14 Crucial Questions about GM Crops (Part-1)Jan 6, 2012 | Bharat Dogra
(GM crops are a serious matter of debate. We cannot ignore the issues, concerns and threats highlighted by many scientists, environmentalist and activists worldwide about the growing trend of genetic modification for food. Here, we are publishing a very important and comprehensively accounted book written by senior journalist and environmentalist, Mr. Bharat Dogra. The book- 14 crucial question about GM crops- will appear on our website in parts for next few days. Thanks)
Q1.Can GM crops lead to mass discontent?
Answer-These days strong pressures are being exerted to somehow get approval for GM crops. High-powered efforts are on to get the moratorium on Bt brinjal lifted, so that the path can be cleared for subsequent approval of several other GM (genetically modified or genetically engineered) crops, including staple food crops like rice.
It is in this context that it is important to give a timely warning that GM crops can lead to mass distress followed by mass discontent. This will become evident to anyone who follows the available scientific literature and all other reports on the performance of GM crops and genetic engineering.
Let\\\’s first look at what GM crops can do to farmers. An eminent group of scientists from various countries who constitute the Independent Science Panel have said in their conclusion after examining all aspects of GM crops – "GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now."
How can our government ignore such clear scientific opinion on the hazards of GM crops provided by an international group of eminent scientists? What this statement says very clearly is that GM crops are not safe and these can contaminate all other normal crops as well. In other words all farmers will be affected by these hazardous crops. Even those farmers who totally reject GM crops will have to face their hazards.
This threat becomes very serious and of a permanent nature when we remember that it is almost impossible to fully recall GM crops which have been released once. As Professor Susan Bardocz has noted, "GM is the first irreversible technology in human history. When a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) is released it is out of our control; we have no means to call it back…. Since GMOs are self-replicating, releasing them might have dire consequences for human and animal health and for the environment and can change evolution.”
More recently 17 distinguished scientists from Europe, USA, Canada and New Zealand wrote to the Prime Minister of India warning against “the unique risks (of GM crops) to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible.” This letter adds, “The GM transformation process is highly mutagenic leading to disruptions to host plant genetic structure and function, which in turn leads to disturbances in the biochemistry of the plant. This can lead to novel toxin and allergen production as well as reduced/altered nutrition quality.”
The USA is the leading country growing GM crops. From here also several alarming stories of the distress and harassment farmers have suffered due to GM crops and the companies promoting these crops have been pouring in. Words like ‘Franken seeds’ are being used to describe the harmful unpredictable crops while ‘seed police’ denotes the aggressive men sent to regulate family farmers. But this is nothing compared to the mass distress and the mass discontent that can result in India where nearly 60 percent people are involved in farming and related activities. One can well imagine what will happen when so many farmers are exposed to the threat of genetic contamination, apart from being squeezed into a situation where many of them have no other option but to regularly buy expensive seeds of a few companies which control the market.
Vested interests have spread the entirely wrong notion that genetic engineering holds the promise of greatly increasing farm yields. According to a report by eminent scientists comprising the Independent Science Panel, "The consistent finding from independent research and on-farm surveys since 1999 is that genetically modified (GM) crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits of significantly increasing yields or reducing herbicide and pesticide use. GM crops have cost the United States (US) an estimated $12 billion in farm subsidies, lost sales and product recalls due to transgenic contamination. ….The instability of transgenic lines has plagued the industry from the beginning, and this may be responsible for a string of major crop failures."
Above all, if the crops are widely believed to be hazardous, won\\\’t people try to avoid them? This will certainly affect the domestic market as well as the export market.
In his widely acclaimed book \\\’Genetic Roulette\\\’ Jeffrey M. Smith has summarised the results of a lot of research on the health hazards of GM crops/food, “Lab animals tested with GM foods had stunted growth, impaired immune systems, bleeding stomachs, abnormal and potentially precancerous cell growth in the intestines, impaired blood cell development, misshapen cell structures in the liver, pancreas, and testicles, altered gene expression and cell metabolism, liver and kidney lesions, partially astrophied livers, inflamed kidneys, less developed brains and testicles, enlarged livers, pancreases, and intestines, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar, inflamed lung tissue, increased death rates, and higher offspring mortality."
