14 Crucial Questions about GM Crops (Part-3)Jan 27, 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. This is part three of the series. Thanks)
Q6.Why claims of genetic engineering to increase crop yields and protect environment are false?
Answer- The fact that genetically engineered crops pose a major threat to safety and environment is widely recognised now. Despite this the companies involved in the spread of genetically engineered crops make a strong plea for these crops on the basis of their claim that the yield of these crops can be much higher. What these companies and their spokespersons say time and again is that in order to meet the food needs of the growing population, we simply have to increase yield and this can be done only or predominantly by spreading genetically engineered crops. However this claim is entirely false as there is no basis for concluding that genetically engineered crops are capable of giving better yields on a sustainable basis.
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."
A Friends of the Earth report (year 2008) titled \\\’Who Benefits From GM (Genetically Modified) Crops?\\\’ concludes on the basis of studying the yield figures of crops like cotton, soy and corn in the US starting from the 1980s, that genetic engineering has been at best neutral with respect to yield. At the macro level, the report says, average cotton yields have stagnated since the adoption of Bt cotton in the US, as in other countries like Argentina, Australia and Colombia.
In April 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a report "Failure to Yield" confirming that "after 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialisation, GM crops have failed to increase yields" and that "traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down".
In some cases the yields for a short initial period were indeed high, creating a rush for the new seeds, but after some time such expectations could not be maintained. On the other hand, there are many examples of farmers who invested their meagre resources and borrowed heavily to buy expensive GM seeds and other supporting inputs (for example herbicides linked to these seeds) but later felt betrayed as the low yield left them indebted and saddled with debts. There were reports of many suicides by these farmers. There have been allegations of GM crops like Bt cotton being introduced in rainfed areas like those of Vidarbha (India) for which these were not suited.
In a widely quoted paper titled \\\’The Biotechnology Bubble\\\’ Dr. Mae-Wan Ho (who heads Bio-Electrodynamics lab of the Open University in the UK), Joe Cummins (Professor Emeritus of Genetics in Canada) and Hartmut Meyer have summarised the results of several experiments, trials and commercial releases of GMOs. They write : "There are many signs of the problems caused in genetic engineering organisms. For every product that reaches the market, there are perhaps 20 or more that fail. It is particularly disastrous for animal welfare.
In the case of Monsanto\\\’s 1997 Roundup-resistant cotton crop it was reported that the cotton balls drop off when sprayed with Roundup and farmers in seven states in the US were seeking compensation for losses.
“A number of different viral-resistant transgenic plants engineered with a viral gene actually showed increased propensity to generate new, often super-infectious viruses by recombination. There is widespread instability of transgenic lines; they generally do not breed true."
Further this paper says :
In a field trial of Bt-cotton in Thailand, 30 percent of the bees around the test-fields died.
Unilever used tissue culture techniques to regenerate oil palms for planing in Malaysia several years ago. This has now been abandoned as may plants aborted in the field or failed to flower.
Kavitha Kuruganti points out in a paper, \\\’Bt Cotton and the Myth of Enhanced Yield\\\’, "The 2008 yields of US soybean (at 40 bushels per acre, as per National Agricultural Statistics Service of the USDA) with 92% of such soybean being genetically modified, are lower than the 1994 yields of 41.4 bushels (before GM soybean was introduced). "It is important to note is that the 1996-2000 period saw a sharp decline in yield growth in cotton – that is the period when GM cotton increased to 61% of total cotton cultivation in the US.
A University of Nebraska study found that Roundup Ready GM soya varieties yielded 5% less than their closest conventional relatives and 10% less than high-yielding conventional lines. This implies a loss in a production of nearly 200 kg./ha. A study by Barney Gordon (2007) titled Manganese Nurition of Glyphosate – Resistant and Conventional Soybeans (published in Better Crops, Vo. 91-4), found in the context of Roundup Ready (GM) soya varieties that glyphosate applied to the GM crop was inhibiting the uptake of nutrients like manganese essential to plant health and performance.
