, and carrots. Nevertheless, the Caitanya-caritamrta describes the offering of eggplant items for the pleasure of the Lord, and Srila Prabhupada, a pure devotee of the Lord, was accompanied by eggplant preparations from his childhood and throughout his preaching pastimes. Fried eggplant was one of his favorite items (unless he was served too much of it), and it was also the first recipe ever presented in “Back to Godhead” by mother Yamuna. In any case, whether we choose to eat eggplants or not, even things we do not eat require our respect and protection, simply because they were created by Krishna and are meant for his pleasure. One of the varieties modified by Mahyco is the Matti gulla, a type of brinjal unique to the Matti village in Udupi, closely associated with the Deity of Sri Udupi Krishna and Vadiraja, a disciple of Vyasatirtha, the 18th Acarya in the disciplic lineage of the Brahma Madhva Gaudiya sampradaya.
Gene pollution does not end with eggplants. In India, at least 56 genetically modified crops are undergoing various stages of research and trials, of which 41 are food crops. These include corn, cauliflower, chickpea, peanut, mustard, okra, potato, papaya, tomato, rice, and cabbage. Once genetically modified food is released into the environment, it cannot be contained or recalled. Since the genetic integrity of the species is harmed, there is an increased chance for transgenic contamination of other natural organisms, either by cross pollination in plants or digestion by animals and humans. Furthermore, genetically modified plants are designed to look exactly like the originals, depriving consumers of their right to make informed choices in regard to what they eat, especially in the unlabeled Indian market.
Recognizing Krishna as the supreme controller and enjoyer of creation, we should support to our best practical capacity the establishment of Srila Prabhupada’s vision of a Krishna conscious, separate social body that protects natural resources as Krishna’s service paraphernalia. As more devotees all over the world acknowledge the need for producing organic food and offering first-class, home grown items for Krishna’s pleasure, the GBC sagaciously passed this year a resolution (311) that encourages cooperation between devotee food producers and consumers, and promotes self-sufficiency.
As for Bt brinjal, the decision lies in the hands of Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who seeks to consult public opinion in the matter. In an online poll held by “Indian Express” over 75% of the readers voted against genetically modified food. What can we do about it? It depends on our individual services and instructions from guru, sadhu and sastra. The most important thing we can all do is to read Srila Prabhupada’s books, conversations and correspondence, and notice how he persistently translates his transcendental vision into a theistic and scientific social reality.

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