Gilles-Eric Serilani is a professor at the University of Caen in Normandy in France. Two years back, in 2012, he published a research paper that created a scientific uproar across the globe. In this landmark study, he fed rats for two years, which is the normal lifespan of rats, with genetically modified corn treated with a popular weed killer Roundup. The result was shocking. These rats developed mammary tumours, much bigger in size than what we normally see, and also liver and kidney diseases.
This was the first time a study had been conducted on rats for their full lifespan, which corresponds to about 80 years in human life. Normally, scientific feeding trials are conducted for 90 days, like in India, which corresponds to about 20 years of human life.
The path-breaking study was vociferously contested by pro-GM scientists. All kinds of charges were framed against Dr Seralini so much so that he was even accused of tampering with the results. This study was subsequently withdrawn by the scientific journal which first published it. But the catch here is that it was retracted only after a Monsanto person joined the top editorial team. Nevertheless, the study has since then been republished by another scientific journal Environment Science Europe.
At a time when studies now show that the harmful impact of chemical pesticides are passed on from generation to generation, I have never understood how could the regulatory bodies feel satisfied with feeding trials lasting for only 90 days in rats, which means about 20 years in a human life. A more recent study now tells us that your kidney problem can be related to the pesticide exposure your grandmother had.
If this is true with pesticides, shouldn’t longer feeding trials be held in case of GM crops to be doubly sure? Why are the scientists therefore in a hurry to push GM crops to unsuspecting populations?
The argument that I hear in the print media and TV channels is that if we don’t allow GM crop field trails how will we know of the performance of these crops? But what is not being told is that all across the globe it is through field trails that GM contamination has spread in the wild. GM plants carry an alien gene that can escape into nature by wind or by cross-pollination. In America, because of the GM contamination ‘super weeds’ have erupted in 100 million acres requiring more potent chemicals to kill these weeds. ‘Super weeds’ become resistant to all kinds of chemicals and often require hand weeding.
Shouldn’t India therefore first conduct long-term feeding trials of GM seeds before these are tested in crop fields? No one is against scientific testing, but considering that GM genes escape into nature and also in the absence of tight regulatory control, the GM crops do get mixed up and get into the food chain, why can’t Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar first direct the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the nodal inter-ministerial body that approved the GM crops for cultivation, to conduct long-term trials to know the impact on human beings. After all, in a country where combating disease and health disorders remains a challenge why add on to the prevailing crisis?
But the moment you bring up the question of the need for long-term impact on human health, you will find a chorus that is often repeated ad nauseam is that the Americans have been eating GM foods for almost 20 years now and there have been no fatalities. What is however not being told is that since the GM industry does not allow human clinical trials to be conducted how will we ever get to know the health impacts of GM foods. So far there has been only one human clinical trial in which GM created problems for lab rats. After that the GM industry has ensured that no human clinical trials are conducted.
Ever since the first GM crop – a GM tomato – was introduced in the United States in 1994, there has been a remarkable spurt in diseases. There is a 400 per cent increase in allergies; 300 per cent increase in asthma; 1500 per cent increase in autism to name a few diseases. I have been often saying that the US is the sickest nation among the developed countries. There is certainly no evidence of a direct link, but also there is also no evidence that this may not be linked somehow.
And finally, let us look at one of the tall claims of the GM industry. These crops were supposed to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and thereby make environment much cleaner. Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook has shown that between 1996 and 2011, farmers in US are applying an additional 400 million pounds of pesticides. In 2012, on an average 20 per cent more pesticides were applied by GM farmers as compared to farmers not growing GM crops.
In Latin America, Brazil and Argentina are two major cultivators of GM crops. In Argentina, the application of chemical pesticides has risen from 34 million litres in the mid-1990s when the GM soybean crops were first introduced to more than 317 million litres in 2012, roughly a ten times increase. On an average, Argentine farmers use twice the quantity of pesticides per acre than their American counterparts. In Brazil, which has recently taken over Argentina as far as the spread of GM crops is concerned, pesticides use has gone up by 190 per cent in the past decade.
In China, which has been promoted as a silver-bullet case, the bubble burst when a 2006 joint study conducted by Cornell University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed thatseven years after the introduction of Bt cotton, Chinese farmers were spraying 20 times more pesticides to control pests. Why then do we need GM crops, especially when they don’t even produce more than the existing crop varieties. According to US Department of Agriculture, crop yields of GM soya and corn are lower than the non-GM crop varieties. # (Some portions of this article have appeared elsewhere also)
The Hindi version of this article appeared in Nai Dunia, Aug 5, 2014.