The hype for promoting GM is that it increases food security. India produced bumper stocks of food grains, all without GM, yet 200 million people are hungry. GM will not address the issues of poverty, poor storage and corruption, which deprive the poor of food. This is the second part of a three-part series|
GM and food security: GM is now encountering consumer resistance to its further expansion in most of the developed world. Given its huge profitability for companies who own or license patented GM seeds, there is enormous pressure for introducing GM crops in the developing world. In India, field trials and commercial release is being sought for as many as 17 GM crops. This includes food crops like rice, wheat, jowar, sorghum, groundnut, corn, potato, tomato, cabbage, cauliflower, okra, brinjal, mustard, watermelon, papaya and sugarcane.
The Technical Expert Committee (TEC) majority report observes that GM crops are mainly used for oil or animal feed elsewhere and states, “…Nowhere are Bt trans-genics being widely consumed in large amounts for any major food crop that is directly used for human consumption. The TEC could not find any compelling reason for India to be the first to do so”.
The hype for promoting GM is that it increases food security, whereas the truth is that GM has nothing to do with food security. India produced bumper stocks of food grains, all without GM, yet 200 million people are hungry even though buffer food stocks are two and a half times the official requirement. Food grains have rotted or been siphoned out of an inefficient and corrupt Public Distribution System (PDS), whose leakages have been estimated at 45%. The Agriculture Minister himself estimates food wastages cost Rs4500 million. Technology, GM or otherwise, is not the answer for this.
Even in countries where GM has been widely adopted, such as in the US, the food insecurity in 1995 was 12% (before the introduction of GM crops) and rose to 15% in 2011. In Paraguay, though nearly 65 % of the land is under GM, hunger has increased from 12.6% in 2004-06 to 25.5% in 2010-12. It is essential to question the unsubstantiated hype that GM will contribute to food security and look at the real causes of food insecurity. GM will not address the issues of poverty, poor storage and corruption, which deprive the poor of food. Nor does it provide the most effective way to increase production. A United Nations 2011 press release on its report “Agro-ecology and the right to food” states that: “Small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods.” Such agro-ecological methods are also safer from an environmental and health perspective.
GM effects on health and environment: The hype is that GM foods are safe because US citizens have been eating them since 1996 and nobody has dropped dead because of GM food consumption. The truth is that GM food was approved in that country without any mandatory labeling as it was deemed to be ‘substantially equivalent’ to non-GM food. Michael Taylor, was the deputy commissioner for Policy at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). He later became vice-president of Monsanto and is again back as deputy commissioner for Foods at USFDA. This is just one of the many examples of the revolving door in the US between GM regulators and GM corporates. Without labeling, it is impossible to pinpoint impacts and liability.
US consumers are now demanding it and GM corporates are strenuously resisting it. While it may take decades to prove the link between GM and illness, as happened for tobacco, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine has stated. “There is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects ... Multiple animal studies show significant immune dysregulation, including upregulation of cytokines (protein molecules involved in immune responses) associated with asthma, allergy, and inflammation”.
In their critical review on “Health risks of genetically modified foods 2009”, A Dona and IS Arvanitoyannis of the Dept of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, University of Athens, states that “Most studies with GM foods indicate that they may cause hepatic, pancreatic, renal and reproductive effects and may alter haematological (blood), biochemical, and immunologic parameters, the significance of which remains to be solved with chronic toxicity studies”.
On the other hand, regulators, who clear GM crops, emphasise that there are no proven health risks. Those who question their safety, point out that US regulators do not mandate independent long-term studies but rely on industry studies. These are of only 90 days on rats, which is equivalent to 10 to 15 years of a human lifespan and too short to show organ damage or cancer. One of the first long term studies (two years on rats) by French professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, at the Committee for Research & Independent Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN), showed that incidence of tumours and mortality were several fold higher for rats fed GM herbicide tolerant maize and its related herbicide than for the control group. The study has been criticised by some scientists and supported by others, but certainly reinforces the need for long-term independent research before GM approvals and the need for post release monitoring.
The TEC of the Supreme Court has recorded that the Ministry of Agriculture has admitted that segregation of GM and non GM food will not be feasible in India. This would effectively impinge on the rights of consumers to GM free food, at a time when the safety of GM food and any overwhelming need for it are yet far from being conclusively established. This apart, reports (Charles Benbrook and others) point to the fact that herbicide use has increased significantly in the US after it adopted GM corn, soybeans and cotton, whereas US insecticide use has decreased only slightly but is still high compared to European countries, which do not use GM crops. These studies negate the claim that GM reduces pesticide use.
Similarly, though the hype is that there is no environmental damage, the truth is that there are almost 200 studies pointing to possible adverse impacts on soil microbes, agriculturally beneficial species such as pollinators and pest controllers, unintended gene transfer, imbalances developing due to GM resistant pests and plants. Extracts of all these studies are available over here. There is often a lack of understanding of the difference between technology and ecology. The effects of the former are limited and the technological applications can be halted or corrected as evidence of harm emerges. Ecological processes consist of highly complex inter-relationships, and any major intervention in living ecosystems may take time to manifest and are virtually impossible to predict, control or reverse.
In the absence of conclusive proof of safety, the Precautionary Principle embodied in the United Nations Rio Declaration needs to be adopted. This is all the more necessary in view of the fact that GM has not yet shown significant benefits that make it worth incurring these risks. It is significant that introduction of new GM crops in the US is languishing and that most other countries have either rejected or severely restricted GM. India would be wise to move with equal caution.
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(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)