Burden of GM food and the farcical BRAI Act

Government seems to be hell bent upon forcing GM food on us through BRAI Act
Thursday, October 13, 2011

“We will have 9 billion mouths to feed on this earth by 2050 and there will not be enough food for all of us which is why we need to make technological interventions like GM crop to produce more food.”  

At a time when food prices are soaring and agricultural land is increasingly turning into housing societies and shopping malls, increasing food production and providing food security for all times to come to all population is indeed a challenging task. We are repeatedly told, by scientists, economists and politicians, that as population grows in a geometric proportion, the country has to embark new technologies to produce more food. GM crops are therefore being pushed as the only alternative the world has got.

This argument cuts ice with the leaders as well as the gullible masses. This is however not true. There is no shortage of food globally. The reality is that for a human population of around 7 billion, the world produces food for at least 11.5 billion people. In terms of calories, against the acceptable per capita norm of 2,400 to 2,500 kcal, what is available is 4,600 kcal. So in reality we actually produce double the quantity of food than what we need today. We have more than enough food to feed the people even by the year 2050 when the earth’s population reaches 9 billion.

There is no shortage of food globally. The reality is that for a human population of around 7 billion, the world produces food for at least 11.5 billion people. The need is to ensure that the available food reaches the hungry. It's not a crisis of production but of distribution.

The need is to ensure that the available food reaches the hungry.  It is not a crisis of production, but is more of a political problem relating to access and distribution. Take the case of India. It has one third of world’s hungry population – roughly 300 million people -- deprived of food despite the availability of a continuous surplus of 60 million tonne of food grains. I have always said that if we are really serious and sincere in addressing hunger and poverty, the time is now. We have huge food surplus with us, and at the same time India alone has the world’s largest population of hungry. Why can’t we make the surplus food available to the needy? Why don’t be launch a food security programme that builds on self-reliance rather than depend on entitlement doles for the poor? Why do we want to go in for genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops, which are unhealthy and environmentally damaging, and thereby create more problems? 

To me this is sheer madness.

Why GM when we have better options?

GM crops are developed through insertion of alien genes from different species which, it is claimed, gives the crop an ability to withstand pests among other improved traits that are incorporated. However, several studies have indicated serious side effects of consuming GM food on animal and human health especially genetic defects seen in the next generation. At the same time, the environmental risks outweigh the potential benefits that are being claimed.

GM crops are primarily being promoted in the name of increasing productivity. There can be no bigger lie. Let me make it clear that there is not a single GM crop that increases productivity. In fact, the biotechnology industry has very cleverly infused the illusion of enhanced productivity by treating reduction in crop losses as increase in productivity. Take the case of Bt cotton. It has been pushed in the name of increasing crop productivity. In reality, Bt cotton acts more or less like a biological pesticide and like any other chemical pesticide, it reduces crop losses. Increase in crop productivity will only come through a genetic breakthrough, which is not the case in GM crops. The last time the world witnessed a genetic breakthrough in productivity was at the time high-yielding crop varieties were developed that helped usher in Green Revolution.

There is not a single GM crop that increases productivity. In fact, the biotechnology industry has very cleverly infused the illusion of enhanced productivity by treating reduction in crop losses as increase in productivity. Bt cotton acts more or less like a biological pesticide and like any other chemical pesticide, it reduces crop losses.

For the sake of discussion, let me illustrate. Chemical pesticides are applied on standing crops to control pests. By doing so, pesticides reduce crop losses. GM crops, as I said earlier, perform the role of biological pesticides. By killing certain pests, GM crops also reduce crop losses. Why is that we consider GM crops to be indirectly increasing productivity by reducing crop losses whereas we refuse to accept that chemical pesticides increase crop productivity? Why we refuse to give credit to chemical pesticides for increase in crop yield, and if not then why should we hold GM crops responsible for increasing productivity? (For a detailed analysis on the yield factor, please refer to my write up: Do GM crops increase yield, the answer is No).

