Monsanto and the Mustard Seed (Source earthisland.org)
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. Mustard is not just an edible oil. It is used for therapeutic massages, muscular and joint problems. Mustard 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.
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 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.
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.