Dr. Jack a Heinemann, of the School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, has a decade-long experience of reviewing safety information from companies on their genetically engineered crops. He writes, "the "Bt" trait does not increase yield, it just is becoming nearly impossible to source the best varieties without the Bt transgenes."
Why is this so? Dr. Heinemann answers, "The yield benefit (in Bt cotton) comes from the use of high yielding hybrids that are only available as GM varieties because genetic engineering companies like Mansanto control a large proportion of the seed supply and only offer them as GM cotton varieties."
This is confirmed by P V Satheesh, Convener of South Against Genetic Engineering, "The final nail in the coffin of non Bt cotton cultivation was hammered in 2006 when the industry – by forming a corporate seed cartel – successfully threw out all non Bt cotton seeds from the market firmly shutting out all options for farmers except the cultivation of Bt cotton."
Jack A. Heinemann asks, "Where is the data that these same high yield varieties lacking the Bt trait and grown using sustainable techniques such as integrated pest management and agroecology perform less than GM varieties," He answers, "There is none at all to my knowledge, while there is evidence that GM varieties undermine sustainable agriculture."
In Gujarat while yields of cotton have increased significantly in recent years this is mainly due to the impact of good weather and improvements in water and moisture conservation and irrigation. What is more, as already pointed out, the increase in yield based on the control of high yielding seeds by a few companies should not be confused with any claims of yields relating to Bt trait or genetic engineering.
On the experience of the USA Dr. Heinemann writes, "The yields of Bt cotton in the US, for example, have not been consistently or sustainably higher than cotton produced using high yield varieties that were not genetically engineered, and GM varieties have contributed to financial losses for farmers. The high costs of genetically engineered seeds put farmers at financial risk."
Heinemann concludes, "Does India want to export control of its food? Then go with genetic engineering. If India wants to feed itself, then go with proven but so far neglected approaches that work, such as agro ecology."
In the very first year of Bt cotton\\\’s commercial cultivation in India (2002-03), the Andhra Pradesh dept. of agriculture concluded a study of 3709 farmers growing this Bt cotton. As many as 71% of these farmers reported low yields with Bt cotton.
In Madhya Pradesh the average yield of cotton between 1996-2002 (before the introduction of Bt cotton) was 612.7 kg/ha. However in the six years after the introduction of Bt cotton average cotton yield was reduced to 518.3 kg/ha.
Above all, given the high hazards, risks and uncertainties associated with GM crops, these can never be sustainable. Markets and consumers of several countries simply do not accept GM crops.
In a letter written to the Prime Minister of India 2009 as many as 17 distingusished scientists from the USA, Canada, Europe and New Zealand have pointed out that the claims relating to higher yield and protection of environment made for GM crops are absolutely false. Due to various problems of GM crops, their spread has been highly limited. This letter says, “ More than 95 percent of all GM crops are engineered to either synthesise an insecticide (Bt toxin) or to tolerate a broad spectrum herbicide (e.g. Roundup, Liberty) or both.
“To date there are only four major commercialised GM crops (soya, maize/corn, cotton, canola/oilseed rape) most of which (soya, corn, canola) are used primarily as animal feed. All were commercialised in the late 90s. Since then, no other commercially viable GM crop application has made it to market, especially due to farmers not accepting other GM crops (such as wheat, potatoes, and rice) for negative economic reasons (lack of buyers, loss of export markets).
