Dealing With Death

Does India Need GM Crops?

O P Rana

The marriage of science and history with myth in India is complete. No wonder, a statement like "there is no scientific evidence to prove that genetically modified (GM) crops will harm soil, human health and the environment" by Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has gone unopposed in the mainstream media. The scientifically illiterate statement of Javadekar came in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha on December 5 over the recent controversial decision of biotech regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee granting approval for experimental field trials of 12 GM crops for generating what the government childishly claims to be bio-safety data.

Surprisingly, the 12 crops ready for field trials are cotton, rice, castor, wheat, maize, groundnut, potato, sorghum, brinjal, mustard, sugarcane and chickpea. Instead of questioning why these crops need GM field trials in the first place, given that India is among the leading producers for many of them, Javadekar has said GM crops, especially GM maize, canola, soybean and cotton are being cultivated and consumed by human beings as well as animals in many countries the world over as food, fodder and processed products. For the uninitiated, canola is genetically modified rapeseed oil and short for "Can(ada)+o(il)+l(ow)+a(cid)", or Canada oil.

Javadekar has also been quoted by the media as having told the Rajya Sabha: "GM crops have beneficial traits such as insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, stress tolerance, fungal resistance, disease resistance, salt tolerance, drought tolerance, enhance yield and nutrition, etc. that may help in food security." The honourable minister also said that, owing to the concerns related to the safety, efficacy and agronomic performance of transgenic seeds, extensive evaluation and regulatory approval process takes place before any GM plant is approved for commercial cultivation.

It would not be a political or scientific exaggeration to say that the minister's statement is self-contradictory, for the Indian public does not have even as much as an inkling of the Javadekar-claimed "extensive evaluation or regulatory approval process". No one knows how and when this "evaluation or process" was (or are) conducted. And not even the nominated scientific advisers to the Modi government have tried to explain this to the Indian public. How can they explain something that is fiction of the cheapest kind?

In today's world of capitalist norms and corporate greed, the question of GM foods is no more of pros and cons -- it is more about pros than cons, because the mainstream media seem to paint all opposition to GM foods in a negative political hue. Still, it is better to see what the advantages and disadvantages of GM foods are. This is very important because the decisions people make as a nation will determine their food supply, nay food security - such decisions cannot be left to the so-called people's representatives alone who are hell bent on promoting GM foods for reasons not very difficult to fathom. A nation comprises its people, its land both fertile and infertile, its water bodies, its mountains, its forests, its flora and fauna, which are worth a million times more than all its elected (and unelected leaders) put together. And only the people, their land along with all its natural resources, have to decide the fate of their nation.

The advantages of GM foods, according to companies that produce GM seeds and insecticides and fertilizers, are the ability to grow crops faster and in higher quantities. These companies claim that more food means less starvation. Another advantage of GM foods is the ability to eliminate weaknesses in the genetic chain. Many food grains, vegetables and fruits are by nature vulnerable to certain diseases and insects. The GM seed companies claim to alter the genetic code of plants, vegetables and fruits to eliminate these vulnerabilities, making them less susceptible to damage by insects and disease.

The GM seed companies also claim that GM crops can mitigate certain diseases, and thus ensure that farmers don't lose crops to diseases and go bankrupt. Moreover, they claim that GM crops are more resistant than regular crops to droughts.

But the cons outweigh the pros: Many GM foods seem to react to the human body in negative ways. GM crops have also been demonstrated to raise people's risk to certain types of cancer and other diseases.

Worse, GM companies, more often than not, modify crops in such a way that it poses potential danger to the whole human race, not to speak of the soil. For example, companies like Monsanto have created GM plants that do not self replicate, which means farmers have to buy new seeds from the company at the beginning of every sowing season. This is definitely a wonderful business model for GM seed companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. But for farmers, it is bondage for life. More importantly, it has the potential to cause a catastrophic food shortage.

The moot question is: Why does a country like India need GM foods in the first place? Indians, especially present-day politicians, have developed (rather acquired) a habit of comparing the country with the United States. They, however, rarely, if ever, talk about the fact that the US government has for decades been subsidizing farmers - paying them huge amounts - not to grow crops in an attempt to increase the cost of foods in grocery stores to help them stay in business. But no one in India, where, farmers are the most neglected group of society, has asked why people need to genetically engineered crops instead of helping farmers, through policies and funds, to grow enough food grains, vegetables and fruits to meet the demands.

Plus, there is the question of how much human intervention will nature allow in food production. Have people already reached a stage where they have to depend on the knowledge and scientific acumen of a few corporations, a fractious faction of humanity, which are out to squeeze the last drops of people's blood on the pretext of ensuring food security? For instance, Monsantc's seeds which don't have reproductive capabilities are rightly called "terminator seeds", which, if allowed to take over the market, will force normal food to disappear forever. Do Indians really want to allow corporations such as Monsanto (US), DuPont (US), Syngenta (Switzerland), Groupe Limagrain (France), Land O' Lakes (US), KWS AG (Germany), Bayer CropScience (Germany), Sakata (Japan), DLF-Trifolium (Denmark) and Takii (Japan) to mass proliferate their crops that become extinct after one season to allow the multinational companies to make maximum profits? In a highly biologically diverse country like India allowing GM foods is more like committing harakiri, especially because these 10 companies control about 67 percent of the global seeds trade and once they get a stranglehold on Indian agriculture, which Indian politicians, ruling and opposition as well want them to, they will spell the death of farming as Indians know it.

