GM crops-Part3: The economics of genetically modified food

The vast diversity of seeds developed by farmers over centuries, with special characteristics in drought or flood tolerance, taste and medicinal properties is often lost when corporate control of seed promotes a few varieties in which heavy investments have been made and high profits are to be reaped. This is the concluding part of the three-part series

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines genetically modified organism (GMO) as “Organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in ways that do not occur naturally”. Currently 99% of GM crops have only two GM traits (1) pesticide production within every cell of the plant (e.g. Bt to control bollworm in cotton) (2) herbicide tolerance (HT) to enable spraying of a pesticide to kill weeds but not the crop. Apart from health and environment concerns, what is relevant is whether this technology is driven by real economic benefits, and for whom.
 

GM and economics: Both yield and income  are the end result of multiple factors : the intrinsic quality  of the seed into which the gene has been inserted, the prevailing soil, water and climatic conditions, the virulence of pest attacks , the  agronomic practices used and the price support mechanisms are some of them. Disaggregating these is difficult and it is not surprising therefore that there have been serious differences in perception even on Bt cotton economics in India. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has stated that net incomes of farmers have increased from Rs7,000 per hectare to Rs16,000 in rainfed areas while the Vidarbha Jan Andolan states that Bt cotton has increased suicides. About 68% of farmer suicides are in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, which have the highest acreage under rainfed cotton. With about 60% of the total cultivated land being rainfed and with Bt cotton requiring timely irrigation, failure of rains can result in crop failure, unrepayable debts and even suicides. 
 

Cotton provided a unique opportunity for GM as almost 50% of India’s total insecticide usage was on cotton alone.  With Bt cotton pesticide costs for bollworm have decreased sharply, but in the past five years, secondary pests have appeared and insecticide costs are again rising. Is there an option other than high pesticide use and Bt?
 

A study by the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture found that non-pesticidal management in Andhra Pradesh using non Bt cotton gave higher net returns than Bt cotton. A study by scientists from the Central Institute for Cotton Research has shown that net income from organic cotton is significantly higher than from conventional cotton, after an initial three-year transition phase to organic. These studies do not find their way into public discourse since they lack the enormous PR budgets used for promoting Bt cotton. The same applies for other crops.
 

In the US, GM soya, corn and cotton cover 85% to 95% in these crops, and 53% of a $15 billion US farm subsidy in 2011 went to support these three crops only. The National Farmers’ Union of Canada states that  “….these crops have failed to provide significant solutions, and their use is creating problems - agronomic, environmental, economic, social, and (potentially) human health problems”. In the US, the economic costs are yet to be estimated from the unexpected ecological backlash of the many weeds that have now become resistant to the glyphosate herbicide used for HT crops, and which are affecting US farmlands and incomes. Studies show that yields in non-GM Western Europe have been higher than for the same crops grown with GM traits in the US and that the ability to tolerate the recent drought was lower for GM crops. The vast diversity of seeds developed by innovative farmers over centuries, with special characteristics in drought or flood tolerance, taste and medicinal properties is often lost when corporate control of seed promotes a few varieties in which heavy investments have been made and high profits are to be reaped. 
 

The transgenic seed market is controlled by six large global biotech seed companies. The development of a GM trait is estimated to cost $140 million as compared to $1 million for conventionally bred seed.  Companies must recover these investments. In India, Monsanto controls over 90% of the cotton seed market directly or through its licensees, and they have together made about Rs1,500 crore in royalties and fees in eight years (as reported in Business Standard but not endorsed by Monsanto) .  It is not surprising that after the reports of the Jairam Ramesh Committee, the Parliamentary Standing Committee and the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) of the Supreme Court, there is such intense propaganda for GM and even personal denigration of anyone who recommends caution. What is at stake is the clearance of the 17 crops that are in the GM pipeline. Studies show that patented seeds eventually eliminate a large part of the seed diversity built up by generations of farmers. As seed monopolies develop, this not only impact seed prices, but also a country’s ability to control the most vital part of its food production process. 
 

Is there a better option than GM? 
 

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report, the world’s largest agricultural study undertaken by more than 400 scientists, commissioned by the World Bank  FAO, WHO and other international organizations,  found that agro-ecological approaches, and not GM, provide a sustainable answer to the world's food crisis. This has recently been further substantiated by the UN Rapporteur on Food that states “To date, agro-ecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects. Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.” 
 

In Andhra Pradesh, Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) was started as a small initiative in 2005-06. Supported by the Andhra Pradesh government and the World Bank, the program has led to 10,000 villages, with approximately one million farmers practicing NPM (Non Pesticidal Management) on over 3.5 million acres. Net income increases have been estimated at being Rs10,000 to Rs30,000 per hectare per annum—in addition to meeting the food needs of farming households and providing pesticide free food to consumers. A single village was reported to have saved Rs60 lakh in pesticide use, thereby strengthening the rural economy.
 

