The GM mirage

Shaheen Contractor
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The debate about the need and safety of genetically modified (GM) food has reached a critical level, and with good reason, as the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill which will govern GM food is due to be introduced in Parliament.

GM crops are usually made by crossing the genes of unrelated species, in an attempt to transfer a desired trait. The fact is that 99 per cent of GM seeds have one or both of the two characteristics: the insertion of a pesticide-producing gene from a bacterium or the insertion of a herbicide-tolerant gene which allows spraying of a weedicide.

No magic wand this

The Government of our country as well as various companies and scientists have spent a lot of time and money trying to convince people that there is really nothing to worry about, and that GM food can benefit farmers as well as the economy in more ways than one. In recent years various consumers, scientists and NGOs have reacted strongly against this technology. Their voices although few, are now being heard and the urgent need for alternate agricultural practices is gaining momentum.

Will GM food solve world hunger and poverty, as claimed? Are alternate agricultural practices unable to create enough food? The argument raised by most multinational seed corporations and advocates of GM food is that it will help feed the world’s growing population by increasing yields and fighting diseases that plague crops. However, studies have found that GM seeds, in fact, fail to increase yield substantially. The Union of Concerned Scientists in its report Failure to Yield studied the yield of genetically engineered crops in the US over 13 years and found that yields had not increased — except for a small increase in corn — and had actually declined in other cases.

As regards alleviating poverty, GM cotton seeds cost Rs 1,500-2,000 a kg as against cotton hybrids which cost about Rs 200-500 a kg. MNCs have patented these seeds, which cannot be replanted but have to be bought every season. They require timely irrigation, which does not exist for 70 per cent of India’s farmlands, increased fertilisers and continuous costs of pesticides for secondary pests which develop. Farmers incur heavy debts in hopes of yields which do not materialise for the majority of Indian farmers in rain-fed areas. The debt cycle faced by these farmers who remain slaves to this so-called modern technology is never-ending and self-defeating. In fact, there appear to be virtually no suicides among organic farmers, due to their self-reliance for seed, fertiliser and pest control and absence of debt.

Distribution problem

A majority of people living below the poverty line are suffering from malnutrition and hunger, not because food is unavailable, but because they cannot afford it. The real reasons for hunger depend on a number of intricate social and economic forces that affect how people have access to land, credit, irrigation facilities and other resources. The argument that producing more food will reduce hunger, although it may sound plausible, is completely off base. A major UN-/World Bank-sponsored report produced by 400 scientists from 58 countries concluded that GM crops have little to offer global agriculture and better alternatives are available.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 18, 2012)
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