“GM crops have not been widely accepted around the world. 95 percent of all GM food crops are grown in only five countries: the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina, and Brazil. If you include fibre crops (cotton), India and China would be included. Only one GM crop is approved for cultivation within the European Union, MON810 corn, which has been banned by several member states invoking documented health and especially environmental risks. The basic problem is that GM as employed in agriculture is conceptually flawed, crude, imprecise and poorly controlled technology, that is incapable of generating plants that contain the required multiple, co-ordinately regulated genes that work in an integrated way to respond to environmental challenges. GM has not increased yield potential. Yields from GM crops to date have been no better and in the case of GM soya have been consistently lower. A 2009 report reviewing more than 20 academic studies clearly shows that the cultivation of GM herbicide-tolerant soybeans has not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn, meanwhile, has at best only improved yields marginally. This report found that increase in yields for both crops over the last 13 years was due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices. GM crops have led to vast increases in pesticide use, not decreases and therefore reduction of agricultural pollution cannot be claimed Climate change brings sudden, extreme, and unpredictable changes in weather, which requires that a cropping system be flexible, resilient and as genetically diverse as possible. GM technology offers just the opposite. Stability of productivity and production is much lower with many of the GM crops commercialised today. Herbicide tolerant GM soya is far more sensitive to heat or drought stress than conventional soya. GM crops are designed to be used in conjunction with synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, which are manufactured from oil and natural gas. GM crops do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Recent data from the US department of agriculture has shown a vast increase in herbicide use since the introduction of GM crops tolerant to the application of these agrochemicals. Therefore, the introduction of GM crops has exacerbated rather than reduced agriculture’s carbon footprint and is clearly unsustainable. Alternative proven technologies that can reduce the amount of fossil fuel used in farming already exist. This includes methods for reducing fertiliser applications, selecting farm machinery appropriate for each task, managing soil for conservation, limiting irrigation and (using) agro-ecological farming techniques.”
While the record of GM and particularly bt varieties in increasing yields on a sustainable basis is highly suspect, safer alternatives are certainly available. As Prof. P.M. Bhargava, noted molecular biologist pointed out recently, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research had not only favourably tested Integrated Pest management and bio-pesticides on 85 crops but also compiled as many as 4000 traditional agricultural practices of which several had been validated and revalidated. Giving the example of Andhra Pradesh where at least one lakh acres are under organic farming he said the yields here are equal to those farms of Punjab and Maharashtra where Bt varieties are being grown.
Even though Gujarat has been publicized the biggest success story of Bt cotton, the real situation can be somewhat different as this recent (Feb.13, 2010) report from the Economic Times (N.Delhi) tells us- (extracts)
“Cotton growers are turning back to non-Bt seeds. The trend is evident from the last two kharif seasons which saw revival in demand of conventional hybrids against genetically modified (GM) BT seeds.”
“We have seen offtake of 7,000 kg of traditional varieties from our end which is significantly higher then previous years,” said Vijay Kumar, head of the university’s cotton research center at Surat. According to him, climate too has played a major role in bringing about a change in preferences. The 5-6 monsoons preceding the last two were good and pest attack was under control. The last two monsoons were erratic and there was a major attack of mealy bug which has changed the mindset of farmers. Citing example of Vidarbha in Maharashtra, he said farmers went for BT sowing there and suffered major losses due to scanty fainfall. It may be noted that Vidarbha depends heavily on monsoons for irrigation and scanty monsoons in the last two years led farmers to incur heavy losses. These forced many of them to commit suicide.
Rambhai Patel, a farmer based at Jivapura near Himmatnagar in Sabarkantha district, while narrating his experience with BT cotton, said he stopped sowing Bt seed from kharif 2009 and has now opted for Sankar variety. “Between 2004 and 2007, BT variety offered tremendous results but since last two years it has failed to yield profits. Our production has been decreasing since last two seasons and so I have abandoned BT seed,” he said. In the long run, the land loses fertility and farmer incurs heavy losses, he added. According to Patel, BT seed have been losing resistance to ballworm, a major pest scourge in Gujarat. “
Q7. Why and how adequate caution is ignored while introducing GM crops?
Answer- People wonder why GM crops spread 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.
Jeffrey M. Smith has explained how safety reports were prepared. The quotation below is from his book \\\’Genetic Roulette\\\’, a book which has been recommended and praised widely by many international experts. Smith writes, "the industry-funded studies have become notorious for using creative ways to avoid finding problems. They feed older animals instead of more sensitive young ones, keep sample sizes too low to achieve the statistical significance needed for proof in scientific studies, dilute the GM component of the feed, overcook samples, compare results with irrelevant controls, choose obsolete insensitive detection methods, limit the duration of feeding trials, and even ignore animal deaths and sickness."
