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Unscientific, undemocratic, unacceptably, risky: Hurried moves for GM food crops

By Bharat Dogra 

Some recent statements that have appeared in media indicate that there is a lot of pressure for very hurried introduction of genetically modified mustard crop after its approval by a regulating agency GEAC. Even the fact that on such an important matter the final government decision should be awaited has not been considered by GM lobbyists and pressure groups. In the federal democratic structure of India, on such an important issue as the introduction of GM food crops, the approval by a regulating agency is only one step. The union government is supposed to examine it carefully and then consult the state governments as well, the precedence for which is available. What about the substantial evidence available against GM food crops collected from the recent extensive debates and consultations on GM crops in India, which is contained in several official reports including reports of Parliamentary Committees? Independent health and environmental groups and experts must to be consulted too, and a review of all world-level information must be made in an unbiased way.
Farmers’ organizations must definitely be consulted too. The last time when such consultation was ignored on a very important issue (the three controversial farm laws), this led to so much avoidable discontent and agitation. Certainly farmers’ interests are closely involved in introducing any GM crop because of the risk of genetic contamination and several related factors. As a group of eminent scientists from several countries organized under the Independent Science Panel (ISP) have stated, “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.” In other words, those farmers who do not opt for GM crops will also be exposed to their adverse impacts. So how can you go ahead with GM crops without involving farmers and their organizations in a well-informed debate and consultation, a debate in which farmers have a chance to read not just government and business reports on the subject, but also the opinion of several eminent scientists and experts who have been warning again GM crops.
The late Prof. Pushpa M. Bhargava has been widely acknowledged to be the top authority on this issue in India. He was founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and was chosen by the Supreme Court as its independent observer when a case relating to this was being heard in the Supreme Court of India. Just a little before his tragic death (this was the time when the country needed him the most) he prepared a review of all the scientific literature on this issue. In this review he stated that “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 environment and biodiversity.” What about the papers written in support of GM crops. The review by Prof. Bhargava informs us, “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.”
Such a situation has arisen because of the billions of dollars spent by giant agro-business multinational companies of world, often helped by their governments too, on promotion of GM crops and technology, considered to be their favored tool for gaining control of world food and farming system. Prof. Bhargava had warned that the ultimate goal of this attempt in India is to obtain control over Indian agriculture and food production. As more direct efforts by giant multinational companies attract more suspicion, they use the services of their front-men to get GM crops introduced.
All over the world there is a big movement of people for keeping farming and food system GM free. If GM food crops are introduced, this means denying farmers the domestic markets and export markets that comprise of these health conscious consumers. The USA is in risk of losing this market because of the highest concentration of GM crops there so it would like to bring potential competitors like India to the same category. Such risks are more in the case of oilseed crops as edible oils obtained from them are used to prepare so many cooked and processed foods, and mustard oil is also used for several medicinal purposes in India.
While the discourse of GM promoters, as widely seen in media, concentrates on claimed yield gains for a specific mustard variety, the many serious hazards associated with most GM crops are ignored. This is unfortunate and unscientific. As the ISP report quoted above and titled ‘The Case for A GMO Free and Sustainable World says, “By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics.” Shouldn’t this worry us, particularly in these times?
Further this report says, “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 environment. GM crops should be firmly rejected now.”
In his book ‘Genetic Roulette’, which was endorsed by several eminent experts working on food and farming issues at world level, author Jeffrey M. Smith has summarized the results of a lot of research on GM crops which indicated the following possibilities of various health risks, based on lab research on animals—stunted growth, impaired immune systems, bleeding stomachs, abnormal and potentially precancerous cell growth in the intestines, impaired blood cell development, misshapen cell structures in the liver, pancreas and testicles, altered gene expression and cell metabolism, liver and kidney lesions, inflamed kidneys, less developed brains and testicles, enlarged livers, pancreas and intestines, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar, inflamed lung tissue, increased death rates and higher offspring mortality.
Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist at King’s College, London, has stated, “If the kind of detrimental effects seen in animals fed GM food were observed in a clinical setting, the use of the product would have been halted and further research initiated to determine the cause and find possible solutions. However what we find repeatedly in the context of GM food is that both government and industry plough on ahead with the development, endorsement and marketing of GM foods despite the warnings of potential ill health from animal feeding studies, as if nothing has happened. This is to the point where governments and industry even seem to ignore the results of their own research!”
The available significant evidence of serious health risks and irreversible serious environmental risks, which increase in times of climate change, has become available despite many cases of victimization of scientists, suppression of research results, pre-mature ending of important research and even outright fraud to suppress this evidence of adverse impacts. Giant multinational companies leading in GM crops at world level have been made to pay millions of dollars by law courts repeatedly for the health hazards caused by them and they even try to hide their identity by merging with other companies, like the company which caused the Bhopal gas leak.
However you will never hear all this from the promoters of GM crops, all they will say is that we have received some yield gain. Hence it is important to point out that, while safety issues are much more important, in the past most claims of higher yields for GM crops have later turned out to bogus. The Union of Concerned Scientists, USA, published a report ‘Failure to Yield’ confirming that “after 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, GM crops have failed to increase yields’ and that ‘traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down.’ In a joint letter written to former Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh 17 distinguished scientists from several countries had stated that claims of yield increase by GM crops are not correct. What is more they stated that this technology is “conceptually flawed, crude, imprecise and poorly controlled technology.”
To make such a technology the basis for increasing oilseed production in India is a high-risk, foolhardy proposition best discarded, keeping in view also the much wider and much more serious risks of GM crops and GM food crops. We should say a firm no to not just GM mustard but to all GM food crops and in fact to all GM crops.
The other path chosen recently of increasing edible oil supply by palm oil plantations is also environmentally a high risk path which will retard the progress of our traditional oilseed crops. Our efforts to increase oilseeds production and edible oil supply should be based on using the rich biodiversity, rotations ad mixed cropping systems of many traditional oilseed/edible crops including groundnut, mustard, sesame, coconut as well as a host of minor but valuable oilseeds with their own distinct nutrition, health and other value. If the authorities ignore this safe path and instead opt for high-risk GM Mustard and in addition palm oil plantations, they will be committing a very serious mistake.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food', ‘14 Questions about GM Crops' and ‘A Day in 2071’

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