GM debate: Scientific evidence needed, not rhetoric

Ad-hoc regulatory body, self-defeating bio-safety norms and worthless scientific data are the real causes of concern in India


Prasanna Mohanty | February 2, 2013

A not-so-new turnaround by the environmentalist and author Mark Lynas has renewed the debate over genetically modified (GM) crops in India, thanks to the wide publicity that his January 3 lecture at the Oxford received here. By his own admission, Lynas changed his position from being an anti-GM crusader in the 1990s to a GM supporter two years ago, in his 2010 book, The God Species. It is, however, nobody’s case that this debate isn’t worth it because India is very much in a fix over adopting the GM technology.

Also read: interviews with Pushpa M Bhargava, Kavitha Kuruganti, Suman Sahai

Lynas’ turnaround has come against the backdrop of two important developments. Two reports – one by a parliamentary standing committee (released on August 7, 2012) and the other, an interim one, by a supreme court panel (released on October 17, 2012) – have unequivocally called for a moratorium on all GM trials in the country until bio-safety norms and the regulatory mechanism are firmly in place. The supreme court panel will soon come out with its final report, which is unlikely to change its position.

There have been fast-paced changes since the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) first imposed a moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brijnal in February 2010. The state governments of Bihar, Rajasthan, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand have banned GM crops since then. Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, West Bengal and Odisha have expressed apprehensions and have called for extreme caution.

In the meanwhile, Monsanto, the US multinational that introduced the first GM technology in India by way of Bt cotton in 2002, and which has now captured 92 percent of the entire cotton growing area in the country, has been desperate to get the moratorium on Bt brinjal revoked. It is also carrying out field trials for other GM products (maize, rice etc) and is keen to see these being commercially released at the earliest.

Lynas’ change of heart is expected to impact this tug-of-war. But will it? A careful reading of his Oxford lecture would show, even to a layperson, that Lynas’ stand was tenuous even before the turnaround and remains so now too. Here is why.

·        His criticism of GM technology in the 1990s was based not on scientific knowledge or evidence but purely on ignorance and myths.

In his lecture, he says, “When I first heard about Monsanto’s GM soya I knew exactly what I thought. Here was a big American corporation with a nasty track record, putting something new and experimental into our food without telling us. Mixing genes between species seemed to be about as unnatural as you can get – here was humankind acquiring too much technological power; something was bound to go horribly wrong. These genes would spread like some kind of living pollution. It was the stuff of nightmares.”

He admits that he started learning science ­­– “how to read scientific papers, understand basic statistics and become literate in very different fields from oceanography to paleoclimate” ­– many years later while working on his first book on global warming which was published in 2004. His degree in politics and modern history, he says, didn’t help much.

He also admits that even in 2008, when he published his second book, Six Degrees, which he says is “so ‘sciency’ that it won the Royal Society science books prize”, he knew nothing about GM science. “And yet, incredibly, at this time in 2008 I was still penning screeds in the Guardian attacking the science of GM – even though I had done no academic research on the topic, and had a pretty limited personal understanding. I don’t think I’d ever read a peer-reviewed paper on biotechnology or plant science even at this later stage.”

How did the change happen then? “Well, the answer is simple – I discovered science, and in the process I hope I become a better environmentalist.” But how? “I did some reading. And I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to little more than green urban myths.”

·        Even his new stand is not based on science or scientific evidence – old or new.

Here are some of his material explanations for the change of heart:

(a)  “I’d assumed that it would increase the use of chemicals. It turned out that pest-resistant cotton and maize needed less insecticide.”

That’s right. But this is not unique to GM technology alone. When Jairam Ramesh as environment minister declared a moratorium on Bt brinjal in 2010, he had written, inter alia: “In this connection, it is worth recalling that that there are now close to 6 lakh farmers in Andhra Pradesh fully practising non-pesticide management (NPM) agriculture over an area of about 20 lakh acre. 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” (emphasis as in the original).

(b) “I’d assumed that GM benefitted only the big companies. It turned out that billions of dollars of benefits were accruing to farmers needing fewer inputs.”

