Wednesday, July 21, 1999


Suman Sahai

The argument put forth by the corporations marketing GM technology is that it will end world hunger ! That is simply not true! Whereas it is true that GM technology theoretically has the potential to increase food production and improve the nutritional quality of food , it is not being used by its dominant practitioners, the private corporations to produce either more or better food . It also needs to be pointed out that producing more food is not going to solve the problem of hunger. As our buffer stocks in India cross 40 million tons, we continue to have pockets of extreme poverty and hunger. Hunger will go only when the poor have money to buy food. Raising food production will therefore have to go hand in hand with increasing incomes of the poor.

Even as the Life Science corporations that control GM research , project themselves as those who will slay the demons of hunger, their focus is on commercial agriculture, not food. Their research is not targeted towards the needs of small farmers. It is aimed at herbicide tolerant varieties of soybean; Bt cotton , Bt corn (for animal feed and sugar syrup ) and the flavr savr tomato. The opponents of GM technology legitimately ask why there are no research investments in crops relevant to the poor, like legumes and pulses, sorghum, millets, cassava and yam? Why is there research on tobacco but not on Lathyrus sativus (khesari dal), the prolonged consumption of which leads to a wasting of the limbs. Why is the corporate sector not doing any work on drought resistance and salinity tolerance ?.

Control of GM technology.

There are serious reservations about the secrecy in the way that GM technology is practiced. It is necessary to create open and transparent systems so that information about GM technology is available to people. The debate on the risks and benefits should be publicly conducted. Reasonable data should be accessible to the public that wants to satisfy itself about the safety or desirability of a particular crop. Independent experts must conduct Field trails of GM crops. At the moment the trend is in -house testing so that the agencies interested in releasing a particular variety, conduct their own trials. This is not credible.

Broad patents and other monopolistic IPR regimes and finally the 'Terminator' technology have caused a public outcry against corporate greed. The use of sterile seed technologies as an instrument of control must be banned. IPRs should be limited to Plant Breeder's Rights and special exemptions from IPRs should be provided for the really poor farmers

Safety issues

GM crops have raised fears about human health, environmental safety and impact on sustainable food production by increasing genetic erosion in the field.

Human health concerns centre around the use of antibiotic markers which are now being phased out. In Europe clearance to GM crops is not given if they contain antibiotic markers. The second health concern is about the likely allergenicity and toxicity of novel foods containing foreign genes.

Environmental concerns are primarily about genetic pollution by foreign genes being transferred along with pollen. We know that this kind of gene transfer happens but we don't yet know its impact. Where the impact will be decidedly negative is in centres of genetic diversity of crop plants. Regions that are centres of origin of particular crop plants must be treated with the utmost caution, perhaps even be out of bounds for GM crops.

We need a lot more data about pollen transfer, and horizontal gene transfer in crops relevant for developing countries. So far pollen and gene transfer studies have been conducted essentially on species and relatives of European crops, under European and American conditions. Most of the genetic diversity is located in developing countries so very great caution will have to be exercised before putting GM crops in the field, in order to prevent accidents leading to genetic pollution.

Should GM technology be a priority for India ?

In India, where post harvest losses run from 15 % to 30 %, the question needs to be asked whether India should invest in GM technology to increase food production. Or should it invest its scarce resources into improving post harvest technologies to minimise losses. Should we not be investing in better storage, better transportation, value addition and processing and increasing the shelf life of perishable foods ?

Research focus in India

If GM research is to be conducted, then research priorities must be clearly set. The target must be food crops of relevance to small farmers and the poor and those crops where conventional breeding has not been successful. The most obvious example is pulses..

GM research targeted at pulses would make sense but GM research targeted at brinjals , as is the case in a premier research institution in Delhi, makes a mockery of science and the social responsibility of science. Public money must be conscientiously and carefully spent to achieve the maximum public good. India allots a modest sum for research and public spending in research is declining. This is not a good trend and at a time like this , research priorities must be very sharply focussed .

Finally, GM technology has clearly reached the market too early. It is still an immature technology with too many unknowns. The science needs a lot of cleaning up and large numbers of studies are needed to clarify safety issues. The science must continue, to provide information, which will help to decide on the ultimate safety of these crops, but there should be a brake on cultivation till we have more data. India is a centre of diversity for important food crops. It needs to proceed with extreme caution with respect to the likely transfer of foreign genes through transgenic crops.

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