Truth About GM Crops: Government Must Stand Up To Those Who Hinder India’s Agriculture Growth 

Truth About GM Crops: Government Must Stand Up To Those Who Hinder India’s Agriculture Growth 

by Shanthu Shantharam - Thursday, August 3, 2017 06:51 PM IST
Truth About GM Crops: Government Must Stand Up To Those Who Hinder India’s Agriculture Growth Anti-GM protestors
  • The government must be bold enough to up-end the activists who are coming in the way of the nation’s agricultural progress.

Fear, scepticism, rejection, and anxiety in humans are normal reactions to anything new that they encounter. Such initial reaction to genetically modified (GM) crops was a norm about 30 years ago. It began in the United States of America with a group of women belonging to a club called Mothers Against Drunken Driving (MADD) in the early 1980s as soon as the word was out that scientists had gained the ability to manipulate DNA, the basic molecule of life. Those were the early days of the gene revolution when recombinant DNA (rDNA) techniques were used to cut DNA into pieces and select the piece needed to insert it into another organism.

Organisms that had a new piece of DNA inserted into their nucleus (chromosomes) came to be called transgenic organisms or genetically engineered organisms (GEOs). The United Nations (UN) calls them Living Modified Organisms (LMO), a compromised political definition. But people who started protesting the technology called them Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), a misnomer because all organisms are genetically modified either in nature or by human intervention.

So those who started opposing it to make their campaign effective started calling them GMOs to appeal to the public.

Today, a scientifically accurate term GEOs is nothing but GMOs, which is used in common parlance. Scientists lost this fight a long time ago in the war of words.

So where does this fear arise from?

In the case of GMOs, it arises from a lack of understanding of modern genetics based on the molecular biology of DNA, knowledge about which burgeoned after the discovery of the structure of the molecule by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1952.

It took hardly 25 years for scientists to start isolating DNA from living organisms and manipulating it in the laboratory to express it the way they desired. This very act of manipulating DNA in the laboratory concerned the very scientists who developed the gene manipulation of rDNA technologies and convened a meeting at the Asilomar Conference Centre in California in the mid-1970s to examine the pros and cons of the technologies.

They concluded that rDNA techniques were harmless and if handled diligently with due care and concern there should be no fear about them. They developed a set of voluntary guidelines for scientists which today is the world famous National Institutes of Health (NIH) Voluntary Code of Guidelines for rDNA research. This was long before anti-technology activists jumped into the fray and made it into a global campaign against GMOs.

Although the anti-GM campaign subsided in the US where it started, it shifted to the European theatre with the help of Greenpeace, and from there it spread to all parts of the world including India. India in fact is a flashpoint for anti-tech activism whose ferociousness is unmatched anywhere in the developing world. Activists spread fear and falsehoods either for want of basic understanding of the science of rDNA technology or simply to oppose it on political grounds of techno-imperialism of the West, especially the US. It is not hard to see the basic political characteristics of these protesters who, mostly call themselves NGOs or civil society.

Most of them are leftists, left leaning liberals or so-called progressives and socialists who have fallen from grace since the fall of the Soviet empire.

Today, they have no champions or supporters almost anywhere in the world and are frustrated that their dream of ushering in a socialist world has crumbled. They are all now members of the World Socialist Forum (WSF) that was set up to oppose the World Economic Forum (WEF). Almost all of these anti-GM activists know and understand that it is a safe technology as there has not been single instance of verifiable harm from GM crops cultivated in over 30 countries since 1996, but are not willing to give it up by bringing up tangential social, economic and political issues and have completely politicised the movement. They have been successful in preventing decision making on the technology products in many parts of the developing world. The one political party that supports them wholeheartedly in India are communists who have declared Kerala a non-GMO state.

The organic agriculturist lobby has joined hands with them and oppose GM crops. For instance, Sikkim declared itself 100 per cent organic and organickers have prohibited use of GMOs in their system. It is unfortunate that within three years of becoming a 100 per cent organic state, Sikkim farmers and consumers are rejecting organic produce and products as they are not economical. Nothing is sustainable if it is not economically viable.

This foregone conclusion has been told millions of times before, but there is a craze for organic agriculture among urban elites all over the world and India is no exception. There is a niche global organic market that is now close to $100 billion. These elite activists are also joined by all and sundry litterateurs, actors, journalists, farmer groups, writers, novelists, and mostly social scientists, all of whom have a combined scientific knowledge of zero. But, that does not deter them from taking a strong position against GMOs based on imaginary socio-economic and political reasons. They are well-organised, orchestrated, and use their lung power to influence the unread, illiterate, and ignorant politicians.

