GM crops: Here to stay

The Indian government is dead keen on GM crops. But what about a policy first?

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

GM crops: Here to stay

-- (Credit: Illustrations: EMKAY)The term genetically modified (GM) is highly controversial. While the science of transferring desirable genetic traits from one organism to another has applications in several fields -- medicine and industry, for example -- it is the creation of GM crops which is at the centre of an international debate. This is because it is inextricably related to questions of livelihood and the sustenance of millions of people across the world. The GM debate is highly polarised. On one side are agro-biotech (ag-bio) companies, a substantial part of the scientific community and governments. On the other are social, environmental and consumers' rights groups.

Ag-bio companies and several governments have been claiming that GM crops will help developing countries increase food production; reduce environmental damage resulting from farms inputs (like fertilisers and pesticides); provide more nutritious food and promote sustainable farming. Several scientists have defended these claims, contending that people in the US have been consuming GM food for five years now, without showing any worrying effects. The anti-GM groups repeatedly point out that the ag-bio companies which control most of the GM seed across the world are only interested in profits and would exploit poor farmers of developing countries. They argue that these companies make governments toe their line through a mixture of bribery and pressure. They also contend that pro-GM scientists are unreliable, for they depend on the companies for research grants. They stress that the long-term effects of GM crops on human health, biodiversity and the environment is still unknown, and that five years is too short a time to assess this -- particularly when it took decades to discover the impact of chemicals like dichlorodiethyltrichloromethane (DDT) on the environment. The most visible international confrontation has to do with trade of GM products between the US and the European Union (EU). Recently, the US has filed a case in the World Trade Organization against a five-year EU moratorium on GM crops.

Although we know much more about GM technology today than we knew in the salad days of the science in the 1970s, several aspects of GM crops are not understood very clearly or haven't been studied. Some anti-GM fears are based on this lack of this knowledge, some on ideology, and some on a general mistrust of large corporations that fiercely protect their intellectual property rights, sometimes through direct legal action against farmers. Just four transnational corporations control most of the GM seed market and 91 per cent of all GM seed planted in 2001 was from one company:Monsanto.

How to deal with GM?
Industrialised countries are fast learning the need for elaborate policies and instruments to regulate GM crops and foods (see box: Hardly a smooth sail). In the English-speaking world, Canada, New Zealand and the UK have appointed scientific commissions to review all available scientific literature pertaining to GM crops -- especially with regard to human health and the environment. The reports of these commissions are de facto policy guidelines. Research and release regulations pertaining to GM crops are governed by them. These guidelines detail specific knowledge on every issue of concern and provide recommendations to researchers, universities, regulatory agencies and companies selling GM crops. Regulatory agencies typically involve the ministries of health, commerce, agriculture, environment, and science and technology, as well as food quality control agencies.

Take the example of Canada, which allowed GM crops to be grown commercially in 1996 along with the US. Its regulatory system relied on guidelines issued in 1994 and other health and environment protections laws. But as more knowledge was generated on GM crops, Health Canada (the health ministry) approached the Royal Commission of Canada, in November 1999, for an expert panel report on the future of food biotechnology in the country. This panel submitted a 265-page report, Elements of Precaution: Recommendations for the Regulation of Food Biotechnology in Canada, in January 2001. In response, government agencies responsible for food, health and environmental regulation prepared draft revisions to their laws and regulations. Most of these drafts are currently in the stage of elaborate public consultation before they are made legal instruments.

Unprepared

-- Like most developing countries dabbling with biotech, India does not have a clear policy on GM crops, though there are some guidelines and regulations. It was in 1982 that the National Biotechnology Board was created. In 1986, this became the department of biotechnology (DBT) under the ministry of science and technology (S&T). A total of six centres for plant molecular biology were set up in 1990, with a seventh coming up in 1997. In the absence of a separate policy, India's biotech effort is driven by the overall S&T approach. The Scientific Policy Resolution of 1958, drafted five years after the discovery of the DNA structure, makes no mention of 'biotechnology' and the Technology Policy Statement of 1983 mentions it once. In 2001, DBT released Biotechnology -- A Vision: Ten Year Perspective. This 26-page document has two pages dedicated to ag-biotech, couched in ideals entirely lofty. It mentions "a biotechnology based, environmentally sound and sustainable societal development and a bioindustrial revolution". In January this year, the prime minister announced the Science & Technology policy, 2003 that mentions biotechnology for a large total of three times.

While delivering the inaugural address at the "International Summit on Knowledge Millennium-III: The Business of Biotechnology" on March 22, 2003, the scientist-President of India, A P J Abdul Kalam, said: "This summit can suggest a framework to evolve a national biotechnology policy by giving an integrated focus on bio-research, development, production and marketing". While the Union government has no special biotech policy, several states -- including Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh -- have declared their biotech policies (see box: With or without the Centre). On July 28, 2003, the Union ministry of agriculture constituted the Task Force on Applications of Agricultural Biotechnology chaired by eminent agriculture scientist M S Swaminathan. It has to "formulate a draft long-term policy on agro-biotechnology" and "promote public awareness" on ag-bio, among other things.