This is contrary to the experience in India where the Bt cotton belt happens to be the farmers’ suicide belt and input costs have gone up substantially. In Vidarbha, for example, input costs have gone from Rs 8,000–12,000 per acre for the traditional variety of cotton to Rs 48,000 – 54,000 per acre for Bt cotton (according to the parliamentary standing committee report of 2012). Bt cotton seeds cost more than Rs 2,000 per kg against Rs 50 per kg of the traditional variety. Bt cotton is also much more labour-intensive.

(c)  “I’d assumed that Terminator Technology was robbing farmers of the right to save seed. It turned out that hybrids did that long ago and that Terminator never happened.”

Wrong. The Terminator technology (suicide gene) was indeed developed in the late 1990s and was sought to be released in the market. It was the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that prevented it by declaring a moratorium on the use of this technology in 2000, and reaffirmed in 2006.

(d) “I’d assumed that no-one wanted GM. Actually what happened was that Bt cotton was pirated into India and roundup ready soya into Brazil because farmers were so eager to use them.”

Bt cotton was clandestinely introduced in India, after rigging the approval process – that’s what the supreme court panel report of 2012 says. There was no debate, not even in parliament. The test details were never made public. Indian farmers were sold the technology with ample push from the decision makers and the public sector cotton research centre, Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur.

(e) “I’d assumed that GM was dangerous. It turned out that it was safer and more precise than conventional breeding using mutagenesis for example; GM just moves a couple of genes, whereas conventional breeding mucks about with the entire genome in a trial and error way”.

Noted biotechnologist Pushpa Bhargava, who was among the first to coin the very term “genetic engineering” and is a nominee of the supreme court in the apex technical body that approves GM products – genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC) – says this doesn’t make any scientific sense. He says, in conventional breeding (hybrids), no ‘foreign’ gene but ‘identical’ gene is introduced and hence no undesirable genetic change happens or leads to production of toxins. But in GM breeding, a ‘foreign’ gene is introduced, a part of which breaks down and the fragments get inserted at various places of the original gene sequence, which may lead to the creation of a new protein, of toxins and disruption in normal functioning.

(f) One GM trial “found a wheat yield increase of an extraordinary 30%”.

GM surely increases yield by checking pests, but it is not so dramatic. After promoting Bt cotton for 10 years, CICR carried out an assessment in 2011 and found the yield had increased from 470 kg lint per hectare in 2004-05 to 481 kg lint per hectare in 2011-12. The increase was credited to not just to GM technology but also to factors such as – irrigation, low pest activity, well distributed rainfall, overall shift to hybrid cotton and introduction of pesticides with novel modes of action.

In fact, CICR found that India stood 32 in world ranking, among those using GM technology, in terms of per hectare yield of Bt cotton. Even six poor African countries – Uganda, Nigeria, Morocco, Ethiopia, Mali and Burkina Faso – have achieved our level of cotton yield without using GM technology at all (vide the parliamentary standing committee).

It was these factors that led CICR to launch a new experiment in 2012, shifting to non-GM varieties in Vidarbha. It engaged 250 farmers and 240 acres in eight districts of Vidarbha and used the “high density planting” method. Despite a drought-like situation (delayed monsoon has caused havoc) in Vidarbha, CICR says the experiment yielded “good result” and the yield, in some cases, was as high as 400 to 500 kg lint per hectare.

Before that, the union government even sent a team to Brazil because, as the department of agriculture and cooperation “admitted” before the parliamentary panel, “several traditional varieties of cotton grown in Brazil had three times more yield than Bt cotton yield in India.”

