Sunday, March 21, 2004


Suman Sahai

This year has been declared the International Year of Rice by the UN, in acknowledgement of the central role this cereal plays in global food security. Nearly half the world’s population eats rice as its staple food. The reason for focusing on rice is the fear of shortages because of declining productivity in some parts of the world and the burgeoning world population. In this backdrop, genetically modified rice is being discussed as an answer and both public sector and private sector research institutions in India and elsewhere, have launched projects to produce GM rice with various properties. Golden Rice is already well known, there are efforts to introduce resistance to fungal diseases, researchers are working to produce herbicide tolerant rice, similar to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn and Mahyco, the company that gave us Bt cotton, is working, along with other research institutions, to produce a Bt rice. Other rice projects are attempting to change the quality of rice starch and disturbingly, a private company is producing rice containing the Bt cry9C gene, which is the gene used in Starlink corn, suspected of having allergenic properties and therefore banned for human use by the USDA!

The fundamental question is whether India should allow the cultivation of GM rice since it is a ‘high risk’ area, being a major center of origin and diversity for rice. Mexico, the country that is the center of origin and diversity for corn, has a clear-cut policy. It has imposed a ban on not just the cultivation of GM corn, but also research in GM corn. Mexico has taken this position in order to safeguard the natural gene pool of corn, another major staple food of the world. A center of origin is from where a particular crop originated thousands of years ago. Food crops, as we know, are not collected from the forests, they were developed (bred) by a careful process of selection and crossing, by tribal and farming communities from the wild plants found in nature. India is one of the centers where rice originated so lots of rice varieties and the plants related to rice (wild relatives) are also found here. This means that the greatest number of rice and related genes are found in India, particularly in the Jeypore tract of Orissa, and the swathe cutting across Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, as well as in the Northeastern tract.

Centers of origin are considered high-risk areas for GM crops because if the foreign genes contained in the GM variety were to move into the natural gene pool, the results could be potentially catastrophic. Scientists promoting agbiotech argue that rice is a self-pollinating crop and will not accept outside pollen and genes. This is simply not true. Several studies exist showing cross-pollination happens in rice. Recent reports from China and Latin America are showing that gene flow between GM rice and other rice happens at rates that are high enough to cause concern. Experiments have also found that the herbicide tolerance gene can move to native varieties and create new, difficult to control, weeds. There are other studies that show that the introduction of foreign genes by the process of genetic engineering can cause a phenomenon called ‘gene silencing’ in the plant that is receiving the foreign gene. This means certain genes in the plant will become silent ( non-functional) and not produce what they normally should. Gene silencing could have very grave implications if it were to spread to the natural gene pool by careless scientists.

Genetic diversity is crucial for the long-term survival of any crop. When a crop variety somewhere becomes vulnerable either due to the onslaught of a disease it cannot fight, or because the soil has become water logged or alkaline, scientists need to breed another variety of the crop for that region. They do this by searching for suitable genes in related varieties and the natural gene pool. If these genes were to be unavailable, the vulnerable variety would perish, depriving people in that region of food. That is why it is important to maintain genetic diversity. If GM rice were to harm the native gene pool of rice by making certain genes non-functional or changing the normal functions of other genes, it would have terrible implications for the food security of the rice eating regions of the world.

Too little is understood about what happens when foreign genes are abruptly pushed into the genetic material of living organisms like plants. What little is known is largely negative. The Precautionary Principle is central to GM work, dictating that when faced with uncertainty, it is better to be cautious and not proceed. India must not cultivate GM rice until a solid body of research is done under Indian conditions to understand the implications of foreign genes shifting to rice diversity. Agbiotech proponents argue collecting this data could take several years. So be it. One cannot rush when the stakes are so high. In any case, several other lines of research are yielding more promising results than the GM route. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) pioneered by Madagascar is showing spectacular results in various countries including India.

Saturday, March 20, 2004



The First Meeting of the Parties (MOP 1) to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was held in
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 23 to 27 Febuary, 2004. It was attended by the 87 countries , including India, that are currently Party to the Protocol.The Biosafety Protocol derives from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which was adopted in 1992 in Nairobi. It was concluded in 2000 after several years of negotiations and is the first binding international agreement dealing with Biosafety with respect to genetically modified organisms, which the Protocol refers to as Living Modified Organisms (LMOs). The Protocol itself came into force on September 11, 2003 when the requisite number of Parties had ratified it. India is a signatory to the Biosafety Protocol and bound by its provisions.

The provisions relate both to domestic measures that Parties have to implement as well as to the trans-boundary movement of LMOs. Domestic measures require Parties to regulate and control risks associated with LMOs that may have an impact on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and on human health. There is a special focus on the risks associated with the release of LMOs in centres of origin and diversity. This would apply to India for rice and other crop varieties for which it is a centre of origin and diversity. The trans-boundary movement of LMOs would touch upon trade in GM foods and where relevant, aid consignments.

