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Seeding for change, or not

 K V Venkatasubramanian |  2014-03-28 22:59:13.0  |  1

Seeding for change, or not

Indian campaigners trying to keep GM (genetically modified) food crops out of the country seem to be waging a losing battle. The government is moving ahead briskly giving approvals to field trials, brushing aside opponents’ fears that the trials would put food, farming, human health and
environment at immense risk.

Just a week back, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex body of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, cleared proposals to conduct GM trials on 11 varieties of controversial GM crops – four of rice, two each of wheat and cotton, and one each of maize, sorghum and groundnut. The trials (pilot projects conducted to test the efficacy of seeds) will have to be cleared by the respective state governments first.

Earlier, in a contentious move on 27 February, the Environment Minister had approved the GEAC’s March 2013 decision to allow more than 200 GM trials for rice, wheat, maize, castor and cotton, overturning the stand taken by his immediate predecessors – Jayanthi Natarajan and Jairam Ramesh. Jayanthi had put these trials on hold, while her predecessor Jairam (in 2009) imposed a moratorium on GM eggplant (Bt Brinjal), and also introduced a clause which stipulated that companies, after getting clearance from GEAC, will have to seek a no-objection certificate (NOC) from state governments. Already, nearly half the states have rejected the GM companies’ attempts to conduct field trials.

Termed as farming revolution, biotech plants currently cover 10 per cent of global cropland. Seeds are developed in a laboratory and then field tested to enhance nutritional value or resistance to drought, disease and herbicides. Only four countries – Canada, the US, Brazil and Argentina–grow more than 90 per cent of the crops. The US biotech Monsanto, which dominates the GM and global seed industries, owns and sells each year more than 80 per cent of the GM seeds. Mainly Monsanto, and others such as Mahyco, Bayer and BASF are lobbying hard to enter the country in a big way.

The debate over GM crops began with the introduction of field trials Bt cotton (the only GM crop approved for commercial cultivation in India), in the late 1990s. Over the years, it has exploded into a big controversy. Many conservationists and agricultural scientists, once diehard opponents, have changed their steadfast resistance to grow GM crops. The International Union for Conservation had, in 2004, called for a halt to the release of GM organisms (GMO). But, in 2007, it had published an information paper saying, scientists had not found any conclusive evidence of direct negative impacts on biodiversity of GMOs released commercially; nor does evidence prove that GMOs are inherently dangerous or safe for human health. People have consumed billions of meals containing GM foods in the 17 years since they were first commercialised, and not one problem has been documented, says Belgian molecular biologist Van Montagu, the co-recipient of the 2013 World Food Prize.

Scientific organisations such as the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organisation, which studied GM crops, have found them safe for humans and positive for the environment. Veteran crop scientist M S Swaminathan says he is not against GM crops. ‘We need all the scientific tools to keep the world well fed. Golden rice and other GM crops will be part of that.’  Supporters and scientists claim many advantages: improved storage and nutritional quality; pest and disease resistance; selective herbicide tolerance; tolerance of water, temperature and saline extremes; improved animal welfare and higher yields and quality. Farmers can produce more crops in an environmentally sustainable way at a lower cost.

The Ministry of Agriculture argues that the nation’s food security will be jeopardised without GM crops; hence, open-air field trials of GMOs are absolutely essential.  Countering its contention, more than 150 scientists pointed out that food security arguments around GM crops are baseless and fallacious, both from the scientific and global experience point of view.

The scientists claimed that though yield of Bt cotton more than doubled between 2001 and 2011, it was mainly due to the pest and insect management strategies, new insecticide and new hybrids. However, they conceded that the GM cotton technology brought down pesticide use by about 50 per cent.

A peer-reviewed research report says GM crops may actually have reduced worldwide pesticide use by 9.1 per cent. Opponents say this nascent and unproven technology is not the panacea to the hunger problem. They have also linked it to farmers’ suicides. They claim that the proliferation of GM crops like Bt cotton has placed enormous financial strain on smallholder farmers, driving them to suicide.

Calling it as misinformation, supporters say GM cotton is not responsible for suicides among Indian farmers – a 2008 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, an alliance of 64 governments and nongovernmental organisations, set straight the myth completely.

A section of activists fears that the biotech may be misused to conduct human trials. Scientists in the UK and US have already submitted proposals to legally create GMO babies. Reports say GMO human embryos have already been created.

Can genetically modified (GM) food crops be kept out of India? The final call rests with the Supreme Court.  If cleared, India needs to take a pragmatic view. Governments must ensure proper advocacy, and introduce regulations, labelling and strict enforcement.  Will they?

The author is an independent journalist

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