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The PM breaks his silence, and it's about GM

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a man of silence and science. So the only time he granted an interview (read broke his silence) to a publication, he chose Science. Last February, he told the magazine that “NGOs, often funded from the United States and the Scandinavian countries, which are not fully appreciative of the development challenges that our country faces” were responsible for controversies that did not let him “make use of genetic engineering technologies to increase the productivity of our agriculture”.

The PM was referring to the indefinite moratorium imposed on commercial planting of Bt brinjal in 2009 by then Environment minister Jairam Ramesh who found no over-riding urgency or adequate scientific consensus for the experiment. After that interview, Ramesh did not react if his boss was accusing him of sabotaging science or India’s food security but went on record saying that his “decision was not influenced by the campaign of any NGO, either from India or abroad”.

Six months on, in August 2012, the parliamentary standing committee on agriculture placed its report -- Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops: Prospects and Effects -- in the House. It revealed that a number of government agencies such as Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, National Biodiversity Authority, Department of Consumer Affairs, Department of Commerce and the Food Safety Standards Authority of India objected to transgenic food.

What us debate over GM crops? PTI

Yet, speaking at the 100th Indian Science Congress in Kolkata last week, the PM was back at his scientific best. “Complex issues, be they genetically modified food or nuclear energy or exploration of outer space, cannot be settled by faith, emotion and fear but by structured debate, analysis and enlightenment,” he said in his address.

Strangely, he resented it last time when there were public hearings on Bt brinjal. For years, his government has been dodging pleas for open discussion on nuclear power by several organisations, some of which he dismissed as foreign-funded last year. Now, in one bold stroke, he dubbed all opposition to GMO (genetically modified organism), including those from various departments and technocrats of the government, as unscientific.

The science of GM food may be complex but the issue of its acceptance is not. Generating transgenic food is not grafting the stems of two plants to get a darker shade of red. It is about firing a plasmid or small DNA with a particle gun into cells and an inserted DNA integrating into a chromosome. It involves a million mutations which are totally unpredictable. The result is alien gene structures that never existed in nature. The default response of human or animal immune system is to attack the unknown. The GM food triggers the same reaction inside us.

The result is inflammation of the bowel which causes a range of disorders, from allergy and autism to cancer. Worse, transgenic food such as Bt corn or brinjal is modified with a soil bacteria -- Bacillus thuringiensis -- so that it produces toxins to kill insects. We are assured that the inbuilt pesticide harms only insects and not us. Irrespective of the veracity of the assurance -- it was debunked last February around the same time the PM was talking to Science -- would anyone want to swallow that as food? One would, the argument goes, if famished.

The advocates of GM food claim that the technology increases yield and will help feed a billion mouths. There is no conclusive data yet that transgenic food increases yield or deters weed. More importantly, the World Food Programme says that “there is enough food in the world today for everyone”. Yet, there is and will be hunger as long as millions cannot afford their share of food due to artificial market conditions.

It perhaps makes sense that the same market wants to profit more by peddling unnatural food in the name of addressing the artificial hunger it has created. If only the term unnatural was enough to describe the madness and potential threat of transgenic food and non-food organism or those who are promoting it.

In 1992, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided without any safety studies that GM food would be treated like any other food. Six years on, it took a lawsuit to reveal thousands of internal communications among FDA scientists who demanded long-term trials but were muffled under the watch of Michael R Taylor, administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service and an old Monsanto hand who later returned to the company as vice-president (public policy). Today, Taylor serves as the FDA’s deputy commissioner.

Taylor is not alone. US secretaries for Agriculture Ann Veneman (2001) served on Monsanto’s board of directors. The present secretary, Thomas Vilsack, was felicitated as Governor of the Year 2001 by the Biotechnology Industry Organisation. Former deputy administrator of US Environmental Protection Agency Linda Fisher was a Monsanto vice-president and now serves DuPont, another chemical giant. That is how thin the thin line between the industry and the state has become.

While company-funded (or state-sponsored) scientific trials hastily clear GM products, every independent study faces roadblocks. “We don't have the complete picture. That's no accident,” explained Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, “Multibillion-dollar agricultural corporations, including Monsanto and Syngenta, have restricted independent research on their genetically engineered crops. They have often refused to provide independent scientists with seeds, or they've set restrictive conditions that severely limit research options.”

No scope for debate despite signs that GM crops may not be the way to go. Reuters

Nevertheless, researchers established last February that the Bt toxin kills kidney cells, leading to what is informally called leaky guts, now an alarmingly common condition in children in the USA and Canada. The result is premature release of food in the bloodstream which immediately activates antibodies and triggers food intolerance and severe allergy. Over time, this can lead to a range of diseases from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s.

Other studies linked transgenic food to infertility, defective childbirth, abnormal DNA function and even a pathogen new to science. These are not matters of faith, emotion or fear. But no authority – MNCs, USFDA or scientific agencies of the Indian government – has settled any of these issues in public or allowed independent science to take a call.

Corporate-cum-state funding is an article of faith for agricultural research the world over. The industry donated millions to top universities and researchers have paid dearly for criticising GMO. Renowned Hungarian-born biochemist Arpad Pusztai was sacked by Scotland’s Rowett Institute when his 1998 study found that GM potato had negative effects on the stomach lining and immunity system of rat labs. Last year, Monsanto even bullied Vermont’s legislature to drop a bill that had the backing of over 90% of Connecticut residents and sought to make labelling of all GMO mandatory.

Yet, our PM wants to keep fear out of the transgenic discourse. He wants no emotion to be stirred even after thousands of suicides, loss of cotton crop (and livestock foraging on those Bt fields), skin infection of farmhands, a ban enforced by Maharashtra, and his agriculture minister Sharad Pawar telling Parliament last month that the objection to Bt cotton was “speculative, confusing and unscientific”.

But can we really debate the aspiration of biotech giants who want to eventually replace all natural farming with their GM seeds? Does the implication of two or three MNCs controlling the entire world’s food resources require analyses? Is there any enlightenment in risking a million unpredictable and uncontrollable mutations triggered by an infant technology just because we cannot stop profiteering in and wasting the food produced nature’s way?