On 11 May, the central biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) recommended that the environment ministry should approve GM Mustard. With this India has come one step closer to the entry of genetically modified (GM) food crops.
Here it needs to be mentioned that most countries have so far resisted the introduction of GM food crops mainly due to their widely acknowledged health and safety hazards, as well as the irreversible threat of genetic contamination. In most of Europe the resistance to GM food crops has been particularly stiff. India has approved only one GM crop, which is Bt cotton.
The battle to save India from GM food crops had been successful so far due to the determined resistance of farmers’ organizations, social and health activists supported by some senior scientists. This battle is not over. The final decision of the environment ministry has not been taken .There is still hope from the Supreme Court where long drawn out legal battles have been fought for several years on this issue.
While the movement against GM crops has prepared a strong case against GM Mustard with many technical details, the wider reality is that of an already existing case against GM crops taken as a whole with special emphasis on GM food crops. Many of these objections supported by senior scientists have already been widely discussed first in the context of Bt cotton and than in the case of Bt brinjal.
An eminent group of scientists from various countries who constitute 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.”
In April 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a report “Failure to Yield” confirming that “after 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialisation, GM crops have failed to increase yields” and that “traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down”.
In a widely quoted paper titled 'The Biotechnology Bubble' Dr. Mae-Wan Ho (of the BioElectrodynamics lab of the Open University in the UK), Joe Cummins (Professor Emeritus of Genetics in Canada) and Hartmut Meyer have summarised the results of several experiments, trials and commercial releases of GMOs. They write : “There are many signs of the problems caused in genetic engineering organisms. For every product that reaches the market, there are perhaps 20 or more that fail. It is particularly disastrous for animal welfare.”
- The “superpig” engineered with human growth hormone gene turned out arthritic, ulcerous, blind and impotent.
- The 'supersalmon” engineered again to grow as fast as possible, with genes belonging to other fish, ended up with a big monstrous head and died from not being able to see, breathe or feed properly.
- Even products that reach the market are failing, including crops that have been widely planted.
The authors of this widely quoted paper (published in the Ecologist) concluded: “It is important to realize that the failures are not just teething problems. They are very much the result of a reductionist science and a hit or miss technology. The transgenic foods created are unwholesome, because they involve stressing the developmental and metabolic system of organisms out of balance. There are bound to be unintended effects including toxins and allergens, which current risk assessments are designed to conceal rather than reveal. The major problem is the instability of transgenic lines.”
In 2009-10 at the time of the Bt brinjal debate 17 distinguished scientists from Europe, USA, Canada and New Zealand wrote to the Prime Minister of India warning against “the unique risks (of GM crops) to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible.” This letter added, “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.”
Dr. Sagari R. Ramdas, codirector of Anthra organisation writes, “Between 2005 and 2009 Anthra, an organisation led by women veterinary scientists researching the impact of Bt cotton on animals in different parts of India, has been closely investigating the reported morbidity and mortality observed in sheep and goat flocks which have been grazed on harvested Bt cotton crop in Andhra Pradesh. Shepherds unambiguously declared that their animals, which had never died or fallen sick while being grazed on regular cotton fields since the past 10 years, began to exhibit morbid changes when grazed on the GM crop.
“In Haryana, there was a strong correlation between feeding Bt cotton seeds and cotton seed cake to milch animals, and drop in milk yield and several reproductive disorders such as prolapse of uterus, premature birth of calves, increase in the incidence of abortions and decrease in conception rate.”
Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava, former Vice-Chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, has explained how Indian farmers will suffer if GM food crops like Bt brinjal are allowed to spread in India, “Eighty four percent of our farmer community consists of small or marginal farmers with a holding of less than four hectares land. According to Monsanto data, Bt. brinjal pollen can travel for 30 metres and could thus easily contaminate the neighbouring non-Bt brinjal field. In course of time, we would be left with no non-Bt yield even if the farmers do not want the transgenic crop. Unlike in Europe, Britain and many other countries, India has no labeling laws. In these countries, any food product which has more than 0.9 per cent of GM material must be labelled as genetically modified item. Therefore, we would neither be able to export our vegetables stock nor exercise choice with regard to GM brinjal or a nonGM brinjal. There is an everincreasing demand everywhere, including our country, for organically grown food which fetches the farmer better price. This market will also be lost with the introduction of GM foods.”
Further Prof. Bhargava, who was once nominated by the Supreme Court of India to the GEAC, has also drawn attention to the “attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations, the bureaucracy, the political setup 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.”
The writer is a freelance journalist associated with several social movements and initiatives.