What are India's biotech priorities?
DBT's vision document mentions that on crops, the major thrust areas are higher productivity, enhanced nutritional status, value addition to crops as therapeutics, and stability against stresses. In the absence of a policy, there is no single list of the priorities of ag-bio in India. The secretary to the DBT told Down To Earth that the priorities are (in order of importance):

Biotic stresses (such as plant diseases and pest attacks)

Abiotic stresses (such as soil acidity or alkalinity, nutrient imbalances, floods and drought)

Nutrition enhancement of food crops.

Most of the research happening in the public sector -- and the private sector also, to a large extent -- adheres to this set of priorities. In March 2002, the first GM crop for commercial cultivation in India was released: three varieties of the pest-resistant Bt cotton of Monsanto and its Indian partner Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO). (Bt cotton has genetic material from the the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which gives it inherent resistance to the American bollworm, the most dangerous pest of cotton.) Several reports, including one by the government of Andhra Pradesh, have now shown that the Bt cotton of Monsanto-MAHYCO have failed to produce desired results. Now, Monsanto has begun efforts to introduce its herbicide-resistant maize, which is a not a priority for a developing country such as India. In smaller farms of developing countries with sustenance agriculture, weeds are not as big a problem as they are in the large farms of the industrialised world. In fact, weeds provide employment to people and in some cases, being nutritious, are eaten.

One very worrying trend in GM crop research in India is that a substantial proportion of it is focussed on genetic material from just one source, Bt, which is patented and covered under intellectual property rights. Furthermore, over-dependence on just one pesticidal gene might accelerate the development of resistance in pests. DBT is quite conscious of this, and is promoting discoveries of novel gene sequences.

Does India have a regulatory system?
Yes. The release of GM comes under the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986. The rules and regulations for GMs were notified in 1989 (see box: Small measures).

Safety first

-- The Paris-based International Council for Science recently released a review of 50 science reviews on applications of genetics in food and agriculture. It concluded that there is no available "evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of foods containing genetically modified ingredients." But it warned that "this does not guarantee that no risks will be encountered as more foods are developed with novel characteristics." It recommended: "Food safety evaluation must be undertaken on a case-by-case basis. The extent of the risk evaluation should be proportionate to the possible risks involved with particular foods."

One worry in the case of GM foods is from 'marker genes'. (When new genes are inserted into plant cells, it is difficult to tell if the cells will take up the new gene successfully. Scientists use certain genes, called 'markers', as a kind of labelling that tells them if the gene has been successfully inserted.) It is feared that such markers could find their way into disease-causing microbes, making them resistant to antibiotics used in human medicine or livestock production. The World Health Organization has shown how most marker genes used today encode for resistance to herbicides or antibiotics. An example is the exposure of farm workers and food processors to transgenic DNA in dust and pollen. A marker gene with resistance to the antibiotic Ampicillin could make treatment for meningitis difficult among the exposed.

It is thus imperative to have clear criteria regarding the kind of toxicological studies required. The Royal Society of Canada's expert panel recommends that regulatory authorities should establish a scientific rationale to evaluate the safety of whole foods derived from GM crops. It suggests that, in view of the availability of suitable alternative markers, antibiotic resistance markers should not be used in transgenic plants intended for human consumption.

The second health fear from GM crops is they might contain allergens. One of the most widely cited examples in this respect is the case of the Brazil nut. Among those allergic to Brazil nuts, consumption can lead to anaphylactic shock and death. Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc, a US seed company, inserted a protein-based nutrient into soybean used for animal feed. There was a very slim chance of the inserted protein also being the Brazil nut allergen. During tests, it turned out that it was. The soybean was never introduced in the market. But that was in the US, which has an elaborate regulatory and testing system.

"Our relative lack of knowledge about allergenicity suggests that we should exercise caution when assessing all new and improved foods," says the July 2003 report of the GM Science Review Panel of the UK. A report of a joint consultation in 2000 by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural Organization on GM foods cautions: "If a GM food contains the product of a gene from a source with known allergenic effects, the gene product should be assumed to be allergenic unless proven otherwise." The Royal Society of Canada recommends that "approvals should not be given for GM products with human food counterparts that carry restrictions on their use for non-food purposes (for example crops approved for animal feed but not for human food)." It also suggests the creation of a mechanism for after-market surveillance of GM foods involving a new protein, as well as the creation of an elaborate infrastructure to evaluate the allergenicity of GM proteins.

The conceptual cornerstone of health assessment of GM food today remains the concept of 'substantial equivalence', which is not very clear. It means that if a novel or GM food can be shown to be essentially equivalent in composition to an existing food then it can be considered as safe as its conventional equivalent and can be assumed to pose no new health risks. The term has been borrowed from the US Food and Drug Administration's definition of a class of new medical devices that do not differ materially from their predecessors and thus, do not raise new regulatory concerns. Almost all regulatory agencies across the world recognise that it should be seen only as a key step in the safety assessment process, not a safety assessment in itself. This is because it does not characterise hazard; rather, it is used to structure the safety assessment of a GM food relative to a conventional counterpart.

