The Kerala Government and many environmental activists oppose field trials of genetically modified crops in Kerala, saying these would endanger biodiversity. But some experts hold the view that the State should make gainful use of biotechnology. Our readers respond:Must for future needs
India could attain self-sufficiency in wheat production after the introduction of high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties of wheat developed by Norman Borlaug by using techniques in classical genetics. The contributions of Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, the father of Green Revolution in India, in introducing and propagating genetically modified Mexican Dwarf variety of wheat in India is acknowledged the world over. This has been a phenomenon that has not led to any environmental problems affecting the biodiversity.
Now, more advanced and refined techniques are available owing to the efforts of molecular biologists in developing plant varieties of desired characteristics. Introducing such varieties in our farms will greatly increase our agricultural productivity and returns to farmers. The population is on the increase and the total available arable land remains constant, if not diminishing. Therefore, the future of the food situation in the country looks grim unless a second Green Revolution is brought about by application of molecular genetics. This can be done only with a political will and a clear mandate of the public. It is the responsibility of environmentalists and social activists to point out with precise scientific basis how the introduction of genetically modified plant varieties can adversely affect the biodiversity of the concerned region, in this case Kerala. Then only can the issue be further debated.
Our existing biodiversity has been evolved through millions of years of complicated and subtle processes. Hence biodiversity is a more valuable asset for a nation and the world at large than the shorter goal of increasing productivity and production. Any attempt at introducing genetically modified crops should therefore be done with utmost caution and sensitivity.
Apart from all its revolutionary merits, bio-technology has an important shortfall - a time mismatch. The idea attempts to change or modify something ancient and evolving using what is artificial and exact.
Complicating this situation are the interests of business and economics, by which the true implications of genetically modified crops on the general environment are kept off scrutiny and debate.
Business interests again play a part in the characteristics of seeds so produced, which are designed to ‘die after first use.’
The risk of bio-technology is that this unnatural ‘design for death’ may affect the immediate environment in which the seeds were originally sown.
Against this background, what seems necessary is not a rejection of bio-technology, rather the establishment of an authoritative intermediary between research and industry.
The intermediary will be responsible for filtering and demystifying research so that the implications can be carefully studied.
Industry takes responsibility only for production of what is acceptable, and its sale.
The ideal intermediary imaginable under the circumstances is a revitalised FAO, more pro-active and assertive in its functioning.
The population of our country is increasing at a very fast rate and is likely to stabilise only by the year 2035. This increase in the population is to be fed from the same land area. Increase in productivity can be achieved by genetic modification and this has been proven in several countries.
The agricultural system in Kerala has a high level of pesticide usage. This excessive use of pesticide gets carried into the human food chain and also degrades the environment. Genetically modified pesticide resistant varieties can help us migrate to a pesticide-free cultivation regime.
Worldwide, water will be the resource that will become extremely scarce as the population increases and Kerala too will face the same problem. Genetically modified crops will focus to reduce water consumption and also increase productivity.
With the increase in income levels now being experienced by the people, the food consumption pattern will shift from purely agricultural to one which is predominantly dairy-based. However on the flip side, use of genetically modified crops is likely to endanger biodiversity. It is possible to get around this problem by ensuring that the impact is a minimum and manageable. For this we need an efficient and effective regulatory board or a regulatory body. This is where we have a huge problem.
Development always comes with a price and if we are to ensure food security for our entire population, we will have to adopt genetically modified seeds with adequate safeguards in place in the form of a regulatory board that is devoid of political interference and has only qualified experts as members.
By e-mailGrowing needs
Many people have disposed of their traditional farm lands. A few have committed suicide owing to debt. It is, therefore, evident that the usual mode of farming will never serve to satisfy the needs of the State. Food production in the State is reducing at an alarming rate whereas the population is increasing steadily. So, the State should adopt new methods to produce enough food to feed everyone.
Considering the scenario, the introduction of genetically modified crops can solve the pressing need for food for everyone.
