Genetically-Modified Crops Are The Future: Here’s Why

Genetically-Modified Crops Are The Future: Here’s Why

by Shanthu Shantharam - Tuesday, March 7, 2017 05:17 PM IST
Genetically-Modified Crops
Are The Future: Here’s Why A container is being loaded with Bt-corn harvested from a farm near Rockton, Illinois. (Scott Olson/GettyImages)
  • GM crops are being cultivated in almost 30 countries for the past 20 years without a single proven instance of any harm to any human or animal being.

    The bogey of genetic contamination and genetic pollution by GM crops has been misused by anti-GM activists for too long without any scientific basis.

This is in response to Viva Kermani’s “honest” write-up about Genetically Modified (GM) crops that betrays half-baked knowledge about agriculture, modern genetics, and almost total ignorance of the art and science of GM crops developed through the gene splicing technology. The article seems to be borrowed from the manifesto of the global anti-GM propaganda machinery that has been in vogue for as long as the GM crops have been around.

Kermani’s contention is that modern day GM crops are unnatural organisms, and therefore, raises questions about their safety for human and animal consumption. A simple answer to that is that they are safe as determined by all leading regulatory agencies in charge of assessing the safety of food in the United States of America(US), Canada, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Egypt, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, and the list goes on. Their safety has also been vouched for by leading scientific organisations like the US National Science Academy, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, Indian Science Academy, Brazilian Science Academy, the Pontifical Academy, and German Science Academy, among others.

Kermani must realise that in the 10,000 year history of human effort to grow food, people have artificially modified all that was growing wildly to adapt them to their needs. Therefore, there is nothing natural about agriculture. If there is one human activity that is environmentally most devastating, that is agriculture. But, can we live without agriculture? Now, the efforts are under way to undertake climate-smart agriculture, but that requires and demands greater and not lesser intervention from science and technology.

That the agricultural industry has saved more lives than all pharma industries put together can be asserted by a simple fact that the green revolution saved millions from starvation and death in the middle of the last century. GM crops are being cultivated in almost 30 countries for the past 20 years without a single proven instance of any harm to any human or animal being. How much more proof does one need of its safety?

Moreover, GM crops are the most highly regulated agricultural products on this planet. Consumers need not fear GM crops. While stories of illness and death due to salmonella and enteric coli infections of organic produce are always making rounds. The number of organic recalls outnumbers any other food recalls in the US.

It is really regrettable that Kermani insinuates that pharma companies have forced many into debt because of the profits they make out of their inventions. She should know, but for private companies as in all sectors of the economy, so many beneficial inventions would not have been available affordably to people all around the world. She should also be aware as to how corporate social responsibility laws and volunteer efforts of the companies have donated their life saving drugs almost free of cost to the least developed countries. In case of a public health epidemic, all countries under the laws of eminent domain have the power to intervene in the market place for such drugs and remedies be made available at affordable prices. India is a fine example of governments constantly intervening in the market place to fix prices as it just did in the case of heart stents. If public health concerns are an issue in any part of the world that is not because of pharma industries, but it is because of poor or lack of governance, and corruption.

Kermani claims that GMOs have brief timelines within which it is not possible to assess the safety of the products. She seems ignorant of the art and science of plant breeding. All thorough-bred crops are tested for several generations, and GM crops are specially tested in accordance with international food safety standards prescribed by the Codex Alimentarius commission where global scientific experts meet to develop global standards for food safety testing.

If GM crops have not been permitted in many countries of the EU, it is not because of any issue with the safety of GM crops, but because of the hullabaloo created by anti-GM activists that has completely politicised the approval process. The EU’s decisions are not based on science, but on politics. Kermani must read the scientific opinions of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to ascertain the safety of all GM crops that it has reviewed, and also two gigantic reports of GM safety research funded by the EU for more than 25 years. It is the politics of GM crops in the EU that completely ignores its own funded research reports. That’s a pity and the anti-GM lobby has to take all the blame for it.

Much water has flown under the bridge since the 2001 report of the Canadian Royal Society, and it will be worth the while to read the latest views and opinions of the same organisation now. UK’s Royal Society was scientifically correct. Also, considerably much more rigorous testing of GM foods have been done since then, using some of the best technologies available and that is how so many GM crops are cultivated in Canada. Scientific literature is awash with thousands of high class, peer-reviewed literature that testifies to the fact that GM crops are substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts, and therefore, they do not present any new unique safety concerns.

David Suzuki is an old time professor of genetics who has never done any research on food safety, and in fact, quit the research arena five decades ago when he started enjoying television-celebrity status and his opinions on anything modern are irrelevant. Neither GM scientists nor the GM seed industry has ever claimed that GM crops are a solution to all problems plaguing agriculture. This is a falsehood of the anti-GM campaign to mislead the public.

Abundant caution was first proposed by scientists themselves almost 45 years ago at the Asilomar conference. Scientists have always been socially responsible unlike the anti-tech activists. It is the voluntary recommendations from the Asilomar conference that the National Institute of Health (NIH) Recombinant DNA guidelines were universally adopted. This was long before scientifically illiterate and ignorant activists jumped into the fray and completely politicised the issue.

