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Why we must clear the GMO clutter while we still can

Once the government enacts the National Biotechnology Regulatory Bill, 2009, articles like this may not get published anymore. Before I go on to why, let me admit that stark polarisation has always been the hallmark of any GMO (genetically modified organism) debate. I woke up to one this morning. Readers' responses to my last article also reinforced the fact.

Yet, it is still possible to seek answers to a few very reasonable questions. The first question one needs to ask is if we need GM crop at all. And if we do, is it safe for our health; and finally, if it makes economic sense.

There is no debate over the fact that there is enough food on earth to feed every adult and child and hunger is a problem, as Dr Amartya Sen put it, of entitlement. But as population grows, so does the demand for food. What should be then the global strategy to meet that challenge?

India was among the 58 countries that ratified in April 2008 the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report by the UN and World Bank. It said that the secret of food security lay in 'back to basics' agriculture and local solutions which needed investment, research and policy thrust to develop and promote conventional technologies for restocking groundwater, revitalising soil, multi-cropping etc.

On biotechnology, the IAASTD report said that "there is a significant lack of transparent communication... information can be anecdotal and contradictory, and uncertainty on benefits and harms is unavoidable. There is a wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology; many of these risks are as yet unknown." The three countries that did not agree were the US, Canada and Australia.

Representational Image. Reuters

But is GMO really more effective than other technologies in increasing yield? Between 1950 and 1980, the same report says, prior to the development of GMOs, modern varieties of wheat increased yields up to 33 percent even in the absence of fertilizers. "Modern biotechnologies used in containment have been widely adopted. For example, the industrial enzyme market reached $1.5 billion in 2000. But the application outside containment, such as the use of GM crops, is much more contentious as some varieties indicate highly variable 10-33 percent yield gains in some places and yield declines in others."

In India, Bt-cotton has increased overall productivity. But it helps the crop fight only pests. In Vidarbha, the crop failed due to water shortage. In Punjab, it caused widespread skin disease. Down south, cattle died foraging on Bt fields. It is possible that some Bt-seeds are safer than the others. But farmers have no comparative knowledge or option to choose.

Ultimately, agricultural productivity will depend on water availability, topsoil quality and farming practices. Green revolution emptied aquifers along vast tracts of north India. Deforestation and use of chemical agents spoiled the top soil. We do need technology to reduce water-dependence of crops. But can we trust the same chemical giants, who flooded our fields with pesticides before disowning it as a lethal practice after four decades, not to come up with another expensive chemical panacea that will again backfire on us?

So far, the GM crops boast traits designed to achieve three different purposes. Some resist herbicides so that weed-killers can be freely used. Others produce proteins not naturally present in them to kill pests like the Bt-toxin does. The third enables plants to fight drought.

The herbicide-resistant plants encourage spraying of deadly toxins such as Monsanto's Roundup. The pesticide-resistant plants create super pests and have been a health hazard to humans and animals alike. While the so-called drought-resistant ones have bettered performance by 6 percent over 15 years - the minimum time required for developing and establishing a new strain - conventional methods achieved the same result over the same period at a fraction of the cost.

While there is enough to suggest that the GMO producers need the technology more than the world's farmers and the hungry, are their products even safe for us? Frankly, there can be no simple answer because each GMO needs to be rigorously tested to get specific results. But who do we trust when science and the governments are equally compromised?

In the US, the safety regulators themselves are the industry bigwigs. The same industry funds the entire agricultural research in America. No wonder then that when India signed the pact with the US on strategic partnership in agriculture and food security in 2006, our Planning Commission included Monsanto, Walmart and Archer Midlands as board members of Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture.

Dr S Parasuraman, director of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, was part of the first expert committee that evaluated Bt-brinjal. When he objected to the way Mahyco was being allowed to run away with the clearance, the panel was disbanded and he was dropped from the second committee. Of the 16 members of the new panel, only five did not have any conflict of interest.

In July 2009, then Minister of State in the prime minister's office Prithviraj Chavan wrote to then Health minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, allaying his apprehensions about the potential health impact of GM food. In that letter, Chavan quoted extensively and verbatim from promotional materials of the industry, including the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a quasi-scientific body funded by Monsanto.

