Mark Lynas, a proponent for transgenics, may have flamboyantly declared that the debate on genetically modified (GM) crops is over but he has actually re-ignited the debate, though his supposed conversion from an anti-GM activism is two years old (which makes you wonder why the media thinks it is newsworthy now, unless there is careful PR work behind the curtains)! Debate is not bad at all. The fact that the debate is not being limited to scientists alone is a wonderful thing, too. Being scientific, however, is important. This requires us, first, to admit upfront the complexity of many issues that confront us today without getting into simplistic solutions. Lynas described people resisting GM crops as explicitly anti-science. Proving him wrong were some noteworthy developments in the last few days.
On January 23, the European Environmental Agency released a report called “Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, Precaution, Innovation”. The report covers a diverse range of chemical and technological innovations and has been prepared by a broad range of external authors and peer reviewers. It showcases through case studies “how damaging and costly the misuse or neglect of the precautionary principle can be” (the same that was mainly used by Jairam Ramesh when imposing a moratorium on Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, brinjal), and when early warnings are not heeded. The report asks for maximising innovations while minimising harm.
On GM crops specifically, it points out that they provide no direct benefit to consumers, are over-hyped, not necessarily safe and largely unsuitable for most of the world’s farmers (The Guardian’s summation). The report says GM crops are largely unsustainable in their reliance on external, non-renewable inputs. Further, intellectual property rights regimes around transgenics stifle investment into a broader diversity of innovations. On the other hand, “science-based agro-ecological methods are participatory in nature and designed to fit within the dynamics underpinning the multifunctional role of agriculture in producing food, enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem services, and providing security to communities”.
Another recent paper from the European Food Safety Authority found an unexplained, undiscovered viral gene in 54 commercialised GM “events”. Interestingly, science-based regulators and industry entities did not reveal (or even know of?) its existence all these years. The authors concluded that functions of this gene “might result in unintended phenotypic changes” (meaning hazards can’t be ruled out).
Now, let us look at some of proponents’ claims.
Mixing of genes between unrelated species: They say this “gene flow” happens all the time. Can we have one scientist show that stringing together bacterial, viral and other alien genes into a “genetic cassette” that inserts itself into another organism happens “all the time” in nature? Also, the precision of genetic engineering has been shown to be a myth by many scientific studies.
Pest-resistant cotton and maize need less insecticide: This is a theoretical half-truth. Bt crops might control one set of pests requiring less chemical sprays for those pests. Other pests, however, emerge (a 2006 study from China shows this). Also, we should talk about pesticides and not insecticides. The US has officially recorded increased chemical usage by 183 million kg after the adoption of GM crops. In Brazil, too, chemical usage went up. Environmental health problems from using more herbicides on GM crops (the use of which is increasing with “superweeds” emerging) have also been reported.
One often neglected fact: Where are we accounting for the in-planta insecticide being produced 24x7 in Bt plants throughout the crop season? A recent paper calculated that this is equal to 625 to 1,930 treatments with DiPel, a Bt biopesticide’s registered dosage for its maximal bio-accessible content. What about the scientific evidence that this poison is affecting soil microbial activity or that continuous, high toxin production in the plant is against Integrated Pest Management principles? To think that pest management across crops will be successful through monocultures of Bt genes is unscientific. The science of pest management has evolved beyond chemical pesticides and Bt crops.
GM is essential for food and nutrition security. A quick exercise to assess the food security of countries that have adopted GM crops on a large scale shows that their indicators on a hunger index have actually deteriorated or decelerated after the advent of GM crops. Hunger is a complex, structurally rooted issue, which techno-fixes cannot solve. India’s overflowing, rotting foodgrain and hungry millions epitomise this phenomenon.
Coming to organic agriculture, it is clear that critics have no understanding of what constitutes organic farming (which cannot be simplistically equated with traditional farming). Organic farming rests on biotechnology. In India, the only Padma Shri-honoured farmer is an organic farmer, Narsimha Raju Yadav of Andhra Pradesh, who holds impressive records of productivity across crops. The Krishi Karman awards given away this year by the President in the presence of the naysayer Sharad Pawar show the potential of organic farming and agro-ecological principles.
Impressive yield growths in different states are being achieved through non-GM interventions. It is unscientific to not pay full attention to: (i) non-GM breeding techniques and non-breeding-based technologies in farming; (ii) non-technological innovations including newer institutional approaches to ensure that the right innovations and technologies are optimally utilised; (iii) inequities that disallow access to food including to people partaking in the food production process.
In a country like India, transgenics and PR industry-created personalities like Lynas are an unneeded diversion from solutions that already exist. What else can describe the fact that he gets so much coverage? Why did Nana Patekar, who first sold Bt cotton for Monsanto and then apologised in 2006 when the Vidarbha crisis became starker, not get more than a mention than in the Marathi daily Deshonnati? Why don’t we like conversions of this kind? The
S K Sopory Committee’s indictment of the public sector research establishment and the regulatory regime should be enough for the agriculture ministry to learn a few lessons.
The author is one of the national convenors of the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture(ASHA), a network of more than 400 organisations working on issues of food, farmers & freedom