Scientists against GM Crops

Bharat Dogra

As people's consciousness about the hazards of GM crops grew, many GM products from the USA, the leader in promoting this technology, were refused by its trading partners. This alarmed leading GM companies, and gave them additional reason to push GM crops in important developing countries so that alternative sources for supply of non-GM products, or products not contaminated by GM crops cannot emerge.

People wonder why GM crops spread in the USA and from there to some other countries, even though several scientists (in addition to farmers and activists) opposed GMOs there as well. An idea of the various forces responsible for this can be had from a complaint the US Securities and Exchange Commission had filed in the US courts stating that a leading GMO company had bribed 140 officials during 1997-2000 to obtain environmental clearances for its products. The company admitted this charge and paid a penalty of US $ 1.5 million.

Jeffrey M Smith has explained how safety reports were prepared. The quotation below is from his book 'Genetic Roulette', a book which has been recommended and praised widely by many international experts. Smith writes, "The industry-funded studies have become notorious for using creative ways to avoid funding problems. They feed older animals instead of more sensitive young ones, keep sample sizes too low to achieve the statistical significance needed for proof in scientific studies, dilute the GM component of the feed, overcook samples, compare results with irrelevant controls, choose obsolete insensitive detection methods, limit the duration of feeding trials, and even ignore animal deaths and sickness."

The story of U K is no less shocking, adds Smith. In the mid-1990s, the UK government commissioned scientists to develop an assessment protocol for GM crop approvals that would be used in the UK and eventually by the EU. In 1998, three years into the project, the scientists discovered that potatoes engineered to produce a supposed-to-be harmless insecticide caused extensive health damage to rats. The pro-GM government immediately cancelled the project, the lead scientist was fired and the research team dismantled.

Coming to the debate on Bt brinjal in India, Prof Pushpa Bhargava, India’s top scientist on this subject who was nominated by the Supreme Court to help the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), pointed out that when Monsanto’s dossier containing all the bio-safety tests that they had done was put in the public domain earlier this year (2009), there were serious criticisms of it by many scientists from various parts of the world.

The GEAC appointed a committee (EC-II) to prepare a report on such criticism. But Dr Bhargava and others were essentially given just one day to review the 102 page report. Still on the basis of his vast experience he could quickly see that there were "internal inconsistencies in the report, inconsistencies between the report and the earlier data that had been put in public domain and outright scientific absurdities."

When Prof Bhargava recommended that adequate time should be allowed for a review meeting of eminent experts who had been involved in this issue, this proposal was completely ignored and the GEAC went ahead to give its hurried approval to Bt brinjal (although the government later imposed a moratorium on Bt brinjal following a process of extensive consultation).

A group of 17 distinguished scientists from the USA, Canada, Europe and New Zealand wrote to India’s Prime Minister in 2009, “India’s regulators do not require independent bio-safety tests, but uncritically accept as evidence of safety, research conducted by the company who is applying for commercial clearance of the product. This raises serious questions regarding impartiality and conflicts of interest, which are clearly justified, based on published evidence of bias in the research conducted by industry that is contrary to accepted normal scientific conduct.

Despite all the high-power efforts to push GM crops in highly unethical ways and suppress opposition of scientists, the scientific opinion is still very much against GM crops. Dr Pushups M Bhargava, who was also the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, prepared a review of the available scientific literature on this subject. Here he stated, “There are over 500 research publications by scientists of indisputable integrity, who have no conflict of interest, that establish harmful effects of GM crops on human, animal and plant health, and on the environment and biodiversity. For example, a recent paper by Indian scientists showed that the Bt gene in both cotton and brinjal leads to inhibition of growth and development of the plant. On the other hand, virtually every paper supporting GM crops is by scientists who have a declared conflict of interest or whose credibility and integrity can be doubted.”

[The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and healthy Food.]

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Vol 55, No. 27, Jan 1 - 7, 2023