GM crops and the food security fig leaf

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The Water Cooler
Does India really need genetically modified food?

By Shivani Shah

Let's talk about genetically engineered/modified (GE/GM) foods. And why the Indian Government is so adamant to have these foods commercialised in India. And why it has nothing to do with food security.

Genetic engineering is the artificial transfer of genes from one species to another – plant or animal. This results in a genetically ‘modified’ organism (GMO). As a result, the genetic makeup or the genetic blueprint of the organism is completely and permanently altered. The objective of modifying is to bring about a certain function – for instance, in plants, producing toxic proteins to eliminate pests, developing a tolerance to agro-chemicals like herbicides, etc. In simple words it's about creating a new organism using molecular biology techniques, which will otherwise not be found in nature. So one might wonder what’s wrong. Growing scientific evidence shows that GM crops are a potential threat to human health and natural biodiversity. Moreover, once released into the environment, GMOs cannot be either traced or recalled. There is also the issue of corporate control over farming by biotech seed companies. 

Biotech companies such as Monsanto alter genes in a natural organism or life form like a seed and patent it. Farmers are compelled to buy their seeds and become dependent on them. Once dependent, the farmer will also have to use the associated products like herbicides as is the case with Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant crops, thus helping the company make money both from its patented seeds and trademark agro-chemicals. By controlling agriculture, companies can control food and, in fact, the whole political arena, especially in an agrarian country likes India.

In India Bt cotton is the first and only GM crop commercially cultivated. It is a patented product of Monsanto, the biggest biotech seed company in the world, also notorious for the manufacture of Agent Orange, Aspartame, and DDT among other things. It has been a decade since Bt cotton’s approval in India. Recent government reviews indicate that Bt cotton has neither helped increase yield nor reduce pesticide usage in cotton crops as claimed by the developers of the technology. It has in fact resulted in increasing the input costs, thereby fuelling the already existing agrarian crisis in the cotton belt of the country.

Following Bt cotton, the government tried to introduce Bt brinjal towards the end of 2009. It was the first GM food crop to be commercialised in India but it was put on an indefinite moratorium owing to the serious concerns raised by scientists, academicians, ecologists, farmers and consumers.

While Bt brinjal is still on hold, the industry has been trying hard to get other GM crops commercialised. GM corn is one of the 71 crops being genetically modified. It is next in the regulatory pipeline of GMOs, and could be up for commercialisation in India soon. It only seemed logical that the safety of this food product, which is going to be consumed all across India, be analysed and independently at that. This especially given that this corn is a product of Monsanto, which given its dubious history, cannot be taken at face value. Plus our regulatory system has been found wanting on many counts.

Greenpeace obtained the data on GM corn using the Right to Information Act and forwarded it to Testbiotech, an institute for independent assessment in biotechnology, for an independent analysis. In its analysis of Monsanto's corn, Testbiotech highlighted that there are many concerns about safety for human health and the environment. What was surprising was that our regulatory authorities have been permitting open release of this GM corn in the name of field trials based on the safety data generated by Monsanto in its own labs in the USA. This is a classic case of conflict of interest and what we obviously need is independent assessments. This has been pointed out innumerable times before, and reiterated in Testbiotech's report.

It also pointed out that Monsanto’s reports themselves were old, out-dated, and not relevant in the Indian context. The Indian government accepted tests done by Monsanto years ago on corn varieties from the US which were tested in fields in the US. The genetic makeup of corn varieties in India will certainly be different. Also, the agro-climatic conditions in the US will not be the same as here. It is impossible to know how the corn will respond in the Indian climate, on Indian soil. There are innumerable gaps in Monsanto’s study and it is something the Indian regulatory system needs to be extremely wary of.

This is not the first time problems of this nature have been pointed out. And this will certainly not be the last. This is because GMOs, when released into the environment, are inherently dangerous – known to be damaging to the environment and to anyone who consumes it – humans, animals, bees, butterflies or birds.

Yet, our government continues to bat for it spending crores of taxpayers money researching these crops by using food security as a justification. The fact of the matter is that there is no need for GM crops and the food crisis we face today is what one calls hunger in the times of plenty. Food scarcity is a result of faulty procurement policies, mismanagement of stocks, lack of adequate and proper storage, hoarding, lopsided distribution and massive leakages in the public distribution and delivery system. Today, India produces enough food for the entire population and more. In fact, we have a buffer stock of around 667 lakh tonnes, which is 2.5 times more than the government's benchmark. Where is all this food going?

It is time to fix the current system and fill the gaps. It is time the government bites the bullet, and accept that genetically modified foods or any techno-fixes are not the panacea for food security. What is needed is ensuring that our farming is sustainable and food distribution systems just!

Shivani Shah is a Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner with Greenpeace India