In India, only one GM crop has been approved for commercialisation. It is being claimed that cotton production has gone up because of the increased acreage under Bt cotton. In the last 5 years, the weather in the cotton belt has generally remained fine benefiting even the limited non-Bt cotton acreage. Whenever the crop does well, the credit goes to the improved varieties. And whenever the production declines, the blame invariably shifts to aberrant weather. I wonder when scientists will start acknowledging the role weather plays in increasing crop production!

Let me give you an example. Gujarat is hailed as a model of high production as far as Bt Cotton is concerned. In fact, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which for all practical purposes is an industry body, had even sung virtues of praise for Bt cotton to be primarily responsible for 9 per cent growth in agriculture. I am not denying that cotton crop in general did well in Gujarat. But the other day I met Dr Y K Alagh, former Minister of State for Planning and Programme Implementation, Science and Technology and Power, in Ahmedabad who told me that the agriculture growth that IFPRI had worked out was hyped. It was something around 6 per cent, and not 9 per cent.

Nevertheless, what is not being acknowledged is the expansion in irrigation area in Gujarat. In recent years, irrigation was brought to an additional 35 per cent acreage as a result of which crop production took an upswing. Bt cotton too was a major beneficiary. Another argument that I often hear is that GM crops reduce the application of chemical pesticides as a result of which the environment becomes much safer and cleaner. Given the acreage presently under Bt cotton, the use of pesticides on cotton should have come down by now. But it hasn’t. According to the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) Nagpur, the usage of pesticides too has gone up. In 2005, Rs 649-crore worth of chemical pesticides was used on cotton. In 2010, when roughly 90 per cent area under cotton was of Bt cotton variety, the pesticides usage went up to Rs 880.40 crore.

We often hear that GM crops reduce the application of pesticides. In 2010, when roughly 90 per cent area under cotton was of Bt cotton variety, the pesticides usage went up to Rs 880.40 crore. Over 70 per cent farmer suicides still remain confined to the cotton belt.

The other question that I am often asked is if Bt cotton is not all so good then how come farmers are increasingly bringing more acreage under the transgenic seed. I agree that the acreage under Bt cotton is over 90 per cent today but what is little known is that the industries along with the agricultural scientists have very cleverly removed the non-Bt cotton seed from the market. Bt cotton trait has been incorporated in hybrid cotton varieties, which means farmers have to buy seed afresh every year. They go to the market, and find only Bt cotton seed available. So what choice are they left with except to buy Bt cotton seed? The area under Bt cotton has therefore multiplied.  

Remember, if Bt cotton was the saviour, there should have been a marked reduction in farmers suicides in the past 5 years. More than 70 per cent farmer suicides still remain confined to the cotton belt.

The proposed BRAI Act is being pushed by industry

After the open-ended moratorium imposed on the introduction of Bt brinjal, the industry has been aggressively pushing for a tougher regulatory regime that minimises the role of the general public. The proposed BRI Act came in handy. The 2009 version of the bill, which was leaked out, and caused enough public uproar, actually sought to muzzle opposition (Section 63) to GM by seeking to impose fines and imprisonment on voices raising concerns on GM crops. After the outrage died down, another version of the bill has been put in public domain.  In my understanding, the grip of the GM-promoting companies will be further strengthened if the draft Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Act is passed by the Parliament in its present form.

The idea of an independent authority to regulate biotechnology and offer single window clearance to new techniques was mooted by a task force headed by Dr M S Swaminathan in 2003-04. However, there were caveats mentioned for approving any biotechnology regulatory policy: the safety of the environment, wellbeing of farming families, ecological and economic sustainability of farming systems, health and nutrition security of consumers, safeguarding of home and external trade and biosecurity of the nation.

The task force also recommended that “transgenics should be resorted to when other options to achieve the desired objectives are either not available or not feasible.” Though the Agriculture Ministry accepted the task force’s report in 2004, the draft BRAI Act contains provisions which go against these very recommendations and hence invite strong objections. At the same time I don’t understand when the United States can have a three-window regulatory system in place for GM crops (although not perfect) why does India have to rush through with a single-window clearance house?

