There are inherent risks and dangers if India were to adopt genetically modified crops. Here is an expose about several myths surrounding GM crops. This is the first part of a three-part series
There has been a great deal of publicity of late, particularly by the Agriculture Minister, about the necessity of genetically modified (GM) crops for feeding India’s masses, while dismissing the widespread concerns about them. These concerns cover health, environmental impacts, farmers’ indebtedness, loss of seed diversity and sovereignty. These risks are not activist extremism, but have repeatedly been endorsed by independent investigations—both abroad and in India.
Independent reports on GM: The first serious report in India was in 2010 by former minister of environment Jairam Ramesh, who called for a moratorium on Bt brinjal after inputs at seven public hearings and perusing scientific studies in favour and against its introduction. Then, in 2012 a report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Agriculture (PSCA) consisting of 31 members across party lines, unanimously castigated rampant regulatory failures, the exaggerated claims of increases in yield of Bt cotton, the health and environmental risks increasingly being reported across the world, and the stranglehold by large transnational seed corporations, whose expensive patented seeds have to be purchased afresh every year causing economic distress and suicides of farmers. The PSCA called for a complete moratorium on field trials of GM crops until a proper bio-safety regulation based on the best globally available legislation is enacted and regulatory loopholes are plugged. Its report is accessible here as well as a three page press release of it by the Lok Sabha Secretariat.
The most recent report is by a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court in a public-Interest Litigation (PIL) on GM (Writ Petition no (Civil) No.260 of 2005). The TEC consisted of six members, of which five submitted a unanimous report calling for the following:
Each of these has been followed by a spate of articles, in some newspapers, attacking the findings of the PSCA, personal denigrations of their authors and fear mongering that without GM, India will be unable to grow the food it needs. GM is one of the most important issues for India as it affects food and seed, vital for us all, and also because the spread of living organisms is irreversible. There is thus the need to sift PR hype from truth.
GM hype and GM truth: The hype is that GM is cutting edge technology in agriculture, that 170 million hectares are under GM crops, and that India will be left behind if it does not adopt this GM technology. The truth is that 170 million hectares constitutes only 3.4% of the world’s total agricultural land, that only six countries account for 91.8 % of all GM area (USA 40.8%, Brazil 21.4%, Argentina 14%, Canada 6.8%, India 6.3%, and China 2.3%) and that most countries in the world are rejecting or restricting it. The first four countries, accounting for 82% of all GM cropland, have average farm sizes of about 300 to 1000 acres and their main GM crops are Herbicide Tolerant (HT) i.e. designed to withstand herbicides, which will kill all plants other than the genetically modified HT crop. This actually results in more irresponsible spraying of herbicides, thereby leading to more toxin consumption. It has also led to unprecedented herbicide resistance in weeds. These pose a major problem to US farmers who cannot eradicate these “super weeds” which have affected 61 million acres of US farmland (Report by Stratus Agri-Marketing). The TEC has rightly recommended that there is no justification for HT GM crops in India, where sizes of Indian farms are only 3 acres on average and manual weeding provides employment to millions of women.
In India, Bt cotton is the only crop permitted so far. Bt crops involve the transfer of a gene from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt) into the seed, to produce a protein toxic to a targeted pest e.g. the bollworm in cotton. The hype is that Bt cotton yields have made India the second largest exporter of cotton whereas the truth is that very little of this is due to higher yields from Bt cotton. In fact, according to Cotton Advisory Board figures, cotton yield increased by 69% (i.e. from 278 kgs per hectare in 2000-01 to 470 kgs per hectare in 2004-05) when Bt cotton was less than 6% of total cotton area. However, as Bt cotton expanded to over 90% of the cotton area, yield increased by only about 6%, stagnating at around 500 kg per hectare for the past 5 years. India has also become the world’s largest exporter of organic cotton—which does NOT use GM seed. In fact organic cotton exports are now being jeopardised by Bt contamination, as importers of organic cotton do not permit the slightest trace of genetic modification. Moreover, some types of bollworms have developed resistance and, after Bt cotton, there is an unprecedented invasion by other pests—such as sucking pests—which were earlier never a problem with cotton. Farmer risks now include more expensive seeds (5 to 10 times the cost of earlier seeds), pesticide spraying on these secondary pests and crop failures as these seeds need timely irrigation, which 65% of our farmers cannot provide. While some farmers may have benefited, amongst rainfed farmers indebtedness and suicides have not decreased despite wide adoption of Bt cotton. Other possible impacts eg Bt toxin on soil microbes and on animals which consume the plant, allergy in cotton pickers and consumers, and health consequences of Bt cotton seed oil now being liberally mixed into edible oils, need to be monitored through independent and transparent long term studies, which is, unfortunately , not happening.
Stay tuned for part two of the three-part series.
(Dilnavaz Variava has been involved with the environmental movement in India for close to 40 years. She has held many roles, including CEO of WWF-India, Vice-President of the Bombay Natural History Society-BNHS, and on several apex committees of the Govt of India. Since about 10 years, ever since she was asked to Chair the Working Group on the Ecological Foundations for Sustainable Agriculture for a Govt of Maharashtra Expert Group on Agriculture, she has been closely involved with this subject. She is Honorary Convener of the Consumer Group of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture- ASHA.)