Opinion is divided on whether genetic engineering and genetically modified (GM) crops offer a solution to hunger in the developing countries. Devinder Sharma, a former visiting fellow at the International Rice Research Institute and Cambridge University, tells Aditi Kapoor that GM technology will not make food cheaper or more nutritious for the South:
Will GM food reduce hunger in developing countries like India ?
If hunger could be addressed by techno-logy, green revolution would have done it long ago. The fact is that hunger has grown in India in absolute terms – some 320 million people go to bed hungry every night. Two years back, India had a record foodgrain surplus of 65 million tonnes. If 65 million tonnes surplus could not feed the 320 million hungry, how will GM food remove hunger? In reality, GM food diverts precious financial resources to an irrelevant research, comes with stronger intellectual property rights, and is aimed at strengthening corporate control over agriculture.
But what about malnutrition? Crops like golden rice can help remove blindness.
This again is the result of misplaced thinking. There are 12 million people in India who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. These people primarily live in food deficit areas or are marginalised. These are people who cannot buy their normal requirement of food, including rice. If they were adequately fed, there would be no malnutrition. If the poor in Kalahandi, for instance, can’t buy rice that lies rotting in front of their eyes, how will they buy golden rice?
Then why is the Indian government experimenting with GM crops and foods?
For two reasons: First, India is under tremendous pressure from the biotechnology industry to allow GM crops. These companies have the financial resources to mobilise scientific opinion as well as political support. Second, agricultural scientists are using biotechnology as a Trojan horse. With nothing to show by way of scientific breakthrough in the past three decades, GM research will ensure livelihood security for the scientists.
What GM crops and food items is India experimenting with?
Besides cotton, genetic engineering experiments are being conducted on maize, mustard, sugarcane, sorghum, pigeonpea, chickpea, rice, tomato, brinjal, potato, banana, papaya, cauliflower, oilseeds, castor, soyabean and medicinal plants. Experiments are also underway on several species of fish. In fact, such is the desperation that scientists are trying to insert Bt gene into any crop they can lay their hands on, not knowing whether this is desirable or not.
What does the field trial data of GM products, including Bt cotton, in India reveal?
Bt cotton field trials were a sham. In three years of research trials, the experiments were not conducted as per scientific norms. And yet, the GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, ministry of environment & forests) had approved the results. The experiment only showed that such products are not suitable for Indian conditions. If only the same attention had gone to more sustainable farming systems, India would have been able to create a unique model of agriculture where farmers are not forced to commit suicide, where the land is not polluted, and where water is not poisoned. GM crops experiments show that the country is fast moving into a hitherto unforeseen era of biological pollution, which will be more unsustainable and also destructive to human health and environment.
But India ‘s Biological Diversity Act 2003 does provide for an environmental assessment of GM crops?
No, not at all. Genetic engineering is moving several times faster than the legal instruments. Transgenic crops and animals in essence go against the very foundation of the biological diversity that we are trying to protect.
What role should the GEAC play?
GEAC should emphasise biological risk assessment. GEAC should regulate genetic techno-logy like the US Recombinant Advisory Committee (RCA) does for genetically engineered drugs. RCA makes it mandatory for companies to provide a list of negative and harmful impacts and minimises that impact before approving for commercial sale. As a result, the approval process takes 25 years. Unfortunately, GM research in India is not being made to evaluate potential harm to human health and environment. This is because the GEAC does not want the companies to spend more on research.
Does GM technology threaten our genetic resources and traditional knowledge?
We have already lost control over our plant, animal and microbial genetic resources. A copy of roughly 1,50,000 plant accessions that have been collected in India, are with the US department of agriculture. India has no control over these resources. At the same time, India is now busy documenting traditional knowledge, so as to help the American companies know the uses of the plant species they have got from us. Further, Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) allows patents on genes and cell lines, which will block India’s agricultural research leading to what I have always termed as a scientific apartheid against the developing countries.