Thursday, 9 March 2017

Let’s Be Honest About Genetically Modified Crops


More than twenty years after they were first introduced, genetically modified (GM) crops are reported to be grown on approximately 3.7% of the world's total agricultural land, by less than 1% of the world's farmers[i]. In India, only GM cotton (commonly known as Bt cotton) is allowed to be grown for commercial cultivation, whereas several GM food crop trials have been under way for a few years. That these genetically modified food crops are being trialled at all is opposed on agricultural, environmental and economic grounds, and that they should move beyond trials and into widespread cultivation is being proposed, often by citing food security and climate change reasons.
Photo Credit Rahul Goswami
Photo Credit Rahul Goswami
To understand whether GM seed and food should be permitted in India, it is important to understand what GM technology is. Simply put, a GM seed is the result of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. In other words, genetic modification brings about alterations in genetic makeup and in the properties of the organism developed. The World Health Organization defines a GM organism (GMO) as one "in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally". In simple language, genetic engineers tinker with and recombine genes of completely unrelated species in the laboratory, creating new DNA not found in nature, and therefore new organisms that would not be found in nature.
This is one aspect of the idea of an unnatural organism that leads to a most fundamental question. Are food crops derived from such a method safe for human (or animal) consumption?

There are two ways to seek answers. One is to consider the more deleterious effects of any sort of progress against a time-line of that progress - while individual mobility (the automobile) may be considered a boon the effects of many people practicing such mobility is not (urban traffic, the rise of suburbia, pollution, increased and unsustainable use of raw material, wastefulness, etc.), while some modern drugs may help us deal with certain diseases (tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, etc.) the unregulated and profit-maximising tendencies of the pharmaceutical industry has pushed many families into debt and has contributed to weakening human immune responses.

Thus there is for every kind of progress a blowback, which may be technical, economic, environmental or combination of these. With some kinds of progress, we now have time-lines several generations long to examine, such as with automobiles and medicinal drugs. With others, we have a very much shorter time-line to examine. GM is one such, and it’s already short time-line is full of high promise but questionable practice.
Because of its short existence as an idea and as a still very limited practice (GM seed and food are outlawed in 15 countries of the European Union)[ii] it is always only ever experimental. And for that reason the strenuous attempts of the bio-technology, industrial agriculture and commercial seed industries worldwide to have it called 'safe' have failed scientific scrutiny and have also failed public trust. For example, more than 15 years ago in 2001 a report from an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada said it was "scientifically unjustifiable" to presume that GM foods are safe.[iii] What irked the examiners was the outright assertion that GM is safe - little has changed since. A year later in 2002 a report by the UK's Royal Society said that genetic modification "could lead to unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional state of foods," and recommended that potential health effects of GM foods be rigorously researched before being fed to pregnant or breast-feeding women, elderly people, those suffering from chronic disease, and babies.

At the time, such cautions were both necessary and widely considered necessary. When conscientious scientists like geneticist David Suzuki, said, "Any politician or scientist who tells you these products are safe is either very stupid or lying", it was considered vindication of the need for caution. Contrast that view, no more than 15 years ago, with the opposition to any caution today when those who advocate it are called anti-science and Luddites.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the biotech industry, the commercial seed industry and the retail food industry to paint GM seed and crop as the answer to all problems existing and to come, opposition to GM and GE (genetically engineered seed and crop) continued to grow, with farmers' groups, leading scientists and civil society all calling for at least abundant caution if not a moratorium or ban. In view of the diversity of opinion on GM and GE seed and crop, the Government of India constituted a Parliamentary Standing Committee on GM crops in 2011-12[iv]. After a lengthy and exhaustive process that gathered evidence of practice from cultivators, from experts, from the public and from stakeholder groups, the Committee issued its report, which was hard-hitting and damning in a way few Parliamentary reports are.
That the present government was a part of this report - a landmark in the use of checks and balances by our democratic system of governance - is now overlooked and ignored. The report noted abuses in conducting adequate safety trials, the grossly inadequate and antiquated regulatory mechanism for assessment and approval of transgenics in food crops, the serious conflict of interest of various stakeholders involved in the regulatory mechanism, the total lack of post-commercialization monitoring of GM crops. It also cautioned the Union Government on the effects of GM crops on agricultural exports when considering whether to approve them. The report observed that cultivating GM crops leads to contamination and presents an inherent risk for farmers and Indian agriculture, and that contamination by GM crops can lead to countries banning imports of Indian agricultural produce. Given the growing demand for chemical-free, pesticide-free food worldwide, the risk of contamination by GM seed and crop of traditional and hybrid crop staples is one of the several risks that this technology carries and which our country cannot afford.

