Yesterday’s development of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh pressuring Environment and Forests Minister Prakash Javadekar to deny our agricultural scientists the opportunity to try genetically modified (GM) seeds on Indian soil reminds one of the mediaeval Church refusing to check out the Galilean telescope lest it should be found that celestial objects do not revolve around the earth.
It is ironical that KN Govindacharya, a postgraduate in mathematics, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) head Arvind Kejriwal, an engineer trained by IIT, have taken this anti-science position. In all likelihood, they are trapped in political straitjackets that they cannot come out of. For years and decades, the Sangh has cultivated a constituency based on a set of rigid theories; members of that vote-bank might well brand them as ‘traitors’ if they were to start paying heed to sane counsel of the scientific community. Even in the AAP, whose core support base has moved to Delhi’s have-nots, the highest decision makers have stakes in businesses and power centres of the capital.
On 25 June 2013, both Govindacharya and Kejriwal had participated in a joint campaign against GM crops, where Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the now maligned Ved Pratap Vaidik raised slogans and hands together against modernity and development. Though this columnist was a member of the AAP then, he stayed away from the demonstrations at Jantar Mantar and lodged his protest against the party’s anti-science stance on social media that day.
“What’s this nonsense?” Dr Swapan Kumar Datta, then deputy director general (crop sciences) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, had thundered, referring to protests against GM crops in 2010 when I met him in his office at Krishi Bhavan. He said, “There are people who use the science wrong. They must be slammed and kept out of the country. But why damn our own research?”
Indeed, yesterday while addressing the scientists of ICAR, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while noting that farming in India was hereditary, and practices were difficult to change, said that change could happen only when the farmer was convinced about its efficacy. Therefore, agricultural scientist must — in accordance with changing circumstances of climate, water and soil — convince the farmer about initiatives of scientific community. This was, to my mind, a veiled reference to genetically modified crops that have witnessed unseemly agitation based on half-baked information peddled by ill-researched papers, many of which find a place in magazines and websites run by lobbyists.
Mind you, MNCs alone do not have lobbyists; there are vested interests in the US that do not want developing countries to progress, lest the First World loses its position as the world boss. Some such lobbies are the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, and 1971-established Greenpeace — the last being under the Intelligence Bureau’s scanner of late for its anti-India activities. The swadeshi brigade dances to the tunes of these lobbies quite often, rather unwittingly.
There is broad scientific consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops poses no greater risk than conventional food. The key areas of controversy related to GM food are: whether GM food should be labelled, the role of government regulators, the effect of GM crops on health and the environment, the effect on pesticide resistance, the impact of GM crops for farmers, and the role of GM crops in feeding the world population. One may check out the claim of safety from the following theses:
First, I quote from the thesis, “Plant Genetics, Sustainable Agriculture and Global Food Security,” by Pamela Ronald of the Department of Plant Pathology, University of California.
Ronald writes, “The number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. To accommodate the increased demand for food, world agricultural production needs to rise by 50% by 2030 (Royal Society 2009). Because the amount of arable land is limited and what is left is being lost to urbanization, salinisation, desertification, and environmental degradation, it no longer possible to simply open up more undeveloped land for cultivation to meet production needs. Another challenge is that water systems are under severe strain in many parts of the world. The fresh water available per person has decreased fourfold in the past 60 years (United Nations Environmental Programme 2002). Of the water that is available for use, approximately 70% is already used for agriculture (Vorosmarty et al. 2000). Many rivers no longer flow all the way to the sea; 50% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared, and major groundwater aquifers are being mined unsustainably, with water tables in parts of Mexico, India, China, and North Africa declining by as much as 1 m/year (Somerville and Briscoe 2001). Thus, increased food production must largely take place on the same land area while using less water.”
She continues, “Compounding the challenges facing agricultural production are the predicted effects of climate change (Lobell et al. 2008). As the sea level rises and glaciers melt, low-lying croplands will be submerged and river systems will experience shorter and more intense seasonal flows, as well as more flooding (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007). Yields of our most important food, feed, and fibre crops decline precipitously at temperatures much greater than 30°, so heat and drought will increasingly limit crop production (Schlenker and Roberts 2009). In addition to these environmental stresses, losses to pests and diseases are also expected to increase. Much of the losses caused by these abiotic and biotic stresses, which already result in 30–60% yield reductions globally each year, occur after the plants are fully grown: a point at which most or all of the land and water required to grow a crop has been invested (Dhlamini et al. 2005). For this reason, a reduction in losses to pests, pathogens, and environmental stresses is equivalent to creating more land and more water.”
“Thus,” she says, “An important goal for genetic improvement of agricultural crops is to adapt our existing food crops to increasing temperatures, decreased water availability in some places and flooding in others, rising salinity, and changing pathogen and insect threats (World Bank 2007; Gregory et al. 2009; Royal Society 2009). Such improvements will require diverse approaches that will enhance the sustainability of our farms. These include more effective land and water use policies, integrated pest management approaches, reduction in harmful inputs, and the development of a new generation of agricultural crops tolerant of diverse stresses (Somerville and Briscoe 2001).” I have highlighted the part most relevant to this discourse.
Second, consider the paper, “Legally mandating GM food labels could mislead and falsely alarm consumers” by the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, dated 25 October 2012. I quote a part therein: “…the AAAS Board said, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and “every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”
The paper continues, “The European Commission (EU) recently concluded, based on more than 130 studies covering 25 years of research involving at least 500 independent research groups, that genetic modification technologies ‘are not per se more risky than…conventional plant breeding technologies’. Occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals can cause health problems have not stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny, AAAS said.”