After reports of livestock death due to foraging on Bt fields became regular in Andhra Pradesh, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in January 2008 cited reports from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) to claim "conclusive proof of safety" to animals from Bt cotton feed. Replying to a subsequent RTI, the IVRI said that they did no such study and did not submit any report to the GEAC either.

No wonder this GEAC cleared Bt-brinjal entirely on the basis of the data provided by Mahyco without a single independent trial even after Dr PM Bhargava, microbiologist and Supreme Court-appointed observer to the GEAC, pointed out 29 anomalies in the bio-safety dossier submitted by the company.

Against the odds of lack of funding and access, whatever little independent science tells us has been extremely worrying. A group of researchers have established in February 2012 that the Bt-toxin kills human kidney cells. Since Bt-toxins are not inert on non-target human cells, conclusive medical evidence is required before ruling out their role in a range of diseases from intestinal permeability to cancer.

Another paper published in March 2012 in the journal Toxicol In Vitro found that Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide being used increasingly on genetically modified plants, induces necrosis and apoptosis in mature rat testicular cells and testosterone decreases at lower levels.

A second study at France's Caen University found that Monsanto's Roundup and a GM crop resistant to it caused, at levels approved by the US government, massive tumours, liver and kidney damage, leading to premature death of 50 percent of the male and 70 percent of the female lab rats used for the experiment.

The Telegraph in UK quoted Dr Michael Antoniou of King's College London, who contributed to the project, as saying, "This is the most thorough research ever published into the health effects of GM food crops and the herbicide Roundup on rats. It shows an extraordinary number of tumours developing earlier and more aggressively - particularly in female animals."

But would not the impact of GM food show on Americans who have been consuming it since 1994? Again, there is very little research to link the health patterns to consumption of specific food items. But the general trend reveals an ominous pattern. The US is placed 28th in life expectancy. An American spends an average $8000 on healthcare every year. Since 1990, despite a sharp fall in smoking, life expectancy in America has increased by a mere 2.2 years to 77.6 years, the lowest among industrialised countries.

While many blame obesity, lifestyle diseases and a faulty healthcare system, these two decades are also the period when GMO became an integral part of the American diet. Since 1990, global child mortality has fallen by one-third. With a 42 percent improvement - from 11.6 to 6.7 per 1000 - in 20 years, the US ranks 42nd, behind even Cuba. Children are the most vulnerable to toxins in food.

What further stokes fear is the industry's rigid resistance to labelling. Forget issues of consumer rights and choice, why shouldn't GM food be promoted with the GM brand? Increased cost is a lame excuse. In her August 2012 paper, Dr Joanna M. Shepherd-Bailey of Emory University School of Law pointed out that, in the worst case scenario, prices for packaged products would only have to increase by, on average, 0.03 percent to offset the entire onetime expense of redesigning labels. Similarly, produce prices would have to increase by only 0.1 percent to account for the new expense of placards disclosing genetic engineering.

After companies like Monsanto and Hershey contributed $44 million for the campaign "No on Prop 37" targeted against proponents who could raise only $7.3 million, the mandatory GMO labelling bill was narrowly (53-47) defeated in California this November. It is anyone's guess why $44 million had to be spent on an intensive anti-regulation campaign to save a few cents on food labelling. But the pressure on the governments to make GMO come clean is mounting: two more American states - Washington and New Mexico - moved legislations for labelling earlier this month.

In the largely unorganised India market, rigorous labeling of GM food will be impossible. The farmer will have to buy GM seed every year as he is legally forbidden to recycle any. With "patent-protected" food crops, the control of the massive agricultural sector will eventually be in the hands of Ag-Biotech (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, and Dow). That is the economic implication of the GM takeover.

The 2008 IAASTD report warned in no uncertain terms against such a global scenario: "There is particular concern about present IPR instruments eventually inhibiting seed-saving, exchange, sale and access to proprietary materials necessary for the independent research community to conduct analyses and long term experimentation on impacts. GM farmers may become liable for adventitious presence if it causes loss of market certification and income to neighbouring organic farmers, and conventional farmers may become liable to GM seed producers if transgenes are detected in their crops."

Fortunately, we can still raise these issues and ask questions of GMO as long as the National Biotechnology Regulatory Bill, 2009, does not become law and throws in jail anyone who "without evidence or scientific record misleads the public about safety of GM crops". But the clock is ticking.