Considering the flaws and shortcomings noted by the Committee and the still unclear ramifications of transgenic crops on bio-diversity, environment, human and livestock health and sustainability, the Committee demanded that the ongoing field trials in all states be discontinued. The members of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, across political parties, were unanimous in their report. The report stands as a comprehensive indictment - and indeed a signal authoritative rebuttal to the claims of the GM/GE/biotech industry and its attempts to wrest control of India's food grain and commercial crops production. That such a comprehensive report is, a scant few years after its release, not even referred to by either Union government, state governments or the food and commercial crops industry speaks volumes about transparency and information, both prerequisites in a democratic system.

Besides, three more high-level reports advising against the adoption of these crops in India have likewise been ignored. These are the 'Jairam Ramesh Report' of February 2010 - which set a new standard for public consultation on an ecological and ethical issue - that imposed an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal; the 'Sopory Committee Report' set up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, of August 2012, on the attempt to develop through GM means a variety of desi cotton and which exposed both scientific deception and regulatory oversight; the Supreme Court of India's Technical Expert Committee which was formed for the Aruna Rodrigues petition concerning GM field trials, whose final report released in July 2013 has recommendations that are yet to be acted on by our regulatory agencies.

The Technical Expert Committee, in its interim report (of October 2012) had favoured abundant caution on the matter of biological safety and genetically engineered seeds and crops. It had recommended a ten-year moratorium on field trials of GM food crops. There was then and remains a very good reason for making such a recommendation: contamination of relative strains that are native to the crop growing region, by GM crops under trial, may be detected only after years, and such contamination is irreversible. For a country like India, which is a centre of origin for several food crops and oilseeds and a centre of biological diversity, the first responsibility is to protect this biological diversity from contamination.
The path of extreme caution has also been recommended to avoid the likelihood of serious ecological and health (human and animal) problems caused by the use of unnatural GM and GE seed and crop, as also to avoid economic stress to growers and the loss of seed sovereignty. As explained by Colin Todhunter[v], a push for genetically modified seeds is to sanction the exploiting of the farmer, in favour of profits for the commercial seed industry, and the ruin of traditional agriculture.
Among the benefits claimed by the adoption of GM technology in seed and crop is that of greater yield. This is an attractive inducement for farmers who would certainly like their half acre or acre of land to produce more weight in crop per square unit of land. Just as attractive is the claim that GM seeds require smaller applications of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, both of which are expensive. These assumptions however have crumbled under examination.
Data from the USA - a country that has grown GM crops for well over two decades - gives us a picture very different from the claims loudly made. In the most extensive and rigorous study, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysed 20 years' returns and costs of GM crops, to conclude that contrary to myths about the superiority of GE crop yields, most yield gains in recent years are due to traditional breeding or improvements in other agricultural practices. UCS expert scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman unequivocally stated, "Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down."[vi]

India's experience with Bt cotton has been tragic. A new study published by California-based agricultural scientists in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe directly links the suicides among Indian farmers (more than two lakh cumulatively, from the National Crime Records Bureau) to Bt cotton adoption in rain-fed farming areas, where most of India's cotton is grown. This appalling record has shown to the world how GM methods ruthlessly exercise patents to force farmers to buy costly seeds every year, sending their families into debt, how such crops have left behind degraded soil and polluted water bodies, and how desi cotton has all but disappeared from India, which is a starting setback to the revival of the khadi-based village and rural hubs intended.
The environmental soundness and health benefits of our traditional agricultural methods, free of chemicals and pesticides and based on our seed diversity, can enable India to choose diversified agro-ecological farming instead of the industrial, energy-intensive and monoculture-based mode that GM fully represents.