Keep the pause button on GM pressed

Jairam Ramesh, former Environment Minister for India, made the brave decision in 2010 to tell his then apex regulator of genetically modified organisms (GEAC) that it had failed to properly use available science to determine the safety — to human health and the environment — of Bt brinjal, created using genetic modification (GM). His decision followed careful evaluation of the science.

I was involved in Ramesh’s review. I read first hand the scientific evidence in my area of expertise provided to the GEAC and its responses. I was heartened to see that his decision was validated by the esteemed scientists that made up the Supreme Court Technical Expert Committee who have advised the Court on the need for better research and better process before continuing to release GM crops into the environment or using them as food.

Creating confusion

G. Padmanaban (“Sow the wind, reap a storm,” The Hindu , September 2) believes that the events surrounding the evaluation of Bt brinjal and now extending to other kinds of GM plants is an assault on science. He confuses science with technology. Science is the process of knowledge creation (or discovery) whereas technology is the means of knowledge application. This confusion causes some scientists to defend technologies that are questioned because they perceive questions on the technology as an attack on science. It is not.

There is much knowledge discovered or to be discovered that cannot be applied wisely — at least not now. GM plants are among the technologies that have both serious scientific unknowns and lack a clear social benefit — at least for now.

For over 30 years, GM has been promised to produce plants that will resist the stresses of drought, heavy metals and salt, that will increase yield, reduce the use of toxic pesticides and even fix their own nitrogen. To be fair, some GM crops have reduced the use of some toxic insecticides for a brief period. To be precise, though, none of these promises has been sustainably delivered to farmers.

Why not? Well, it isn’t complex regulation holding them back. By the year 2005, over 1,000 applications were approved to field trial stress-tolerant GM plants in the United States alone. None ever progressed out of the testing phase. The explanation for this is likely because stress tolerance is not a solution to the causes of stress. No matter how tolerant you make the plant to drought, using it in soil low in organic matter and unable to hold water will eventually further deplete the soil of moisture and the plant will struggle or die. GM is an attempt to use genetics to overcome the environment. This never works for long. That is why some call GM a distraction from investing in real solutions to the problems faced by real farmers.

A symptom

Herbicide use is increasing in the U.S. since it adopted GM maize (corn), soybeans and cotton. Insecticide use is down by a small bit, but extremely high compared to countries such as France which do not use GM crops. Western Europe’s maize yields match or exceed the U.S.’ yields using less pesticide. The yields in wheat and oilseed rape are increasing at an even faster rate in Western Europe than in the U.S. and Canada. This indicates a dangerous trend: those countries choosing to innovate in agriculture using GM are demonstrating lower productivity increases and greater dependence on chemical inputs in all crops compared to economically and environmentally comparable countries choosing to not use GM crops.

What is it about investing in GM products that seems to undermine other technologies in agriculture? GM products attract the strictest intellectual property (IP) rights instruments possible in agriculture (e.g., process patents). The use of those instruments concentrates investment and drives out simple but even more effective technologies.

Now every government research centre and public university seeks to compensate for the fall in direct public investment through licensing royalties from IP and the creation of partnerships with the private sector. This necessarily changes the kinds of questions they favour being asked by their researchers, the kind that will be supported by institutional resources or rewarded with promotion. With these policies in place we shouldn’t be surprised that every problem looks like it has a GM solution even to researchers who claim to have no entrepreneurial motivations.

Prof. Padmanaban’s ambition for a crop that provides all nutritional needs and grows everywhere demonstrates the poverty of the GM approach to hunger and malnourishment. Such a crop would quickly become obsolete as it would also serve as a wonderful meal for every conceivable form of pest. Meanwhile, it would undermine both biological and agricultural diversity as it became a weed in its own right.

Instead of that approach, supporting communities with education on nutrition and farmers with technologies that build up their soils, manage pests with little or no application of pesticide and manufactured fertilizers gives them the means and independence to grow a variety of crops and livestock to meet their dietary needs and sell their surplus in local markets.

This investment in agriculture is not as good at making intellectual property, but better for growing food. To properly support India’s mainly small holder farming requires removing the penalties and incentives on the public scientist to develop primarily technologies that bring direct revenue to their institutions. Instead, invest in them with public money and measure their success by the yields of farmers, the reduction of pesticides and fertilizer they use, and the increase in their wealth and health.

No missed opportunities

India is not missing out on the benefits of GM. So far, there haven’t been any proven to exist, or proven to be sustainable. GM crops are not designed to increase intrinsic yield and the largest scale and longest term studies bear out that they don’t yield more. Meanwhile, the cost of GM seeds is the fastest growing expense for U.S. farmers who are simultaneously suffering from weeds resistant to the herbicides excessively used on GM crops and pests resistant to the insecticides over-used in Bt crops. That likely would be India’s experience had it commercialised Bt brinjal which was developed with the least effective form of Bt for the target pest.

In addition, the safety issue still lingers over these products. It shouldn’t. The science needed to establish their safety exists and is affordable but it must be applied dispassionately and transparently. That is all Jairam Ramesh asked.

Claiming that GM crops are demonstrated safe by the absence of specific health claims from Americans is glib. There are no validated health surveillance programmes in the U.S. which could both detect and diagnose the cause of the most likely manifestations of harm if they do exist.

Meanwhile, more research studies accumulate with evidence of adverse effects, some quite serious. These studies require replication, but they run into roadblocks or fail to find new funding. Most often these studies report low level health effects using animal feeding studies, so it is not clear whether the effect would be the same, more or less in humans and more or less likely to be caused using GM plants cooked and processed, as humans eat them, rather than raw or processed the way they are provided to test animals.

Hunger, pestilence, and economic failure are the images of fear increasingly being used to drive acceptance of GM crops. Ignorance, anti-science, ideology and hypocrisy are the insults used to counter questions about the safety of GM crops coming from scientists and the public. What is right for India’s agriculture is too important a question to leave to fear and insult to decide. I think that both Ramesh and the scientists of the Technical Expert Committee knew this when they asked India to pause on the use of GM products. Pause so that all voices can be heard. Reflect on what the problems are and whether technologies solve them or mask them for a time, or even make them worse later.

(Professor Jack A. Heinemann is Director, Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand)

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