Great India Drive

Perils of GM farming

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Perils of GM farming

Tuesday, 17 September 2019 | Sandhya Jain

Perils of GM farming

Global agricultural firms have been spreading the myth that GMOs are needed to feed India when actually, the country needs agro-ecological systems to preserve its biodiversity

Seventeen scientists, who consistently advocated Genetically Modified (GM) crops in India, are anxious to revive GMs despite the Centre’s growing emphasis on organic farming and native cattle breeds to boost nutritional standards nationwide. The Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana and the Rashtriya Gokul Mission are gaining popularity among farmers. Alarmed at the scale of soil degradation in the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence day address, urged the farmers to reduce consumption of chemical fertilisers by at least 25 per cent.

Almost parallel to this plea, in Current Science (Vol 117, No 3, August 10, 2019), the scientists suggest that GM food crops, ie, Bt-Brinjal that was placed under a moratorium by the then Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh and GM-Mustard that was almost cleared for field trials when activists scuttled the attempt, be cleared for commercial cultivation. This activism seeks to reverse Dr MS Swaminathan’s admission that green revolution technologies had harmed the environment and that Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) and Ht (herbicide tolerant) crops are highly unsustainable (Current Science, Vol 115, No 10, November 25, 2018). The article created outrage in pro-GM circles.

Claiming that Bt-cotton made India a cotton exporting country, the proponents say the virtual ban on Bt-brinjal and GM-mustard is hurting India’s food and nutrition security that is challenged by population growth, availability of land, water and human resources. They point out that major Western science academies insist there are no genotoxic effects in Bt and Ht crops. In 2016, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a 420-page report on GM crops and observed, “Bt in maize and cotton from 1996 to 2015 contributed to a reduction in the gap between actual yield and potential yield under circumstances in which targetted pests caused substantial damage to non-GE varieties and synthetic chemicals could not provide practical control.”

This report, the GM champions assert, states that Bt crop actually increased insect biodiversity on farms compared to non-Bt crop farms on which insecticide was sprayed. The report said the emergence of secondary pests and resistant pink bollworm in India is due to the non-implementation of the refuge strategy. A 2010 report of the European Commission noted, “biotechnology, in particular Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.”

GM backers claim that 147 original studies based on primary data from farm surveys anywhere in the world, reporting impact of GM soybean, maize or cotton on crop yields, pesticide use and farm profits showed that on an average, GM technology reduced pesticide use by 37 per cent, increased crop yields by 22 per cent and increased farmer profits by 68 per cent. Regarding livestock, data from publicly available sources from 1997 to 2011, covering over 100 billion animals, did not reflect negative trends in livestock health and productivity from GM crop-feeds.

Pro-GM scientists doubt the finding of the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer that glyphosate is linked to cancer. The fact, however, is that Austria has already banned glyphosate and Germany has decided to ban it by the end of 2023 as part of an insect (bees, butterflies) conservation programme. Nearly 20 French mayors banned it from their municipalities in August 2019 in defiance of the national Government. Pro-GM scientists recommend GM technology in grains (golden rice) and vegetables, along with the risky gene editing technology. Ironically, they have been blocking the release of Bt-cotton hybrids/varieties developed by scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (which have safer toxic limits than Monsanto) in the past three years and are trying to influence Government policy for Monsanto/Bayer profits.

The scientists deliberately ignore the fact that the department-related parliamentary standing committee on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests (August 25, 2017) had categorically asserted that no GM crop should be introduced in India until the bio-safety and long-term effects are evaluated by an independent and transparent process. The standing committee discovered that not a single Government agency had ever conducted studies to assess the impact of Bt-Cotton on the environment, bio-diversity, bio-safety, ecosystem (soil), human and animal health.

A former Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology admitted that his department had no independent research on the impact of GM crops and most research was from the seed and insecticide companies, which cannot be relied upon. The department of health research also admitted that it had not examined the impact of GM crops on human health.

Environmentalist Vandana Shiva points out that the green revolution, based on chemicals and hybrid crops, devastated India in myriad ways — from loss of agro-biodiversity to degraded soils to water emergency. In 2002, the Government legalised the illegal planting of Bt-cotton. Despite energetic marketing, hard official data proves that Bt-cotton has failed, trapped farmers in debt and is implicated in farmer suicides. Worse, Monsanto’s HT Roundup Cotton, which has been planted illegally for over a decade, might be legalised.

Illegal planting of Bt-brinjal in many States is extremely dangerous as India has the world’s greatest genetic diversity in brinjal (over 2,500 varieties, including wild varieties), which could suffer irreversible contamination. The motive is to gain access to our incredible germplasm. Global agricultural corporations are keen to control our agriculture with their seeds, chemicals and monoculture farming and are spreading the myth that GMOs are needed to feed India.

At a seminar, Beyond Corporate Driven Industrial Agriculture to Climate Resilient Agroecology (September 6, 2019), experts said India does not need genetic engineering as traditional plant breeding and newer methods “outperform GE hands down.” The world needs agro-ecology to overcome climate change and the vicious cycles of hunger, farming stress and poverty. Recent global scientific review (February 2019) warns that the steep decline in insect populations (40 per cent of insects could become extinct in the next few decades) could trigger the collapse of ecosystems worldwide. The main culprit is industrial scale, intensive agriculture with pesticides and fertilisers. Only agro-ecological systems preserve forests and sequester carbon by naturally removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, locking it in plants and, thus, mitigate climate change.

Way back in 1940, Albert Howard (An Agricultural Testament) noted that Indian peasants led the world in agro-ecology. India must recover this native wisdom by preserving its biodiversity and seed sovereignty so that future generations are free of hunger and in harmony with humanity and nature.

(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal)

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