Genetically modified food crops are grown with success in developed and developing countries resulting in high quantitative and qualitative productivity viz., enhanced taste and quality, reduced maturation time, increased nutrients, stress tolerance, improved resistance to pests and diseases, thereby giving food security to the growing population. Countries where genetically modified crops are grown have not reported significant health damage or environmental harm and biodiversity. Moreover farmers are using less pesticides or using less toxic ones, reducing harm to water supplies and workers’ health and allowing return of beneficial insects to the fields. Some of the concerns relating to ‘gene flow’ and pest resistance have been addressed by new techniques of genetic engineering. Extreme shrinkage of cultivated lands which are used for other developmental activities, loss of productivity, chronic shortage of food grains and increasing demands cause serious concern in the State and should be addressed. Therefore the trials with GM crops should be encouraged and the benefits reaped in the best interest of the people.
Former director Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding CoimbatoreTrials necessary
The experience hitherto has been that traditional seeds yield less when compared with genetically modified crops. The question of endangering biodiversity is a matter that is to be determined by experts and the apprehensions in this regard will have to be mollified by trial of the genetically modified crops. We have to develop a mindset to cope with the scientific and technological advancements to meet the needs of the changing but growing society. When scientific inventions have led human race to this stage of advancement, we should not shy away from the achievements of science.
ThripunithuraBiodiversity will suffer
Biodiversity means the variety of life on earth. It includes the different ecosystems such as deserts, coral reefs, rainforests and different species of plants, animals, micro-organisms and so on. Biodiversity is important for the survival of human beings because it boosts ecosystem productivity where each species, big and small, has an important role to play and it is this combination that enables the ecosystem to prevent and recover from various disasters. Rapid global warming and human activities, all affect biodiversity.
Scientific inventions have created a sea change in our agriculture sector. Genetically modified crops are helpful to the farmers. They increase food production. But in the long run, they will create problems. Pesticides and weedicides used for these varieties destroy other small plants and insects. All these plants and insects are important for our diversity.
In these genetically modified crops, germination is prevented. So we cannot use these seeds for subsequent cultivation.
Agricultural universities can produce genetically modified high-yielding seeds. The produce of such crop can be preserved as seed for further cultivation.
PallippadAll about greed
Scientists have found that GM crops can contaminate non-GM crops, and they are still studying the short-term negative effects of GM plants, let alone the long-term consequences. It is a scary thought that in a few decades, the world may lose most of its natural species of food crops, adopted, adapted and developed over thousands of years through farmer innovation, natural changes and application of science. We are replacing them with an unproven, irreversible technology, barely 50 years old, owned and patented by a handful of corporations. Working as an activist for sustainable farming and protection of small farms in the U.S. farm belt, I experience the negative effects of GM crops every day and realise that the introduction of GM crops is more about power, control and greed than about feeding the world or maintaining ecological balance or securing the future of mankind.
Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty
Louisville, Kentucky United States.Exercise control
It is in the Eighties that research on genetic modification began. By 1996, the first commercial cultivation of GM crops started. There was a lot of concern among consumers, activists and even experts about the safety and ethics of this technology. But it was thrust on the people in the developed world, mainly in the U.S.
Now, it is understood that the ‘single gene transfer technology’ is outdated and will not give the desired results claimed by the scientists. A new report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation shows that genetic contamination is a predictable impact of GM technology and it can even lead to loss of some species at the global scale. Scientific studies have also brought out the fact that GM food can lead to many health disorders.
Another important aspect is that the whole business of GM seeds is controlled by MNCs and their subsidiaries. On one side, trade policies are making farming unsustainable and are killing farmers. When Governments start losing control over agriculture production too (seed is the most important input), farmers will be hurt and food production will be affected. Food security will be under threat if such a situation arises.
Kerala has to be more careful since we are already a food deficit State and it is realised that the situation can be improved only through protection and development of our rich biodiversity. GM seeds are a threat to this heritage.
ThiruvananthapuramGood for State
Some concerns about new allergens and harmful genes creating havoc with the ecosystem are real. However, GM crops have been successfully cultivated in several countries during the past one decade. Research in agricultural biotechnology in developed countries has been tracking the potential dangers of transgenic crops. Therefore, there is ample empirical evidence to allay the environmental concerns.
Farming has declined in Kerala owing to several factors such as small farm holdings, low productivity, unsustainable incomes and so on. The larger issue is if the farmers in Kerala should be denied the benefits of GM crops because of opposition that is largely ideological and dogmatic?
The dependency on MNCs for supply of seeds can be reduced if organisations such as the ICAR scale up their R&D efforts.
Therefore, field trials of GM crops can be conducted subject to the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court.