Last month the World Conservation Union (IUCN) - the largest conservation organization of the globe - has called for a moratorium on the further release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) until such time that they can be demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, to be safe for biodiversity, human health, and animal health. This development is seen as significant for the growing worldwide resistance to GMOs.
The resolution asking for a moratorium was passed on 22 November with overwhelming majority support from over 1000 members of the IUCN at the IUCN 2004 World Conservation Congress held in Bangkok from 17th to 25th November. Notwithstanding several days of intensive behind-the-scenes lobbying by agribusiness interests, nearly seventy percent of the members, which include nations as well as NGOs, voted in favour of the moratorium. Although the IUCN resolutions are not legally binding, the member countries are morally obliged to implement them.
Agro-biotech in India - present policy scenario
It remains to be seen as to whether India, one of the member countries of the IUCN, chooses to abide by this moral obligation while designing the upcoming National Biotechnology Policy. The policy is on the horizon, scheduled to be in place by January next year. However, siding with the IUCN resolution would require a drastic change in policy stance on part of the Central Government. Because, sufficient indications suggest that the UPA regime is in fact planning to provide transgenic crops a big push in the country.
Since the recommendations put forward by the AgBiotech Task Force are expected to be a key input in the formulation of the final policy document, they need to be scrutinized in detail.
The Swaminathan Task Force Report - inherent contradictions
The report clearly reveals its commitment towards the unstated objective of facilitating the promotion of GM crops in India by putting in place a regulatory and policy regime that will ensure speedy and hassle-free approval for the commercial cultivation of transgenic crops. However, what is perplexing is that such blatantly pro-GM prescriptions have been put forward in the pretext that "The bottom line of our national agricultural biotechnology policy should be the economic well being of farm families, food security of the nation, health security of the consumer, protection of the environment and the security of our national and international trade in farm commodities." The inherent incompatibility between these stated goals and the recommended means (e.g., the cultivation of GM crops) to achieve them become evident from a plethora of empirical and scientific evidence that indicate the potentially regressive impact of genetic engineering (GE) in all these respects.
GE places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms - the products of millions of years of evolution. GE techniques allow scientists to transfer genes from one organism to another, often unrelated, to recreate new organisms with certain desired characteristic. For example, with GE in place, tomatoes need no longer be crossed with just tomatoes; they may even be inserted with the anti-freeze gene of a coldwater fish to enhance their shelf life. (Correction)
While the consequences of such interference with the natural process of evolution are likely to be perilous, scientists worldwide are yet to determine their magnitude and dimensions. What has already been revealed in several scientific studies, however, is that GE may dramatically accelerate the loss of biodiversity - a process that has already been set in motion owing to the application of chemical intensive farming techniques over the past four decades.
For instance, in a significant study of agronomic, economic and legal impacts of introduction of GM soya, maize and oil seed rape in the USA and Canada, published by the UK-based 'Soil Association' in 2002, widespread contamination of non-GM crops was found to have occurred in these regions within a short span of time, causing major disruption at all levels of the agricultural industry, including seed resources, crop production, food processing and bulk commodity trading. It was further revealed that all non-GM farmers were finding it almost impossible to grow GM-free crops. In fact, the inevitability of transgenic contamination has been so widely acknowledged that a number of eminent scientists from different parts of the globe have reached the conclusion that there could be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture.
Notably, IUCN has also observed in its press release on the aforesaid moratorium on GMOs that "Scientists are learning that GMOs know no boundaries, degrading genetic diversity of crop seeds and then expanding beyond farmscapes into adjacent areas of biodiversity. In the process, they degrade complex soil ecology and habitat for beneficial insects, thus affecting mammals and birds and killing the very biodiversity that GMO proponents claim to care about."
Biodiversity scenario in India
As far as India is concerned, with a mere 2.4% of the world's area, India accounts for 7.31% of the recorded species of the earth. However, the rich biodiversity of the country is already under severe threat owing primarily to chemical intensive farming over the last four decades. Hence it is extremely important at this juncture to ensure the preservation of the remaining bio-resources of India, not only for the sake of environment but also for safeguarding the food and livelihood security of numerous poor families whose life revolves around these bio-resources.