Over the years of negotiations for the Biosafety Protocol, certain issues remained contentious, over which consensus could not be reached, chiefly due to the opposition of the USA ( which is not a member of the CBD or the Protocol) and its allies, Canada, Argentina and Mexico, forming the Miami Group. Some of these unresolved issues were brought to Kuala Lumpur , and included identifying shipments of LMOs; dealing with Parties that do not comply with the provisions of the Protocol and liability and compensation in cases where damage has occurred due to the trans-boundary movement of LMOs.

Ten major decisions were taken at the Kuala Lumpur MOPI. Of these, the three most important were Measures for handling, transporting, packaging and identifying LMOs, in line with Article 18 of the Protocol; Establishing compliance procedures and mechanisms for the Protocol; and Establishing an expert working group on liability and redress in the context of
the Protocol.Under Article 18 of the Protocol, countries are required to take measures so that that LMOs that move across borders are handled, packaged and transported safely. The aim is to avoid adverse effects on biodiversity and risks to human health. The MOP1 decided that there will have to be distinct documentation to accompany the three categories of LMOs. These are LMOs to be used as food or feed or for processing (
FFP); those that are for "contained use" as in laboratories; and those meant for introduction into the environment, for example, genetically modified seeds for planting.

For the
FFP category, documents should clearly identify that the shipment may contain LMOs for direct use as food, feed or for processing, but not for introduction into the environment. The documents should include the common, scientific and commercial names of the LMOs, and the method of genetic modification. An expert group was set up to develop a detailed implementation proposal for this.

For the category of LMOs meant for lab use, accompanying documents should clearly identify the LMOs by their common and scientific names, and that they are destined for contained use. Their commercial names and the new and modified traits and characteristics should be included. For the third category, like GM seeds, the documents should clearly describe their names and traits , specially the transgenic traits, the genetic transformation events and unique identification. The commercial name, risk class and the required approval permit for import under the Protocol should also be included. The documentation of LMOs under categories two and three must also specify any special requirements needed for safe handling, storage, transport and use under existing international instruments, as well as domestic regulations and any agreement made between the exporter and importer.

On the compliance issue, MOP 1 had a long debate on how to deal with countries that do not comply with their obligations under the Protocol. The European countries were especially keen to get a strong compliance regime so that countries would take their obligations seriously.
India took an ambiguous stand on compliance, not supportive of a strong compliance mechanism. This is probably due to the (misguided) perception that it would one day be an exporter of GM foods and products and therefore would not want to confront a rigorous compliance regime. India’s weak stand on compliance is not a wise move. First, it would encourage bad practices at home. A not always literate farming community, traders that are not in tune with international practices and the overall poor level of awareness about the implications of GM crops for the environment and human health could create dangerous situations. Strong compliance is needed at home, to protect us from ourselves and from others.

Despite the progress made at the MOP1, it remained a matter of concern that the conclusions failed to take on board a central concern of developing countries: that of the social and economic impacts of GM technology. This is of crucial significance to India and other developing countries where the impact on small farmers and their livelihoods could be considerable. Although it is very important to monitor GM crops, for their impact on biodiversity and the environment, as well as the health of humans and animals, it is equally important to watch out for the social and economical implications of this technology for farmers and consumers in developing countries. Social and economic costs of GM technology could be highly significant in the agricultural situation of the south and this should be monitored as critically as the health and environment.

It is a pity that the discussions at the Biosafety Protocol did not take up the social and economic aspects even though some country delegations specially the African Union flagged the issue repeatedly. The African countries in fact were trying to keep the focus on this aspect alive, at all levels of the discussions accompanying the meetings. Although India did mention socio-economic concerns in the official interventions, there was little follow up or lobbying to create a strong pressure group that would put the issue on the main agenda. As a result, it was not included in the main conclusions of the MOP1.

It is short sighted to overlook the fact that GM technology could turn out to be counter productive in the agricultural economies of developing countries. If GM technology were to displace small farmers, the impact would be detrimental. In fact a considerable focus of GM research is to produce products through genetic engineering, which at the moment are produced only in developing countries. One may recall what happened to vanilla. Madagascar, once the largest producer of vanilla, earned sizeable revenue for its farmers through its export. Determined to break this monopoly , US labs succeeded in synthesising vanilla and the markets flooded with the cheaper version, turned away from the natural vanilla produced by Madagascar. This resulted in big economic losses and hardship for farmers in Madagascar. Similarly, sugar-producing countries in Asia have suffered at the hands of another lab-based substitution. Cornstarch is used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup, which has displaced sugar in large amounts from sectors like confectionery. Infact , most of the GM corn that is being grown by the US and Canada, is used either to produce High Fructose Corn Syrup, or as animal feed.

