The Push for Genetically Modified Crops Should Be Tempered with Caution

The present Central Government is rightly focusing on technology for significant advances in the quality of governance.

Published: 13th June 2015 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 13th June 2015 10:30 AM   |  A+A-

Push for Genetically

The present Central Government is rightly focusing on technology for significant advances in the quality of governance. For example, ‘Digital India’ has the potential to seamlessly connect the remotest areas, bridge the urban-rural divide, and can dramatically improve widespread facilitation of services. In a recent speech, the Prime Minister stressed the need for bringing science and technology to aid our agriculture sector—surely, new initiatives for field-wise soil-testing and other related measures are welcome. However, the push for GM (Genetically Modified) crops should be tempered with caution.

The worldwide application of GM crops is only about four decades old; indeed, it is only in the last two decades that it has ‘captured’ new territories. Even so, only six countries (of 29) account for over 90 per cent of all GM crop area, restricted mostly to four crops—soya, cotton, corn and canola. Most of Europe is quite wary of the potential side-residual effects of GM; the jury is still out on its benefits and safety.

The author of this article, as the then textile secretary, enthusiastically pushed Bt cotton in India in the early 90s; in 2002, use of Bt cotton was officially approved. The ‘success’ of Bt cotton, in retrospect, is quite suspect—it is not quite clear that the gains outweigh the negatives. While there is much hype about increase in production, almost certainly much of this cannot be attributed to Bt. From 2005 to 2015, use of Bt cotton grew in India from 6 per cent to 90 per cent coverage, but the per-hectare productivity rose only by 10 per cent—even this probably largely due to integrated optimal application of inputs.

Productivity-wise, India ranks only 31 of 77 cotton countries. No more than 15 countries produce Bt—it is obvious that GM has no particular role to play. Indeed, India produces 514 kg/ ha, less than a third of Israel or Turkey, both of which shun Bt/GM. Farmer suicide rates have apparently gone up sharply; India had great diversity in pest-resistant desi cotton varieties. Alas, most of it is now gone, forever.

If I had, in 1995, the same level of knowledge and understanding (even now it is incomplete) as I have now, I am sure that Bt cotton would not have been ushered in with so much enthusiasm, possibly gullibility.

GM was sold to us on the myth of rapidly increased productivity; 20 years of experience show no great leap, or even significant advance in productivity. Pesticide use declined for bollworm, but has gone up for ‘sucking’ pests. This is now being addressed by heavy sprays of ‘glyphosate’ herbicides, currently reported to have severe adverse ecological impact. There are reports of severe ecological and health damage in South America from GM soybean—30,000 doctors in Argentina have recently demanded ban on glyphosate.

Calls like ‘Monsanto out of China’ are growing, even in such totalitarian regimes, and the government has started reviewing field trials. Most significantly, the WHO’s IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) pronounced glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” in March.

Recall that for 75 years, the world refused to accept that tobacco is dangerous, despite mounting evidence. Just to add one of many points, there is growing evidence of massive destruction of bee colonies, and beneficial pollinating and pest controlling insects, due to chemicals used with GM—with major potential impact on world ecology and agriculture.

It is ironical that India is apparently pushing headlong for a massive embrace with GM; many developed countries are sharply shunning this technology—demand for ‘organic’ farming and imports is rapidly growing. The US preference for ‘safe and healthy’ farming is reflected by rapidly increasing imports of organic products, coupled with diversion of domestic GM products mainly for foreign markets. India has the largest number of ‘organic farms’—this is right target for ‘Make in India’. There is major potential, which GM will surely jeopardise. For instance, any experimentation on GM rice in India could lead to potential for contamination; even minor traces of GM in our basmati exports can lead to costly bans. India should also not be treated as guinea pig for experimentation in different crops.

There is now general recognition among experts that GM per se does not enhance productivity; the relevant factors include timely irrigation and other appropriate inputs. Three international companies already have captured 60 per cent of the world trade in seeds. Monsanto has enormous reach into all agri-universities and research institutions, into domestic regulatory agencies—with heavy research and conference-funding into agri-academic circles. They also have dangerously close access to decision-makers, as well as to bureaucrats and politicians who are, to put it euphemistically, ‘influenceable’. This is a deadly mix. Due caution is required before pushing GM as an article of faith. An important PIL is pending in the Supreme Court in this regard; irrespective of the apex court findings, the government has responsibility to walk with due care.

The above is no plea for ignoring science, nor for not utilising latest technology—both are imperative. However, due caution is required for a risky and irreversible technology, requiring totally independent need assessment, testing and monitoring, which are not in place in India today.