Michael Antoniou, molecular geneticist, King\\\’s College, London, says, “If the kind of detrimental effects seen in animals fed GM food were observed in a clinical setting, the use of the product would have been halted and further research instigated to determine the cause and find possible solutions. However, what we find repeatedly in the case of GM food is that both governments and industry plough on ahead with the development, endorsement, and marketing [of] GM foods despite the warnings of potential ill health from animal feeding studies, as if nothing has happened. This is to the point where governments and industry even seem to ignore the results of their own research!"
Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava, former Vice-Chairman of the National Knowledge Commission, explains how Indian farmers will suffer if GM crops like Bt brinjal are allowed to spread in India, “Eighty four percent of our farmer community consists of small or marginal farmers with a holding of less than four hectares land. According to Monsanto data, Bt. brinjal pollen can travel for 30 metres and could thus easily contaminate the neighbouring non-Bt brinjal field. In course of time, we would be left with no non-Bt yield even if the farmers do not want the transgenic crop. Unlike in Europe, Britain and many other countries, India has no labeling laws. In these countries, any food product which has more than 0.9 per cent of GM material must be labelled as genetically modified item. Therefore, we would neither be able to export our vegetables stock nor exercise choice with regard to GM brinjal or a non-GM brinjal. There is an ever-increasing demand everywhere, including our country, for organically grown food which fetches the farmer better price. This market will also be lost with the introduction of GM foods.”
In addition to all this there is the ethical dilemma faced by vegetarians who may find it difficult to select food when animal genes are introduced into plant genes. The choice becomes even more difficult (and not just for vegetarians) when even human genes are introduced into food crops. This dilemma is most difficult to resolve when GM foods are not specifically labelled, and in fact GM food companies try their best to avoid any legal requirement of specific labelling of GM food.
In fact as genetic engineering is all about transferring genes from one species to another entirely unrelated species, these are all sorts of possibilities of playing havoc with the religious sentiments and emotions of people. There was an obnoxious example of transferring human genes into pigs, but there are other equally weird examples.
The extent to which genetic engineering is playing havoc with nature is evident from this quote from \\\’Genetic Roulette\\\’, "Spider genes were inserted into goat DNA, in hopes that the goat milk would contain spider web protein for use in bullet-proof vests. Cow genes turned pig skin into cowhides. Jellyfish genes lit up pigs’ noses in the dark. Arctic fish genes gave tomatoes and strawberries tolerance to frost."
Notice particularly the words \\\’Cow genes turned pig skin into cowhides\\\’. In India cow is considered holy by some communities, while pig is considered the opposite by others (all this at the level of religious sentiments). So what do you say about a technology which thinks nothing of turning \\\’pig skin into cowhides\\\’?
Q2. Why are multinational companies so keen to push hazardous GM/GE crops?
Answer. Eminent scientists who have examined the technology of genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified (GM) crops have come to a clear conclusion that it is a highly hazardous and risky technology. For example eminent scientists from several countries who comprise the Independent Science Panel (ISP) have drawn this conclusion after studying various aspects of GM crops, "GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. ….GM crops should be firmly rejected now."
Prof. Marcello Buiatti (Plant Genetics Dept., University of Florence) has summarised the experience of two decades of genetic engineering – "Plant and animal genetic engineering has developed only two products in more than twenty years – despite the research work of hundreds of thousands of highly skilled technologists and huge financial investments. It can, therefore, be considered the worst failure of the whole history of innovation in agriculture."