According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), organic farming is growing at a steady annual rate of about 40% and is likely to be worth Rs10,000 crore by 2015. Their study for an organic West Bengal states that this can lead to wealth accumulation of Rs12,000 crore, generate exports worth Rs550 crore and create nearly 20 lakh employment opportunities during next five years.
 

GM has a serious impact on exports to many countries that reject any GM contamination. Unlike other technologies, the release of living organisms in an open environment cannot be controlled or reversed. Even field trials cannot be fully controlled. In 2006, despite strict US regulations, an experimental variety of rice from field trials caused losses of over $1 billion to US farmers because of rejection of rice shipments by Europe. In 2013, GM wheat from field trials was found growing in a field years after it was supposed to have been destroyed, and has resulted in cancellation of tenders by Japan. In the former case, Bayer CropScience paid $750 million in settlement to US farmers and in the latter case the full impacts are yet to unfold. In India, there have been multiple illegal trials but no effective deterrent penalties to date. GM contamination can have a serious impact on India’s export potential and there have already been concerns about this in respect of organic cotton.
 

The BRAI Bill: Regulatory failures in India have been repeatedly castigated by independent Committees. The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill recently tabled in Parliament appears, unfortunately, to be a means to speed up the approval of GM crops stalled by these Committees’ findings. It empowers just five persons in the Ministry of Science and Technology (i.e. the Ministry, which promotes this technology) to clear GM crops. Other committees envisaged in the Bill are only advisory. The proposed Bill bypasses the approval presently needed from state governments, and seriously dilutes Right to Information (RTI). The Bill provides for no preliminary assessment of need or of safer alternatives, nor for long term independent testing. It effectively ignores the unanimous recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, which called for an all- encompassing umbrella legislation on biosafety. It also ignores the Report of the Task Force on Application of Agricultural Biotechnology (2004) which stated “… Transgenic approach should be considered as complimentary and resorted to when other options to achieve the desired objectives are either not available or not feasible”. Other options are indeed both available and feasible and it is time that the recommendations of the IAASTD report, to which India is a signatory, are seriously implemented.
 

For more information on GM crops you can access following links:
 

Abstracts of the scientific studies can be accessed over here.
 

The BRAI bill can be accessed here.
 

A critique of the bill can be accessed on here
 

A 16-page booklet for lay persons on genetically modified foods and crops can be accessed here.
 

Those who wish to keep themselves abreast of GM issues can do so on India GM Info or on GM Watch
 

The first part of the series can be accessed here: GM crops-Part 1: The truth about genetically modified foods

The second part can be accessed here: GM crops-Part2: The myth about food security
 

(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)

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GM crops-Part2: The myth about food security

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. 
 

You may want to read..

GM crops-Part 1: The truth about genetically modified foods

 

(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)

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Apple launches iPhone 5C, iPhone 5S; cost remains key

iPhone 5C will cost $99 for a 16GB model with a two-year contract. Without contract it would cost about $550 or over Rs35,000 without tax

iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C, the two new offering from Apple came in a bevy of colours and two distinct designs, one made of plastic and the other that aims to be the gold standard of smartphones and reads your fingerprint. The iPhone 5C will cost $99 for a 16-gigabyte (GB) model and $199 for a 32GB model with a two-year wireless contract. Without contract the price may be about $550 or over Rs35,000 excluding tax.

 

Apple unveiled the latest iPhone models during an event at its Cupertino, California, headquarters, in order to challenge rivals Samsung and other manufacturers.

 

The iPhone 5C will be available in five colours – green, blue, yellow, pink and white. Apple CEO Tim Cook calls it 'more fun and colourful' than any other iPhone. The 5C has a 4-inch Retina display and is powered by Apple’s A6 chip. It also has an 8 megapixel camera, live photo filters and a rear cover that lights up.

 

The phone is expected to help Apple boost sales in China and other areas where people don’t have as much money to spend on new gadgets as they do in the US and Europe.

 

The second phone, the 5S, is "the most forward-looking phone we have ever created,” said Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple. It will come in silver, gold and “space gray” and run a new chip, the A7 that is up to twice as fast as the A6.

 

Schiller said the new phone can run more health and fitness applications. These apps have become increasingly popular as more people use them to track exercise routines, calorie intake and even sleep patterns.

 

The camera in the 5S received some major upgrades, including several automatic features designed to produce better photos. It has larger pixels, which helps capture more light. The phone also has a two-tone flash feature that is designed not to clash with the colours in the room or a person’s skin colour, something Schiller said has not been done on a phone before.

 

The camera, called iSight, has “auto image stabilisation,” which helps avoid blurry pictures and a slow-motion camera for video.

 

The 5S also includes “Touch ID,” which reads fingerprints at a “detailed level,” Schiller said. He said it is “fun and easy” to teach the 5S about your fingerprint and once you do, you can just touch the home button to unlock the phone.

 

Tying the fingerprint scanner to payments could also open new revenue channels for Apple.

 

Apple also said its next mobile operating system, iOS 7, will be available as a free download from 18th September onwards. The new system can be downloaded on the iPhone 4 and later models, as well as on the tablets beginning with the iPad 2.

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