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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Genetic Engineering: Instrument of Western Agribusiness to Control India’s Food and Farming System

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Bharat Dogra

The recent high-pressure tactics to introduce genetically engineered food crops in India are another rude reminder that Western agribusiness companies have a deeprooted strategy to obtain a stranglehold on India’s food and agriculture system.

In a review of recent trends titled ‘Food Without Choice’ (The Tribune, November 1) Prof Pushpa M. Bhargava (who was nominated by the Supreme Court in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to protect safety concerns), an internationally acclaimed authority on this subject, drew pointed attention

to the attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified (GM) crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations (MNCs) (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political set-up and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools”.

Further, he has warned:

The ultimate goal of this attempt in India of which the leader is Monsanto, is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and thus food production. With 60 per cent of our population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would essentially mean not only a control over our food security but also over our farmer security, agricultural security and security of the rural sector.

Prof Pushpa M. Bhargava served earlier as the Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, and then as the Vice-Chairman, National Knowledge Commission. Therefore his views on a matter of great national interest need to be taken very seriously. He has expressed his deep anguish that
in spite of the virtually uninterrupted record of Monsanto over four decades of breaking laws and engaging in unethical acts, the two Committees, the RCGM of the Department of Biotechnology and the GEAC of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, that are responsible for the approval of GM crops for environmental release seem to have never questioned what Monsanto has done in the past or wanted to do now nor taken note of any of the numerous scientific research publications by well-known and highly credible scientists working in prestigious institutions and with no personal agenda, that have appeared in some of the world’s best known scientific journals.

COMING to the more recent debate on Bt brinjal, Prof Bhargava points out that when Monsanto’s dossier containing all the bio-safety tests that they had done was put in the public domain earlier this year (2009), there were serious criticisms of it by many scientists from various parts of the world…

Prof Bhargava’s own criticism centred around the following points:

  • A large body of concerned, knowledgeable and reputed scientists have agreed that some 30 or so tests need to be done before a GM plant is cleared for environmental release. Monsanto had done only less than 10 of these tests.
  • Even these tests were done largely by Monsanto, and we have no facility in the country to even determine whether the tests were actually done.
  • There were many scientific errors even in the tests that were done by Monsanto.
  • The GEAC appointed a committee (EC-II) to prepare a report on such criticism. But Dr Bhargava and others were essentially given just one day to review the 102, page report. Still on the basis of his vast experience he could quickly see that there were

internal inconsistencies in the report, inconsistencies between the report and the earlier data that had been put in public domain and outright scientific absurdities.

When Prof Bhargava recommended that adequate time should be allowed for a review meeting of eminent experts who had been involved in this issue, this proposal was completely ignored and the GEAC went ahead to give its hurried approval to Bt brinjal (the government’s final decision is still awaited).

Dr Jack A. Heinemann, of the School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, has a decade-long experience of reviewing safety information from companies on their genetically engineered crops. He writes (Economic and Political Weekly, October 3, 2009):

These studies have been of questionable quality and without proper independent oversight. Regulators have few options but to either bow to company pressure and hope in faith that the companies’ products are safe or to require move information to establish safety, as the precautionary principle empowers truly careful regulators to do.

Government regulators can be hindered by the poor quality of data provided by the companies that make genetically engineered crops. In my opinion, the quality of safety studies on two different genetically engineered plants produced by companies for India have been among the lowest I have seen anywhere and at any time in my life as a scientist.

On climbs of yield increase of genetically engineered Bt varieties, Jack A. Heinemann writes:

The “Bt” trait does not increase yield, it just is becoming nearly impossible to source the best varieties without the Bt transgenes.

Why is this so? Dr Heinemann answers:

The yield benefit (in Bt cotton) comes from the use of high yielding hybrids that are only available as GM varieties because genetic engineering companies like Mansanto control a large proportion of the seed supply and only offer them as GM cotton varieties.

Jack A. Heinemann asks:

Where is the data that these same high yield varieties lacking the Bt trait and grown using sustainable techniques such as integrated pest management and agroecology perform less than GM varieties?

He answers:

There is none at all to my knowledge, while there is evidence that GM varieties undermine sustainable agriculture.

On the experience of the USA Dr Heinemann writes:
The yields of Bt cotton in the US, for example, have not been consistently or sustainably higher than cotton produced using high yield varieties that were not genetically engineered, and GM varieties have contributed to financial losses for farmers. The high costs of genetically engineered seeds put farmers at financial risk.

Heinemann concludes:

Does India want to export control of its food? Then go with genetic engineering. If India wants to feed itself, then go with proven but so far neglected approaches that work, such as agro ecology.