Proposal for conservation or destruction of biodiversity?
The question here is, given this implicit recognition of uncertainties surrounding GE, why did the Task Force not recommend a moratorium on GM cultivation throughout India, until the issue of genetic contamination of native biodiversity was resolved conclusively? The proposal of the Task Force of conserving biodiversity in a few pockets of the country while permitting GM cultivation elsewhere is not quite feasible. Once large-scale cultivation of GM crops is allowed, preservation of agro-biodiversity in their "pristine purity" (terms in quotes used by the Task Force Report) even in the (proposed) earmarked "Agro-Biodiversity Sanctuaries" can no longer be guaranteed, as pointed our earlier in this article. The fact is that there is absolutely no justification for putting the precious bio-resources of India under such potential threat just for the unfounded urgency of allowing GM cultivation.
Potential risk to rice genetic resources
The Task Force has failed even in dealing with the sensitive and crucial issue of conservation of genetic diversity pertaining to rice, for which India is a 'centre of origin and diversity'. Rice being the staple food of a substantial proportion of the world population, preservation of rice biodiversity in this 'centre of origin and diversity' assumes tremendous importance not only for India but also for the food security of the world as a whole. Hence, in order to safeguard this global resource of crucial significance it is extremely important for India to completely prohibit cultivation of GM rice so that the risk of contamination of the natural rice germplasm can be ruled out entirely. The Task Force has instead come out once again with a recommendation of protecting the regions highly rich in rice genetic resources (such as the Jeypore tract of Orissa) as "Agro-Biodiversity Sanctuaries".
The Mexican experience in contamination
The Mexican experience of genetic contamination of native varieties of maize, for which Mexico is a 'centre of origin and diversity', indicates this grave danger. Mexico - the abode of the greatest diversity of cultivars and wild species of maize - has already been found to be contaminated by GM maize. A study undertaken in the USA has demonstrated that even in remote Mexican valleys local maize varieties contain genes from transgenic Bt-maize. According to Ignacio Chapella, a scientist from the University of California, Berkeley, whose team was involved in the research, "What this means is that an entire species in its native state may soon become, in effect, genetically contaminated".
India will pave the way for similar potential threat for the precious rice genetic resources of our country if GM cultivation of rice is allowed in any part of the nation.
"Organic Farming Zones"- again a flawed proposal
Apart from "Agro-biodiversity Sanctuaries", the Task Force has come out with a recommendation of earmarking certain regions or states as "Organic Farming Zones" and to keep them free of GM crops. This proposal is again flawed because of its inherent contradictions. It should be noted here that internationally recognized organic regulations and standards (e.g., those of IFOAM, Codex Elimenterious, EU etc.), which are aimed at guaranteeing the authenticity of organic produces, categorically exclude genetically engineered organisms and products containing GMOs from the organic production system.
As mentioned earlier, one of the thrust areas earmarked by the Swaminathan Task Force is the security of India's international trade in farm commodities. Hence, in order to protect India's export markets, in the post-GM scenario, in those countries, which have strict laws against import of GM crops, the Task Force emphasizes the need for putting in place a mechanism to facilitate segregation, identity preservation and certification and labelling of GM/non-GM products. It also recommends that transgenic research should not be undertaken in crops/commodities where our international trade may be affected, e.g., Basmati rice, soybean or Darjeeling Tea.
However, with public opinion against GMOs gaining momentum in different parts of the world, there is a significant chance of India's entire export business with various countries getting disrupted, once large scale cultivation of GM crops is permitted in the nation. No matter how stringent policy measures adopted may be, complete segregation is virtually impossible.
Growing resistance to GM
It may be recalled at this juncture that in the EU, which is not only one of the principal trading partners of India, but also the world's largest importer of agricultural products from the developing countries as a whole, public opinion against GM products is growing stronger. Even though international pressure has now forced the EU to relax legal restrictions on GM foods, European farmers, consumers and environmental groups have joined hands to create a firewall against GMOs, which may not be very easy to breach even with the changing legal provisions or challenges thrown up by the WTO.