It ends by saying, “Civilisation rests on people’s ability to modify plants to make them more suitable as food, feed and fibre plants and all of these modifications are genetic… Modern molecular genetics and the invention of large-scale DNA sequencing methods have fuelled rapid advances in our knowledge of how genes work and what they do, permitting the development of new methods that allow the very precise addition of useful traits to crops, such as the ability to resist an insect pest or a viral disease, much as immunizations protect people from disease.”
Third, study “Perspectives of gatekeepers in the Kenyan food industry towards genetically modified food” by Charles Betta, James Okuro Oumab and Hugo De Grootec. It shows how political considerations can scare even educated people into a dark hole of ignorance. “Attitudes and perceptions of stakeholders are crucial in the acceptability of GM foods. Past research focussed on consumers, but paid little attention to the food industry and its gatekeepers, especially in Africa. Therefore, a survey was conducted covering 39 respondents from the milling industry and supermarkets, the main processors and distributors of maize products, in seven urban centres of Kenya. Respondents, mostly from senior management, were well educated and had a good knowledge of biotechnology. Their major sources of information were the media for the supermarkets, and brochures and the food industry for the milling companies. Respondents generally appreciated the benefits of biotechnology, but had concerns about the environment, although few people considered GM food harmful to human or animal health. Most respondents found traceability of GM products important, but would prefer not to label them because of the costs and possible negative consumer reactions. Respondents were largely non-committal on the use of GM products in their companies, preferring to decide on a case-by-case basis. The few negative responses, mostly from the milling industry, were affected by high risk and low benefit perceptions. Most respondents do not like the idea of labelling GM food. Better communication between research and the food industry is now needed, and more research on the labelling of GM products,” it says.
One may also read
- S Key, JK Ma and PM Drake’s 2008 dissertation: “Genetically modified plants and human health”;
- The American Medical Association’s 2012 paper: “Report 2 of the Council on Science and Public Health: Labelling of Bioengineered Foods”;
- The United States Institute of Medicine and National Research Council’s 2004 paper: “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects.”
It is facile on the part of the swadeshi brigade to reach a non-negotiable conclusion that accepting this science is tantamount to bowing before the dubious international GM operator Monsanto. This is along the lines of their phobia that allowing foreign direct investment in retail is nothing but genuflecting to Wal-Mart. As if the seeds could come only from Monsanto; as if Wal-Mart were the only big retailer worldwide! To the ideological bigots, that field trials of GM crops is a recommendation by government-instituted Genetic Engineering Approval Committee is a minutia of no value. And it was supine of the minister concerned to submit to the demand based on half-baked knowledge of the technology. He should have debated with the protesters, questioning them how it was possible to ascertain the truth behind their apprehensions without trying the product in our farms in pilot projects.
Before the self-proclaimed nationalists pronounce me as ‘sold out’, this columnist wants to make it clear that this article is intended to push for the technology developed by our own homegrown scientists on government’s payroll rather than further the interest of any private company, Indian or foreign. On 23 October 2012, appreciating the need to produce more food in limited soil and water resources for the burgeoning population expected to reach 1.5 billion by 2025, the ICAR had organised a discussion that also brought together other government departments of science, namely the Department of Biotechnology, Department of Environment and Forests, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, over 40 senior most eminent scientists, technocrats and bureaucrats. They noted that land was shrinking and the pressure on the natural resources increasing. The group felt the necessity of jointly taking on board all the challenges being faced by Indian agriculture. It appreciated taking into cognisance all kinds of new sciences and technologies to meet the challenges. The group appreciated the potential of biotechnology to contribute towards sustainable agriculture through traits in crops to tolerate various biotic and abiotic stresses, improve nitrogen uptake and its use-efficiency and enhance the nutritional status of grains to address malnutrition in developing countries like India. All relevant Indian researches in GM can be found from the ICAR website.
Activists’ concerns would be valid only if the state were to offer a monopoly to sinister private companies in the field. How are they sinister? This is how they wriggle out of real tests. Risk assessments performed to date have been inadequate in terms of rigour. Opponents of GM food claim risks have not been adequately identified and managed, and they have questioned the objectivity of regulatory authorities. Some health groups say there are unanswered questions regarding the potential long-term impact on human health from food derived from GMOs, and propose mandatory labelling or a moratorium on such products. Concerns include contamination of the non-genetically modified food supply, effects of GMOs on the environment and nature, the scrutiny of the regulatory process, and consolidation of control of the food supply in companies that make and sell GMOs. In Japan, the Consumers Union of Japan says that independent research in these areas is systematically blocked by the GM corporations which own the GM seeds and reference materials, which is why India should be wary of such dodgy players. It’s a four-cornered debate between governments, environmentalists, GM companies and consumers.
Here is the solution that proposes acceptance of GM technology while addressing all the concerns above. There are differences in the risk assessment of GM food — and, therefore, also in the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — between countries. Crops not intended for food use are generally not reviewed by authorities responsible for food safety. Food derived from GMOs is not tested in humans before it is marketed as it is not a single chemical, nor is it intended to be ingested in specific doses and times, which makes it difficult to design meaningful clinical studies. A green signal to this technology can be given once these anomalies disappear and the testing regime is standardised to satisfy all scientists.
- Regulators in this country must examine the genetic modification, its protein products, and any intended changes that those proteins make to the food.
- They must also check whether the food derived from a GMO is substantially equivalent to its non-GM-derived counterpart, which provides a way to detect any negative non-intended consequences of the genetic engineering.
- If the newly incorporated protein is not similar to that of other proteins found in food or if anomalies arise in the substantial equivalence comparison, further toxicological testing must be ordered by the state.
A final call can be taken only after ascertaining which party is manipulating the truth to what degree. In doing so, we must rely on independent scientists and consumers for the sake of objectivity. But if the swadeshi types do not even allow field trials, how can you convince them, allegorically speaking, the universe does not revolve around the earth?
Published simultaneously in Niti Central