04 June 2015 | Column | By Dr DBA Narayana, CSO, Ayurvidye Trust, Bangalore
Some time back the Prime Minister of India, reportedly at the behest of BJP and some of the Civil Society Organisations, halted all trials on GM crops that were ongoing in India. It may be recollected that in one of the last Parliament sessions, Jayanthi Natarajan, the then Minister of State for Environment & Forests, had in a written reply tabled in Rajya Sabha stated that the “Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has approved experimental field trials for the purpose of generating biosafety data in respect of GM crops such as cotton, rice, castor, wheat, maize, tomato, groundnut, potato, sorghum, okra, brinjal, mustard, watermelon, papaya, sugarcane, rubber, banana, pigeon pea, Artemisia annua L. and chickpea”. At that time 79 applications were pending with GEAC for field trials of GM crops. Readers are aware of the large consultation processes that occurred in India in 2012 and 2013 which had put a stop to any approval of a GM crop for use in India.
Amongst the top 10 GM crops some of which are commercially approved in many countries are – sugar beets, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, squash, golden rice, soybean, oils, animal feed, salmon. In India research work on 19 crops to improve resistance to attacks by insects and pests, viral and fungal diseases, drought tolerance, water logging and salinity and delayed ripening to increase shelf life were ongoing before the government’s decision to halt them.
While most of these research aimed to produce a GM crop are ‘praiseworthy’ the public attitude has been one of mistrust and unconvincing to them. Consumers are in principle not against the technology itself like saying ‘it was anti-nature or anti-God’, questioning the involvement of changes at genetic level of the crop. Public is worried about who owns and controls these technologies, and what are the risks of consuming a food produced through GM techniques as well as seepage and risks to the environment and other crops GM cultivation might have. One sees a greater awareness of the benefits of GM crops. Evidence of Reduce greed and monopoly for GM foods to succeed the firms or the governments which approved GM crops to market exists, providing data to remove these public attitude and concerns. Public complain “to have not seen adequate and strong safety data for reasonable long periods of usage of a GM produced both to the consumer and to the environment and crops grown in nearby areas”. Industry cries hoarse and says they have data, often sharing with the public selective or sketchy data only.
Consumers wish to see independently conducted and reviewed complete data. They believe to quote a sentence of Ben Goldacre in his book titled Bad Pharma “Industry sponsored studies are more likely to produce results that flatter the sponsor’s dug, which has now been demonstrated beyond any doubt by current research”. This claim of Ben, applies to GM produced as well. Firms involved in GM technology try to control the use of technology so that rich benefits are obtained by multinational firms than by the farmers and consumers.
Public questioned the very intention when firms brought in terminator gene technology that provided extensive control to such firms and took away the rights of the farmers that existed for centuries. Unproven technologies, incremental improvement technologies were also being pushed by the industry. Many food ingredients and crops and medicinal plants which have long history of safe use in India (in the traditional knowledge documents like those of Ayurveda, Unani etc,), are questioned by the western regulators who do not want to accept such long history of use. However the same western nations want India to approve GM crops which don’t have even a decade of safety data both to the consumer and to the environment.
The GM technology industry and researchers have not even developed and made available validated test methods. Availability of number of methods of testing whether a food crop produce (food like rice, corn etc) or its products (like corn oil, soyabean oil etc), is indeed of GM origin or not, is not easy, nor available, and labs that can perform such testing and provide authentic certificates are scarce. India has only a few handful of labs that can do such testing and the results are also not conclusive. The cost of such testing is also prohibitive for any consumer to get it done.
There is thus a need for more research that is carried out independently without the industries’ involvement and sharing of such data with the public to convince about the safety. Halting trials will not serve this purpose. Ultimately GM crops cannot be and should not be thrust on consumers but everything that would make people eat GM produced crops with confidence needs to be done. Policies and open debates in this direction are required, and need to be continued.
A number of GM crops are indeed very beneficial and the need of the hour to feed the growing population in India. Apart from increase in acreages of successful cultivation, financial benefits to farmers, reduction in losses due to infestations/spoilage etc, there are a number of crops where the potential to improve the nutritional levels, anti-oxidant benefits/molecules, stability of nutrients, and potential edible vaccines, higher yields of oils, have been known, and further technologies are under development.
Appropriate and equitable sharing of such technology and avoiding excessive profit motive need to be the guiding principles to the firms, researchers and government. On the contrary, many believe, that greed and monopoly seems to be the guiding spirits.