A Friends of the Earth report (year 2008) titled ‘Who Benefits From GM Crops?’ concludes, on the basis of studying the yield figures of crops like cotton, soy and corn in the US starting from the 1930s, that genetic engineering has been at best neutral with respect to yield. At the macro level, the report says, average cotton yields have stagnated since the adoption of Bt cotton in the US, as in other countries like Argentina, Australia and Colombia.

Kavitha Kuruganti points out in a paper, ‘Bt Cotton and the Myth of Enhanced Yield’, (EPW, May 30)

The 2008 yields of US soybean (at 40 bushels per acre, as per National Agricultural Statistics Service of the USDA) with 90 per cent of such soybean being genetically modified, are lower than the 1994 yields of 41.4 bushels (before GM soybean was introduced).

It is important to note is that the 1996-2000 period saw a sharp decline in yield growths in cotton—that is the period when GM cotton increased to 61 per cent of total cotton cultivation in the US.

A University of Nebraska study found that Roundup Ready (RR) soya varieties (Roundup Ready is the brand of Monsanto’s GM trait) yielded five per cent less than their closest conventional relatives and 10 per cent less than high-yielding conventional lines. This implies a loss in a production of nearly 200 kg/ha.

A study by Barney Gordon (2007) titled Manganese Nutrition of Glyphosate—Resistant and Conventional Soybeans (published in Better Crops, Vol. 91-4), found in the context of Roundup Ready (GM) soya varieties that glyphosate applied to the GM crop was inhibiting the uptake of nutrients like manganese essential to plant health and performance.

IN the very first year of Bt cotton’s commercial cultivation in India (2002-03), the Andhra Pradesh’s Department of Agriculture concluded a study of 3709 farmers growing this Bt cotton. As many as 71 per cent of these farmers reported low yields with Bt cotton.

In Madhya Pradesh the average yield of cotton between 1996-2002 (before the introduction of Bt cotton) was 612.7 kg/ha. However, in the six years after the introduction of Bt cotton, the average cotton yield was reduced to 518.3 kg./ha.

A review by the Independent Science Panel, which consisted of senior scientists from 11 countries covering a wide range of relevant disciplines reviewed the evidence on the hazards of GMOs. This review concluded that many GM crops contain gene products known to be harmful. For example, the Bt proteins that kill pests include potent immunogens and allergens. Food crops are increasingly being engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, drugs and vaccines in the open environment, exposing people to the danger of inappropriate medication and their harmful side effects. Herbicides tolerant crops—accounting for a majority of all GM crops worldwide—are tied to the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate and glufosinate ammonium. These have been linked to spontaneous abortions, birth defects and other serious health problems for human beings, animals and soil-organisms. GM varieties are unstable, with the potential to create new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and to disrupt gene function in animal and human cells.

Earlier in the USA several prominent scientists (including Nobel laureates) got together to form the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and pleaded for caution in the commercial introduction of new genetically engineered products.

The UCS released a study by Dr Jane Rissler and Dr Margaret Mellon that warned against the possibility of introduction of new viruses and diseases as well as proliferation of weeds. The possibility of harm will rise as the number and variety of these crops increase. Moreover, the fact that a transgenic crop has been approved as safe in the USA will not mean that risks do not exist in the different environment conditions prevailing in other countries.

The study by the UCS titled ‘Perils Amidst the Promise’, concluded, among other things that no company should be permitted to commercialise a transgenic crop in the United States until a strong government programme is in place that assures risk assessment and control of all transgenic crops and gives adequate consideration to centres of crop diversity in the US and elsewhere in the world. The appropriate United Nations organisation should develop international biosafety protocols, which are necessary tto ensure that developing countries, especially those harbouring centres of crop genetic diversity, can protect against the risks of genetically engineered crops.

In addition to all this there is the ethical dilemma faced by vegetarians who may find it difficult to select food when animal genes are introduced into plant genes. The choice becomes even more difficult (and not just for vegetarians) when even human genes are introduced into food crops (even rice). This dilemma is most difficult to resolve when GM foods are not specifically labelled, and in fact GM food companies try their best to avoid any legal requirement of specific labelling of GM food.

Due to the threat of contamination, it is difficult for normal crops or organic crops to remain free from the impact of GM crops once these have been released. As worldwide concern for food safety grows, it is likely that there will be increasing demand for organically grown crops and crops which are not contaminated by GM crops. Therefore, we will be surrendering premium world markets if we allow our crops to be contaminated by GMOs. That is why organisations like those of rice exporters have also got involved in the campaigns against GMOs.

Star link (corn engineered to contain a Bt toxin pesticide) was planted on less than 0.5 per cent of US corn acereage, but its recall cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and even then the recall was not entirely successful.

Clearly the threat from GM crops to health, natural farming systems and environment is so serious that any commercial release cannot be allowed. Even any experimental trials should be asked to wait till definite ways to avoid hazards can be found.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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