This opinion on the poor quality of studies is endorsed by others. Erik Millstone, professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex has commented, “The fundamental problem of the way in which GM foods have been approved is that they haven’t really been tested properly at all. All that has happened is something which I would characterize as an exercise in wishful thinking.”
But what is even more important is that when scientists spoke against GM crops, their voice was stifled using several unethical ways. Jeffrey Smith reports in the context of the experiences in the USA, the country where GM crops have spread the most, “The FDA (the Food and Drug Administration of the USA) was fully aware that GM crops were meaningfully different. That, in fact, was the overwhelming consensus among the technical experts in the agency. The scientists agreed that genetic engineering leads to “different risks” than traditional breeding and had repeatedly warned their superiors that GM foods might create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects."
The scientists’ concerns were kept secret in 1992, when FDA policy was put into place. But seven years later, internal records were made public due to a lawsuit and the deception came to light. The agency’s newly released 44,000 pages revealed that government scientists’ “references to the unintended negative effects….were progressively deleted from drafts of the policy statement (over the protests of agency scientists.” They further revealed that "the FDA was under orders from the White House to promote GM crops and that Michael Taylor, Monsanto’s former attorney and later its vice president, was brought into the FDA to oversee policy development. With Taylor in charge, the scientists’ warnings were ignored and denied."
The story of U.K. is no less shocking, adds Smith. In the mid-1990s, the UK government commissioned scientists to develop an assessment protocol for GM crop approvals that would be used in the UK and eventually by the EU. In 1998, three years into the project, the scientists discovered that potatoes engineered to produce a harmless insecticide caused extensive health damage to rats. The pro-GM government immediately cancelled the project, the lead scientist was fired and the research team dismantled.
It is due to the likely use of unfair means to speed up highly hazardous introduction of GMOs that citizens need to be very vigilant on this issue of the greatest importance for food security, livelihoods and environment.
According to a report prepared by the Independent Science Panel, there has been a history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific evidence, especially on horizontal gene transfer. Key experiments failed to be performed, or were performed badly and then misrepresented. Many experiments were not followed up, including investigations on whether the CaMV 35S promoter is responsible for the ‘growth factor-like’ effects observed in young rats fed GM potatoes.
Coming to the more recent debate on Bt brinjal, Prof. Bhargava who was nominated by the Supreme Court in the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), pointed out that when Monsanto’s dossier containing all the bio-safety tests that they had done was put in the public domain earlier this year (2009), there were serious criticisms of it by many scientists from various parts of the world..
Prof. Bhargava\\\’s own criticism centered around the following points –
A large description of concerned, knowledgeable and reputed scientists have agreed that some 30 or so tests need to be done before a GM plant is cleared for environmental release. Monsanto had done only less than 10 of these tests.
Even these tests were done largely by Monsanto, and we have no facility in the country to even determine whether the tests were actually done.
There were many scientific errors even in the tests that were done by Monsanto.
The GEAC appointed a committee (EC-II) to prepare a report on such criticism. But Dr. Bhargava and others were essentially given just one day to review the 102 page report. Still on the basis of his vast experience he could quickly see that there were "internal inconsistencies in the report, inconsistencies between the report and the earlier data that had been put in public domain and outright scientific absurdities."
When Prof. Bhargava recommended that adequate time should be allowed for a review meeting of eminent experts who had been involved in this issue, this proposal was completely ignored and the GEAC went ahead to give its hurried approval to Bt brinjal.
This is just one example of several arbitrary, unjustified, hurried approvals given to GM crops.
A group of 17 distinguished scientists from the USA, Canada, Europe and New Zealand wrote to India’s Prime Minister in 2009, “India’s regulators do not require independent bio-safety tests, but uncritically accept as evidence of safety, research conducted by the company who is applying for commercial clearance of the product. This raises serious questions regarding impartiality and conflicts of interest, which are clearly justified, based on published evidence of bias in the research conducted by industry that is contrary to accepted normal scientific conduct.