Such examples of the opinion of eminent scientists about the serious risks and hazards of GM crops can be multiplied. The question that arises is – then why are some big multinational companies so eager to promote these hazardous and risky crops. The answer is that these companies are not interested in improving food security, they are only interested in tightening their grip over the world\\\’s food and farming system so that they can squeeze huge profits out of it, regardless of any adverse impacts on farmers, consumers and environment. Hunger may worsen, fertile fields across vast areas may get contaminated, large number of unsuspecting people and animals may fall seriously ill-they are not seriously bothered about all this as long as they can tighten their control and increase their profits.
In fact if we look at the trends in world food and agriculture in recent decades then these have been dominated by the increasingly desperate efforts by huge multinational companies to increase their dominance of the world food and farming system. The way in which patents were incorporated into the WTO agenda and so in a very clever way almost all countries were forced to change their patent laws in keeping with the interests of developed countries provides a glaring example of the high-powered forces at work to implement this agenda of dominance. The new patent laws helped the food and farming giants to tighten their grip on plants and seeds resources of the developing countries.
Genetic erosion of their plant wealth has also proved very expensive for farmers, particularly those based in developing countries. Due to the combined impact of destruction of natural forests, and the introduction of green-revolution type agriculture, which replaced local varieties over large areas by new monocultures, genetic erosion has been taking place on a massive scale even in the countries which have been the original source of much of the plant diversity. Soon thousands of varieties of plants were lost to these countries for ever. However, already several of these had been stored carefully in the labs and gene banks of the developed countries whose scientists had been engaged in these collections for several years. Suddenly, in the time span of a few decades, the natural advantage which some parts of the world had enjoyed for millions of years appeared to have been reversed.
Today several experts agree that most of collected genetic diversity is stored in gene banks in Europe and North America. In a handful of high-security institutions of these and a few other countries, the world’s most valuable raw material is stored, and it is unlikely that the countries of origin from where most of this material came will have free access to it.
Pat Roy Mooney brings out the glaring injustice of this situation, “It is a raw material unlike any other in the world. It has not been bought. It has been donated. It has been donated by the poor to the rich. The donation has been made under a noble banner proclaiming that genetic resources form a part of the heritage of all humanity, and thus can be owned by no one. But as the primary building blocks of agriculture, genes have incalculable political and economic importance. Industrialized governments – often overruling the intentions of their scientists – have come to hoard germplasm and to stock seeds as part of the arsenal of international power diplomacy. Private companies in North-although glad to receive free genes – are loath of divulge or share the adaptations they draw from these donations.”
It was noticed about two decades back that the nature of the seed industry was changing in several countries, particularly the rich western countries (although similar changes were soon noticed also in several developing countries). The seed industry had earlier been based on small firms. These firms were now being gobbled by big companies, especially companies which already had big stakes in agri-chemical industry – within a single decade, chemical corporations spent over $10 billion in buying up seeds companies. In fact the American Seed Trade Association even organized a special symposium on ‘How to sell your seed company.’ Apprehensions were rightly voiced that a small number of giant companies will control seeds as well as agri-chemicals, and that the production of seeds can be given such an orientation as to require high and increasing amounts of agri-chemicals. According to one widely quoted estimate at least 27 corporations had initiated 63 programs to develop herbicide tolerant crops. Already a few multinational companies control a very considerable part of the international seeds sector and pesticides.
These trends were strengthened further by the developments in the controversial technology of genetic engineering. A very important part of genetic engineering research has been devoted to herbicide-tolerant plant varieties, for example cotton which is tolerant to a herbicide called bromoxynil.
Soon the genetic engineering companies shifted to the even more obnoxious technology of introducing pesticide properties within the plants. About these trends, the Independent Science Panel has said, "Bt proteins, incorporated into 25% of all transgenic crops worldwide, have been found harmful to a range of non-target insects. Some of them are also potent immunogens and allergens. A team of scientists has cautioned against releasing Bt crops for human use."
Despite this clear view, shared by many eminent scientists, the main company involved is willing to go to any length – bribery, coercion, lies, manipulations to spread its obnoxious technology because its objective is not food security, its objective is only to tighten its grip on food and farming system.
