Contrary to claims by seed companies, GM crops actually give lower yield, disturbs the plants’ genetic structure and do not assure safety, according to a section of scientists
Although exaggerated claims of rise of productivity by GM (genetically modified) crops have been made time and again in India and abroad, on closer examination these have been proved time and again to be untrue.
According to a report by eminent scientists comprising the Independent Science Panel, “The consistent finding from independent research and on-farm surveys since 1999 is that GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits of significantly increasing yields or reducing herbicide and pesticide use. GM crops have cost the United States an estimated $12 billion in farm subsidies, lost sales and product recalls due to transgenic contamination...The instability of transgenic lines has plagued the industry from the beginning, and this may be responsible for a string of major crop failures.”
In April 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a report ‘Failure to Yield’ confirming that “after 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialisation, GM crops have failed to increase yields” and that “traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down”.
In a letter written to the Prime Minister of India in 2009, as many as 17 distinguished scientists from the U.S., Canada, Europe and New Zealand pointed out that the claims relating to higher yield and protection of environment made for GM crops are absolutely false. This letter says the following:
“More than 95 per cent of all GM crops are engineered to either synthesise an insecticide (Bt toxin) or to tolerate a broad spectrum herbicide (e.g. Roundup, Liberty) or both.”
“To date, there are only four major commercialised GM crops (soya, maize/corn, cotton and canola/oilseed rape) most of which (soya, corn, canola) are used primarily as animal feed. All were commercialised in the late 1990s. Since then, no other commercially viable GM crop application has made it to market, especially due to farmers not accepting other GM crops (such as wheat, potatoes, and rice) for negative economic reasons (lack of buyers, loss of export markets).”
“...The basic problem is that GM as employed in agriculture is conceptually flawed, crude, imprecise and poorly controlled technology, that is incapable of generating plants that contain the required multiple, co-ordinately regulated genes that work in an integrated way to respond to environmental challenges.”
“...GM has not increased yield potential. Yields from GM crops to date have been no better and in the case of GM soya have been consistently lower.”
“...Climate change brings sudden, extreme, and unpredictable changes in weather, which requires that a cropping system be flexible, resilient and as genetically diverse as possible. GM technology offers just the opposite.”
The letter warns India against “the unique risks (of GM crops) to food security, farming systems and bio-safety impacts which are ultimately irreversible.” It adds, “The GM transformation process is highly mutagenic leading to disruptions to host plant genetic structure and function, which in turn leads to disturbances in the biochemistry of the plant. This can lead to novel toxin and allergen production as well as reduced/altered nutrition quality.”
However, a question may be raised — if GM technology is incapable of raising yields in a sustainable way, how has it been possible to make exaggerated claims of a rise in yields at some places in some years in the case of GM crops like Bt cotton?
Dr. Jack Heinemann of the School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, has a decade-long experience of reviewing safety information from companies on their genetically engineered crops. He writes, “The Bt trait does not increase yield, it just is becoming nearly impossible to source the best varieties without the Bt transgenes.”
He asks, “Where is the data that these same high yield varieties lacking the Bt trait and grown using sustainable techniques such as integrated pest management and agro-ecology perform less than GM varieties?” and answers his own question: “There is none at all to my knowledge, while there is evidence that GM varieties undermine sustainable agriculture.”
In Gujarat, while yields of Bt cotton increased for some years, this was mainly due to the impact of good weather, improvement in water conservation and irrigation as well as more facilities provided for Bt crops.
In the very first year of Bt cotton's commercial cultivation in India (2002-03), Andhra Pradesh’s Agriculture Department concluded a study on 3,709 farmers growing Bt cotton. As many as 71 per cent of them reported low yields with Bt cotton.
In Madhya Pradesh, the average yield of cotton between 1996-2002 (before the introduction of Bt cotton) was 612.7 kg/ha. However, in the six years after the introduction of Bt cotton, average cotton yield was reduced to 518.3 kg/ha. Above all, it needs to be emphasised that any claim of a possible rise in yield of a crop can turn out to be entirely baseless if the safety of the crop is not assured.
The Independent Science Panel have said in its conclusion after examining all aspects of GM crops: “GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, which if ignored, could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now.”