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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 13, New Delhi, March 19, 2016

Pushing Hazardous GM Food Crops— Reason Trampled, Trust Betrayed

Sunday 20 March 2016, by Bharat Dogra

While India’s first GM crop, Bt cotton, has proved to be risky and hazardous in many ways, there was at least a saving grace that the introduction of the highly hazardous GM technology was confined so far to non-food crops. But more recently various government agencies have moved rapidly in the direction of introducing GM food crops as well. While a final decision on this is still awaited, it is clear that in various ways the path for introduction of GM food crops is being cleared. If the authorities have their way, GM varieties of mustard and corn may soon be introduced in India.

This entire work is being taken forward in a deeply suspicious manner ignoring the basic norms of transparency. Thus the Indian people as well as various State governments are being denied critical bio-safety and other data on the basis of which a well-informed debate can take place on subject. In the past various State governments and Chief Ministers had expressed themselves openly against GM food crops. This became very clear at the time of the earlier debate on Bt brinjal.

Recent road-roller efforts to somehow push forward GM food crops are all the more surprising keeping in view the earlier orders of the Supreme Court in 2007 and 2008 to restrain field trials of GM food crops as well as their commercial introduction.

However, these orders have been ignored and violated to back not just small scale but even large scale field trials leading to allegations of contempt of court.

Keeping in view the attampts made by very powerful interests to somehow introduce GM food crops in India, it is important at this juncture to carefully examine the various high risks and hazards of GM food crops.

An eminent group of scientists from various countries constituting the Independent Science Panel have said in their conclusion after examining all aspects of GM crops: “GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence

there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture

. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment.

GM crops should be firmly rejected now.

Vested interests have spread the entirely wrong notion that genetic engineering holds the promise of greatly increasing farm yields. According to a report by eminent scientists comprising the Independent Science Panel, “The consistent finding from independent research and on-farm surveys since 1999 is that genetically modified (GM) crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits of significantly increasing yields or reducing herbicide and pesticide use.... The instability of transgenic lines has plagued the industry from the beginning, and this may be responsible for a string of major crop failures.”

In his widely acclaimed book Genetic Roulette, Jeffrey M. Smith has summarised the results of a lot of research on the health hazards of GM crops/food: “Lab animals tested with GM foods had stunted growth, impaired immune systems, bleeding stomachs, abnormal and potentially precancerous cell growth in the intestines, impaired blood cell development, misshapen cell structures in the liver, pancreas, and testicles, altered gene expression and cell metabolism, liver and kidney lesions, partially atrophied livers, inflamed kidneys, less developed brains and testicles, enlarged livers, pancreases, and intestines, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar, inflamed lung tissue, increased death rates, and higher offspring mortality.”

Seventeen distinguished scientists from Europe, the USA, Canada and New Zealand wrote to the former Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, warning against “the unique risks (of GM crops) to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible.” This letter adds: “The GM transformation process is highly mutagenic leading to disruptions to host plant genetic structure and function, which in turn leads to disturbances in the biochemistry of the plant. This can lead to novel toxin and allergen production as well as reduced/altered nutrition quality.

“...The basic problem is that GM as employed in agriculture is conceptually flawed, crude, imprecise and poorly controlled technology, that is incapable of generating plants that contain the required multiple, co-ordinately regulated genes that work in an integrated way to respond to environmental challenges.”

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. This is why organisations like those of rice exporters have also got involved in the campaigns against GM crops. 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.

It is due to the serious threat of contamination that even trials of GM crops are considered unacceptably risky. Prominent environmentalist Sailendra Nath Ghosh had written: “In view of the virtual impossibility of preventing contami-nation, even the open-field trials ought not to have been permitted. According to independent geneticists, the isolation distance needed to be both in time and space. The land on which the GM crop is to be grown should not sow a crop in the previous or the succeeding year. Cross-pollinating crops, unlike the self-pollinating ones, require isolation distance of three to four kms. The implementation of these requirements is impossible under Indian conditions.”

Despite all these well-documented serious hazards, some of the most powerful seed companies are willing to invest heavily and use all sorts of aggressive tactics to promote GM crops as this technology, concentrated in a few big companies, gives them the power to control world food and agriculture. Hence the struggle to protect the health, agriculture and environment from the onslaught of the GM crop technology is likely to be a difficult one, but it is extremely important to sustain this struggle.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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