The present Central Government is rightly focusing on technology for significant advances in the quality of governance. For example, ‘Digital India’ has the potential to seamlessly connect the remotest areas, bridge the urban-rural divide, and can dramatically improve widespread facilitation of services. In a recent speech, the Prime Minister stressed the need for bringing science and technology to aid our agriculture sector—surely, new initiatives for field-wise soil-testing and other related measures are welcome. However, the push for GM (Genetically Modified) crops should be tempered with caution.

The worldwide application of GM crops is only about four decades old; indeed, it is only in the last two decades that it has ‘captured’ new territories. Even so, only six countries (of 29) account for over 90 per cent of all GM crop area, restricted mostly to four crops—soya, cotton, corn and canola. Most of Europe is quite wary of the potential side-residual effects of GM; the jury is still out on its benefits and safety.

The author of this article, as the then textile secretary, enthusiastically pushed Bt cotton in India in the early 90s; in 2002, use of Bt cotton was officially approved. The ‘success’ of Bt cotton, in retrospect, is quite suspect—it is not quite clear that the gains outweigh the negatives. While there is much hype about increase in production, almost certainly much of this cannot be attributed to Bt. From 2005 to 2015, use of Bt cotton grew in India from 6 per cent to 90 per cent coverage, but the per-hectare productivity rose only by 10 per cent—even this probably largely due to integrated optimal application of inputs.

Productivity-wise, India ranks only 31 of 77 cotton countries. No more than 15 countries produce Bt—it is obvious that GM has no particular role to play. Indeed, India produces 514 kg/ ha, less than a third of Israel or Turkey, both of which shun Bt/GM. Farmer suicide rates have apparently gone up sharply; India had great diversity in pest-resistant desi cotton varieties. Alas, most of it is now gone, forever.

If I had, in 1995, the same level of knowledge and understanding (even now it is incomplete) as I have now, I am sure that Bt cotton would not have been ushered in with so much enthusiasm, possibly gullibility.

GM was sold to us on the myth of rapidly increased productivity; 20 years of experience show no great leap, or even significant advance in productivity. Pesticide use declined for bollworm, but has gone up for ‘sucking’ pests. This is now being addressed by heavy sprays of ‘glyphosate’ herbicides, currently reported to have severe adverse ecological impact. There are reports of severe ecological and health damage in South America from GM soybean—30,000 doctors in Argentina have recently demanded ban on glyphosate.

Calls like ‘Monsanto out of China’ are growing, even in such totalitarian regimes, and the government has started reviewing field trials. Most significantly, the WHO’s IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) pronounced glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” in March.

Recall that for 75 years, the world refused to accept that tobacco is dangerous, despite mounting evidence. Just to add one of many points, there is growing evidence of massive destruction of bee colonies, and beneficial pollinating and pest controlling insects, due to chemicals used with GM—with major potential impact on world ecology and agriculture.

It is ironical that India is apparently pushing headlong for a massive embrace with GM; many developed countries are sharply shunning this technology—demand for ‘organic’ farming and imports is rapidly growing. The US preference for ‘safe and healthy’ farming is reflected by rapidly increasing imports of organic products, coupled with diversion of domestic GM products mainly for foreign markets. India has the largest number of ‘organic farms’—this is right target for ‘Make in India’. There is major potential, which GM will surely jeopardise. For instance, any experimentation on GM rice in India could lead to potential for contamination; even minor traces of GM in our basmati exports can lead to costly bans. India should also not be treated as guinea pig for experimentation in different crops.

There is now general recognition among experts that GM per se does not enhance productivity; the relevant factors include timely irrigation and other appropriate inputs. Three international companies already have captured 60 per cent of the world trade in seeds. Monsanto has enormous reach into all agri-universities and research institutions, into domestic regulatory agencies—with heavy research and conference-funding into agri-academic circles. They also have dangerously close access to decision-makers, as well as to bureaucrats and politicians who are, to put it euphemistically, ‘influenceable’. This is a deadly mix. Due caution is required before pushing GM as an article of faith. An important PIL is pending in the Supreme Court in this regard; irrespective of the apex court findings, the government has responsibility to walk with due care.

The above is no plea for ignoring science, nor for not utilising latest technology—both are imperative. However, due caution is required for a risky and irreversible technology, requiring totally independent need assessment, testing and monitoring, which are not in place in India today.

 tsrsubramanian@gmail.com

Follow The New Indian Express channel on WhatsApp



Comments

Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the newindianexpress.com editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on newindianexpress.com are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of newindianexpress.com or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. newindianexpress.com reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp