GM Crops: All That You Want To Know
But Were Never Told
By Devinder Sharma
15 February, 2010
Devinder Sharma Blog
Brinjal is in the eye of a storm. With the Environment & Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh putting a moratorium on the introduction of what could have been India’s first genetically modified food crop – Bt brinjal -- the nation has been saved from a poisonous food.
Based on a wide ranging public consultations held across the country, Jairam Ramesh’s decision has also come as an indictment of the scientific regulatory process. At the same time, the Minister has for the first time questioned the need to go in for Bt brinjal when there were other alternatives, much safer environmentally and for human health, available.
As expected, the historic decision has opened up a can of worms. Agricultural scientists and the private seed companies have come under a clout, and therefore an orchestrated media campaign has been launched. It is therefore important to explain some of the hotly debated aspects of the decision, which are getting lost in the media trial. Let me answer some of the frequently asked questions.
Bt brinjal and GM crops are important for a country which has more than 1 billion people to feed.
There is no GM crop in the world which increases productivity. In fact, most of the GM crops we have actually reduce productivity. The US Department of Agriculture admits that the productivity of GM corn and GM soya is less than that of the normal varieties.
There is no shortage of food in the world. We have 6.5 billion people on Earth, and we produce food for 11.5 billion people. If more than 1 billion people are going to bed hungry globally, it is because of the faulty distribution process rather than the unavailability of food. The same holds true for India, where one third of the population cannot even buy food that is available. Poor people find it even difficult to but wheat and rice at Rs 2 a kilo. The question therefore is not of production but access and distribution.
Bt brinjal increases productivity. So why stop it?
First, Bt cotton was also released under a false pretext of increasing productivity. Now we are being told that Bt brinjal will increase crop yield. This is not true. Bt gene acts like a pesticide, and therefore only reduces crop losses. It acts more or less like a chemical pesticide which is sprayed from outside, whereas Bt produces a toxin within the plant.
If the Bt gene increases productivity, we should also accept that chemical pesticides increase productivity. Why do scientists not accept that chemical pesticides increase productivity? But in case of Bt crops, they don’t mind creating a false illusion to misguide the farmer.
How can Bt brinjal adversely affect farmers?
Bt is a biological pesticide. It releases poison in the plant. It has been established that compared to Bt biopesticide sprays, the concentration of Bt toxin in Bt brinjal is one thousand times more. Bt biopesticide sprays are harmful, imagine the impact Bt brinjal toxin will have on the environment.
Bt crops releases a toxin in soil through the roots. It has adversely affected beneficial soil microflora, and studies at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) have proved this. There have been animal deaths from grazing on Bt cotton leaves in Andhra Pradesh, and Haryana. The GEAC has simply brushed this aside even though the Andhra Animal husbandry department has warned farmers not to let their livestock graze in Bt cotton fields.
Genetically modified crops also create superweeds, which are not controlled by any chemical. Georgia province in America is fast turning into a wasteland due to massive infestation of superweeds. World-over, 26 countries are now facing the menace of superweeds. GM crops also destroy biodiversity by contamination. India is the Centre of Origin for brinjal, and therefore needs to be more than cautious.
Bt is supposed to kill sucking pests like pink bollworm in cotton, and fruit and shoot borer in brinjal, thereby reduce pesticides consumption. This however does not hold true for long. In China, which was promoted as a silver-bullet case, cotton farmers growing Bt cotton are now reported to be spraying 8 per cent more pesticides and thereby incurring losses. Resurgence of secondary pests has been observed in China (like mealy bug in Punjab) as a result of which farmer’s total usage of pesticides increases. This report is based on a study conducted by the Cornell University.
In India too, insects are developing resistance to Bt cotton. That is why the need to bring in Bollgard-II with two Bt genes. But no scientific study is being undertaken on pest resistance in Bt cotton.
Even in America, where herbicide-tolerant crops are prevalent, the usage of herbicides has increased. There are several USDA reports stating this.
Bt crops are safe for human consumption. So why are people expressing concern?
Numerous experiments all over the world have shown that Bt in particular and GM in general poses tremendous health risks. Even Monsanto's own studies on rats in Europe have demonstrated that the animals have terrible problems with their body organs- kidney, liver, pancreas, blood etc, and also can result in serious diseases and allergies. Some studies in Austria have recently shown that GM also leads to infertility.