If United States can have a three-window regulatory system in place for GM crops (although not perfect) why does India have to get  a single-window clearance. 

First, it is now being increasingly realised and accepted that GM crop is not safe for the environment. While dealing with target pests, it also affects the friendly insects and creates superweeds thus creating imbalance in nature. The GM crop will also sound a death knell for traditional varieties of the same crop. For instance, India currently has thousands of varieties of Brinjal but introduction of Bt Brinjal would have led to contamination and gradual elimination of the traditional varieties. Meanwhile, the emergence of superweeds has assumed menacing proportion in the US and Canada.

This trait of transgenic crop is against the spirit of the Biodiversity Act, which lists provisions for conservation of flora and fauna. I have never understood how can scientists and planners talk of preserving biodiversity and promoting transgenics in the same breath! GM crop does not ensure economic sustainability of farming systems. As mentioned above not only farmers have to buy costly GM seeds every year, the expenditure on pesticides and fertilizers increases manifolds. Still more importantly, the implication on human health is the least studied. Why risky and unhealthy food should be pushed on unsuspecting consumers when there is no shortage of food and nutrient crops? The regulatory authority envisaged under the draft bill is going to be under the Ministry of Science and Technology which points towards conflict of interest because this is the ministry with a mandate to promote biotechnology.

Not only farmers have to buy costly GM seeds every year, the expenditure on pesticides and fertilisers increases manifolds. Why risky and unhealthy food should be pushed on unsuspecting consumers when there is no shortage of food and nutrient crops?

Further, the BRAI setup will replace the current regulatory regime which is governed by the Environment Protection Act’s 1989 Rules to protect health, environment and nature from risks of biotechnology. This protective attitude should also be adopted in the BRAI Act and the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare should be the nodal agency in regulatory biotechnology.

An all-powerful five-member committee (two being part-time members) is being suggested under the draft bill with “distinguished” scientists or senior bureaucrats as its three permanent members. This again highlights the fact that promoters of biotechnology will be appointed as regulators. The committee should instead have eminent people from all walks of life to ensure that there is no conflict of interest. In addition, several committees are envisioned in the bill but all of them have been accorded advisory role with the five-member panel being supreme. An environment appraisal panel has been proposed which will be consulted in case of organisms and products having environmental impact. However, the five-member authority can override the panel’s opinion in case of difference of opinion thus making the whole set up an exercise in futility.

Under the federal structure of India, agriculture is a state subject but the proposed legislation gives only advisory role to the state governments in the form of “State Biotechnology Regulatory Advisory Committee” with no decision-making powers. It should be noted that seven state governments have already rejected field trials of GM crops and during anti-Bt Brinjal campaign last year, 13 state governments had said no to cultivation of Bt Brinjal in their areas. Recently, state governments have been given the powers to refuse field trials of GM crops, which are a welcome initiative and goes with the democratic norms. The BRAI Act seems to be a new tool to force GM crops down the throats of state governments.

Section 28 of the BRAI Act classifies some information as confidential which can’t be supplied even under the Right To Information (RTI) Act thereby making the whole decision making process a clandestine affair. Earlier, on a petition filed by Greenpeace seeking information related to Bt Brinjal, the Supreme Court had ordered the regulators to put out all the biosafety data in public domain. The new provision seems to be a deliberate effort on the part of the industry to scuttle public scrutiny.

Lastly, since GM crops have already generated so much controversy with doubts being raised about its health and environment implications, isn’t it prudent to make independent and long term safety trials mandatory for all GM crops before approval? The fact that the draft BRAI Act does not have any provision for labelling, redressal and recall of a GM product makes the situation more worrisome.

Gullible Indians are already being used as guinea pigs by international pharmaceutical industry which conducts its clinical trials here without following the required protocol. BRAI Act will ensure we serve as guinea pigs for GM crops too.

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