Public resentment against GMOs has started showing up even in the USA (another major trading partner of India and the head quarters of several global giants producing GM products) itself, where such apathy was apparently not visible until recently. The American movement has been spearheaded by California, which has become an epicentre in the global struggle against GE during the past one year. In March this year, for instance, the voters in Mendocino County of California approved a measure to become the first county in the United States to ban GE crops. Trinity County and Marin County followed suit in August and November respectively. In another significant development on November 17, by a unanimous decision in its City Council, Arcata (of California) became the first city in the USA to adopt an anti-GMO ordinance. The ordinance clearly declared the sales, distribution, propagation, cultivation, and raising or growing of genetically engineered organisms as a public nuisance subject to criminal enforcement.
Consequent threat to organic exports
The fear of rejection in the export front owing to transgenic contamination is particularly high in case of organic products, for which the consumers in the importing countries generally pay huge premiums (often as high as 100 per cent) just because of the perceived health and environmental benefits associated with them. The commercial significance of this niche segment of the global market becomes evident from the fact that the market for 'Certified Organic' foods has turned out, in the last decade, to be the fastest growing food sector of many developed countries, including the EU, the USA and Japan. It has further been projected to grow globally in the coming years at a stupendous rate ranging from 10-15 per cent to 25-30 per cent.
Although organic agriculture is still at a budding stage in India, the country has already managed to make its presence felt in the export markets for a number of organic products (e.g. tea, rice, wheat, spices, coffee, pulses, fruits & vegetables etc.). Given that a huge proportion of agricultural farms in India are 'organic by default', there is a tremendous potential for India to increase its share manifold in the flourishing global organic markets in future. But once a pro-GM regime is adopted, Indian organic products will be confronted with genuine risks of contamination and as a result India may end up losing even that share of the global organic market, which it has already managed to capture, leave aside any prospect of further increment.
In this context, the aforementioned Soil Association (2002) study has exposed how GM contamination has caused the loss of nearly the whole organic oilseed rape sector in the province of Saskatchewan in Canada. Many organic and other GM-free maize farmers were found to have either lost their sales or have received lower prices because of contamination. The potential cost of such lost sales or reduced prices were estimated to be over $90 million (£60 million) annually.
In this backdrop, the Indian Government's fresh endeavour to give GM crops a big push at the cost of conventional as well as organic agriculture is not likely to be in the best interests of the country on the external trade front.
GM crops for the sake of farmers?
Another prime thrust area highlighted by the Task Force is "the economic well-being of farm families". The same 'farmer first' principle has been resonated in the voice of the Union Science and Technology Minister Mr. Kapil Sibal, when he has expressed the intention of the UPA Government "to have a biotech policy as quickly as possible to supply to the farmers pest-resistant and drought-resistant seeds with high nutritional values". However, there exist ample grounds to apprehend that promotion of GM crops may end up worsening the economic conditions of the numerous small and marginal farmers of India rather than uplifting them.
The paradox of Bt-cotton yield
As far as yield is concerned, an Independent Science Panel Report published in 2003 has concluded that "The consistent finding from independent research and on-farm surveys since 1999 is that GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits of significantly increasing yields ". Several studies in India have also revealed the disastrous performance of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt-cotton in different parts of the country during the first two years (2002-03 and 2003-04) of its cultivation, notwithstanding the relentless efforts on part of Monsanto to refute these findings.
Mr. Pawar has also mentioned how the higher yield and better cotton quality derived from Bt-cotton is encouraging the Government to look at other GM crops. He has even highlighted the potential of biotechnology in triggering the next Green Revolution in India, which, according to him, has already been visible in case of cotton.
While Mr. Pawar is all-praise about Monsanto, one nevertheless comes across several news reports confirming the failure of Bt-cotton once again this year (implying three years in a row) in various parts of the country. It is reported that Bt-Cotton farmers in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh have faced losses in majority of the areas where it has been grown. Similar is the case with farmers from others districts of Andhra like Kurnool, Guntur, Mahaboobnagar, Karimnagar, Adilabad etc.