“GM food compositional analysis is superficial and the minimum required to establish “substantial equivalence”, a scientifically conceptually flawed parameter that is virtually meaningless with respect to determining health risk.
“Experimental design used by the applicant is flawed, almost invariably containing irrelevant “control” non-GM comparator crop varieties, which serve to mask rather than to isolate and reveal the effect of the GM transformation process.
“The biological testing required is not adequate to detect either acute or chronic toxic effects of GM foods. At best, only 90-day feeding studies are required by the government’s SOPs without an obligatory requirement for toxicological and histological evaluation. In order to assess medium and long-term (life-long) health impacts it is necessary to conduct lifetime and multigenerational feeding studies. Only these will reliably determine fertility and chronic health impacts, which is essential because it is the intension that people will be eating GM foods for their whole lifetime.
“Experimental data is invariably not made publicly available for independent scientific scrutiny under the pretext of commercial confidentiality. This has required court action (both in Europe and India) in order to obtain the information needed to assess the quality of the research submitted by industry to be scrutinised by authoritative bio-safety experts. Such independent re-evaluation of submitted industry data has repeatedly found that this research and its interpretation thereof to be flawed, inadequate, biased and thus misleading.”
A group of 24 eminent citizens of India recently wrote in a letter to India’s Prime Minister, “We therefore, must conclude that there has been a purposeful and systematic intent by the regulators (GEAC, RCGM and DBT), to mislead you and former prime ministers about the truth of GM crops. We are furthermore, convinced by the evidence on record, of a blatant conflict of interest within the regulators and the committee charged with the appraisal of Bt brinjal called the Bt brinjal Expert Committee II (EC II). The evidence also shows that the appraisal process, minimal guidelines used and subsequent approval are fraudulent. Information just received under the RTI for example, squarely refutes the regulators claim that the extensive reports from several states in India of allergenicity and specifically, animal deaths from toxic reactions attributed to grazing in Bt cotton fields, have no substance. This is a serious falsification of the true facts. No investigation of any depth, leave alone of scientific rigour, has been conducted to ascertain the safety of the Bt gene in Bt cotton and the reason for the animal deaths. We quite simply have not done the studies. Moreover, we do not have the means to test for allergenic reactions to Bt toxins. Unfortunately, the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Sharad Pawar even allegedly saw fit to bring inappropriate pressure on the Chairperson of the Committee and interfere with the regulatory process. It is deeply worrying that Monsanto is also in a position to influence the regulatory process in India. Monsanto has been indicted for and convicted of serious crimes for repeated fraudulent processes & procedures in safety-testing of GM crops, and is presently under investigation by the US Justice Department for antitrust law violations. These are a matter of record and will be furnished if you so wish, along with other evidence of impropriety by the regulators.”
According to a recent cover-story in Tehelka journal, “The GEAC in January 2008, cited reports from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) and the Andhra Animal Husbandry Department which showed “conclusive proof of safety” to animals from Bt cotton feed.
But when Anthra, a veterinary research organisation, filed an RTI with the IVRI asking for a copy of the report, in shocking proof of the essentially compromised nature of the GEAC – and the influential arm of corporates involved? – the institute responded saying “no studies had been done by them and that the IVRI had not submitted any reports to the GEAC.”
Dr. Sagari R. Ramdas, co-director of Anthra writes, “Since 2005, shepherds and farmers from different parts of India, particularly the states of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka and Maharashtra, have reported their cattle falling sick after it has grazed on genetically modified cotton or have been fed Bt cotton seeds and in some instances have died. Despite several reports and representations to concerned regulatory and research institutions both at national and state levels, alerting them to the seriousness of the issue, there has been a persistent reluctance amongst the scientific establishment to respond, investigate and research the core issue. On the contrary the reaction of the establishment has been bureaucratic and dismissive of the observations.
