The G M Debate Rages On

The times in which we today find ourselves are easily one of the most difficult eras in the history of humankind ever. Today we stand facing twin threats of rising demands and falling productivity, both being compounded by global warming that threatens to wipe off human existence from the very face of earth.


Today there are large tracts of land that can no longer support any type of crops, courtesy their contamination by fertilizers and pesticides of every possible genus. We need not go far away as even in the grain bowl of India i.e. Punjab and the Cauvery delta the soil is very much depleted. It needs to lie fallow for extended periods due to indiscriminate emphasis on industrialization of agriculture while ignoring our rich heritage of traditional knowledge that would have otherwise maintained the soil in its pristine form without compromising on productivity.


With declining soil resources our focus has now shifted to uncharted areas whose impact on the environment are hitherto unknown and may border on being dangerous. We have now turned to genetically engineering crops to suit our needs and confer crops such properties that would enable them to stand under stress. Superficially, there seems to be nothing wrong with the idea but field trials all over the world have come up with mixed results. Consider the following data for the moment:-


  • In Vidarbha every second farmer who committed suicide had grown BT cotton

  • The 02-03 report stated that BT has failed for small farmers and has brought with it the root rot disease and mealy bugs that have gobbled up such fields. This was seen in 3% of all fields in Andhra Pradesh, which was up to 42% in 2007 as the government’s emphasis on BT crops increased and traditional varieties started disappearing from seed stores.

  • The BT variety also prevents chilli from being grown as a second crop.

  • In 2006 farmers in the Nalgonda district removed 500 acres of BT planted crops

  • Even in the USA, where GM crops owe their origin to, the criticism of these crops has come in from farmers and environmentalists alike as the yields have gone down from 1400 kg per acre to 720 kg per acre.

  • The biggest problem has been the terminator seed effect. It is particularly severe in case of India where farmers re-use seeds for sowing in the next season. However, what happens because of cross-pollination between GM crops and traditional crops is that the seeds that are produced are sterile. It needs to be taken into consideration that not all farmers can purchase seeds and there are many who still depend on the pollinators to obtain seeds.

  • BT cotton has known to be lethal to natural pollinators because of the cry1 gene that is lethal to all dipterans alike notably the monarch butterfly that is an effective pollinator.

    The lack of a national debate on the issue of GM crops has proved to be astounding to many, especially given the fact that farmers are not happy at all with these crops and their impact on the soil is not known at all. The pilot projects that should have been run throughout the country in isolation has just not happened.


    The government seems to be happy with sanitised reports from Monsanto and Calgene regarding the safety of these crops. The situation is being worsened by the fact that farmers are not being given the choice to grow non-BT crops as has been seen with the disappearance of traditional varieties like Raasi, Tulsi and Baani.


    The moot point is that without having to debate the issue the government is giving a go ahead to the first GM food crop, brinjal. What is further startling is the apparent lack of easily available information on the various trials that are being run across the country and the protocols that are being followed.


    Further to show how much the government cares about us, the GEAC(Genetic Engineering Approval Committee), has approved large scale field trials for BT corn in three agricultural universities in India. This corn is the same corn that according to a study by the Austrian government leads to infertility in the females of the rats that it was tested upon.


    In the light of this latest research, while Greenpeace India is urging the government to put the brakes on GE food, the government of India has given the go ahead for GE brinjal.


    “Genetic Engineering as a technology cannot be taken as safe without adequate safety tests” said Dr. Sujatha Byravan, Molecular biologist and former President of The Council for Responsible Genetics.


    Green peace points out that almost all the field trials conducted were open-air experiments! While on the contrary it is a protocol that such crops needs to be grown in isolation and then quarantined followed by incineration, such lapses can prove to be costly to the environment and to several thousand marginal farmers across the country.


    GM crops have become a necessity in this world of ever-increasing population and constantly decreasing resources. Now we have reached an era when tampering with natural resources has become the norm to satiate growing demands of an ever-increasing population.


    It is for us to decide where to take a call on the issue and prevent further escalation of the problem before it becomes a disaster. Gm papaya has already been an ecological disaster in Thailand as has been in Hawaii…yet Cargill, Bayer science and Monsanto continue in their never ending mission of accelerating disaster in the pursuit of profits which would count for zilch if the ecological problem assumes bigger proportions.


    But as more and more managers to market these seeds of misery are churned out by B schools across the globe, the odds are dangerous…


    Sainath Sunil

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