Notably, the Agriculture Minister of Andhra Pradesh, K. Raghuveera Reddy himself has announced that there is prima facie evidence to indicate that Mech-184 Bt-cottonseed sold by Mahyco-Monsanto, has failed in Warangal district, where it was sown in about 25,000 acres of land. Warangal has recently seen hundreds of outraged farmers going on a rampage. In another incident, about two hundred farmers of Phanidam village in Guntur district went to the extent of taking into custody the District Manager of Monsanto and eight Agriculture Department officials demanding compensation (of Rs.15,000 per acre for about 20 acres) for the Bt-Cotton seed that had failed to germinate properly leading to poor yield.
Contradictory views surrounding Bt-cotton is nothing new, however. In fact, the performance of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt-cotton in India has always remained controversial with different studies coming out with different, often contradictory, findings. The confusion has been further fuelled by the widespread proliferation of several illegal variants of Bt-cotton in different parts of the country. A study carried out by Gene Campaign has clearly pointed out that given that cotton fields in India are awash with a mixture of Bt-cotton variants, it is virtually impossible to know the performance of individual varieties in this tangle. It has further found evidences to suggest that most local illegal hybrids carrying the Bt-genes are outperforming the Monsanto varieties.
Given clouds of confusion and contradictions surrounding the performance of Monsanto's Bt-Cotton in India, Mr. Sharad Pawar's attempt at promotion of other GM crops on the basis of its questionable yield in the current season remains an open question.
Economics of GM crops
While the yield-performance of Bt-cotton is yet to be determined conclusively, the costs of Monsanto's Bt-cotton seeds are undoubtedly much higher compared to those of non-Bt varieties. But with its promise of reduced insecticide use and resistance to pest attacks, the Bt-cotton varieties are expected to help farmers in saving pesticide costs. However, Bt-cotton seems to have failed to deliver in this respect as well in India, if the aforementioned Gene Campaign study is to be believed. The survey revealed that the huge difference in the costs of seeds between Bt and non-Bt varieties has only been partially compensated by pesticide savings in case of Bt-varieties, resulting in lower net profits for the Bt-cultivating farmers (compared to their non-Bt counterparts). The study concluded that because of the high cost of the Monsanto Bt-cotton seed compared to local hybrids and the fact that savings on pesticides are modest, the economics of cultivating the Monsanto variety remains adverse for the farmer.
Furthermore, there exist ample reasons to apprehend that the economics of Bt-cotton may become even worse in not-so-distant future owing to the development of pest-resistance. Bt-cotton is claimed to be resistant to the deadly American bollworm. However, a study undertaken by scientists at the Central Institute for Cotton Research in Nagpur in 2000 has revealed that bollworm can develop 76-fold resistance within 10 generations. In another more recent study, Dr. K. Chandrasekhar and Dr. G.T. Gujar (both of whom are scientists at the entomology division of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute) have found that the American bollworm could develop resistance to the toxin "cry1ac" and increase it 31-fold within six generations.
Hence the pest problem may become much worse in near future, requiring more pesticides rather than less thereby defeating the basic purpose of sowing the expensive Bt-cotton varieties. Any arguments that the Biotech firms will develop newer varieties of Bt seeds to counter resistant strains of bollworm lack strength, because even the expectations pertaining to the existing varieties have not yet been fulfilled. Incidentally, the likelihood of target pests of Bt crops developing resistance to Bt toxins has been found to be a real threat not only in India but also in many other countries including the USA.
The development of such pesticide resistance or creation of "superweeds" not only could threaten the balance of the nature, but could also increase the cost of cultivation thereby leaving the farmers cultivating GM crops worse-off. Such ever-increasing dependence of farmers on multinational companies for patented plants, seeds and agrochemicals, for each of which the MNCs will extract huge royalties, is likely to worsen the economic condition of the poor Indian farmers cultivating GM crops, at the end of the day, rather than improving it.
Another major thrust area underscored by the Task Force Report is "food security of the nation". Again, in line with that, Mr.Kapil Sibal has also declared that the bottom line of the upcoming Biotech Policy would be to boost yields and production of food grains so as to feed the growing population of the country in the years to come.