Many experts believe there is no need to pay heed to the rhetoric of GM seed companies like Monsanto and politicians on food production and food security, because India produces enough food to feed each of the more than 7 billion people on the planet. In fact, the United States alone has the capacity in terms of land value and farms to feed the whole world and that too without having the need to grow GM crops. The reason for the shortage of food, and why about 1 billion people across the world - a large percentage of that in India - are forced to go without food is not the lack of food but political and economic (which have become dirty terms) policies.

GM foods are not the answer to the starving millions in India and the rest of the world. The opposition to GM foods in India, however, is limited to scientific organizations, environmentalists and social activist groups that have some or complete knowledge of the ill-effects of genetically engineered foods. People, including farmers, in general seern to be unaware of the consequences of GM foods. Of course, some environmentalists and social activist groups have linked farmers' suicides to the farming of Bt cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis cotton), because Bt cotton seeds cost more than twice the ordinary cotton seeds, and the higher costs, together with the costs of high-end pesticides and fertilizers needed to grow them, have forced many farmers to take ever higher loans, often from private money lenders at exorbitant interest rates (up to 60 percent a year). The money-lenders stake a claim on the produce to collect their dues at harvest time and force farmers to sell it to them at prices lower than the market rates. If the farmers do not sell their produce to the moneylenders, they cannot pay back their loans, and it is this inability to repay the high-interest loans and the frequent failure of crops that have forced many a farmer to commit suicide. This is a vicious circle from which farmers using GM seeds have no escape.

In 2012 alone, 13,754 farmers committed suicide. The farmer suicide rate is between 1.4 and 1.8 per 100,000 people. This dance of death in rural India has been going on for more than two decades.

The stranglehold of multinational and big companies on governments, from the Americas to Europe and from Asia to Africa, seems to be complete. Very few countries are free of the influence of private capital and capitalists, which is understandable because 85 of the richest people in the world own as much wealth as those in the bottom half of wealth distribution - in other words 85 people control almost half the world's wealth. The findings of the study are indeed shocking: 1 per cent of the world's population owns $110 trillion or 65 times the total wealth of half of the global population, and 70 per cent of the global population lives in countries where economic inequality has widened in the past 30 years. No one should be surprised to know that people running the top 10 GM seed companies belong to the privileged 1 percent.

People in India, let alone the rest of the world, are likely to have forgotten Cyclone Aila, which left a devastating trail in India and Bangladesh, especially the Sunderbans, in 2009. Apart from the damage caused to the habitat of the highest number of tigers in the world, Aila inundated huge tracts of farmlands and with salt water from the sea making them infertile. Nothing that the GM seed companies offered could revive farming in the saline soil. It took indigenous salt-resistant (or saline-tolerant) seeds to regenerate agriculture in the Sunderban farmlands in Bengal. And the rice seeds were offered by Dr Debal Deb, who operates an organic farm, Basudha, in Niyamgiri in Rayagada district of Odisha. In fact, Deb has more rice seeds in his organic rice seed bank (which he has named Vrihi, Sanskrit for rice) than the government of India's seed bank, and among them are flood- and drought-resistant varieties.

The project to grow traditional varieties of paddy in the Sunderbans made too saline for farming by Cyclone Aila was won by Calcutta-based NGO Society for Environment and Development, which is run by Dr Ashish Ghosh, a former director of the Zoological Survey of India. It was picked by the jury for Solution Search: Adapting to a Changing Climate, which was sponsored by American NGOs Rare and The nature Conservancy. It's important to keep in mind that organisations from 48 countries had submitted more than 100 applications to win the project seeking local solutions to environmental problems brought about by climate change.

Deb, who is also associated with Ghosh's NGO, offered saline-resistant seed varieties such as Matla, Nona Bokra, Talmugur, Lal Getu, Sada Getu and Hamilton. Of these, Matla seemed to have been lost by Sunderban farmers and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. But Deb, after conducting saline-resistant tests, found Hamilton to be best-suited for the saline soil of the Sunderbans.

This should have opened the eyes of Indian politicians to the impotence of GM seeds and superiority of indigenous varieties. But more than science, agriculture and seeds influence the decisions of ruling leaders, for granting entry to GM seeds into Indian agriculture means money, and lots of it. And economic development is all about money.

The battle lines for and against GM seeds were first drawn in Europe in the late 1990s. Activists in Europe claimed that GM seeds were unsafe for human consumption and damaged or destroyed other seeds and crops. Soon the opposition to GM seeds spread to other regions, and justifiably so if one looks at what happened later to farmers in countries like India who planted GM seeds. For all the claims of GM seed makers, especially Monsanto, cotton crops have been failing with eerie regularity in India. A country that first cultivated cotton more than 7,000 years ago (in what is now western Pakistan) and spread the skill of making cotton yarn to the Mediterranean and through it to the rest of the world has seen a farmer commit suicide every 30 minutes during the more than past two decades - and most of the suicides have been committed by cotton farmers. Thousands of kilometres away, Mexico, the country which gave corn to the world, has to import the bulk of its corn supply from the US today despite using GM seeds. If that is not enough of an irony, scientists in the US now say that corn rootworms might have developed resistance to GM corn.

Until the first half of the last century, seeds were overwhelmingly the property of farmers and public-sector plant breeders. But in the decades that followed, GM seed makers used intellectual property laws to commercialize seed supply throughout the world. Today, they have become aggressive in their designs and sales strategies to maximize their profits. The top five GM seed makers - Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Groupe Limagrain and Land O' Lakes - control about 57 per cent of the global seed market. Since the mid-1990s, Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont, along with Bayer and Dow, have bought up more than 200 other companies to become dominant players in the seed market. Can there be a better example of oligopoly?

The GM seed makers jump in with "help" when crops fail in a country because of natural or human factors. They offer genetically engineered seeds as the panacea for all agricultural ills, only to milk farmers to their last penny, for once a fanner plants GM crops there is no going back to using normal seeds simply because conventional seeds cannot yield anywhere near a healthy harvest on a piece of land where GM seeds have been planted.

The Western world, which claims to have gifted the magic GM seed to the poor countries, is obsessed with democracy. But after using GM seeds does a farmer have the democracy of choice to revert to conventional seeds? Perhaps he has—but the soil, contaminated by GM seeds, would at best yield a poor harvest. In March 2010, Monsanto, the world's biggest GM seed maker, said pink bollworms insects had developed resistance to its Bt cotton crops in Gujarat. But cunningly, the US company advocated that farmers graduate to using its second-generation product called "Bollgard II which has greater ability (and costs more) to delay resistance".

So democracy means continuing to buy "higher quality" products from the same company and paying more year after year.

But despite that, the champions of GM seeds wanted to introduce Bt brinjals in India in 2010 because, they said, it would increase the yield of the vegetable. They are back at their game now.

China is the top producer of brinjals, with India a distant second. But perhaps India grows a wider variety of the vegetable, from the pigeon-eggsized globules to the oval giants weighing up to a kilogram. In India, you get them in every possible shade, from purple and black to green and even white. It is available in every part of India, and almost every province has its own special brinjal dish or two. It is savoured mostly as an independent ingredient or with other vegetables, but in Bengal, Odisha, Assam (and Bangladesh) people cook it with fish with divine results. Perhaps, nowhere is the eggplant such an integral part of the cuisine as it is in Bengal and Bangladesh.

Brinjal is actually a fruit which originated in India (which also gave the first treatise on the plant) and does not need fiddling with its genes. Farmers have been happy with it for hundreds, if not thousands, of years despite the occasional attack of pests, mostly soft-bodied larvae. It is the (life or) death of these pests that is at the core of a controversy that is reported to have prompted Indian politicians to seek GM seed companies' help. The controversy is over the introduction of Bt (bacillus thuringiensis), or GM brinjals. Supporters argue that the GM variety will make the vegetable resistant to a pest known as fruit and shoot borer by introducing the pesticide within the plant.

In 2010, environmentalists, farmers and consumers were not convinced. Green activists smelled a rat when they found that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had given its recommendation for commercialization of brinjals without considering the dissent of three of the committee members and ignoring independent scientists' advice.

Among those whose advice was ignored was French scientist, Prof Gilles-Eric Seralini of the Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering. He was the first person to conduct an independent assessment of Monsanto-Mahyco's dossier on toxicity, and told the Indian authorities that GM brinjal was unfit for human consumption. Not only does the GM brinjal lower food value, but also it could cause diseases, he said.

Soon after the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee decision in 2010, consumers, farmers and green activists across the country took to the streets in protest against GM brinjals, forcing the then Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh to hold public hearings in major cities. The result: the decision on GM brinjals was shelved.

Now it is back. It is surprising that the main targets of GM seed companies are developing countries. Is it because people in the Western world, which engendered GM seeds, are also its greatest opponents? Why do GM seed companies find few takers in the developed world? Why is the European Union still sceptical about GM food? Why do GM companies respect democracy of choice in the developed world and not in developing countries? Why doesn't an independent study on the harmful effects of GM seeds in India and other developing countries carry the same weight as that done by the US Pesticide Action Network? In fact, PAN has been campaigning against the devastating effects of corporate control over food and agriculture.
GM seeds, controlled by multinational companies, are less science and more commerce. They are not being promoted to feed the world's hungry, but to earn profits. Such companies have spent billions of dollars to genetically modify the seeds. Now, they are forcing poor farmers to pay them back with very high rates of interests. And governments in the developing world seem more than eager to help the GM seed companies in their dirty designs. For what?

Vol. 47, No. 28, Jan 18 - 24, 2015