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Evidence of serious risks of GM crops? Attempt for backdoor entry into India


By Bharat Dogra
At the time of a huge corporate assault to get clearance for Bt brinjal GM (Genetically Modified) crop, farmers and civil society had joined hands together to resist this and the Environment Minister of the then UPA government Jairam Ramesh had bravely resisted all pressures while announcing a moratorium on this GM food crop, a decision which won worldwide appreciation by advocates of environment protection and food safety.
A similar unity was seen in the country to resist the pressure for introducing GM Mustard. Now realizing the opposition of people, the GM lobby, supported by very powerful multinational companies which are known to spend billions to gain control of food systems, is pushing attempts at backdoor entry of GM crops by lobbying for approving gene edited crops.
Given the alarming increase of corporate influence on farming and food in recent times, despite the recent resistance of farmers, this appears to be succeeding. However this controversy has already played out in other countries and in the ensuing debate independent experts as well as judges have stated that for evaluating their various serious hazards, gene edited crops should be seen to be at par with GM crops.
As the issues of food safety and health hazards are extremely crucial, it is important to look carefully at the scientific evidence available on this subject. All the time some of the most eminent scientists have been warning against GM crops but at the same time very powerful multinational companies along with their influential collaborators in various sectors have been spending billions on peddling their false claims to confuse people. This confusion can be cleared by looking at what the most eminent scientist of India on this subject said shortly before his death. Our reference here is of course to Dr Pushpa Bhargava. Dr Bhargava was the founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and in addition he was also the Vice Chairperson of the National Knowledge Commission. Many people’s science movements looked upon him as their mentor.
He had been appointed by the Supreme Court of India as an observer in the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee as he was widely perceived to be not only a very accomplished expert on this issue and that too of the highest integrity but in addition he was also seen on the basis of his past record as a very strong and persistent defender of public interest.
Therefore it is very useful and interesting to see what this very senior scientist with a comprehensive understanding of this issue had to say about GM crops. First of all he made a strong and clear effort to break the myth which had been created by relentless manipulation by the very powerful forces trying to spread GM crops In India. According to this myth most scientific research supports GM crops.
While demolishing this myth Dr Bhargava wrote:
“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.”
Elsewhere in this article he commented, “The central government departments that have been acting as peddlers of GM technology-probably in collusion with MNCs marketing GM seeds—have shown little respect for law.”
Earlier in a review of recent trends titled ‘Food Without Choice’ (published in the “Tribune”) Dr Bhargava drew pointed attention to the “attempt by a small but powerful minority to propagate genetically modified crops to serve their interests and those of multinational corporations (read the US), the bureaucracy, the political set-up and a few unprincipled and unethical scientists and technologists who can be used as tools.”
Further he warned, “The ultimate goal of this attempt in India of which the leader is Monsanto, is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and thus food production. With 60 per cent of our population engaged in agriculture and living in villages, this would essentially mean not only a control over our food security but also over our farmer security, agricultural security and security of the rural sector.”
The strong stand of Dr Bhargava against GM crops is supported by other eminent scientists in various parts of world. A group of eminent scientists organized under the Independent Science Panel have stated in very clear terms:
“GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm. Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledged to be unavoidable, and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence has emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now.”
The Independent Science Panel (ISP) is a panel of scientists from many disciplines and countries, committed to the promotion of science for the public good. In a document titled ‘The case for a GMO-free Sustainable World’ the ISP has stated further:
“By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics. This was highlighted, in 2001, by the ‘accidental’ creation of a killer mouse virus in the course of an apparently innocent genetic engineering experiment.
“Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.”
Several scientists involved in studying the implications and impacts of genetic engineering got together at the International Conference on ‘Redefining of Life Sciences’ organised at Penang, Malaysia, by the Third World Network. They issued a statement (the Penang Statement, or PS) which questioned the scientific basis of genetic engineering. This statement said:
“The new biotechnology based upon genetic engineering makes the assumption that each specific feature of an organism is encoded in one or a few specific, stable genes, so that the transfer of these genes results in the transfer of a discrete feature.
“This extreme form of genetic reductionism has already been rejected by the majority of biologists and many other members of the intellectual community because it fails to take into account the complex interactions between genes and their cellular, extracellular and external environments that are involved in the development of all traits.
“It has thus been impossible to predict the consequences of transferring a gene from one type of organism to another in a significant number of cases. The limited ability to transfer identifiable molecular characteristics between organisms through genetic engineering does not constitute the demonstration of any comprehensive or reliable system for predicting all the significant effects of transposing genes.”

European Court

At a time when more and more people in the world are becoming concerned about the serious health risks and numerous other adverse impacts of genetically modified (GM) crops and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the enormously powerful billion dollar GMO multinationals have tried once again to introduce confusion and uncertainty in public mind by coming up with the concept of gene-edited crops and claiming that these should not be subject to the same restrictions as GM crops. However in July 2018 the highest court in Europe ruled that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same strict rules and regulations as GM crops.
Earlier a review of the legal and scientific facts surrounding this debate by Dr. Janet Cotter and Dr R Steinbrecher (published in the Ecologist) had concluded, “It is clear that gene-edited crops and animals need to be assumed as GMOs in the same way as current GM crops.” The court verdict is along similar lines.
With gene editing researchers can add, delete or modify bits of an organism’s genome. The European Court has said that any crops edited using CRISPR or other gene-editing techniques must abide by the same laws restricting the use of GMOs.
More specifically the Court concluded it “considers that the risks linked to the use of these new mutagenesis techniques might prove to be similar to those that result from production and release of a GMO through trans-genesis ,since the direct modification of the genetic material of an organism through mutagenesis makes it possible to obtain the same effects as the introduction of foreign gene into the organism (trans-genesis) and these new techniques make it possible to introduce genetically modified varieties at a rate out of all proportion to those resulting from the application of conventional methods of mutagenesis.”
Welcoming the court verdict Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU’s food policy director said, “Releasing these new GMOs into the environment without proper safety measures is illegal and irresponsible, particularly given that gene editing can lead to unintended side-effects… The European Commission and the European governments must now ensure that all new GMOs are fully tested and labeled, and that any field trials are brought under GMO rules.”
A spokesperson of Friends of the Earth said, “We applaud the European Court of Justice for this forward looking decision.”
Despite this growing recognition of the risks of gene-edited crops, attempts have been speeded up in India by powerful lobbyists to gain backdoor entry for GM crops using gene-editing. Their attempts appear to be succeeding as the central government/ ministry of environment has issued a notification on March 30 exempting some gene-edited crops and organisms from earlier rules framed for GM crops.
SND1 and SND2 genome edited products, free from exogenous introduced DNA, are to be exempted from 1988-89 rules for GM organisms and will be taken out of the existing approval processes for these. Those involved in protecting Indian agriculture from the onslaught of GM crops have already stated that these changes made very recently are risky and unscientific, and that these should be challenged legally. Another view is that the existing 1988 rules should in fact be strengthened in such a way that such arbitrary changes are not possible in future.

The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Man over Machine (Gandhian Ideas for Our Times)” and “India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food”

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