“Between 2005 and 2009 Anthra, an organisation led by women veterinary scientists researching the impact of Bt cotton on animals in different parts of India, has been closely investigating the reported morbidity and mortality observed in sheep and goat flocks, which have been grazed on harvested Bt cotton crop in Andhra Pradesh. Shepherds unambiguously declared that their animals, which had never died or fallen sick while being grazed on regular cotton fields since the past 10 years, began to exhibit morbid changes when grazed on the GM crop.
“In Haryana, there was a strong correlation between feeding Bt cotton seeds and cotton seed cake to milch animals, and drop in milk yield and several reproductive disorders such as prolapse of uterus, premature birth of calves, increase in the incidence of abortions and decrease in conception rate.”
“By the beginning of 2007, there were just over 20 peer-reviewed animal feeding safety studies on GM crops. Only a single human feeding trial has been published and there is no post-marketing surveillance on those eating GM foods. Trials funded or conducted by the GM crop producers, however, are consistently substandard. They typically fail to investigate the impacts of GM food on gut function, liver function, kidney function, the immune system, the endocrine system, blood composition, allergic response, effects on the unborn, the potential to cause cancer, or impacts on gut bacteria. In addition, the industry-funded studies have become notorious for using creative ways to avoid finding problems. They feed older animals instead of more sensitive young ones, keep sample sizes too low to achieve the statistical significance needed for proof in scientific studies, dilute the GM component of the feed, overcook samples, compare results with irrelevant controls, choose obsolete insensitive detection methods, limit the duration of feeding trials, and even ignore animal deaths and sickness. They’ve got “bad science” down to a science.”
-Jeffrey M.Smith in ‘Genetic Roulette’
“The fundamental problem of the way in which GM foods have been approved is that they haven’t really been tested properly at all. All that has happened is something which I would characterize as an exercise in wishful thinking.”
-Erik Millstone, professor of Science Policy at the
University of Sussex
Q8. Why the Moratorium on Bt Brinjal should continue?
Answer- On February 9, 2010 Mr. Jairam Ramesh, India’s Union Minister for Environment and Forests, announced the important decision of moratarium on Bt brinjal which was widely welcomed – not just in India but at a world level – on grounds of health, environment and safety. However a relatively small but extremely powerful section of vested interests set in motion high-power efforts to remove this moratorium.
To give an idea of how strong these vested interests are, we may mention here just two facts. Firstly, some extremely powerful politicians and technocrats have been behaving as though they are the brokers or employees of these vested interests. Secondly, the MNC which most visibly represents these interests has got away so far with the most shocking unethical practices, including large-scale bribery to get its highly harmful products/crops approved.
So now the democratic forces fighting for safety, health and environment protection have to initiate an even bigger effort to counter these extremely powerful forces. This effort can start with the excellent document which Jairam Ramesh released while announcing the moratorium on Bt brinjal. In this document the Minister clearly stated how widespread the opposition to Bt brinjal was. To quote from this report – “All states which have written to me have expressed apprehension on Bt-brinjal and have called for extreme caution. Because this is extremely important in our federal framework and agriculture is a state subject, I summarise below the views of the state governments that have been submitted in writing to me by the Chief Ministers/Agriculture Ministers:
“Andhra Pradesh: "It is clear that the data generated, the tests conducted and the information disseminated by GEAC are not sufficient for suggesting the commercial release of Bt-brinjal….Until safety parameters in terms of environment, human and animal health are clearly established, release of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation is to be deferred"
Kerala: " Considering all this, Government of Kerala has taken a decision to prohibit all environmental release of GMOs and keep the state totally GM free. We would request the Honorable Prime Minister to reconsider the policy of GM in a national scale and declare a moratorium at least for the next fifty years".
Chattisgarh:" Before giving permission for commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, all tests to establish full impacts, including negative impacts, on human and animal health and on the environment should be carried out".
Karnataka: "The commercial release of Bt-brinjal should be deferred till the issue is thoroughly examined from all the angles by taking into account the views of all stakeholders and conducting a long-term research for its bio-safety and its consequent contributions to food security and farmers well-being".
