Insights into Editorial: Bringing GM to the table

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Insights into Editorial: Bringing GM to the table


 

bt crops

 

Summary:

Anti-GM groups have been opposing the recent decision of GEAC which allowed for the commercial production of GM Mustard in the country. The row over the introduction of GM crops in the country for commercial production is not new. It has been here for years now.

 

GM crops in India:

The Indian GM crops saga is a convoluted one. Currently, it has the world’s fourth largest GM crop acreage on the strength of Bt cotton, the only genetically modified crop allowed in the country. But the introduction of Bt cotton has been both highly successful and controversial. Cotton yield more than doubled in the first decade since its introduction in 2002, according to the Economic Survey 2011-12—by which point it accounted for 90% of cotton acreage. But it was also shadowed by controversy, with a tangle of pricing and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues followed by government price interventions and litigation.

GM food crops have fared worse. An agreement to develop Bt brinjal was signed in 2005 between Mahyco—American agricultural biotech giant Monsanto’s Indian Bt cotton partner—and two Indian agricultural universities. Following the study of biosafety data and field trials by two expert committees, Bt brinjal was cleared for commercialization by India’s top biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, in 2009. But nothing came of it, with moratoriums imposed by then Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh and his successor Jayanthi Natarajan following opposition from civil society groups and brinjal-growing states.

 

What is the science behind GM crops?

Ever since the discovery of the DNA double-helix model by Watson and Crick, scientists realised it was possible to manipulate the DNA features of an organism to create new traits in them by borrowing genes from other organisms and mixing it with theirs. In the case of GM food, scientists insert into a plant’s genome one or several gene from another species of plant or even from a bacterium, virus or animal. This is to inject desired traits such as pest-resistance or Vitamin A (as in the case of golden rice). 

 

GM food crops are mainly being opposed for the following reasons:

  • Opponents believe GM crops have the potential for serious, irreversible damage to human health and the environment. This is especially relevant in the context of crops such as Bt brinjal which involve direct consumption by humans, unlike Bt cotton. The widespread havoc that chemical pesticides and fertilizers have caused since the Green Revolution only adds credence to these concerns.
  • Lack of proper assessment has further reduced the trust. GM opponents cite the need for longer term assessment of adverse impacts and more concrete evidence of no adverse effects. Implicitly, GM opponents are invoking the precautionary principle, which is a widely incorporated one in several international agreements and treaties on the environment.
  • The lack of transparency in the regulatory process further amplifies apprehensions stemming from a precautionary approach. All the safety tests for regulatory approvals are typically conducted by the same party that applies for commercialisation of GM crops. This conflict of interest was made worse by the refusal of GEAC to publicly release the safety testing data submitted for regulatory approval until GM opponents filed a Right to Information petition.
  • There are also concerns regarding loss of food biodiversity if corporate food varieties begin to flood the markets.

 

Way ahead:

There is a need to start cultivating an environment of openness and transparency to allay genuine fears instead of dismissing GM opponents as being “irrational”. On its part, the government should adopt a participatory approach to bring together all stakeholders to develop regulatory protocols that restore trust in the process. The burden of proof lies with the promoters of GM technology to persuade consumers, farmers and activists that among various alternatives available for sustainable food production — e.g., organic farming, use of biopesticides — GM technology is at least a serious option that we should embrace.

 

Conclusion:

There is the need for the GEAC “to draw up a fresh protocol for the specific tests that will have to be conducted in order to generate public confidence”. Given agricultural distress and the need for broad reforms in the sector—and the potential of GM crops to supplement those reforms with increased drought resistance and reduced pesticide dependence, among other benefits—opposition must be managed, not allowed to hold sway.