India urged to assess health, eco hazards of GM harvest (18/10/2004)
India urged to assess health, eco hazards of GM harvest
ASHOK B SHARMA
As countries across the world are preparing to celebrate the week beginning from the World Food Day on October 16, global consumers and scientists have cautioned India and other developing countries to carefully assess the health and environment risks associated with genetically modified (GM) crops. They expressed concern over reported hazards in different parts of the globe. The apex body Consumers International (CI) along with the Thailand based Foundation for Consumers has launched a global anti-GM campaign. Margarita Escaler of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) who was in India on occasion of a media workshop in transgenic technology, however, defended the relevance of transgenic technology in food and nutritional security. She also admitted that the “slow rate of adoption” of GM crops and food in developing countries is on on account of "various policy-related, financial, regulatory, technical, infrastructure and public acceptance constraints."
The director of the Consumers International for Asia-Pacific region, Dr Sothi Rachagan who was also in India on the occasion of sub-regional workshop on nutrition, food safety and biotechnology jointly organised in Delhi by the consumers' body VOICE, a leading NGO, Gene Campaign and the World Health Organisation said that GM foods should not be imposed on unwilling consumers. A full pre-market evaluation and social and safety impact assessments of GM foods should be taken up on basis of the guidelines adopted by The Codex Alimentarius Commission in June 2003.
Dr Rachagan said that there are genuine public concerns over GM foods like health safety and acceptance on basis of culture and religion. Apart from these there are environmental risks like transfer of pollen from GM crops to non-GM ones. "The scientists have found that pollen transfer can take place up to 20 km. This calls for strict surveillance for environment safety and protection of natural biodiversity," he said.
The other issue, he said, is the issue of intellectual property rights (IPRs) on GM seeds. This results in increasing corporate control over agriculture and make farmers pay huge amount on royalty, he said.
Dr Rachagan said while health safety can to some extent be addressed through labelling and food recall systems, the issues of environment safety and IPRs remain yet to be resolved. He said that keeping in view the unaddressed concerns, there should be a moratorium on cultivation, marketing and donation of GM food as aid. He said that the world has enough food for its population and yet over 800 million people suffer from hunger and food insecurity. The problem, therefore, is not with the availability of food but accessibility to food, he said and added that Consumers International believes that food security means safe, nutritious and culturally accepted food.
Former assistant director-general of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and now working with the Chennai-based Swaminathan Research Foundation, Dr S Bala Ravi said : "Vertical and horizontal gene flow is the major environmental risks from GM crops. Depending on the gene involved, this may create super weeds, diminish biodiversity and harm non-target species. The threat of horizontal gene transfer from GM plant food or feed or its residues to soil bacteria, gut and intestinal or rumen bacteria in humans and animals and spread of antibiotic resistance to pathogenic organisms remain another concern."
Dr Ravi further said: "The recent induction of GM crop plants for industrial production of pharmaceutical products is fraught with very high danger. A recent expert consultation published by FAO on environmental effects of GM crops concluded that current understanding of the effects of these crops on the agri-ecosystems is very limited and there is also a paucity of quantified long-term impact of these crops on environment. It recognised the gene flow from GM crops, changes in farm inputs and practices associated with these crops as issues of concern."