Basmati under threat, GM crops play foul

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In India, as elsewhere in the world, scientists aligned with genetically modified seed companies seem to have facilitated field trials of several food crops illegally, for over a decade. This is dangerous

India’s most prestigious agricultural export — Basmati rice — is in danger of being banned in the European Union and other genetically modified-sensitive markets, as consignments were found tainted with genetically modified organisms in November 2014. Experts at the UK-based GM certification firm, Cert ID, feel the contamination is intentional as the more expensive basmati was found adulterated with cheap GM rice. Simultaneously, the European Union tightened controls on imports of Chinese rice products after several shipments were found contaminated by GM rice, though GM rice was never approved for cultivation in China. A Chinese journalist alleged that some “known GM scientists” were illegally selling their GM rice seed through companies in which they had stakes.

In India also, scientists aligned with GM seed companies seem to have facilitated field trials of several food crops illegally, for over a decade. The then Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh placed an official moratorium on these trials once he learnt of the dangers. Recently, biotechnology experts used the Indian Science Congress to press for open field trials of GM crops. The Centre should first investigate the extent of illegal GM food cultivation; the firms and officials involved; and the inroads made into the food chain.

In 2002, Tamil Nadu’s women farmers joined the Coalition for a GM Free India and exposed a university in Coimbatore for experimenting with BT Corn; many companies were found engaging in GM rice field trials. Greenpeace activists raided a village near Hyderabad where trials were in progress; the impugned company was pressing farmers to buy herbicide Glufosinate that is banned in Europe for causing birth defects. In 2007, after EU and other countries rejected imports of rice contaminated with GM strains, India banned GM rice field trials in three states of the Basmati-rice export zone. But no one assessed the damage already done by the secret experiments.

In 2006, an agriculture university in West Bengal reported that GM Bhindi (okra) had been planted illegally. The same year, poor farmers in Jhansi were asked to plant ‘special seeds’ of many vegetables, including green chilly. In March 2011, then Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar accused a multinational seed corporation, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Union Environment Ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee  of conniving to conduct field trials of GM Maize in Bihar without clearance from the ministry or informing the State Government. He said the ICAR’s experimental farms did not keep the ‘isolation distance’ required to prevent spread of contamination; Mr  Ramesh directed the GEAC to immediately withdraw permission for the trials.

Under international norms, GM seeds cannot be introduced for crops originating in a particular country or region, to protect the genetic stock. India is a centre of origin of rice and has over one lakh native varieties, of which 86,330 accessions have been officially recorded. It is the world’s second largest producer and exporter of rice. The Economic Survey attests that there is no shortage of rice, food staples, cereals or vegetables in India. Yet, 11 varieties of rice and 41 food crops have been genetically modified and prepared for open air trials; hence the pressure from multinational seed companies that have monopolised the technology and want to use it to control Indian agriculture. The West has already pressured Afghanistan to plant GM Soybeans.

Russia, however, in November 2014, officially declared its commitment to organic food and totally banned import of GMO products. The Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Higher Nervous Activity and Neurophysiology observed a six-fold higher mortality rates among young rats whose mothers were fed herbicide-resistant GM soybeans. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared that Russia had enough land and resources to produce organic food.

GMOs have long been implicated in the disappearance of bees and butterflies that are essential to plant pollination, besides the explosion of superweeds, superbugs, and environmental pollution. Argentina in August 2014 reported doubling of cancer deaths in GMO agribusiness areas. In January 2014, Natural Society magazine reported a Danish farmer warning livestock farmers to stop giving their animals GMO feed as it was causing serious deformities.

GMO is a pseudo-science: A gene from one species (a bacterium) is taken and inserted in the DNA of another species (a plant), a violation of the natural barriers that have separated species for millions of years and which can have lethal effects on soil, animal and human health. For Jains and Vegans, this raises ethical questions about whether the product is vegetarian or meat, which is why the GMO industry strenuously opposes product labelling.

Worse, GMO contamination is irreversible. The seeds of GM plants are engineered to be sterile and wind pollination can contaminate and wipe out other plant species. Given the implications for national food security, many countries have banned GM crops and imports of GM products. In August 2014, over 250 eminent Indian scientists wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging caution after the GEAC approved open trials of GM food crops, ignoring mounting scientific evidence regarding the adverse impact of GMOs on human health and environment. Moreover, the technology creates seed monopolies for a few multinational seed companies.

In India, for instance, Bt Cotton is monopolised by one company. Scientist Pushpa M Bhargava, questions the productivity claims of Bt Cotton that has been commercially cultivated in several States for over a decade. It has worked only in irrigated areas and not rain-fed regions that comprise two-thirds of India’s cotton belt, and has caused thousands of farmers’ suicides. In Andhra Pradesh, thousands of cattle died after grazing on the remnants of Bt Cotton plants after harvest. The crop has become pest-resistant and secondary pests like mealy bug proliferate; soil where Bt Cotton has been cultivated has become incapable of sustaining any other crop.

Little wonder that 90 per cent of UN member countries, including most of Europe, do not permit GM crops or unlabelled GM food. As awareness grows, health conscious citizens are asking if India’s BT Cotton seeds have been used to extract edible oil and pushed into the food chain. A single cancelled agri-export order could shake confidence in the new regime; hence Prime Minister Modi would do well to err on the side of caution with GM crops as the small size of Indian farms makes them more vulnerable to genetic contamination which could adversely impact on biodiversity through gene flow. And he must identify the GM middlemen.

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