Modified Crops In India
By Devinder Sharma
and Aditi Kapoor
05 April, 2004
is divided on whether genetic engineering and genetically modified (GM)
crops offer a solution to hunger in the developing countries. Devinder
Sharma, a former visiting fellow at the International Rice Research
Institute and Cambridge University, tells Aditi Kapoor that GM technology
will not make food cheaper or more nutritious for the South:
Will GM food
reduce hunger in developing countries like India ?
If hunger could
be addressed by techno-logy, green revolution would have done it long
ago. The fact is that hunger has grown in India in absolute terms -
some 320 million people go to bed hungry every night. Two years back,
India had a record foodgrain surplus of 65 million tonnes. If 65 million
tonnes surplus could not feed the 320 million hungry, how will GM food
remove hunger? In reality, GM food diverts precious financial resources
to an irrelevant research, comes with stronger intellectual property
rights, and is aimed at strengthening corporate control over agriculture.
But what about
malnutrition? Crops like golden rice can help remove blindness.
This again is the
result of misplaced thinking. There are 12 million people in India who
suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. These people primarily live in food
deficit areas or are marginalised. These are people who cannot buy their
normal requirement of food, including rice. If they were adequately
fed, there would be no malnutrition. If the poor in Kalahandi, for instance,
can't buy rice that lies rotting in front of their eyes, how will they
buy golden rice?
Then why is the
Indian government experimenting with GM crops and foods?
For two reasons:
First, India is under tremendous pressure from the biotechnology industry
to allow GM crops. These companies have the financial resources to mobilise
scientific opinion as well as political support. Second, agricultural
scientists are using biotechnology as a Trojan horse. With nothing to
show by way of scientific breakthrough in the past three decades, GM
research will ensure livelihood security for the scientists.
What GM crops
and food items is India experimenting with?
genetic engineering experiments are being conducted on maize, mustard,
sugarcane, sorghum, pigeonpea, chickpea, rice, tomato, brinjal, potato,
banana, papaya, cauliflower, oilseeds, castor, soyabean and medicinal
plants. Experiments are also underway on several species of fish. In
fact, such is the desperation that scientists are trying to insert Bt
gene into any crop they can lay their hands on, not knowing whether
this is desirable or not.
What does the
field trial data of GM products, including Bt cotton, in India reveal?
Bt cotton field
trials were a sham. In three years of research trials, the experiments
were not conducted as per scientific norms. And yet, the GEAC (Genetic
Engineering Approval Committee, ministry of environment & forests)
had approved the results. The experiment only showed that such products
are not suitable for Indian conditions. If only the same attention had
gone to more sustainable farming systems, India would have been able
to create a unique model of agriculture where farmers are not forced
to commit suicide, where the land is not polluted, and where water is
not poisoned. GM crops experiments show that the country is fast moving
into a hitherto unforeseen era of biological pollution, which will be
more unsustainable and also destructive to human health and environment.
But India 's
Biological Diversity Act 2003 does provide for an environmental assessment
of GM crops?
No, not at all.
Genetic engineering is moving several times faster than the legal instruments.
Transgenic crops and animals in essence go against the very foundation
of the biological diversity that we are trying to protect.
What role should
the GEAC play?
GEAC should emphasise
biological risk assessment. GEAC should regulate genetic techno-logy
like the US Recombinant Advisory Committee (RCA) does for genetically
engineered drugs. RCA makes it mandatory for companies to provide a
list of negative and harmful impacts and minimises that impact before
approving for commercial sale. As a result, the approval process takes
25 years. Unfortunately, GM research in India is not being made to evaluate
potential harm to human health and environment. This is because the
GEAC does not want the companies to spend more on research.
Does GM technology
threaten our genetic resources and traditional knowledge?
We have already
lost control over our plant, animal and microbial genetic resources.
A copy of roughly 1,50,000 plant accessions that have been collected
in India, are with the US department of agriculture. India has no control
over these resources. At the same time, India is now busy documenting
traditional knowledge, so as to help the American companies know the
uses of the plant species they have got from us. Further, Trade-related
Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) allows patents on genes and cell
lines, which will block India's agricultural research leading to what
I have always termed as a scientific apartheid against the developing