Genetic engineering is so important in this quest for dominance as this complex and expensive technology is concentrated to a large extent in the hands of a few giant multinational companies and their subsidiaries. The story that started with snatching the plant resources of tropical/developing/poor countries, then proceeded with new patent/IPR laws gets completed with genetic engineering. This is the carefully manipulated route which these companies, blessed by their governments in several cases (particularly the USA), have followed in their race for dominance of the world food system.
This quest for dominance is seen perhaps most clearly in the pursuit of what has been called the \\\’terminator technology\\\’. In a widely discussed paper (published in the Ecologist, Sept/Oct 1998) Ricarda A Steinbrecker (Science Director of the Genetics Forum UK) and Pat Roy Mooney (widely acclaimed winner of the Right to Livelihood Award) summarise the implications of this most controversial use of generic engineering,
"On March 3rd 1998 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a little-known cotton-seed enterprise called Delta and Pine Land Company, acquired US patent 5,723,765 – or the Technology Protection System (TPS). Within days, the rest of the world knew TPS as Terminator Technology. Its declared goal is to promulgate plants that will produce self terminating offspring – suicide seeds. Terminator Technology epitomises what the genetic engineering of food crops is all about and gives an insight into the driving forces behind the corporate campaign to control and own life.
"The Terminator does more than ensure that farmers can\\\’t successfully replant their harvested seed. It is the "platform" upon which companies can load their proprietary genetic traits – patented genes for herbicide-tolerance or insect-resistance and get the farmers hooked on their seeds and caught in the chemical treadmill."
Further this paper says, "Most alarming through is the possibility that the Terminator genes themselves could infect the agricultural gene pool of the neighbour\\\’s crops and of wild and weedy relatives, placing a time bomb. Temporary "gene silencing" of the poison gene or failed activation of the Terminator countdown enables such infection.
"Between 15 and 20 percent of the world\\\’s food supply is grown by poor farmers who save their seed. These farmers feed at least 1.4 billion people. The Terminator ‘protects\\\’ companies by risking the lives of these people. Since Terminator Technology has absolutely zero agronomic benefit, there is no reason to jeopardize the food security of the poor by gambling with genetic engineering in the field. Whether the Terminator works immediately or later, in either instance it is biological warfare on farmers and food security.”
It is good that several eminent scientists are now coming forward to warn their governments against the potentially disastrous impacts of this quest for dominance by powerful multinational companies.
In a review of recent trends titled \\\’Food Without Choice\\\’ (Tribune Nov.1) Prof. Pushpa M. Bhargava (who was nominated by the Supreme Court of India in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee to protect safety concerns), internationally acclaimed authority on this subject, drew pointed attention to the " attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified (GM) crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations (MNCs) (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political setup and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools." Further he has warned, "The ultimate goal of this attempt in India of which the leader is Monsanto, is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and thus food production. With 60 per cent of our population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would essentially mean not only a control over our food security but also over our farmer security, agricultural security and security of the rural sector."
As people\\\’s consciousness about the hazards of GM crops grew, many US products were refused by its trading partners. This alarmed GM giants, and gave them additional reason to push GM crops in important developing countries so that alternative sources for supply of non-GM products, or products not contaminated by GM crops cannot emerge. The crucial thing to understand is that the US Govt. and the big GMO (Genetically modified organisms) companies there have established close links so that there are unwritten directives from the highest levels not to deny clearance to GMOs on environment, health and related grounds. Henry Miller, who was formerly in charge of biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, USA) says, "In this area, the US government agencies have done exactly what big agribusiness has asked them to do and told them to do."
This support given by the governments further greatly increases the power of MNCs to push their hazardous products and technologies in their quest for dominance.