These politicians react to noise and not to any scientific reason. The net result is that GM crops are held in limbo for years, which is exactly the situation in India with respect to Bt brinjal and GM mustard. Scientists are a frustrated lot in the country as the political masters respond more to these activists than to authentic scientific counsel.

The net result is that India’s agricultural progress is stuck in the mud.

Although scientists have made valiant efforts to explain what is a GMO, how it is created, what are its safety features and what its performance is in the field, the narrative has not struck a chord with the ordinary public, thanks to the agitators’ successful effort to discredit the technology.

One thing to note is that Bt cotton has been the only GM crop that was commercialised almost 15 years ago, and now is planted in more than 95 per cent area of cotton cultivation. If this is not success, what else is? The antis have consistently told the ignorant politicians that Bt cotton is a big failure. If that is so, it beats anyone’s logic as to why farmers have been growing the same failed Bt cotton for 15 years.

The fact of the matter is that GM crops were first commercialised in the United States in 1996 and spread to over 30 countries, with more than 2 billion hectares planted, and more than two trillion meals with GM foods have been served. And there has not been a single instance of any harm caused to human or animal health or damage to the environment other than what normal ag

Ariculture does, which happens to be the world’s greatest environmentally damaging activity. It begs the question; can we do without agriculture? The answer is a resounding NO, but the challenge is how to keep it environmentally sustainable to feed more than 11 billion people by the end of this century.

It is important for readers to know how a GM crop is created. When the laboratory protocols were first revealed, it was considered a hi-tech method which only highly trained scientific personnel could grasp. That is not so now. High school students are doing these experiments.

A GM crop is created by inserting a short chain of DNA that has been extremely characterised in terms of what trait or property it codes. For example, Bt gene codes for an insect-specific toxin kills the targeted insect pest. This Bt gene is isolated from a common soil bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis. It is the same bacterial spore spray that has been used to control insects biologically for almost 100 years and by organic farmers as well. What modern-day genetic engineers have done is to isolate that gene that kills the specific insect pest, and insert it into the plant itself.

It is the same Bt gene that is in Bt cotton and Bt brinjal. The toxicology of Bt toxin has been studied for almost 100 years and is shown to be completely safe for humans and animals. So, all this hullaballoo about the Bt toxin being toxic to women, girls and causing skin rashes, and it having killed cattle, sheep and peacocks is a bunch of cooked-up stories of the anti-technology brigade in India.

A GM crop is developed in the laboratory by infecting a plasmid DNA vector containing the foreign gene through a process of agro-infection. The vector DNA molecule delivers the inserted foreign DNA randomly on to the chromosome of the plant cell. Such a cell is called a transformed cell and is allowed to mature into a full plant where the entire plant body carries the inserted DNA in all its cells. Now the plant is called a GM plant or a GE plant or a genetically transformed plant and its seeds are multiplied for sale to farmers.

Once the GM plant is developed, the purveyor must submit it for a regulatory approval process in all countries where GM crops are grown and that is true in India as well. This is where the choke point is in most countries where there has not been an exponential growth in GM crops adoption. It is at this juncture that anti-tech activists get active and have successfully scared the regulatory authorities from making their decisions.

This is also where politicians play a crucial role to either stop or delay or promote the implementation of GM crops. In neighbouring Bangladesh, a woman agriculture minister has taken bold steps to commercialise Bt brinjal much against the opposition to it, and farmers are enjoying the fruits of such a bold decision. Ironically, the Bt brinjal that Bangladeshi farmers are growing was developed in India.

The bottom line about GM crops is that they have proved to be safe and highly utilitarian wherever they have been grown and there is no need to delay its implementation like it is happening in India due to heavy-duty anti-technology activism.

GM mustard is a tool to produce hybrid mustard seeds to increase yield by at least 20 to 30 per cent that is so crucial for India’s cooking oil needs. The Narendra Modi government must be bold enough to approve GM mustard and Bt brinjal post-haste and up-end the activists who are coming in the way of the nation’s agricultural progress.

India’s agricultural science community stands solidly behind the approval of GM crops and the government has nothing to fear but the fear itself.

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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