A strong line of GM research in the west is currently attempting to produce the characteristics of coconut and palm oil in the more common canola (a form of mustard). Canola grows in temperate countries whereas coconut and oil palm grow in the tropics. Many farmers in Asia earn a livelihood from the export of coconut and palm oil, both of which are sought after in the US and Europe for their special properties like high lauric acid content. When GM technology creates the canola plants that produce high lauric acid oils , it would mean the loss of markets for farmers growing coconuts and oil palm in countries like India and Malaysia.

Given the potential of GM technology to damage the agricultural prospects of developing countries, the social and economic impact of the technology must be taken on board in the international agreements on biosafety, through the Biosafety Protocol.

In effect this would mean that countries should have the right to refuse the import of a GM crop that could displace the produce of their own farmers, without attracting penalties and sanctions of the kind that happened in the EU- USA case. The EU which has had a de facto moratorium on GM crops, had refused the exports of corn and soybean from the US and was hauled by the US to the WTO Dispute Settlement Court and threatened with huge fines for refusing US imports, an act , the US claimed was trade distorting. Such a situation could easily arise for India and other developing countries if they were to refuse imports of GM foods on socio economic grounds, unless this was regulated through the internationally binding nature of the Biosafety Protocol. It is in India’s interest to ensure that socio-economic concerns as provided for in Article 26 of the Protocol are brought on to the main agenda.

Monday, March 8, 2004


Suman Sahai

The multinational Life Science Corporation Bayer CropScience Ltd. has applied to the European Commission for permission to import a herbicide tolerant genetically modified rice. This GM rice belonging to Bayer is to be used as animal feed, not food. Although Bayer’s application is only for the import and processing of genetically modified (GM) rice into the European Union, there could be major environmental and health implication outside Europe, since this is where the rice –if approved- would have to be grown. It is noteworthy that Bayer’s application is only for the import and processing of genetically modified (GM) rice into the European Union. Bayer has not sought permission for cultivation because it doesn’t intend to grow this GM rice in Europe although rice is cultivated in five EU member states – Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and France. This permission. if granted, could have grave implications for the natural rice germplasm in rice growing areas of the developing world, specially India.

It is a very worrying prospect that rice-growing countries could be tempted to produce GM rice for the EU market. It is particularly ironic that India and other centres of diversity for rice could end up jeopardising their principal food source for producing animal feed to support the meat consumption of the west. There is something decidedly unethical about Bayer wanting to protect the rice-growing states of the EU by not proposing cultivation there, only import. In applying to import GM rice for animal feed from developing countries, the corporation demonstrates its callous disregard for human life and food security in the poorer regions of the world. It is willing to put at risk the food staple of these poor people to support the unsustainable consumption of the west.

The suspicion cannot be wished away that this proposal is a strategy aimed more at forcing the adoption of GM crops, than finding an animal feed source for the cows and pigs in Europe. Rice is not the usual animal feed used in Europe and the question is why GM rice? Why not just ordinary rice, if shortage of animal feed is the issue. The trick would appear to be to provide incentives for cultivating GM rice by dangling the carrot of an assured market in front of rice growing developing countries.

There is reason for concern about the potential adverse impacts of Bayer’s application in developing countries like India where rice is grown and where the regulatory framework for GMOs is weak or even non-existent. Farmers in such countries are not aware of the larger issues and the possible implications of GM rice in their fields and thus not really able to take an informed decision on whether or not to grow the rice. Opening the EU market for GM rice would be a lure for rice producing nations to cultivate GM rice for the export market. It would be relatively easy to sell this proposal in the domestic context, because of the potential for export earnings, but this would overlook the very critical threat of genetic contamination in rich rice diversity areas like the Jeypore tract in Orissa, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh.

India is one of the centres of origin and diversity for rice and has substantial concerns about the possibility of genetic contamination of native rice gene pools. The importance of protecting this as a world resource for global food security cannot be overstated. Resistance to two of the four main diseases afflicting rice, comes from a single landrace, Oryza nivara that is found in central India. Gene Campaign advocates that GM crops should not be cultivated in their centres of origin and diversity.

GM rice is a particularly sensitive issue for India and one area where the Precautionary Principle must be invoked because the implications of genetic contamination in rice can be very grave indeed for farmers and for food security. No studies are being conducted in India

to understand the levels of gene flow in rice, to assess what would happen if foreign genes were to escape from GM rice to farmers’ varieties and wild relatives of rice.

The Agbiotech industry is quick to project that there is no danger of foreign gene flow in rice because it is a self-pollinating crop (and would not accept genes from GM crops), but evidence is mounting that this is not the case. Recent studies show that gene flow in rice happens and should be cause for concern.