Corruption also enables MNCs to achieve quick results. People wonder why there has been a rapid spread of GM crops in the USA, even though several scientists (in addition to farmers and activists) have opposed GMOs there as well. An idea of the various forces responsible for this can be had from a complaint the US Securities and Exchange Commission had filed in the US courts stating that a leading GMO company had bribed 140 officials between 1997-2000 to obtain environmental clearances for its products. The company admitted this charge and paid a penalty of US $ 1.5 million.
A report by a major US financial risk assessor Innovest has stated, "It is understandable that the US Government has essentially taken the industry position on GE (Genetic Engineering) safety and labeling… US Government support for GE crops appears to stem from the fact that the crops are mostly US-developed and the GE companies have made substantial financial contributions to US politicians and political parties. This is not said as a criticism of politicians, but rather of the campaign finance-system, which allows politicians to accept money from the firms they are supposed to regulate. Money flowing from GE companies to politicians as well as the frequency with which GE company employees take jobs with US regulatory agencies (and vice versa) creates large bias potential and reduces the ability of investors to rely on safety claims made by the US Government. It also helps to clarify why the US Government has not taken a precautionary approach to GE and continues to suppress GE labeling in the face of overwhelming public support for it."
Dr. Pushpa Bhargava has written, “According to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Monsanto bribed at least 140 Indonesian officials or their families to get Bt cotton approved without environmental impact assessment. In 2005, the firm paid $ 1.5 million in fine to to the US justice department for the graft. This is one of the many penalties that Monsanto has paid in its country of origin in spite of its close ties with the US government and its various regulatory agencies.”
In the case of a genetically engineered drug to increase milk production, the FDA approved this drug despite being in possession of highly damaging information of its adverse impact on animal and human health. In 1990 The House Committee of the US investigated the issue and charged that the concerned company and the FDA ‘have chosen to suppress and manipulate animal health test data – in efforts to approve commercial use."
Despite all this cronyism and corruption, it needs to be noted that in the USA GM crops have only been given the status of \\\’GRAS\\\’ or \\\’Generally recognized as safe\\\’ instead of the stronger, clearer clearance of \\\’safe for human consumption.\\\’
In India also linkages between officials and GMO companies can be seen in several instances such as the illegal release of GMOs to start with and the way in which estimates of damages suffered by Bt cotton crop were brought down. Unknown to most people and even neighbourhood farmers, several highly unsafe and questionable trials of GM crops were permitted.
Another serious concern is the efforts of MNCs to penetrate, influence, corrupt and dominate the national farm research. Seedling is considered one of the world’s best journals on seeds and farmers rights’. In the context of the Bt brinjal episode, this journal recently wrote
“Indian farmers have good reason to be particularly concerned about this. They have for years in good faith allowed scientists to gather genetic material from their crops and store it in agricultural universities and research institutes. All this cross-institute movement of plant material is making many ask some very fundamental questions: to whom do seed and crop materials really belong? Does the public sector National Agricultural Research System (NARS), entrusted with farmers’ varieties, have the power to pass on the material to private corporations? And even if there is acknowledgement of the years of local farming knowledge behind the folk varieties of brinjal by sharing any “benefits”, can the loss of pure, natural, genetically untampered – with indigenous varieties be reversed or recompensed? Most of all, can large corporations backed by their governments be allowed to take over farming?
There was also a series of “transfers” and “approvals”, which happened with characteristic lack of transparency. First the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources authorised Mahyco to import parental lines from Bangladesh, and then in 2007 the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), India’s main decision-making authority in this field, gave Mahyco clearance to send back the material, now genetically modified, to East West Seeds Bangladesh Ltd for seed distribution. Mahyco has operations in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. In other words, the NBA actually authorised a multinational company to use Indian germplasm to develop a GM product that would not only be used in India but also exported to India’s neighbours, endangering Asia’s biodiversity.
