Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist trained in genetics and Founder Chairperson of the research and advocacy organization, Gene Campaign
What are GM crops and are they really what we need ? Are they safe to eat and are they also safe for the environment ? First it was Bt cotton, then there was the controversy over Bt brinjal. Most recently we have been discussing whether GM mustard has anything to offer India. All these are genetically modified crops to which there is both strong opposition as well as strong support, the latter largely from the biotech industry and a section of the scientific community.
GM crops are those crops in which a “foreign” gene has been introduced. In the case of Bt crops , it is a gene from a bacterium. In GM mustard, there are also bacterial genes but different ones. There is substantial evidence that these crops can in some cases be unsafe for both people and the environment but this is contested by the biotech industry which puts out its own data.
So how do we go forward? I mention below some aspects that should inform any decisions taken with respect to this technology.
- New agricultural technologies in India must be introduced only if they can be successfully adopted by small farmers which constitute the bulk of the farming community in India.
- Genetic engineering and GM crops are a privately owned technology unlike the Green Revolution which was a publicly owned technology. Agbiotech is largely owned by multinational corporations that are constantly undergoing changes and mergers but the players remain essentially the same: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, Bayer Life Sciences and BASF. They control all upstream and downstream products and processes related to genetic engineering through a series of patents.
- Countries like India can engage in Agbiotechnology only by licensing genes and research processes from the corporations. This means the technology will remain alien for the foreseeable future unless we embark on a flurry of innovations, signs of which are regrettably not visible so far.
- This also means that the private sector is creating private goods for which it charges very high rates. The case in the Supreme Court against Monsanto on the overpricing of its Bt cotton is a case in point.
- Apart from the implications of technology dependence in a critical sector like food, the research agenda gets determined by the technology available. At the moment there are only two genes on offer from the corporations, the toxin gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt) and the genes that confer herbicide tolerance. Neither is of great relevance to the problems of Indian agriculture, yet over 40 % of the agbiotech research being done in India is based on the Bt gene.
- If India wants to use Agbiotech, it must set its own research agenda, engage in novel gene discovery and use genes discovered in its labs to solve its agricultural problems. It should encourage South- South research partnerships rather than depend on multinational technology. Countries like Cuba, S Korea and Egypt can join India to form a South Technology Core.
- Genetic engineering which is a regulated technology the world over requires careful monitoring and oversight and a stringent regulatory system to detect harmful developments in time. Otherwise GM crops can cause serious damage to the environment and to human and animal health.
- The genetic variability in Indian agriculture is one of the richest and most varied in the world. Because of this, it forms an important bedrock of global food security. India must be particularly careful that foreign genes do not contaminate native biodiversity and result in adverse impacts on such a valuable global resource.
- The international biosafety convention, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety recognizes the dangers posed by genetic engineering and lays down the Precautionary Principle as the basis of using GM crops. India does not follow the Precautionary Principle though. India is a center of origin for rice , that is , it is the birthplace of rice. Other such centers of origin, like Mexico (corn) , has banned GM corn; Peru (potato) has banned GM potato and China (soybean) has banned GM soybean but India promotes development of GM rice.
- The Indian regulatory system is not yet stringent enough, transparent or inclusive of public views so the chances of damaging lapses occurring are high. If India wants to adopt GM crops, it should do so only after it has set up strong regulatory systems and taught its farmers the pros and cons of using Agbiotechnology. Studies have found that over 95 % percent of the farmers who cultivate Bt cotton have no idea what it is, what the stipulated procedures for cultivation are, why these are important and what will go wrong if these are not followed.
- A Citizens Commission on Agbiotechnology consisting of independent experts from various fields should be set up to advise the government on which agricultural technologies might be suitable for Indian farmers and to monitor their adoption and impact.