Bihar: "The Rajya Kisan Ayog is not in favour of the introduction of Bt brinjal in the state at this point of time. The recommendation of the Rajya Kisan Ayog has been considered by the state government and the state government fully endorses the view of the Ayog".
West Bengal:" I have got the report of the Expert Committee of the GEAC downloaded. I feel that the matter needs thorough examination by the experts in the field. I am requesting some members of the erstwhile State Agriculture Commission to examine the report and forward their views to the government to enable us to take a holistic view on the subject".
Orissa: "The Government of Orissa does not support the introduction of Bt-brinjal at this stage and until sufficient trials are made and interests of small and marginal farmers of the state are safeguarded".
“In addition, the CM of Uttarakhand has spoken to me and conveyed the decision to ban Bt-brinjal in that state. The Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu has informed me that the state of Tamil Nadu is not in favour of commercialisation of Bt-brinjal now. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister has told me that Bt-brinjal should be introduced "only after all doubts and fears have been properly dispelled".
Secondly, this document stated that as far as the objective of reducing pesticide use is concerned, other proven alternatives are available. This document stated, “it is worth recalling that there are now close to 6 lakh farmers in Andhra Pradesh fully practicing NPM (non-pesticide management) agriculture over an area of about 20 lakh acres. I have myself been seeing this initiative over the past four years. The advantage of NPM is that it eliminates chemical pesticide use completely whereas Bt-technology only reduces the pesticide spray, albeit substantially. Incidentally, one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change is the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture of which NPM is an integral part.”
Thirdly, this document clearly said that the tests on the safety of Bt brinjal conducted so far are not adequate.
“While there may be a debate on the nature and number of tests that need to be carried out for establishing human safety, it is incontrovertible that the tests have been carried out by the Bt-brinjal developers themselves and not in any independent laboratory. This does raise legitimate doubts on the reliability of the tests, doubts that I cannot ignore. “
Fourthly, this document stated that the contamination threat is very real, “The fact that brinjal is very largely a cross-pollinated crop according to the generally accepted scientific consensus makes the threat of contamination with the use of Bt-brinjal on other varieties a particularly worrisome issue.”
Fifthly, this document also confirms that the loss of biodiversity threat is very real – “Apart from being the world’s largest producer of brinjal, India is undoubtedly the country of origin as far as brinjal is concerned as testified by Vavilov in 1928. Data that has been made available to me by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources of the ICAR reveals that there are 3951 collections in the Bureau and the number of diversity-rich districts is 134. The Bureau also points out that diversity-rich regions are likely to be affected by the introduction of Bt-brinjal due to gene flow. The loss of diversity argument cannot be glossed over especially when seen in light of the experience we have had in cotton where Bt-cotton seed has overtaken non-Bt seeds.”
Sixthly, this document has also refuted the oft stated claim of GM-crop supporters that China is going in rapidly for these crops. Jairam Ramesh has written very clearly, “I have spoken with my counterpart in China and he has informed me that China’s policy is to encourage research in GM technology but to be extremely cautious when it comes to introduction in food crops.”
In addition Jairam Ramesh has also mentioned the negative views on Bt brinjal he received from several eminent scientists.
Professor G.E. Seralini from France in a detailed report has pointed out several flaws in the EC-II report and concludes that "the risk on human and mammalian health is too high for authorities to take the decision to commercialise this GM brinjal";
Dr. David Schubert of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, USA who says that Bt-brinjal should definitely not be introduced in India since it poses serious environmental and health risks, will increase social and political dependence on private companies and will entail higher costs at all levels of the food chain;
What is most interesting is the expert advice Jairam Ramesh got on health impacts. As he has written, “I have had a discussion with both the Director-General of the Indian Council of Medical Research as well as with the Drug Controller to the Government of India. Both have recommended that chronic toxicity and other associated tests should be carried out independently. The parallel has been drawn with drugs where during the crucial clinical trials phase, independent testing is carried out on human beings instead of relying on just the data generated by the developer companies themselves. The DG-ICMR told me that in the face of contradictory evidence of the health effects he would advocate more caution and further tests.
