By K Yatish Rajawat
CORPORATE Aug 16, 2014
Genetically modified (GM) food has its detractors and supporters. Unfortunately, the debate between them does not progress beyond the basics. The contours of the debate are seemingly managed by the very powerful lobby of GM seed companies. Their clout is so strong that even reportedly tried changing the BJP manifesto on agriculture, something which got nixed only at the last moment. This overzealous and overreaching lobbying by GM companies has created such a major rift that a technology is now identified with a company - Monsanto - and linked with all that is bad in the commercial world.
The government is, of course, seized with an immediate problem of allowing trials of GM crops. These trials are the first step to giving clearance for selling GM seeds in India. The trial is done in various agro climatic zones to judge the biosafety impact of GM seeds on other crops. A former Minister of Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natrajan, claimed the trials would also judge whether GM food was for human consumption, that is simply not possible. India is not fully equipped to judge the impact of GM seeds which is why a Supreme Court-appointed committee in 2012 had recommended a 10-year moratorium on GM seeds. The Supreme Court has not taken a decision on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed on this issue.
Focusing or allowing trials of GM crops is the wrong way to approach the issue of GM crops. The biggest problem with GM crops is that they create a monopoly around a food product and that monopoly rests with a corporation. The analogy of this monopoly is similar to drugs where one company which patents the cure gets to sell it. Only, in this case, it is a crop; it is not an invention that can be granted a patent. A GM crop is created by combining desirable genes with specific properties; these genes exist in different varieties of crops or are borrowed from other living beings. Seeds are developed with these properties and they promise higher yields, among other things.
India has already taken a tough stance on frivolous patents by drug companies. It had rejected a patent for a cancer drug as that would make it too expensive for poor patients. In the case of GM crops, the issue is of food, farmers and its impact on prices in the long run. It is not the science or technology debate that scientists are so fond that the lobbyists use to obfuscate the real issues.
The issues that need to be considered if India is going to allow GM crops into the country are the policy or regulatory structures that will govern it:
- Do the seeds, besides promising higher yields, also reduce the cost of cultivation for the farmer? If they do not increase the cost of cultivation then the farmer does not benefit, and prices do not come down. It’s like a drug which promises a cure, but at prices that are unaffordable. Here the question is should one grant a patent or prefer the creation of generic equivalents?
- Learning from the BT cotton experience with GM crop, it seems the seeds initially reduced the infestation of bollworms. But later on they added to the costs of cultivation as they needed more insecticides – which are also sold by the same seed company. Seed companies selling insecticides and fertilisers and having a monopoly on both are a major issue for such crops. The monopoly gets strengthened over a period of time as the seeds of domestic strains die out when farmers stop cultivating them. Field trials should take into account the total cost of cultivation. The approval of GM seeds should not be a once-in-a-lifetime decision. Its impact is more important after it gets into the fields. Therefore it needs to be reviewed after every cultivation season and it needs to have a sunset clause. It has been observed by several researchers that after the initial spurt of high yields, the yield falls. If specific herbicides and insecticides are not used, the quantity needed and costs increase rapidly. This is what has happened with BT where the cost of insecticides multiplied several-fold for the farmer.
- GM crops also affect domestic strains and that is what the trials are supposed to find in terms of the biosafety impact. Preventing the infestation of domestic strains is impossible despite regulations that say that not more than a certain percentage of crops in a region can be GM. Neither the GM companies nor the government can regulate it or control it. And we have seen in BT Cotton that more than 97 percent of the crop planted is now GM. This means almost complete decimation of all domestic strains of cotton in the regions that they are planted. This is the biggest fear of the local farmers and even RSS or its affiliated kisan organisations. They feel that India’s traditional gene base will die with the spread of GM crops. This is a genuine fear. The funding from the licensing of GM crops needs to be used for creating a gene bank for Indian native varieties. The BJP, in its manifesto, has hinted at making this possible. Individuals have also in the past made efforts to create gene banks. Now this should be a priority .
- The impact of GM crops also needs to be studied and understood from its ability to create super weeds and superbugs that harm other crops and affects their yields. Cross-pollination that takes place with GM crops needs to be studied closely. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has, over the years, developed its own strains of GM seed but has not been able to successfully market them as the MNCs do not want to sell it. Selling ICAR’s GM seeds should be like promoting generics in the drug industry.
- The role of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has to evolve from a body that just approves GM seeds to one that manages the GM ecosystem. Fertilisers and pesticides used for GM crops are increasingly a much more expensive input than the seed. There is no control or regulatory oversight on these pesticides and fertilisers. GM seed companies are the ones which recommend and make them too. These needs to be brought under the regulations. Prices have to be monitored and availability and production of them have to be liberalised so that the farmer does not suffer because of higher input costs.
- Now that GM seeds are moving into the realm of food, a better way of informing consumers about them needs to be adopted. Like in Europe, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs to insist that processed food made using GM seeds is clearly specified as such on the packaging.
- The impact of GM seeds on soil and water also needs to be studied carefully. In cases of crop failure due to poor monsoon, farmers who generally pay in advance for GM seeds should get compensation in the form of cash or seeds. Seed companies can take reinsurance for such kinds of compensation but it will go a long way in protecting farmers.
- India needs to develop its own norms for GM seeds that take into account not only the biosafety component but the economic impact. There is nothing in the current regulation that protects the farmer from rising costs or changing economics as he starts using GM seeds. Companies also do not look at the long-term impact of how their consumer (farmer) is doing in the long run. This is the biggest area of concern as a very large proportion of the population in the country is dependent on agriculture. When several hundred millions become dependent on GM seeds we need to be sure about every economic aspect of it. The government should not move with haste on this issue, especially under pressure from US or Indian lobbyists.