All those scientists who dared to question the human safety aspect were hounded out of their jobs by the proponents of the GM industry. The only human safety trial conducted so far establishes that the alien gene in the human body does transfer to the gut bacteria. This can have serious implications. But no further tests are allowed to be conducted anywhere in the world on human safety.
The concentration of Bt gene in the plant is one thousand times more than what is normally in the Bt biopesticide sprays, which means Bt brinjal is one thousand times more poisonous than the Bt sprays. If Bt biopesticide sprays can kill insects, imagine what would happen to human bodies after consuming food that has one thousand times more toxins inside.
These deformities can pass on from generation to generation, like some studies on pesticides have now shown.
But the GEAC, the regulatory authority, had conducted enough tests on human safety. So why worry?
Adequate scientific tests to determine human safety of the genetically modified food were not performed. Instead of the 29 tests that should be conducted before GM food is allowed to be served, the GEAC had expressed ‘satisfaction’ with some 4 to 5 tests and that “too done in a shoddy manner. Interestingly, the GEAC says that it had conducted tests as per the international protocols, but the fact is that there are no accepted international scientific protocols so far.
Even in tests on rats, the tests have been conducted only on ten rats for 90 days. The results show that the rats did suffer serious abnormalities in kidney, liver and blood. These have been simply brushed aside as ‘biologically insignificant’. This is shocking considering that Bt gene releases poison in the plant. How can the GEAC simply ignore the health abnormalities seen in rats, even if it is on one rat?
The normal life span of rats, corresponding with the human beings, is for 2 years. Since it has now been found that the impact of chemical pesticides for instance are passed on from generation to generation, and are even felt in the third generation, the human safety tests for Bt brinjal need to conducted for several generations. After all, we are going to eat Bt brinjal all through our life. How can its safety be determined by rat studies for only 90 days and that too inconclusively?
Dr M S Swaminathan has himself said that smoking cigarettes for 2-3 weeks does not cause cancer. To know whether smoking cigarettes can cause cancer you have to tests for several generations. Why is the industry not willing to perform tests for several generations in rats to know the health impacts from continuously consuming genetically modified crops?
GEAC is an expert committee. Why doubt the recommendations of the expert committee?
The GEAC recommendations were rigged. The GEAC had set up an Expert Committee –II (called EC-II) which had some members who were also involved in developing Bt crops. This was a sure case where a conflict of interest was evident. How can people who develop GM crops also sit on the approval process?
The norms and bylaws of the EC-II were lowered to suit the interests of the private seed companies. All experiments were conducted by the private companies, and the GEAC had accepted the data provided by the private seed company. Let us also not forget that the private seed company had refused to share the analysis with the general public, and it was only after the Supreme Court’s directive that the research data was made public.
The entire regulatory process is a sham. Jairam Ramesh’s decision is clearly an indictment of the GEAC. The report is full of unscientific and inaccuracies. At the same time, the report blatantly ignores the dangerous impact of Bt brinjal on the body organs of rats and other animals, and also the environment. The chairman of EC-II himself has said that he is not sure of the health impact of Bt brinjal.
Let us have an open and trasparent debate on the regulatory process. If the GEAC decision is found to be wrong and unscientific, the chairman of GEAC should be put behind bars. After all, we cannot allow anyone to play havoc with the lives of the masses.
Farmers are better judge of a technology. Why not leave Bt brinjal as an option for the farmers to use, if he finds it useful?
This is a joke. If we leave harmful technologies in the hands of people, the world would die an unnatural death sooner than later. Cigarette smoking for instance cannot be left to people. Even though every packet contains a bold statement 'cigarette smoking in injurious to health' and yet its sales goes on increasing. Because it was unhealthy and dangerous, governments have stepped in and banned its usage in public places. Was that a wrong decision?
Similarly, GM crops cannot be left to the farmers to decide as an option. Farmer too gets lured by the marketing blitz of the companies. The entire State machinery -- Agri Universities, Farm extension depts, companies and the media have been promoting GM crops. With such a powerful marketing blitz how do you expect the farmer to make informed choices? Also, if the farmer was so sensible, the usage of chemical pesticides should not have multiplied to the present dangerous levels?
Already farmers are committing suicide because of the faulty technologies imposed upon them. How many more farmers do we want to be killed before stopping the killer technologies from being used?