“Some farmers believe that Mahyco’s offer to “provide the technology free of cost” to the NARS is nothing less than a ploy by the GM industry to penetrate the NARS and to leave farmers with little option but accept Mahyco’s products. For all the talk of the benefits of Bt brinjal, farmers clearly see that the introduction of this first GM food crop would start a process that would seriously jeopardise India’s food and farm systems and the biodiversity that sustains them. They are determined to struggle against it.” (re-produced in Combat Law March-April 2010 special issue on ‘Bt brinjal saga).
In developing countries large-scale corrupt practices of these GMO companies have been documented. In India there are many tell-tale signs that this corruption has reached up to very high levels, including some ministers known to be very ruthless. So learning from Gandhiji, we should prepare for a nationwide satyagraha to save our nation from the very serious danger of GM/GE crops. No power on earth can be allowed to inflict such serious permanent damage on our people, our agriculture and our environment.
Due to the threat of contamination, it is difficult for normal crops or organic crops to remain free from the impact of GM crops once these have been released. As worldwide concern for food safety grows, it is likely that there will be increasing demand for organically grown crops and crops which are not contaminated by GM crops. Therefore we will be surrendering premium world markets if we allow our crops to be contaminated by GMOs. This is why organisations like those of rice exporters have also got involved in the campaigns against GMOs.
On the one hand many eminent scientists are rejecting these crops and their view is supported by the adverse reports from farmers. On the other hand the GE companies have invested billions and billions in using genetic engineering to tighten their grip on world food and farming system and squeezing it for record profits. In order to be able to do so, they\\\’ve to make very serious hazards acceptable. They are investing billions in making their blatant lies appear as scientific truth. Their campaign is particularly strong in big countries like India because they want to destroy the capability of leading farming countries to supply GMO-free food to the world market. Only then these companies will be able to sell their hazardous crops and seeds, as there will be no alternatives.
So the stakes are very high for these giant multinational companies. But they are even higher for our people and farmers as our very survival, our future and the future of our children is threatened by GM crops. So we\\\’ve to prepare for a big struggle along Gandhian lines to expose the lies of the GMO companies and to protect our food system.
Of all the voices that opposed the introduction of Bt brinjal, one was most significant- that of 84-year old TV Jagadisan, the former MD of Monsanto India. Talking to SHOMA CHAUDHURY of Tehelka at his Bengaluru flat, Jagadisan, who was with the company for 18 years and served as managing director for South Asia for eight years, spoke of all the reasons to fear Bt brinjal.
Monsanto creates herbicides and pesticides; Bt seeds are supposed to resist them. Isn’t that a conflict of commercial interests?
Monsanto developed a herbicide called glyphosate to kill weeds in crops but found that it destroys soyabean also. So they created a genetically altered soyabean that can resist glyphosate. So you make a herbicide to kill the weeds, then you make a seed to resist that herbicide- so it’s making money on both sides!
Apart from dangerously inadequate government clearances, what are your other concerns about Bt brinjal?
A whole lot of concerns. For one, India’s biodiversity will be gravely tampered with. For example, we have more than 2,400 varieties of brinjal in the country. Brinjal is a highly cross-pollinated crop. So if you have Bt brinjal growing in some field, its pollen can get easily transferred by wind or insects to other fields. Monsanto has itself filed suits against many people in Canada for growing Bt cotton without licence, but for no fault of theirs. It’s the wind and insects that had carried pollen and created Bt cotton in their fields.
In your opinion, is there any need for Bt brinjal at all?
No, Bt brinjal’s entry point is itself suspect. The Knowledge Initiative Commission set up under the PM has got three companies as permanent members, among them Monsanto and Dow Chemicals. So naturally they push their point of view. There is talk of Bt rice, wheat, potato and what not. When [US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton came recently, she made no bones about the fact that she was here with the sole purpose of bending India’s agriculture policy to American interests.
(Tehelka journal- Feb.20, 2010)
(To be continued in next few parts. If you want to get a hardcopy and/or Hindi translation this book, please contact- Bharat Dogra, C-27, Raksha Kunj, Paschim Vihar, New Delhi-110063 Ph.: 25255303)