Gene mutation and food - great article
The Asian Age, September 30 2009
Dr M.S. Swaminathan, considered the Father of the Green Revolution in India, finally stated his views on genetically-modified (GM) crops in an opinion piece published on August 26, 2009, in this newspaper. GM crops are produced by inserting foreign genes, mostly non-plant genes (bacterial, viral and animal genes) for obtaining hitherto non-existent, new characteristics in a crop. For instance, the Bt class of GM crops like Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, have been engineered at the genetic level by the insertion of a bacterial gene so that the plant produces its own poison against chosen pests that feed on the crop.
Dr Swaminathan, who headed a task force on agri-biotechnology which gave its report in 2004 to the ministry of agriculture, began his report by reiterating what many of us believe: That "if agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right". The report emphasises that the bottomline with regard to any policy on agri-biotechnology is "the safety of the environment, the well-being of farming families, the ecological and economic sustainability of farming systems, the health and nutrition security of consumers, safeguarding of home and external trade and the bio-security of our nation".
After presenting such a comprehensive requirement around any policy-making on GM crops in that report, it was surprising to see this recent article hype up the so-called benefits of GM crops and play down valid concerns.
Let me begin with some fundamental issues that Dr Swaminathan did not touch upon:
l Genetic modification by insertion of new genes is now known to cause mutations all along the genome of an organism and at the site of insertion.
l We have not yet understood the full complexity of the genomic regulation in an organism and, therefore, the changes brought about by genetic modification are unknown and also unpredictable. This is where the primary concern about this technology stems from ”” scientific evidence exists to show that the changes made are unsafe from an environmental and human health perspective. A fundamental flaw in Dr Swaminathan’s article was to make it appear that what is inherently unsafe can be made safe through regulation!
At another level, Dr Swaminathan talks about various GM crops and their benefits ”” it is interesting to note that except for the insect-resistance trait that he expands upon, none of the other crops actually exist! In reality, two kinds of GM crops exist ”” those that produce a pesticide from within the plant, like Bt cotton and Bt brinjal (sought to be introduced in India for the first time in the world, developed mostly by American agencies), and those that assimilate application of more pesticides and confer herbicide-tolerance characteristic to a crop. In fact, herbicide tolerance is the trait in nearly 81 per cent of the GM crop cultivation in the world today. Dr Swaminathan’s report talks about how this should be of low priority given the large number of agricultural labourers in various regions of the country. Today, several field trials of GM crops in India are centered around this trait ”” does it make sense to destroy existing opportunities of employment in
and then create more and more budgets for National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) kind of programmes?
Coming to crops like Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, where pesticide is now inside the plant, the central question is why such solutions are needed when safer ways of pest management are known and practiced. Within the National Agricultural Research System (NARS), from where recommendations to be carried to farmers about various desirable practices emerge, there are numerous examples of successful non-chemical pest management practices. In addition, hundreds of farmers practicing organic/ecological farming have their own successful experiences and innovations to share about non-chemical pest management. The problem is that people like Dr Swaminathan compare one evil with the other rather than look for real solutions ”” the evil of pesticides was initiated by the Green Revolution started by Dr Swaminathan and others and has caused great suffering to farmers in terms of increasing the cost of cultivation and debts. This has been linked to the environmental health disaster unfolding in
where hundreds are falling prey to the ill-effects of pesticides which have contaminated our resources etc.
What is ironical is that today, the people who brought in pesticides are the ones saying that pesticides are bad ”” we agree wholeheartedly ”” however, they don’t close down their chemical businesses while talking about how farmers should opt for GM crops to get out of the pesticides trap!
Fears with regard to environmental and health impacts are not unfounded even though Dr Swaminathan brushed these aside. It has been established through various studies that GM foods could cause allergies, affect the immunity system, damage organs like kidneys and liver, stunt an organism’s growth and development and impair reproductive health. The answer to pesticides is, therefore, not to come up with another technology, irreversible this time, with several potential negative impacts.
If we really want to pride ourselves in our scientific prowess, it is important to understand that breeding technologies have moved on from hazardous technologies like GM. Methods like marker-assisted selection (MAS) are being deployed for faster and accurate breeding. Dr Swaminathan’s concerns about patents are, indeed, valid and, therefore, public sector should snatch back spaces that have been hijacked by profit-seeking corporations. Better yet, farmers should be allowed to direct such research based on their localised needs.
Coming to the regulatory regime in India, Dr Swaminathan seems to have given a clean chit to it even though scores of instances show serious flaws in our regulation. He says that once a regulatory approval is accorded, we should assume that a GM crop has been subjected to stringent scrutiny and is safe for commercial release. He ignores the fact that in the case of Bt cotton, this country saw large-scale illegal Bt cotton proliferation much before the approval was accorded. After such a widespread unapproved cultivation, the regulators had no choice but to approve! He ignores the fact that several problems pointing to Bt cotton's so-called safety have emerged from the ground which have either been ignored, discounted or rubbished. Better regulation does not make an inherently unsafe technology into a safer one.
What Dr Swaminathan should really talk about is a liability regime when things go wrong. He should also answer in a convincing fashion why GM crops should be opted for when other safer and better alternatives exist, given that the bottomline for biotech, according to him, includes things like well-being of farming families, sustainability, health and nutrition security, trade security and bio-security of the country.
Kavitha Kuruganti is a trustee of Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab