Calcutta Notebook


The UPA government had permitted trials of about 60 genetically Modified (GM) food plants including wheat. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government had initially put these on hold due to various presures and fears. But recently they seem to have changed their position. The Modi Government has permitted field trials of GM mustard and brinjal. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has not only expressed himself in favour of production of GM crops for domestic consumption; he has gone a step further in saying that production of seeds of GM crops provides "new business opportunities in India based on yield improvement." He wants to convert India into a GM seed production hub. Monsanto and Cargill are definitely enjoying the idea.

Nature undertakes gene modification via breeding. The male and female genes from different parents combine to produce a new strain. But the modification is gradual and limited to within the species. A wheat male cannot breed with Congress Grass female in natural conditions. Genetic Modification speeds up and widens the process many fold. Genes from a particular plant are isolated and these are "bombarded" on to the genes of a parent plant. The donor and host plant can be of different species altogether. The two genes combine under bombardment. But one doesn't know what qualities of the two will join. For example, bombarding the wheat plant with the gene of Congress Grass could produce a wheat that is resilient to drought; or it could also produce a wheat that causes asthma. This gene modification activity is undertaken by Seed Companies like Monsanto in their laboratories.

Varieties that appear promising to the seed company are sent for field trial to assess their performance in farm conditions. It is here that the Government of India enters the picture. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has established a Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) that decides whether to allow a Seed Company to undertake field trials in the country and to sell the GM seeds. The CEAC had not given permission for the field trials under Environment Ministers Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan. However, Veerappa Moily reversed the stand and gave green light for the field trials. Javadekar had initially reversed the stand and put the trials on hold. Now he has allowed the same.

So far seeds of only one GM cotton are allowed to be sold in India. American Bollworm is a pest that damages the cotton crop widely. Bt is a poisonous bacterium that kills the Bollworm. Scientists have taken the poisonous Bt gene and genetically implanted it in the cotton plant. In the result the entire cotton plant-roots, stem, leaves and cotton fiber itself-of the Bt Cotton becomes poisonous. The Bt poison enters the digestive system of the Bollworm when it eats the leaves of the Bt Cotton and the Bollworm dies. This leads to lower cost of cultivation of cotton. It is no longer necessary to undertake a large number of spraying of other chemical insecticides to kill the Bollworm. Almost 95 percent cotton produced in the country at present is this Bt Cotton.

Danger is that the Bt gene may spread and contaminate the entire cotton gene of the country. The pollen of the Bt Cotton can "jump" from Bt Cotton fields and fertilize the indigenous varieties of cotton. That will lead to indigenous varieties of cotton also becoming poisonous. The US had approved the cultivation of a Genetically Modified (GM) variety of maize. Only about one percent maize crop of the GM variety was grown. Yet, a study found that the modified gene had entered into almost one-half of the American maize crop. Similar spread of Bt gene in indigenous varieties will mean that non-poisonous cotton may become extinct.

A report of UK Government on GM trials found that genetically modified plants such as oilseed rape have contaminated conventional crops up to 200 yards away. They have also interbred with weeds, making them resistant to herbicides and raising the spectre of 'superweeds', which would be almost impossible to eradicate. The study also found that GM oilseed rape results in fewer numbers of broad-leaved weed seeds, which are a major source of food for farmland birds, bees and butterflies. This means that a single GM Crop has the potential to harm the entire ecology of an area. Imagine what will happen if the wheat crop in the country becomes poisonous because of a stray gene entering into the crops!

This correspondent had visited Bhatinda some time ago. Farmers there had been growing guar and bajra till the seventies. In the eighties they started growing cotton. They made good profits in the first few years. Then the American Bollworm attacked their crops. They were advised to use insecticides. Initially a few sprays were successful in killing the insects. But soon the Bollworm developed resistance to the pesticides. As a result the farmers had to undertake up to 25 sprays yet they lost their crops. They became heavily indebted and few committed suicides. Had they relied on traditional methods of pest control such fate would not have befallen them. Mr Som Pal, former Member of the Planning Commission told this writer that traditional pest control technologies are quite effective. Cow urine and garlic can be sprayed. Tall crops like that of bajra can be planted in middle of cotton. That enables the birds to perch on the bajra plant. They can then spot the Bollworm and eat it. Such pest control technologies are less expensive. But the sprays are more effective and profitable till resistance does not develop.

There is no global consensus on GM Crops. France has banned all genetically engineered crops, though Spain has adopted them. So also among Indian States. Maharashtra and Punjab have supported them while Tamil Nadu and Kerala have opposed the same. This confusion indicates that there is inadequate information about these issues. Therefore, caution should be the watchword.

The safety norms for GM trials are still in preparation globally. Environmental Activist Vandana Shiva tells that article 19.3 of the Convention on Biological Diversity called for a Biosafety Protocol that is currently being negotiated. There seems to be no reason to move in utter haste as former Environment Minister Moily had done.

Vol. 47, No. 26, Jan 4 - 10, 2015