Should we grow GM crops?

LEFT | Aruna Rodrigues



We have moved from dismal regulation of Bt cotton to outright delinquency in the bid to commercialise HT mustard

To hide her nakedness, India has borrowed a ‘fig leaf’ from U.S. regulation of genetically modified orgamisms (GMOs), i.e. in the non-regulation of these novel laboratory organisms. The U.S. invented GMOs and commercialised them despite serious safety concerns expressed by government scientists.

Myths and realities

GMOs carry risks of ‘unintended’ effects and toxicity, which confront us with a double problem: scientists don’t know what to look for, and health impacts become apparent only in the long term, such as cancer.

California reaffirmed last month, despite GM behemoth Monsanto’s best efforts, that its glyphosate, considered the safest herbicide, will be included in a list of chemicals labelled as “cancer-causing” (following the categorisation of glyphosate by the World Health Organization as a “probable carcinogen”). There is serious concern that Monsanto may have known for 30 years that glyphosate is an endocrine (hormone) disruptor; no regulatory agency anywhere regulates for endocrine disruption despite overwhelming evidence from Argentina of horrendous birth defects because of glyphosate used in herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybeans. In this context, Bayer’s glufosinate, the herbicide linked with Indian HT mustard, is an acknowledged neurotoxin banned in the EU. The Supreme Court-appointed technical expert committee recommended a ban on any HT crop in India for this among several other reasons.

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The myths that have sustained the propaganda of a safe and highly productive GM crop technology for two decades — that it “will feed the world” — are fast dissolving. The current stable of GMOs comprises just two products, Bt (e.g. Bt cotton) and HT crops (HT mustard), and they account for nearly 99% of GMOs planted worldwide. Both, on empirical evidence (including India’s Bt cotton), are proven unsustainable technologies. There are promises of GMOs with traits for disease, drought etc., but these are complex, multi-gene traits and remain futuristic. What is abundantly clear is that traditional breeding outperforms GMOs hands down.

Going against evidence

Globally and in India, the conflict of interest is pernicious: our regulatory institutions/ministries are funders, promoters, developers and regulators, a fine blend of multitasking. There is neither independence nor rigour. Add to this the serious lack of expertise in risk assessment, and we are sitting on an agri-biosecurity powder keg. These matters are fully attested to in four official Government of India reports. We have moved from dismal regulation in Bt cotton in 2002 to outright delinquency evident in the current ‘plot’ to commercialise HT mustard. The regulation is subterranean, unconstitutional and also in contempt of Supreme Court orders pertaining to Bt brinjal/mustard.

The HT mustard field trials, which were accessed under the Right to Information Act, are a revelation of regulatory shambles. This hybrid-making HT mustard, on the government’s own admission in the Supreme Court, has not out-yielded our best non-GMO hybrids and varieties. Yet this is the notion sung in high decibels in an ever-increasing crescendo by the media.

We must learn from the lessons of the history of hazardous technologies, DDT, asbestos, etc. But GMOs, critically, stand apart from these. GMOs are self-replicating organisms and genetic contamination of the environment, of non-GM crops and wild species through gene flow is certain: it cannot be contained, reversed, remedied or quantified.

Our seed stock will also be contaminated at the molecular level. Any toxicity that there is will remain in perpetuity. The traits for disease, saline and drought resistance, yield, etc. are found in nature, not biotech labs. We must maintain India’s still-rich genetic diversity for the future of our agriculture.

(Aruna Rodrigues has filed a PIL against GM crops in the Supreme Court of India)

RIGHT | Shivendra Bajaj




GM crops offer a promising solution to meet the world’s food security needs in the foreseeable future

Are GM crops important? Are they needed? Are they safe? And who will benefit? These questions should be put to rest now. GM crops have benefited India and the world tremendously. There is not a single proven evidence of any ill-effects of biotech crops on human or animal health.

Ramping up output

Food security has improved around the globe over the past five years, but hunger and food insecurity persist. On its part, India continues to battle huge challenges with regard to its agriculture output. Biotechnology, around the world, has helped farmers grow 311.8 million tonnes more food in the last 15 years. Given the increased growth of global population and increased urbanisation, GM crops offer one of the promising solutions to meet the world’s food security needs in the foreseeable future.

Much of the debate around agri-technology has centred on agri-biotechnology, of which GM crops is a part. Biotechnology is a technology well proven within India, as evidenced in the spectacular success of Bt cotton; two billion hectares of biotech crops have been planted in 28 countries since 1996. Just as the adoption of Bt cotton ensured that India transitioned into a cotton-exporting country from being a net importer, switching to high-yield oilseeds engineered specially for India’s semi-arid zones can help India reduce its dependence on imports.

