NOTE: For more on Shantharam and the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education (FBAE)

EXTRACT: Kavitha notes how the regulators like genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC) do a bad job of functioning with 'around 92 applications processed in an hour'. There is also a conflict of interest with many members being GM crop developers.


Sifting through the evidence, the verdict is still fuzzy!
Jayalakshmi K talks to two experts who present the two sides of genetically modified crops.
Deccan Herald, 6 November

Are we in Bangalore (and other parts of India) eating genetically modified (GM) food? Yes, according to Kavitha Kuruganti of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

'I was looking through some of the products on the shelves of the retail outlets. Lots of GM originated source material imported from US,' she says. But how can she say that? 'Any product that has soya, corn, canola, cottonseed as ingredient is quite sure to have GM components. In the US 90 percent of the soya is genetically modified variety. As they don’t have a system of segregation of GM and non-GM, you can be quite sure we are eating that.'

Eating GM food is the least of the problem associated with the technology. Many tests have shown that allergens are few as 'no protein sequence used is similar to allergenic protein sequence,' says S Shantharam, an active proponent of GM technology.

Cattle death

But according to Kavitha there is still no conclusive evidence of toxicity. She says that farmers have reported cattle deaths following grazing on BT foliage. 'In Gujarat too we have had farmers telling us about miscarriages in sheep after eating the BT crop. In Adilabad in Andhra even big cattle like ox died on grazing in these fields. The agriculture department has ordered not to give seed licences till studies are done.'

Again, Shantharam disagrees. He quotes various studies in the country and in the US that show otherwise. 'Most studies you will see are funded by Monsanto and other MNCs with a stake,' quips Kavitha.

Naturally, the two sides have opposite views on regulation. Shantharam complains that there are far too many rigours in the process, costing money and time for the players. 'The companies have to spend Rs 2-3 crore per GM crop event for all the tests on toxicity, genetic analysis, trials, etc. When the basic genetics of cotton hybrid is the same in India, why require tests for each variety?'

He says that the regulations affect technology development. 'There is no extra biosafety. Only hurdles.'

Kavitha notes how the regulators like genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC) do a bad job of functioning with 'around 92 applications processed in an hour'. There is also a conflict of interest with many members being GM crop developers.

Contempt case

Last month a contempt of court has been slapped against the GEAC for going ahead beyond the purview of a recent Supreme Court order and approving new crops for trials. The court had in September restrained the GEAC from granting any fresh approvals for field trials of genetically modified organisms following a PIL.

India has so far not allowed commercial planting of any genetically modified crop for human consumption. Four varieties of Bt brinjal under development by Mahyco are undergoing trials which have been extended following some gaps in the trial. The modified brinjal carries genes from soil microbe Bacillus thuringenesis that helps it tackle the fruit, shoot borer.

Regarding the Bt brinjal trials, Kavitha is cynical about well the 11 centres are following the SC stipulation on maintaining an isolation distance, validated contamination protocol, a scientist held responsible for the trial, etc.

'Sowing was done somewhat unscientifically after the sowing season like at IIVR in Varanasi. But the agricultural university in Hyderabad preferred to do the trial, asking what the rationale was in doing a trial after the pest season,' she adds.

Is the GM lobby a industry-backed one? Shantharam says there is no industrial backing and so does his colleague Prof Kameshwara Rao who points out that of the 70 current trials, 40 are in the public sector. They are both active members of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education.

'But you must remember most of this research is done as public-private consortium including US players whether it be rice or brinjal. Yes, PSUs seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. It is a pity that the largest resources in the sector are being spent on transgenics,' notes Kavitha wryly.

Increased costs?

She is just back from Gujarat where in the western Bt cotton belt farmers have reported an increased spraying of pesticides. 'We plan to do a study. But what we have heard is that the spraying has gone up to 12-16 times per crop from around 5-6.'

In Punjab where 30 days immediately after Bt cotton is harvested farmers sow wheat. 'They have reported to us a 25 percent decrease in yield.'

Monitoring is in doldrums with many states not even wanting to admit the absence of it. 'In Karnataka if you ask the department, you will be shocked to find how unscientifically it is being done. It is a pity if we do not learn from the lessons of BT-cotton which has been around for 5-6 years now.'

She believes that the horizontal gene transfer across species could mean big trouble for many local varieties.

'The mixing is happening biologically and physically. For instance in places like Kurnool, you will probably not find any non Bt cotton.'

But Shantharam puts it as, 'so what if there is transfer? Genes won’t sustain unless it survives population selection pressure.' This has been how it is happening in nature too, he adds.

But Kavitha insists, that natural mutations (changes in gene) are very rare. Crop ecology is changing and new pests are affecting BT cotton like the tobacco streak virus in AP.

Pest resistance too is something farmers down the ages have been facing, he says, adding that the way out is to delay onset of resistance.

Safe to eat?

Shantharam who has been with the USDA when the first GM crop was planted and written over 5000 risk assessments says that, 'Science, experience and evidence says GM crops have no significant environmental impact, nor any issue on safety. As to long term effects, no one can say but we do not foresee any deleterious effect. The catchword is caution.'

Kavitha points out that even in the US, most GM crops are only certified as ‘generally regarded as safe’ and that the USDA agrees that GM crop yields are 'at best equal to non-GM counterparts.'

Shantharam too is not very happy with the GEAC and its ability to assess risks. 'We need both qualitative and quantitative tests to identify risks to environment. What we lack is a decision making document. Ultimately a good regulator is one who watches and takes instant action in terms of recall and also advice public.'

Talking of Vidharba and the suicides following the loss of the cotton crop, he says that the modified crop also needs water and the crop suffered just as much as the non-modified crop. Kavitha says that unpredictable extreme events have shown GM crops fare worser being less stress tolerant.

No easy solutions

It is not easy to applaud or criticise the technology. Especially when you consider research being done on growing drought resistant varieties of rice, or developing cotton seed that is de-toxified which could be a food source for people. As arable land area shrinks, it becomes important to get the maximum from the crop in terms of nutrition. Genetic technology holds that promise.

But as Kavitha says, the 'fundamental question is about the nutritional security based on one product externally fed into the plant. It is about the way the GM technology has consciously eroded all other forms of nutrition, especially the uncultivated food that people used to consume green. It has been wiped out by a technology that sees everything as a marketable commodity.'

How much vitamin does Golden Rice have, how well is it absorbed by the body? More important, how many can afford Golden Rice, she asks?