Recent research from China demonstrates that transgene escape from cultivated rice to wild rice (Oryza rufipogon) does occur in the field. This would mean that foreign genes could spread easily in the native population. Another recent study done in Latin America to look at the transfer of herbicide tolerant genes (same as in Bayer’s rice) to wild relatives of rice, showed that this transfer does indeed take place. The study also predicted that herbicide resistant weedy rice populations would develop quite quickly, within 3 to 8 years.

The EU has a moral obligation to undertake the most thorough and exhaustive analysis of the safety of this new GM crop. It is equally bound to assess the social, economic and environmental implications in developing countries, of allowing such imports, before considering any permission.


Suman Sahai

It has been reported that Jamia Hamdard’s biotechnology centre has been given a grant by the government to develop genetically modified medicinal plants. This ill-advised move should be reversed immediately and the project stopped. Medicinal plants produce very special chemicals under certain specific conditions. These chemicals in the form of alkaloids or essential oils are usually the active principle in the plant , in other words, that compound or compounds which has the healing property associated with that particular plant. The efforts to broaden the base of medicinal plants that can be accessed for commercialisation on a large scale has led to the development of cultivation methodologies for medicinal plants that have been traditionally collected from the wild.

It is not surprising that developing cultivation packages have so far met with limited success. In fact given the amount of money that the government is spending on this, the results are quite modest. Traditional Vaids and Hakims are in fact quite sceptical of the efficacy of cultivated sources of medicinal plants and advocate the use of medicinal plants from nature for effective cures. An important aspect of cultivation is to ensure that these medicinal plants are grown in conditions mimicking their natural habitats to the extent possible. It stands to reason that no agrochemicals are to be used, neither fertilisers nor pesticides. The reason for this is to create cultivation conditions similar to those under which the plant is provoked to produce these special chemicals in nature. Most of these chemicals are produced in response to environmental stress. For example, the agar tree produces the fragrant agar resin (used in agarbattis and the perfume industry) in response to a fungal infection.

The impact of even the natural environment is acutely registered by the medicinal plant and influences the amount and potency of the active principle it produces under the given conditions. It is known for example, that populations of a particular medicinal plant from different parts of the country (and therefore from different habitats) have differing ‘medicinal value’. Some are considered better than others and are more sought after. All these facts should help to make clear that medicinal plants cannot be ‘tampered’ with if they are to retain their medicinal properties and remain effective constituents of treatment by the Indian Systems of Medicine (ISM).

There is an abundance of studies being done on the impact of genetic transformation on the metabolism of a transgenic plant. All evidence points to the fact that metabolic changes can and do happen. The fear that allergens and toxins may be produced by the novel gene combinations resulting from the insertion of foreign genes into the germplasm of a plant, have led to the establishment of sophisticated protocols for testing food safety before a GM crop can be released for human use. The famous case of a GM corn, Starlink, produced in the US should be remembered for the fact that allergens can be produced in GM crops, the natural versions of which did not have any allergens. The genetically modified Starlink corn was found to contain an allergen and was therefore not approved for use as human food. A potentially life threatening allergenic property was found in a GM soybean variety bred by using a gene from the Brazil nut. Fortunately this was detected in time, before harm could be done and the GM Soya was withdrawn.

The outcome of putting in a radically different gene (from a completely different species) into a plant to create a GM plant remains uncertain largely because at the present level of the science, almost nothing is understood about the process of genetic transformation. The scientists cannot control where the new gene will go and sit on the chromosomes of the receiving plant, nor can they control whether one copy or 50 copies of the gene will be integrated into it. All this makes the process of genetic transformation a purely random event, the impact of which cannot really be predicted. In the case of non-edible cash crops like Bt cotton, something going wrong means a crop failure. In the case of food crops it could have potentially harmful, even lethal effects for humans. In the case of medicinal plants, which have chemicals which heal but which could be considered dangerous in the wrong hands, the impact could be either that the plants lose the medicinal property or produce something unanticipated, which could have harmful effects.

The news therefore that there is a project to genetically modify medicinal plants, is disturbing. It reflects the mindless way in which the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) is promoting GM research, without any regard for relevance, appropriateness or even plain common sense. The DBT’s recently retired secretary, now appointed as Advisor in the same department, is on record for famously insisting that India does not need a biotechnology policy, when practically every past and present luminary of the scientific establishment has expressed concern at the lack of such a policy. Well, this project is the result of working without a policy. There seems to be neither logic nor purpose in a project on GM medicinal plants nor in many other research projects promoted by the DBT. The DBT dispenses the taxpayer’s money for research and the taxpayer has a right to help set priorities for GM research funded with its money. Personal whims for climbing on to the GM bandwagon and indulging a ‘Me-too’ fascination on the part of a handful of people in the scientific establishment cannot substitute for a national policy on biotechnology, particularly genetically modified crops. India needs a sane and focussed policy for GM crops that should be developed after a national level stakeholder discussion.