As they do not spell increased crop production, new long-term scientific research on health impacts should involve extensive trials

Some weeks ago, I was addressing students of molecular biology at the Kerala Agricultural University campus in Thiruvananthapuram. During the question-answer session, I asked how many of them would like to take up agricultural biotechnology as a career. To my surprise, only a couple of hands went up.

The answer I got probably points to the future of agricultural biotechnology in India. Most students wanted to go into animal biotechnology and human genetics, but not into crop biotechnology. The reason they gave was that they did not see a future for crop biotechnology, given the social backlash against it. Well, I am aware that this class is not an exact representation of the national mood among students, but surely it tells us a lot about the way society, more importantly the younger generation, perceives genetic engineering.

So, when the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) recommended a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of GM food crops, I was not surprised. The expert panel had merely echoed the concerns and apprehensions that society at large has towards such crops.

Knowing the casual manner in which large-scale field trials are held across the country, the absence of a regulatory mechanism, and the failure to document the damage transgenic crops have inflicted on humans and the environment during, before and after such trials, the committee has called for invoking the “precautionary principle.”

Report’s recommendations

A few months ago, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture tabled on August 9 its report Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops: Prospects and Effects. After an exhaustive interaction with stakeholders, and considering the impact genetically modified food crops have on biodiversity, human health, the environment and the future of farming, it recommended: “for the time being all research and development activities on transgenic crops should be carried out only in containment, the ongoing field trials in all States should be discontinued forthwith.” In a way, the Parliamentary Standing Committee and TEC are saying the same thing.

In support of GM

Three years after Bt Brinjal — which, if allowed, would have been India’s first GM food crop — was put on indefinite hold, the reports of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and the TEC are pointers to swelling opposition to the manner in which GM crops are being pushed. Although many State governments have already refused permission for field trials of GM crops, I don't understand why Food and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is time and again appealing to Chief Ministers to put GM research back on the agenda. Chairman of the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM), Dr. C.N.R. Rao, too has lamented the lack of a “science-informed, evidence-based approach” in the debate.

In a desperate bid to support GM crops, it is often said that conventional agriculture technologies may be inadequate to meet India’s food security challenges. The other objection is that the debate is not “science-based.” Let us look at both arguments. As far as the role of GM crops in boosting food security needs is concerned, this argument is not “evidence-based.” First, there is no GM crop anywhere in the world which increases crop productivity. In fact, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledges that the productivity of GM soya and GM corn in the U.S. is less than the conventional varieties. Moreover, the prevailing drought in the U.S. has conclusively shown that it is only non-GM crops that have withstood the vagaries of weather.

In India, on June 1, a record 82.3 million tonnes surplus of wheat and rice was stored. This surplus existed at a time when an estimated 320 million people went to bed hungry. Mr. Pawar is making all efforts to export a large chunk of food stocks or make open market releases, but no serious effort is being made to feed the hungry. In fact, since 2001-03, India has been holding on an average anything between 50 to 60 million tonnes of foodgrains and yet its ranking in the Global Hunger Index shows no improvement.

Food insecurity

Food insecurity, therefore, is not the result of any production shortfall. To ensure that farmers do not produce more, and thereby add to existing storage problems, the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) has frozen the wheat price at last year’s level. Paying more to farmers would entail more production. This does not make any economic sense. After all, the farmer too is impacted by rising inflation. Why penalise farmers for the government’s inability to handle and store surplus foodgrain?

The fact remains that food production is being deliberately kept low, and only enough to meet basic food security needs. Provide market price to wheat and rice growers, and I am sure production will go up manifold.

SAC-PM is a committee made up of distinguished scientists. Although the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had given the green signal for commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal, the SAC-PM should take note of the 19-page submission by the then Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh; the analysis is the best “science-based” justification for stopping GM food crops.

Findings

Even when the Bt Brinjal debate was hot, I had pointed out the inability of the scientific community to conduct long-term feeding trials on rats. Internationally, the practice is to have 90-day feeding trials, which corresponds to 24 years of human lifespan — and that’s what the GEAC followed. I had always wondered why the industry as well as the scientific community was not conducting feeding trials for two years, which means the entire human lifespan. Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, professor of molecular biology at the Caen University in France, finally did it. He recently published the findings of the two-year study on the long-term toxicity of GM maize NK 603, engineered to resist Roundup herbicide — and as expected the industry was up in arms.

In these first-ever long-term feeding trials on rats, published in the scientific journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, Prof. Séralini and his team observed that “females developed fatal mammary tumours and pituitary disorders. Males suffered liver damage, developed kidney and skin tumours and experienced problems with their digestive system.” The team also found that even lower doses of GM corn and Roundup weedicides resulted in serious health impacts. Moreover, 50 per cent male and 70 per cent female rats died prematurely. The tumours were 2.5 times bigger than what would normally appear in the control population.

As expected, the study was branded “bogus,” “inadequate” and of course “unscientific.” Séralini answered the industry’s main criticism pointing out that the species of rat used was the same that the biotech giant Monsanto had used in its research trials. Moreover, the sample size was as per the recommendations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) protocol for GM food safety toxicology studies. Séralini’s experiment has amplified the need for long-term human safety trials, which I think the SAC-PM should be primarily asking the Department of Biotechnology to focus on. SAC-PM needs to review more scientific literature before making any broad and sweeping assertions.

At a time when GM crops hold no promise of higher crop production, the latest long-term scientific research on the impacts on health warrants repeated trials under all environments. As suggested by TEC and the Standing Committee, more experiments are needed on farm animals.

Since science is answerable to society, and cannot be allowed to operate in a vacuum, this is the least India can do to dispel any fear.

(Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst. He blogs at Ground Reality.)

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