The case for banning GM crops

PUSHPA M BHARGAVA | Updated on January 24, 2018

They have a point: Let’s not be carried away by unconvincing research   -  REUTERS

There are enough reasons to suspect a health impact. Besides, food output per se is not a huge problem in India

India has too many enviable strengths of its own to do something only because a group of other countries is doing it. But it will be great folly for it not to take serious note of the fact that, recently, 17 out of 28 countries of European Union (EU), along with large regions of UK and Belgium, have said ‘no’ to genetically modified (GM) crops.

The 17 countries are: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, and Slovenia.

These countries represent 65 per cent of EU population and 65 per cent of EU arable land. They have, I strongly believe and as time will show, done the right thing.

Today, there is substantially large and incontrovertible evidence that genetically modified crops are harmful to human and animal health, environment and biodiversity. The commonly used Bt gene when put into cotton or brinjal plant leads to a deleterious effect on growth and development of the plant. GM food has been shown to even cause cancer in rodents.

Alarm signs

Fortunately, in India, so far only one GM crop — cotton — has been commercialised and its success is touted as a reason for our allowing commercialisation of other GM crops, mustard being a front runner with many others not far behind.

However, as it turns out, the success of Bt cotton is overemphasised. First, Bt cotton has failed in rainfed areas which represent two-thirds of cotton growing areas; it has succeeded only in irrigated areas.

Second, when talking of success of Bt cotton, we are comparing a hybrid with a variety which is unfair. Third, similar yields as with Bt cotton have been obtained with non-Bt cotton grown under specified conditions.

Peddlers of GM technology say that GM food has been consumed in the US for 15 years and nothing has happened to the Americans. As it turns out, the latter statement is not true.

Concurrently with the consumption of GM food, there has been increase in the incidence of gastrointestinal tract disorders and cases of allergy.

This, of course, does not establish a cause and effect relationship between consumption of GM food and health problems mentioned above, but it certainly makes it possible.

Let us not forget the case of lathyrism which was widely prevalent in Madhya Pradesh till the middle of the last century.

It took us more than a hundred years to find the cause of the disease: it was a food item — kesari dal. With the banning of kesari dal, the disease had been completely eradicated.

Safety concerns

Even in the US where two-thirds of the world’s GM crops are grown there is today substantial opposition to GM food.

In the last presidential election, Californians were asked to vote on Proposition 37 according to which all GM food entering California, would have to be labelled.

The proposition lost by a narrow margin, and that too because GM seed companies such as Monsanto spent an enormous amount of money on advertisements of their cause. Another argument in favour of GM food crops is that we need more food to meet today’s and tomorrow’s food requirement around the world.

This is a facetious argument. We produce more food today without the use of GM technology than is required to feed the world population, and we do not need GM technology to take care of future food requirements. In India, as much as 40 per cent of food we produce is wasted.

Further, the hunger we have is not on account of lack of food. It is because those who are hungry do not have resources to buy the food. Then we have virtually no testing of GM crops for safety. In the US, they are approved on the basis of just “substantial equivalence” with the non-GM material.

We have not done much better in India. Only a small proportion say, 15 per cent, of tests which should have been done have been done at all on our GM material.

Let me given an example. In genetic modification, one often introduces a foreign gene (which is a stretch of DNA, the genetic material of all living organisms) in a cell. It is known that when we do that, 10-15 per cent of the gene is degraded to smaller DNA fragments.

These DNA fragments can get incorporated in the genome of the recipient cell in the same way as we want the desired intact gene to get incorporated. This incorporation of DNA fragments can change the protein profile and, therefore, functions of the cell. We have techniques (proteomics) to visualise the changed protein profile of the cell.

However, no proteomics experiments have been done in the case of any approved GM product anywhere so far.

Another example would be that of chronic toxicity which has again not been determined for any GM product so far before its release.

Testing them right

Not only that, tests carried out so far have not been done by an independent body; they have been done by the company intending to market the product.

Then, all the test data has often not been available. Where available, it has been at times wrongly interpreted by the company.

The story of laxity in the process of approval of GM crops does not end here. In our country, in no case has field trials of GM crops been adequately and appropriately supervised. Therefore, it has been a history of lack of care and concern in testing for toxicity and other required parameters all through.

The case of GM mustard that the Indian government is promoting actively at present is no different. If we are committed to good science and to providing our citizens healthy food, we should put a ban on GM mustard as we did on GM brinjal and say “no” to all GM crops, just as the 17 countries of EU have done.

This is also what the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Agriculture as well as the Technical Expert Committee appointed by the Supreme Court have recommended in principle.

The writer is a leading scientist

Published on November 05, 2015

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