GM Crops – Making the Choice before It Chooses Us
Jason Hickel once poignantly remarked that as a race, our best shot at cooling the planet might be right under our feet. At a time when we stock-take our options in cooling the planet, we are forced to venture to riskier domains where best of science and agriculture converge. As students of science, we have learned that its job is to explain and innovate. This urge of the scientific community to explain the unknown has inspired practitioners of biological sciences to look inside of living organisms, to make sense of their bodily functions and then understand the true nature of our building blocks. These building blocks, now known as genes, are responsible for our behavioural, physical and sexual traits, and are partly influenced by the experiences around us and partly inherited from our ancestors.
Science and technology of our times have come quite far from a simplistic functional definition of genes as an entity that facilitates production of essential proteins in the body to one that is capable of altering its composition for the benefit of humankind. It is from this line of thought to manipulate the genetic makeup for the advancement of the human race, that the idea of what we now know as genetically modified organisms originated. Theoretically, the idea of GMOs was highly appealing to the public at large since it offered abiotic and biotic resistance, nutritional fortification and opportunities to create targeted therapy. It didn’t take long for the scientific community to realize that unnatural crossing of genes will have ramifications beyond the understanding of a layman. This realization led to activist movements and awareness campaigns taking up the challenge of showing it to the world how a cotton variety made pest resistant by using enzymes, gene guns or Agrobacterium can eliminate the remaining thirty-two indigenously found cotton varieties. Organizations such as Thanal have been walking the extra mile assiduously making sure that people are aware of the consequences of toxins entering into one’s body, by consuming genetically engineered food.
There is already a huge body of literature on the ill-effects of GM crops which are produced in India. It all does point out to the fact that financial debt is one of the main reasons why BT Cotton was accepted by farmers in large numbers without even wanting to check biosafety data. Biosafety data, which was withheld from the public by GEAC for obvious reasons couldn’t confirm a hundred per cent safety. Further, the very reason for which BT Cotton was introduced was nullified when the standard variety of bollworms (one of the most destructive pests affecting cotton) reinvented itself as pink bollworms which could withstand the disease resistant capacity of BT Cotton.
These setbacks, however, did not stop a bunch of scientists backed by big agro-business corporate houses like Monsanto from experimenting with a myriad variety of organisms, thus blurring the dividing line between natural and unnatural almost in a Frankenstein-ish way. One of the many experiments that they conducted was to mix the strand of genes responsible for saltwater survival in prawns with pearl millets to create a variety of pearl millets that grow in water. Although it was found to have the obvious advantages of creating a livelihood for people living near the coastline, not all the experiments ended on a positive note. A prime example of genetic engineering gone wrong would be that of an attempt of the scientist to mix the gene segment in a spider responsible for the tensile strength of cobwebs with gene strands in the sheep responsible for wool so as to create varieties of sheep wool of great tensile strength. But it turned out that the scientists were building castles in the air, as the wool of genetically modified offspring showed no improvement in quality but it was later found out that sheep’s milk contained strands of cobwebs making it completely unstable. This instance of an experiment gone wrong undoubtedly goes on to prove that strands of foreign genes in genetically modified food may enter and can stay in the bloodstream long enough for it to show up in placenta and mother’s milk.
As we ponder over the health hazards, there is another darker side of GM crops which tells us the story of a devious plan hatched by the multinational agribusiness to monopolize the seed distribution in the agriculture sector. In the case of Dhara Mustard Hybrid or GM Mustard, the producers (Bayer & Delhi University) in order to exercise future control over the production has made sure that the variety of mustard that they create are male species so that farmers do not resort to the using of same seeds for future production. Further, control over mainstream media by the producers ensured that public receives a falsely glorified image of GM crops by hiding the fact that other indigenous varieties of mustard have shown higher productivity than the genetically modified one. Despite the obvious loss of genetic and species variety, the possible presence of neurotoxins in GM food and impoverishment of farmers, Indian public is caught up in its illusionary world of higher productivity and the lure of the export market. It is at this juncture, the organizations which are working both for and against GM crops should realize that a top-down policy prescription approach is unlikely to work in a country like India where political decisions can only be influenced if there is adequate mobilization. So groups that can achieve better consolidation of farmer opinions and mobilization of their energies are likely to emerge as the winner in this two horse contest.
As we refocus our attention to other nations, it is clear that nations have found a way to separate proverbial ‘wheat from the chaff’ and not to go down the road of genetic contamination such as that of potatoes in Peru. China has already made its decision clear by choosing not to have genetic experimentation with staple crops. The Chinese have a learned a lesson or two from the fact that even if strict restrictions were to be laid down in the case of GM crops to protect genetic variety, carriers such as bees, forage up to three kilometres making the process of isolation redundant.
Marker Assisted Technology is mooted as a less intrusive option when compared to patented gene therapies which are licensed out at will by multinationals. Having explored all the potential arguments and its rebuttals on the use of GM crops, certain questions still remain unanswered. The scientists are yet to figure out how to ensure nutritional security among children via biofortification in a situation when GM crops are shunted out. It’ll be a waste of intellect and energy to have pathbreaking agro-innovations such as golden rice to be pushed into cold storage only because of a perceived future threat that is yet to be proven. As the reality sinks in that climate are changing and the fact that the future of mankind will largely depend upon its ability to adapt, it has prompted detractors of GM crops to rethink in terms of the obvious benefits an innovation like anaerobic rice into global adaptation plans.
In an ideal world, every critique should be followed with a viable alternative or small innovations being mainstreamed, like regenerative agriculture. With no viable alternatives at present on offer to GM crops, maintaining the status quo will be tall order let alone shifting our production into an organic mode, keeping in mind the political pressure on the administration to feed the hungry and meet Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. A blanket moratorium on GM crops is likely to do more harm than good as it will stifle innovation and create disturbances in India’s trade relationship with other nations from whom India would be obligated to import GM crops under WTO norms. Policy makers will inadvertently find themselves in the cusp of history in making as they will be the ones charting the course Indian agriculture would be taking from now on – whether stakeholders should respect the conventional wisdom and not allow the mainstreaming of GM crops or to take the pains of reorienting the entire farming community to stop using chemical pesticides and fertilizers and to encourage them to take up organic cultivation at a larger scale. We must make a choice before it is forced upon us.
About the Author – Gautam Jayasurya
The author is a former public policy professional at Institute for Sustainable Development & Governance, Trivandrum, Kerala, India. He is a law graduate from National Law University, Punjab and has extensive hands-on experience in the area of rural development and Panchayati Raj institutions. He was also part of Sustainable Menstruation Group, a youth initiative based in Trivandrum which intends to enhance sanitary napkin access to the public at large.