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.
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.