Where GMO food is a major concern for the public and environmentalists in other countries, in India, the environment minister seems to be a comfortable supporter of the government’s eagerness to open the floodgates to GMO vending corporations!
Geneticist Suman Sahai, founder of Gene Campaign in India, in her recent interview warns the nation of the dangers of GMO and lists the following reasons why (in her words) India does “not have the competence to play around with GMO food.”
1. No technological expertise: Our biosafety (prevention of risks associated with biotechnology processes) competence has not improved at all. We need officials trained in genetics who can understand the biosafety data. We have none.
2. No proper field trials: The GMO crop trials are understood [but] 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.
3. Government corruption and greed: 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.
4. Danger of losing biodiversity: Both brinjal and mustard [two crops India are allowing in] 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.
5. Larger impact on the environment: 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.
6. Risk of Toxicity in food: 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.
7. GM crops do not have better yields: 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. There is a thriving industry of spurious Bt cotton seeds because the original ones are not affordable. Non-GM seeds have disappeared.
8. Drive small farmers deeper into poverty: 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.
9. Health Impact on People: 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. 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.