“Doctors for Food and Safety, a network of around 100 doctors across the country have sent a representation on the health hazards related to GM foods in general and Bt-brinjal in particular. They have drawn attention to the recommendations made by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine that GM foods have not been properly tested for human consumption and that there are substantial risks associated with the use of GM foods.
“I have also been informed that the Indian Systems of Medicine including ayurveda, siddha, homeopathy and unani use brinjal as a medicinal ingredient, both in raw and cooked form, for treatment of respiratory diseases and that the entire brinjal plant is used in such preparations. There is fear that Bt-brinjal will destroy these medicinal properties due to loss of synergy, differences in the alkaloids and changes in other active principles.”
Jairam Ramesh has emphasised legal support for an approach based on caution. The Supreme Court has invoked the precautionary principle as a guiding instrument in environmental decisions (A.P. Pollution Control Board vs. M.V. Nayudu<1999(2)SCC718> by relying on the following:
"There is nothing to prevent decision-makers from assessing the record and concluding there is inadequate information on which to reach determination. If it is not possible to make a decision with ‘some’ confidence, then it makes sense to err on the side of caution and prevent activities that may cause serious or irreparable harm. An informed decision can be made at a later stage when additional data is available or resources permit further research".
Keeping in view all these factors, Jairam Ramesh had chosen his words carefully while announcing the moratorium on the Bt brinjal.
“Based on all the information presented in the preceding paragraphs and when there is no clear consensus within the scientific community itself, when there is so much opposition from the state governments, when responsible civil society organisations and eminent scientists have raised many serious questions that have not been answered satisfactorily, when the public sentiment is negative and when Bt-brinjal will be the very first genetically-modified vegetable to be introduced anywhere in the world and when there is no over-riding urgency to introduce it here, it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt-brinjal, till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country.
“A moratorium implies rejection of this particular case of release for the time being; it does not, in any way, mean conditional acceptance. This should be clearly understood.”
Thus it is clear that within this basic document, there is very strong and solid evidence and argument in favour of moratorium on Bt brinjal. If to this we add the vast and growing opinion of many eminent scientists on the manifold hazards and uncertainties of GM crops in general, then it is very clear that the moratorium should definitely continue as basically vested interests were trying to use Bt brinjal to clear the path for introduction of many other GM food crops as well.
Exploring the basics of this issue, a leading researcher and activist Kavitha Kuruganti has written, “Bt brinjal is a genetically modified (GM) food crop created by inserting a bacterial gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thurengiensis into the brinjal DNA to make the plant produce a toxin against a particular pest (fruit & shoot borer). This is being sought to be introduced in India, Philippines and Bangladesh on the claim that it will bring down pesticide use in brinjal/eggplant/aubergine cultivation, reduce pest-related losses and increase yields and bring in better incomes for farmers. While these are the claims around this novel produce, there are many unaddressed concerns around Bt brinjal even as there are also unanswered questions on the very rationale extended for wanting to bring in the Bt food crop.
“Bt brinjal was sought to be made into the Trojan horse by the biotech promoters and proponents for an easier entry of various GM seeds and such technologies into India’s food and farms sector. This was quite apparent to everyone and the ones who were resisting Bt brinjal were also aware of this.”
So the issue at stake is very big indeed as what the vested interests want is not just Bt brinjal but to use Bt brinjal to open up India’s entire food and agriculture system for GM crops. It has been pointed out trials on about 40 such crops have been taking place, including such basic staples as rice. The basic issue is that multinational companies want to gain control of India’s food and agriculture and by spending billions of Rs., they have already captured the support of some of India’s leading politicians and technocrats. Now it is for the democratic forces to prepare for a long peaceful struggle to prevent these corrupt forces from destroying India’s food and farming system.
(To be continued in next few parts. To know more about the writer and his work, please visit his website- www.bharatdogra.in. 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)