Let’s Be Honest About Genetically Modified Crops

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Benefits of GM technology as claimed by its proponents have not conclusively materialised under repeated examination.

The environmental soundness and health benefits of India’s traditional agricultural methods still trump the genetic modification of crops.

Swarajya has carried several articles that advocated for genetically modified crops. This article presents the counter-view.

More than twenty years after they were first introduced, genetically modified (GM) crops are reported to be grown on approximately 3.7 per cent of the world's total agricultural land, and by less than 1 per cent of the world's farmers. In India, only GM cotton (commonly known as Bt cotton) is allowed to be grown for commercial cultivation, while several trials of GM food crops have been underway for years. That these GM crops are under trial at all is opposed on agricultural, environmental and economic grounds, and that we should move beyond trials and into widespread cultivation is being proposed, often, for food security and climate change reasons.

To understand whether GM food crop cultivation should be permitted in India, it is important to understand what GM technology is. In simple words, a GM seed is the result of a laboratory process in which genes from the DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, of one species is extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals and even humans. In other words, genetic modification brings about a change in the genetic makeup, and properties, of the organism developed. The World Health Organization defines a GM organism as one "in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally".

This idea of developing an unnatural organism leads people 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 an answer to this question. One is to consider the more harmful effects of any sort of progress, against a timeline of that progress. While individual mobility (the automobile) may be considered a boon, the effects of many people using this means of travel on a large scale is not (urban traffic, the rise of suburbia, pollution, increased and unsustainable use of raw material, wastefulness). Similarly, while some modern drugs may help us tackle certain diseases (tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery), the unregulated and profit-maximising tendencies of the pharmaceutical industry have pushed many families into debt and contributed to weakening human immune responses.

So, for every kind of progress, there is a blowback, which may be technical, economic, environmental or a combination of these in nature. For some types of progress, we now have timelines several generations long to examine, such as with automobiles and medicinal drugs. With others, we have a shorter timeline for examination. Genetic modification is one such instance, and its brief timeline is full of high promise, but the practice is unquestionable.

Because of its short existence as an idea, and limited practice (GM seeds and foods are outlawed in 15 countries of the European Union), it is always only ever experimental. And for that reason, the strenuous attempts of the bio-technology and industrial agriculture industries worldwide to have it declared 'safe' have failed scientific scrutiny and 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 were safe. 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 United Kingdom’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 caution was both necessary and widely regarded as such. 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 a vindication of the need for caution. Contrast that view, no more than 15 years ago, to the opposition to any caution today when those who advocate it are termed “anti-science” and “Luddites”.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the biotech, the commercial seed and the retail food industries to paint GM seed and crop as the answer to all problems existing and to come, opposition to genetically modified and engineered seeds 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 modified seeds and crops, the Government of India constituted a Parliamentary Standing Committee on GM crops in 2011-12. After a lengthy, exhaustive process, which gathered evidence of practice from cultivators, experts, the public and stakeholder groups, the Committee released its report. It was hard-hitting and damning in a way few Parliamentary reports are.

That the present government was a part of this report – a landmark instance 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 the assessment and approval of transgenics in food crops, the serious conflict of interest of various stakeholders involved in the regulatory mechanism and the total lack of post-commercialisation monitoring of GM crops.

The report also cautioned the Union government on the effects of GM crops on agricultural exports. It observed that cultivating GM crops leads to contamination and poses 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 crops of traditional and hybrid crop staples is one of the several risks that this technology carries and which our country cannot afford.

Considering the 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, from across political parties, were unanimous in their decision. The report stands as a comprehensive indictment – and indeed an authoritative rebuttal to the claims of the GM/GE/biotech industry and its attempts to wrest control of India's food grain and commercial crop production. That such a comprehensive report is, a few years after its release, not even referred to by either the central government, state governments or the food and commercial crops industry speaks volumes about transparency and information, both prerequisites in a democratic system.

Additionally, three more high-level reports advising against the adoption of these crops in India have likewise been ignored. These are Jairam Ramesh’s report of February 2010, which set a new standard for public consultation on an ecological and ethical issue and 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 the means of genetic modification 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 back of biological safety. 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 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, as also to avoid economic stress to growers and the loss of seed sovereignty. As explained by Colin Todhunter, a push for GM seeds is to sanction the exploitation of the farmer in favour of profits for the commercial seed industry, and the ruin of traditional agriculture.

Among the benefits claimed by the proponents of GM technology is greater yield. This is an attractive inducement for farmers who would certainly like their half or one acre of land to produce more weight in crop per square unit of land. Just as attractive is the claim that GM seeds require lesser application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, both of which are expensive. These assumptions, however, have crumbled under examination.

Data from the United States, a country that has grown GM crops for well over two decades now, paints a picture starkly different from the loud claims often made. In the most extensive and rigorous study, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analysed 20 years' returns and costs of GM crops and concluded that, contrary to myths about the superiority of GE crop yields, most yield gains in recent years are a result of traditional breeding or improvements in other agricultural practices. The expert scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman unequivocally said, "Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down."

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 suicides among Indian farmers (more than two lakh cumulatively, according to 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, irrespective of 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 setback to the revival of the khadi-based village and rural hubs.

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 genetic modification fully represents.

This article is part of a debate on genetically modified (GM) crops. Swarajya has been hosting both pro and anti-GM views on its platform to foster a healthy debate. You can follow the arguments here.