In fact, the parliamentary standing committee quotes the International Assessment for Agricultural Science, Technology for Development (IAASTD), a research document prepared by 400 scientists from all over the world for four years, highlighting two issues crucial to the GM debate:

(i) “Conventional biotechnologies, such as breeding techniques, tissue culture, cultivation practices and fermentation are readily accepted and used. Between 1950 and 1980, prior to the development GMOs [GM organisms], modern varieties of wheat may have increased yields up to 33% even in the absence of fertilizer” and

(ii) “The pool of evidence of the sustainability and productivity of GMOs in different settings is relatively anecdotal, and the findings from different contexts are variable, allowing proponents and critics to hold entrenched positions about their present and potential value. Some regions report increases in some crops and positive financial returns have been reported for GM cotton in studies including South Africa, Argentina, China, India and Mexico. In contrast, the US and Argentina may have slight yield declines in soybeans, and also for maize in the US. Studies on GMOs have also shown the potential for decreased insecticide use, while others show increasing herbicide use. It is unclear whether detected benefits will extend to most agroecosystems or be sustained in the long term as resistances develop to herbicides and insecticides.”

And yet, Lynas goes on to say that “the GM debate is over”. The only compelling evidence he offers is this: “We no longer need to discuss whether or not it (GM) is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantive case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food…”

·      Lynas says GM is being strangled by a “suffocating avalanche of regulations”. What is needed is “myth-busting and de-regulation”. He targets India and Jairam Ramesh (in subsequent interviews) for moratorium on Bt brinjal – a clear giveaway of his objectives.

In India, as far as regulations go, the opposite is true.

While declaring a moratorium on Bt brinjal, Ramesh clearly mentioned how bio-safety tests were a self-certifying exercise. The tests were carried out by Monsanto’s Indian subsidiary Mahyco, and not by any independent body. He said eight “essential tests had not been carried out” and yet GEAC approved it. Some of the GEAC members were involved with Monsanto’s GM programme, a clear conflict of interest. He also raised the issue of bio-piracy about how Monsanto got hold of our indigenous germplasm for developing Bt brinjal in the first place. And then, it was subsequently revealed a powerful minister had pushed GEAC to grant a clearance without adequate bio-safety tests.

The fact is, as pointed out by both the parliamentary standing committee and supreme court panel set up to examine the issue, we don’t really have a regulatory mechanism in place. What exists is an ad hoc and non-scientific arrangement, more prone to manipulation and is causing more harm than any good. A proposal to set up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority is still in the pipeline.

Worse, there are no bio-safety norms. These are still in the ‘draft’ stage. The ones that are being used to clear GM products are self-defeating because they allow self-certification of bio-safety tests, and, hold your breath, allows Monsanto the freedom to sub-contract these tests to others. Our scientific knowledge at best is rudimentary and the scientific data on Bt cotton and Bt brjnal worthless.

That is why the supreme court panel recommended 10 years’ moratorium because that is the time it felt India needs to get ready to deal with GM products.

That is why when the parliamentary panel’s report was released, its chief and CPM MP Basudeb Acharia said, “We have said that the government must not allow field trials of GM crops till there is a strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system in place.”

That’s not all. At the moment, there is no GEAC. The term of the last GEAC expired in April 2012 and a new one is yet to be reconstituted.

Therefore, the GM debate in India is much more nuanced than Lynas would have us believe.

The scientists and activists campaigning against GM are opposed to the “cavalier attitude” of and “limited knowledge” base of the so-called regulatory bodies that we have (these terms were used by the parliamentary and supreme court panels). There are other issues too (see boxes). For example, do we really have a problem with brinjal to warrant introduction of a GM product? Why do we need Bt brinjal when we have a robust collection of nearly 2,500 natural varieties of brinjal?

As Bhargava points out, we must carry out a socio-economic assessment first to see if there is a problem, and if so, what alternatives are available and which of those is best suited to us. And if it turns out that we do need GM crop, we must go through a strict safety evaluation.

It is the backdoor entry and promotion of GM crops (as happened in case of Bt cotton and sought to be repeated in the case of Bt brinjal) which is causing concern and the attendant problems in India, rather than the GM technology itself.

Lynas seems blissfully unaware of these factors. But now that he has decided to push GM nonetheless, what does he do? He junks organic farming, the only other alternative to meet the rising demand of food grains, and marshals quotes and incidents to say organic farming is “at its heart a rejectionist one (of modern technologies)”, is likely to be “worse for biodiversity” and finally, cause fall in production “with up to 40-50% lower yields in terms of land area”. But that is for another debate.



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