For the sake of argument, even if it is assumed that GM crops will help to boost the yield of Indian agriculture, will it guarantee two square meals for the entire population of the country? The answer is an emphatic 'No'. If physical availability of adequate food grains, or rather its non-availability had been the only constraint, then a substantial chunk of the current population of this country would not have been deprived of their basic right to adequate food when the Government granaries are overflowing with surplus food grains. The principal constraint in realizing the right to adequate food in India is economic accessibility or affordability, and not physical availability. Given this state of affairs, the government's preaching about promoting GM crops on the ground of feeding the growing population of the country promotes skepticism.
The IUCN has observed in the recently concluded Bangkok Congress that so far, the potential role of GMOs in achieving global food security has not been adequately defined. Several studies have also demonstrated that GM crops are not required to feed (not only India but) the world and that hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, and not by inadequate production of food. Further, according to estimates made by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in 2000, there is enough food produced to feed everyone using only conventional crops, and that will remain the case for at least 25 years and probably far into the future. The FAO itself has also recognized elsewhere the importance of biodiversity for food security, which only weakens the argument for general acceptance of GM crops even further, not otherwise.
In this context, the statement made by the delegates from all the African countries (except South Africa) to FAO negotiations on the International Undertaking for Plant Genetic Resources in 1998 seems to stand true for today's India. It declared: "We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st Century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."
GM and health security
'Health security of the consumer' is likely to be another thrust area of the upcoming Biotech Policy (as per the recommendations of the Task Force). Till date there have been very few clinical studies on the human health effects of GM food. The existing findings, however, are grave enough to give sufficient cause of concern regarding the risks of allowing GM crops to enter the human food chain. Some of the potential harmful effects of Genetic Engineering on human health that have already been detected by the existing research results include enhanced risks of cancer, increased allergenicity, development of antibiotic resistance among pathogenic bacteria, generation of new and unpredictable pathogens, creation of epidemics-causing viruses and bacteria, so on and so forth. These revelations may however represent just the tip of the iceberg, because scientists are virtually clue-less about the probable long run implications of allowing GM crops into the human food chain.
Inadequacy of safety tests for GE foods
The pro-GM lobby often argues that any GM food has to go through a regulatory process to qualify for its safety before commercial release. But it has been observed that notwithstanding the differences among the regulatory systems of different countries, it is the concept of 'substantial equivalence' that forms the basis of the safety assessments of GE foodstuffs worldwide.
For instance, there is no certainty as to what is actually compared between the GE and non-GE food under the method of 'substantial equivalence'. While generally, the levels of some major and minor nutrients, known toxins and other anti-nutritional factors are measured, there is no standard list of what must be measured. Further, the principle of 'substantial equivalence' is not designed to detect the unintended and unexpected effects of GE food by any means.
In such a scenario, whether the prospective promotion of GM food in India can be regarded as a safe deal from the 'health security of the consumer' perspective remains a big question.
Risk management through regulation
Interestingly, despite its evidently pro-GM stance, the Swaminathan Task Force Report is not completely silent about the risk factors associated with genetic engineering. It asserts that "Since there is public, political and professional concern about transgenics with reference to their short and long term impacts on human health and the environment, their testing, evaluation and approval have to be stringent, elaborate and science-based." It further recommends the development of a National Foodsafety Protocol, which should cover all stages in the production, processing and consumption chain and should take into account the potential impact of GM crops on the environment and the health of human and animal populations. The Task Force also calls for post-release monitoring, which would include "aspects such as gene flow to wild relatives and non-targeted crop species, building up of resistance, observance of maintenance of refuge and other post-release requisites".
However, no matter how stringent the regulatory framework may be, the policy of first allowing the commercial release of GM crops and then studying their potential adverse impacts will be like putting the cart before the horse. Such imprudent policy stance may end up causing irreversible damages to the environment of the country and to the health of its population. As has been warned by a sizable section of scientists worldwide, once released in the environment, it is virtually impossible to recall genetically engineered organisms back into the laboratory.
The Task Force further emphasizes the importance of developing public awareness regarding the potential benefits and risks associated with application of genetic engineering in agriculture and suggest several means to achieve this end. While the importance of developing public opinion on such a crucial issue cannot be overemphasized, it will be of no use if wide spread cultivation of GM crops is allowed even before the general public gets a chance to grasp the complexities of issues involved.
