GM crops-Part 1: The truth about genetically modified foods
Dilnavaz Variava 11 September 2013

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:

  • A moratorium on field trials of GM food crops until the “major gaps in the regulatory system” are addressed, and on commercial release “until there is more definitive information …about the long term safety of Bt in food crops”;
  • A ban on Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crops since manual weeding is both feasible and employment generating in India’s small farms;
  • A ban on GM crops for which India is the centre of origin/diversity

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.)

Tushar Chakraborty
9 years ago
The abusive language used by Shanthu Shantharam , without going into the real issues , is despicable to say the least ! It is gender biased , and racist like attitude - which has no place in public debate . Now , when from Aruna Rodrigues it appears - that he was in the pay role of Syngenta !! Now - it explains his behaviour . This abuse proves - Ms Variva's arguments are correct hit !
Shanthu shantharam
9 years ago
Ms. Variava is so ignorant of facts and science and technological aspects of the GM technology that she should be barred from writing anything on the subject for life. Look at her audacity to write so much of misleading information. She must be convicted for spreading lies.

She sounds like a senior citizen which means she has zero or less than zero knowledge of modern biology and biotechnology. she will do great service to farmers by just keeping her mouth shut on the subject
Aruna Rodrigues
Replied to Shanthu shantharam comment 9 years ago
Mr Shantaram
We meet again here ---haven't spoken to you since Nagoya when you misrepresented things as you are want to do, which is quite understandable.After all, years of being a spokesman for Sygenta colour your thinking.

This we all know including the Industry which is why you are losing your punch. Instead of using scientific arguments to counter M/s Dilnavaz you become offensive. But this is also par for the course. It demonstrates your inability to counter facts and therefore your utter frustration.
Aruna Rodrigues
Replied to Shanthu shantharam comment 9 years ago
Aha! Here comes the industry man, Shantharam, with his usual obnoxious style. When you write, it is "leading" information, when someone points to counterfactuals, it is 'misleading' eh? You should just shut up yourself and let the debate take place. Citizens are smart enough to sift through facts and decide for themselves. Stop before you are convicted for obnoxious behaviour.
Shankar Deb
9 years ago
Bottom Line-

Has any of these foods been grown and consumed anywhere in the world? Yes, and the US is the origin of most of the GM foods, and its major consumer.

Haven't noticed the Americans having any adverse effects.

There is a huge lobby for and against GM foods, and as is to be expected, socialism spawns only fear and envy, and there is a lot of TV face time, the so called experts get out of fear mongering. It is ALWAYS easier to say NO, and takes courage and vision to say YES.

To me it seems, that if an advanced country has no difficulty in growing and consuming GM foods, why should we? The only concession I give to fear mongers is that the GM foods being consumed elsewhere, should have a history of at least 5 years of no adverse effects.

Lets all grow up!! progress always involves the unknown, and as long as we can get data of past history of no adverse effects, we should have no difficulty with it.

These doomsday predictors were at it when the computer was first introduced, when FDI was allowed, when India opened up to international competition etc, and every time something new was attempted. Best is to ignore them and take matured decisions

Sridhar R
Replied to Shankar Deb comment 9 years ago
Sorry, Sankar. I disagree with you. Even as GM crops were proposed and researched upon, it was the scientists who came up with the need for biosafey enlisting all the problems associated with GM crops, and to this day, even in India, it is the scientists who are warning us. Meanwhile, what we suspect of those supporting GM crops, are more valid. That they are ignoring the large volume of studies that show GM crops are a hazard. I would prefer you to read the compilation brought out recently, of about 400 studies that demonstrated the ill effects of GM crops. And as for your very simplistic argument, that Americans are not showing any GM impacts, one simple question. Did any one look at whether they are having ill effects ? Can the ill effects be linked to GM crops in the absence of proper labelling. Aren't they now fighting for labelling ? Lets read more of what some one like Dilnavaz Variavah with a legacy of credible work have to tell. And as for you, your response - reeks of the hegemonic industrial thrust for GM crops. I would be vary of you, and wait for more of the article to come out.
Shankar Deb
Replied to Sridhar R comment 9 years ago
Thank you Sridhar for your very measured comments.

I do not dispute that there are voluminous research papers on the dangers of GM, but if the USA with their sophisticated testing and follow through facilities have not found anything that endangers their citizens, I think we are being paranoid.

There is another similar debate going on in India and some other parts of the world about the dangers of the Shale gas technology. There are all sorts of people that argue that this will pollute aquifers, cause earthquakes and the civilized world as we know it will come to an end.

Yet the Americans have almost become energy self sufficient and their gas cost is now less that $4 per mmbtu, and their economy is on the rebound.

So let us muster some courage and say Yes, instead of just saying NO, because it is safer to stay with the familiar.
Sridhar R
Replied to Shankar Deb comment 9 years ago
What an assumption - that "USA with their sophisticated testing and follow through facilities have not found anything that endangers their citizens". Ask the millions who are now demanding labelling. And ask those Corporate agri majors and food majors fighting labelling, what are they afraid of? If GM crops are so safe and good, label them. Come on.
Shankar Deb
Replied to Sridhar R comment 9 years ago
I agree, these foods should be labeled, so that people can choose, but NOT Banned.
Sridhar R
Replied to Shankar Deb comment 9 years ago
So, lets see labelling in the US and wherever they are eating it, then lets wait for 10 years to see what are the results of studies and then lets see whether we need it then. Till then don't threaten us with "food security" scare. Because its just not there. India is and has always, since 1950 been producing enough for atleast 2.5 times its then ( and now) population. If 40% is going hungry, thats because we are storing and distributing it badly. This is what data shows, and not rhetoric or PR stunts. We dont have any crisis to actually adopt a known risk.
Shankar Deb
Replied to Sridhar R comment 9 years ago
What known risk? If there were any, do you think the advanced countries would continue with GM foods?

What you are advocating, if I have understood you correctly, is that we should deliberately be behind the advanced countries by 15 years

These countries are advanced precisely because they understand reasonable risks, and are not cowed down by fear of every innovation.

Arvind V
Replied to Shankar Deb comment 9 years ago
I hope the movie "GASLAND", will prove to be informative about shale gas extraction(FRACKING)& illuminates the fact that American Govt is a handmaiden of big business.
Shankar Deb
Replied to Arvind V comment 9 years ago
Unfortunately, I have not come across this movie, but from the tone of your comment, it seems Big Business are some sort of class enemies. Pardon me if I have got you wrong.

The Business enterprise provides jobs and creates wealth, irrespective of whether the business comprises of the roadside tea shop of it is BP or Chevron

A lot of fracking is being done to get at the shale gas in California, where there is already a well established oil extraction infrastructure.

California has also one of the more unstable geological fault lines, and yet fracking has been in practice for a long time.

Yet another example of not giving into the fear of the unknown.

Replied to Sridhar R comment 9 years ago
May i know which agri scientist is writing against GM crops?
You may popup few irrlevent names but look closely on their specialization & ideology.

Note: check NASA space exploration debate in usa. Those who are opposing it, are not space scientists but UFO-logists :)
Sridhar R
Replied to Anand comment 9 years ago
Did i say Scientists write against GM crops. Why are you taking my statement and biasing it ? I said there are scientific studies showing GM crops to have problems of health, environment. And repeatedly we are hearing many, even among scientists saying that there are no studies that show GM crops as having problems. The studies I say can be read in this compilation. Please refute or critique that -
Free Helpline
Legal Credit