The parliamentary committee, headed by a then communist member of the parliament Basudeb Acharia, prepared a 400-page report that was basically drafted by the most virulent anti-GM non-governmental organization (NGO), Greenpeace. Acharia completely ignored the best scientific information supplied to him by this writer and his scientific colleagues. The report was full of innuendos and none of the members of the committee, who were all Members of Parliament, were scientifically enlightened people and so, succumbed to the pressures of the full-time NGO’s activism against GM crops. Scientists have no time for campaigning and they generally do not get to street level campaigning. In any case, that report is gathering dust like all parliamentary committee reports. There is a new parliament and a new political dispensation in Delhi, and Basudeb Acharia and his party are cooling their heels after an ignominious defeat at the hustings in 2014.

The bogey of genetic contamination and genetic pollution by GM crops has been misused by anti-GM activists for too long without any scientific basis. There is nothing called genetic pollution or contamination, phrases that the anti-tech activists love to use to scare the public and the politicians. The current form of agriculture has built-in safeguards to keep genetic isolation. Moreover, according to international standards of seed purity, certain low degree of contamination or admixture of seeds are permitted crop-wise.

This is because it is impossible to attain absolute 100 per cent purity— as is the demand of anti-GM activists —just to suppress GM technology. Any cross-pollination can be reversed through breeding as it has been done for all modern crops through back-crossing. Moreover, anyone with a modicum of the knowledge of population genetics should know that it is impossible to maintain any gene in the wild without selection pressure. GM crops do not pose a threat to wild biological diversity or any other crop.

With respect to on-farm biodiversity, it is not important in agriculture because the crop in question needs an environment free of competition for it to provide a bountiful harvest. In fact, farmers do everything possible to keep all unwanted plants, animals, pests and diseases out of their fields so that their crop does not fail. Moreover, scientific evidence bears that in GM crop fields, on-farm diversity is enhanced rather than diminished. In a democratic system, what is important is to let experts make decisions on science and technology and communicate them effectively to the public. Majority of ignorant people cannot, in the name of democracy, be involved in scientific and technological decision-making process. In fact, such ignoramuses must be kept out.

Congress party leader Jairam Ramesh colluded with activists to put a moratorium on field testing of GM crops. He had no scientific basis for doing so and his decisions were challenged in the court, and now finally field tests have resumed. The public consultation that Jairam Ramesh conducted was a public farce and full of theatrics. Again, scientists had no input as every public meeting was overrun by anti-GM activists.

The Sopory committee report on desi Bt Cotton had nothing to do with the regulatory approval of GM crops and that is irrelevant here. The Supreme Court appointed committees’ report is in limbo because of one strong dissenting note. The court has not acted on Aruna Rodrigues case, and the government authorities have made a strong case against the report by challenging the scientific veracity of its contents. There is no question of acting on that report as the case has not been settled.

None of the claims about the GM crops with regard to higher yield on-farm, lesser application of chemical inputs have crumbled at all. The scientific evidence clearly shows that farmers who grow approved GM crops have recorded higher yields than non-GM crops. Scientists who worked on GMOs at the Union of (dis)concerted scientists have always been activists against GM crops and their convoluted calculations to show GE crops are no better than other crops stand refuted by real scientific evidence. Doug-Gurian Sherman’s opinion does not count for anything in the US or elsewhere for that matter. Collin Todd-Hunter is a leftist demagogue who has no scientific expertise, and the world of science and technology has not cared for his opinion.

Connecting India’s tragic farmer’s suicides to the cultivation of Bt cotton is another shameless act of the anti-GM lobby in India. Anti-GM activists have cultivated a nasty habit of cherry-picking isolated publications that suit their whim and ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence that is contrary to their campaign tactics. The plain and simple fact is that there is no direct cause and effect relationship on Bt cotton cultivation and farmers’ suicides in India. In fact, it is heavy personal debt and other inner family squabbles that are mostly the cause for farmer suicides. Desi cotton has not been eradicated from India. Anyone can buy those seeds from ever so many small time cotton seed companies. India has more than 200 cotton seed companies to choose from. The reason farmers do not want to grow any other cotton other than GM Bt hybrids is because of higher yields and more profits that translates into many other social benefits. One cannot force farmers to grow what someone else wants them to grow. Indian farmers make their decisions based on common sense and by the pocket book. The anti-GM activists might have succeeded in throwing stumbling blocks for GM cultivation with the regulatory authorities, but have failed to stop farmers from growing Bt cotton that is approved. If India approves more GM crops as Bangladesh, Vietnam and Philippines are doing, agriculture in Asia and Southeast Asia will be a lot more prosperous.

Kermani seems to be recommending organic, traditional agriculture in the place of modern agriculture, which is what most of Asia and India had until the green revolution, and which lead to food scarcity and starvation. Returning to traditional agriculture at a time when the global population is expected to rise up to 10 billion in the next three decades will be a prescription for hara-kiri.

Shanthu Shantharam is a Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. A former biotechnology regulator with the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Shantharam has served as a consultant to UN-FAO, UNIDO, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank. He was responsible for initiating the development of India’s biotech regulations in the early 1990s when he was a Fulbright Scholar at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

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