Given that genetic engineering poses genuine risks for the public, the right policy approach should have been to first provide the public with all the relevant knowledge and information regarding GM crops in an 'unbiased' manner (which in itself is going to be a formidable task to carry out in a country of over one billion population) and then allowing them to decide the fate of GM crops in India (through public debate or some other means), rather than first taking a decision and then making an effort to manipulate the public opinion in its favour.
How will the government ensure the security of national trade in farm products (one of the objectives mentioned in the Task Force Report), if the public opinion becomes increasingly hostile about GM crops? Who will compensate the small farmers cultivating GM crops in case their products face rejection in the national markets as well?
Rights and liabilities
If the potential risk of genetic contamination of non-GM crops indeed turns out to be a reality once widespread cultivation of GM crops is allowed in India, what will happen to those farmers who will fail to exercise their freedom of practicing the (non-GM) technology of their own choice, owing to contamination from GM crops? What about the rights of those consumers who will prefer to buy conventional food or those who will even be willing to pay premiums to ensure consumption of uncontaminated organic food? Can the Indian government wash its hands off its obligation to protect and uphold such basic rights of the citizens of this country?
The recent Canadian case of Monsanto Canada vs Schmeiser (where Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer was deemed to have infringed Monsanto's patent on Roundup Ready Canola because this GM variety was found to grow in his field even though he had never purchased it, despite his claim that his canola crop was in fact contaminated by GM genes) brings to the fore all the more complex legal issues in the context of biosafety, coexistence, farmers' rights and privileges, as well as balance of rights and liabilities among different entities and individuals involved in the introduction of GM seeds into the environment. It also underscores the need to put in place a comprehensive liability framework in the field of biotechnology, before paving the way for wide spread release of GM crops in the country.
To sum up, the above discussion clearly reveals that promotion of GM crops runs the real risks of jeopardizing the achievement of each of the proposed objectives (of the upcoming National Biotech Policy on agriculture) highlighted in the Swaminathan Task Force Report, e.g., the economic well being of farm families, food security of the nation, health security of the consumer, protection of the environment and the security of our national and international trade in farm commodities.
Given the multiplicity of risks involved, can India really afford to adopt a pro-GM approach just for the sake of technological upgradation of agriculture or to make agriculture attractive to the youth? Unfortunately, that is what the Task Force recommends India to do! Because, as it says, " our human population is predominantly young" and "Youth can be attracted and retained in farming only if farming becomes intellectually satisfying and economically rewarding". Even if one goes by such flimsy logic, the question that still remains is whether genetic engineering is the only option that satisfies these criteria!
Even if the Government of India remains unconvinced over existing scientific evidences on genetic engineering's risks, it would still be prudent at this stage to invoke the 'Precautionary Principle'. The principle goes as follows: if the consequences of an action, especially the use of a technology, are unknown but are judged by some scientists to have a high risk of being negative from an ethical point of view, then it is better not to carry out the action rather than risk the uncertain, but possibly very negative, consequences.
Keep away, GM pushers
Biotech policy : task force report
It is true that the Indian agriculture has now reached a decisive stage where the urgency of another breakthrough cannot be overemphasized. But promotion of GE at this crucial juncture would be like entering further into the blind alley that leads to further degradation of the environment, increased plight of the farmers and enhanced risks for everybody.
It is not GE but more sustainable alternatives like organic agriculture that can pull Indian agriculture out of the current predicament. The remarkable success of the programmes initiated by the Deccan Development Society in the semi arid Medak District of Andhra Pradesh, is a perfect example of how biodiversity-based organic/traditional farming practices could uplift the poorest of the poor from a stage of distress to that of food security, as well as food sovereignty, while at the same time preserving and enhancing the environmental resources and biodiversity. The initiatives of the Institute for Integrated Rural Development (IIRD) - a network of grass-roots women's organizations -- in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra and the work of the Keystone Foundation to integrate traditional knowledge with modern scientific methods in Tamil Nadu are other examples.
The time is ripe that the Government of India starts appreciating the immense potential inherent in organic agriculture and abstains from opening the pandora's box of genetic engineering on the pretext of triggering a second green revolution in the country.