Tuesday, April 21, 2015

We do not have the competence to play around with GM foods

To Bt or not to Bt? The debate rages again with the government lifting an 18-month freeze and clearing field trials of 13 genetically modified food crops, including the contentious mustard and brinjal. Suman Sahai, winner of the prestigious Norman Borlaug Award, heads Gene Campaign, an NGO working for sustainable agriculture. Here, the geneticist tells Jayashree Nandi why India is not ready for GM foods.

Are we prepared for field trials of GM crops?

At the outset, I would like to ask the government how has anything changed since the moratorium on Bt brinjal imposed by Jairam Ramesh in 2010? Our biosafety (prevention of risks associated with biotechnology processes) competence has not improved at all. Why are we going back and forth on giving permissions for trials when all the committees on GM crops have said we are not technically competent yet? 
The process of allowing Bt brinjal was halted because the scientific community was not able to make a case for it. Then, in 2012, Basudev Acharya's Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture report also concluded that we are not prepared. How can the government disregard the parliamentary committee completely? 
The other question is who asked for GM crops. Is it the farmers or consumers? After China, India is the biggest producer of brinjal and we have no insurmountable problems with it.

What is the difficulty in ensuring best practices are followed in these trials?

They are all procedural and understood, except nobody follows them. Take the trials of Bt rice conducted in Jharkhand in 2004. We found that one of the farms was in the midst of the farmers' fields. No signboard, no fencing, no containment of any sort. One farmer put in charge of it had been threshing the produce and may have even eaten it. Later we found volunteer plants (those that grow on their own) had come up on the farm. We sent them for testing and of course they were GM.

When we informed the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) that Jharkhand has the highest genetic diversity of rice and such lapses contaminate everything, they sent us a showcause notice for entering the field instead of taking action against shoddy trials.

We need officials trained in genetics who can understand the biosafety data. We have none. Australia, New Zealand, Norway are countries have invested a lot in infrastructure for biosafety testing. India should send its scientists there to be trained.

What are the problems with crops that are being put under trial?

Both brinjal and mustard are cross-pollinating plants, so the consequences will be no single, non-GM mustard or brinjal left. Some say you can segregate, but have we managed to segregate Bt cotton? It has gone everywhere. We are not facing up to the truth. Eastern India is very vulnerable because there is a lot of brinjal diversity there.

Uniformity of biodiversity will have its own environmental implications. There is a well-known phenomenon called gene silencing. Very often plants altered genetically don't survive because you have interrupted the natural process. Those that do survive, certain genes may stop expressing. What can get silenced we have no idea. Yet we are ready to risk the entire germplasm.

Brinjal belongs to the Solanaceae family. It's the family of not just tomato, chilli and potato but also datura (angel's trumpets) and belladona. These are some of the most toxic plants. We can't fool around with this family. Natural toxins can be reconstituted; therefore safety testing should be rigorous and long. Why are we short-circuiting the biosafety process?

But Bt cotton is perceived to be a great success.

In 2002-03, we conducted the first evaluation of Bt cotton in Andhra and Vidarbha and found it had failed. It's clear that Bt cotton does much better in irrigated areas than in rain-fed areas. There is a claim that India has become the largest exporter of Bt cotton — that's not because productivity has increased but because the area covered by the crop has. It's the same story in Latin America with soyabean.

What is the impact on farmers?

Any technology the country is trying to adopt should be evaluated from the lens of the small farmer, or you will polarize farming communities even further. GM technology is expensive. Rain-fed farmers have suffered. Almost 80% of our farmers are very resource poor.

There is a thriving industry of spurious Bt cotton seeds because the original ones are not affordable. Non-GM seeds have disappeared.

How does the consumer ascertain if GM foods are safe?

We don't have a law on labelling GM foods. When we shove genes into chromosomes, the natural process is altered and new proteins are formed. That's why in GM we always test for toxicity and allergenicity to see if anything produced is poisonous or could cause allergies. This is why we need biosafety testing. Serious health impacts of GM foods have been documented. Consider the disappearance of monarch butterflies. The lacewing, which is its food, is eating GM pollen and the monarch's disappearance has been linked to that.

Are Indians already eating imported GM food?

We are consuming refined GM soya oil. We are also importing a lot of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is all GM corn. HFCS is also unhealthy and associated with metabolic disturbances. I suspect we may be consuming GM soya meal in some biscuits or soups.

Source: -Times of India, 02 Nov. 2014