Also, mustard is among the three largest oilseed crops of India — soybean and groundnut being other two — but the yields have remained stagnant for many years. India’s total edible oil consumption is around 21 MT per year whereas the domestic production is hardly 6-6.5 MT. At $10 billion annually, edible oil is India’s third-biggest import item after crude oil and gold. While that is good reason to increase production in oilseeds, particularly mustard and soybean, there’s another reason. If a farmer produces one tonne of oil, he also produces an equal quantity of cake, a by-product that is a protein-rich feed for animals. When we import vegetable oils, we are denied a large quantity of oilseed cake.

Biotechnology reduces the farmer’s dependency on pesticides and saves the equivalent of over 2,36,000 kilos of pesticides in India each year. Moreover, 90% of the 17 million farmers who grow biotech crops are resource-poor with farms of less than 10 hectares. Studies have shown that the growth rate for biotech crops is at least three times as fast and five times as large in developing countries as in industrialised ones.

Safety issues settled

Several international organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have repeatedly confirmed the safety of biotech crops and concluded that foods derived from biotechnology are as safe and nutritious as those derived from conventional and organic methods. Every country tests the safety of these crops in its local conditions before providing commercial approval. People around the world have been consuming products of biotech crops for more than 20 years. It is estimated that more than three trillion meals have been served which contain products of biotech crops. That itself is the biggest testimony of the safety of biotech crops.

We have lagged behind most Asian countries which have adopted agri-biotechnology. It makes immense sense for the government to give the nod to use of more GM crops, as it will be a great recognition not only for Indian scientists but also render greater service to Indian farmers.

(Shivendra Bajaj is executive director of the Association of the Biotech-Led Enterprises—Agriculture Focus Group (ABLE-AG))

CENTRE | Deepak Pental




A major challenge today is to develop low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without technology

Crop plants, like any other biological species, have threats from many pests and pathogens. In evolutionary biology this constant battle between hosts, pests and pathogens is called an arms race. Every crop has a few major and minor pests and pathogens. The latter, however, can always turn into a major threat due to large-scale cultivation of the crop and climate change.

The need for GM tech

The two important ways of protecting crops involve dispensing agrochemicals, or breeding species for resistance. The latter is environmentally more benign as it reduces the use of agrochemicals and the preferred source is tapping the germplasm within the crop species. Resistance-conferring genes can also be sourced from wild relatives of crops, a process that may take up to 15 years. In many cases, no source is available even within the wild relatives.

The technique of genetic engineering, in common lexicon called GM technology, allows the introduction of a resistance-conferring gene from any biological source. Bt cotton is a very fine example of using a resistance-conferring gene from a bacterial species to tackle bollworms, a common cotton pest. The alternative to Bt would be pesticides and further, these have to be new molecules, as those in use before the introduction of Bt cotton are no longer effective. However, we must understand that no resistance lasts forever. Therefore, one has to discover and use new sources of resistance — or stack genes together — that work through different mechanisms to confer longer resistance.

The development of GM technologies is a major achievement of the recombinant-DNA era that started in the 1970s. This has been followed by remarkable developments in genome sequencing. Today genomes of all the major crops have been sequenced and the information is available freely. An interesting use of GM technology is employing Barnase/Barstar genes to develop an efficient system of hybrid seed production in a crop. Our centre at the University of Delhi has deployed this method in oilseed mustard for developing productive hybrids. The system has cleared all the required biosafety parameters and is currently awaiting the Central government’s nod for field deployment. Hybrids yield higher than pure-line varieties and will help the country in reducing its edible oil deficit. In the last financial year, around ₹68,000 crore worth of edible oils were imported by the country. This amount should have been earned by our farmers.

Agenda-driven criticism

Why are GM technologies — that could provide a country like India long-term food and nutritional security — so vociferously attacked by ideologues of different hues? This is because urban populations are too remote from the issues bedevilling Indian agriculture. GM-bashers also have the tacit support of ideologues of both the Left and the Right. The classical Left has a historical dislike of big transnational companies, which control most of the GM technologies. For the neo-Left ideologues, GM is an easy target to remain relevant. Then we have nativists, who believe everything that is good happened a few thousand years back. Before 1900 agriculture was mostly organic. But the world population then was around 1.6 billion; today it is around 7.5 billion. It is not possible to feed people with pre-1900 agriculture.

A major challenge today is to develop low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without technology. The government must take decisions on GM technologies on the basis of scientific evidence. Once some successful interventions are in the field, the post-truth world that GM-bashers have created will disappear in no time.

(Deepak Pental is a senior scientist at the Indian National Science Academy and former Vice Chancellor of Delhi University)

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2020 8:56:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/should-we-grow-gm-crops/article19226398.ece

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