Pollen travails

-- David Suzuki, a Canadian ecologist, has noted the key cause for environmental concern with GM crops: "The difference with this technology is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be very difficult or impossible to stuff it back. If we stop using DDT and chlorolofluorocarbons (CFCs), nature may be able to undo most of the damage -- even nuclear waste decays over time. But GM plants are living organisms. Once these new life forms have become established in our surroundings, they can replicate, change and spread, so there may be no turning back."

In the UK, the advisory committee on releases to the environment has identified a possibility of GM crops pollinating with wild plants -- there is scientific evidence to show that five wild plant species can cross-pollinate with GM rapeseed. The spread to wild plants is significantly more difficult to record and deal with. And even self-pollinating crops can cross-pollinate.

The other environmental concern is the possibility of a GM crop becoming an invasive superweed. Such invaders would not only reduce crop yields but could also cause serious disruptions in the functioning of natural ecosystems and losses in biodiversity.

It is important to know the history of domestication of crop species in a particular area to deal with the issue of pollination and with superweeds. Species with a short history of domestication need to be scrutinised because they are more likely to pose environmental risks. The isolation distances for various crops -- the distance that would restrict the transfer of pollen -- need to be determined and observed, though it is well nigh impossible to prevent pollen from escaping.

There are other problems with flying GM pollen as well. Four years ago, a study revealed how pollen from GM rapeseed in the UK was capable of killing the larvae of the Monarch butterfly. Though the study was hotly debated in scientific circles, it did highlight the risk of non-harmful insects getting affected by GM crops. And then there is the possibility of insect pests developing natural resistance to the GM toxin -- just as they develop resistance to chemical pesticides.

One way to deal with this problem is to maintain a 'refuge' -- a selected area in the field where the non-GM variety of the same crop is grown. This makes sure that the insects also feed on some plants that do not have the GM toxin. This slows down development of resistance. In a country like India, monitoring whether a farmer has maintained a refuge or no would be close to impossible, hence the task of monitoring would become even more difficult.

Another contentious question is GM crops irrepairably damaging crop-breeds in their 'centre of origin'. Most centres of origin of crops crucial for food security are in developing countries. These wild varieties are genetic repositories. For example, Mexico is to maize and papaya what South/East Asia is to rice and mango, and Peru for potato -- a centre of origin. Mexico had banned the cultivation of GM maize in 1998 to protect its native maize varieties. In 2001, a study showed how native varieties of maize in remote regions of Mexico were contaminated with traits common to GM corn varieties, including those of Monsanto approved for cultivation in the US. The study became very contoversial, but the Mexican government acknowledged the contamination in 2002 after its own studies.

There are thousands of rice varieties in the Chhattisgarh state of India, a veritable goldmine for favourable rice traits. Would pollen from GM rice pollute them? Scientists working on GM rice crops in India insist that the threat of genetic contamination of wild relatives of rice is highly exaggerated. They say the 'contamination' could've occurred with the hybrid varieties of rice developed through conventional breeding methods during the Green Revolution. Gene Campaign, a Delhi-based organisation working on biotechnology and farmers' rights, has been demanding an evaluation of the impact of foreign genes in rice. Should India avoid cultivation of GM rice when they are ready (research on GM rice is being carried out in several institutions)? Or should it avoid GM rice only in regions like Chhattisgarh, while allowing it in other states? Would that offer enough protection? How will transfer of seed/ pollen to the rice biodiversity hotspots be prevented and monitored, given the sad state of agricultural monitoring in India? These questions deserve to be addressed.

Post-production

-- Research, field trials and tests for effects on human health and environment are the back end of the regulation of GM foods. The finished product containing ingredients of GM crops can be regulated through labelling the products. This is a highly controversial issue. Even if GM foods are entirely safe, should the consumer have a choice to consume (or not consume) a food with GM ingredients? Even in countries where GM food has been on the shelf for more than five years (the US and Canada), opinion polls have shown that a sizeable proportion of the population wants to know if the food they eat has GM ingredients or not.

Several countries are either actively considering labelling of GM foods or have already passed the laws that require labelling of GM food. In India, there has been talk of a labelling system recently. Sri Lanka, which imposed a ban on GM foods two years ago, has indicated that it is considering a labelling system that would replace the ban. China announced a labelling system in 2001, but it is yet to work out; the US has criticised China's labelling regulations, saying the Chinese have not presented any science to support the regulations. The US is clearly worried about the export of soybean, which in 2001 was worth upwards of US $1 billion, as well as corn and cotton. China's concern is its own exports to countries that may require labelling. On April 28, 2003, the Brazilian government announced that all food and food ingredients made from more than one per cent GM ingredients must be labelled. The biggest labelling tussle is between the US and the European Union (EU).

The US has been supportive of biotechnology from the word go and its approach is heavily influenced by large biotech corporations. It assumes that the regulation of biotechnology should examine the safety of only the final product, not the GM crops. It does not require labelling of products containing GM products. In 1992, it issued regulations that approve of GM food if it has the same characteristics as its non-GM counterparts. By 2002, the area under GM crops in the US was more than 38 million hectares, 66 per cent of the total area under GM crops in the world.

The EU's approach has been more cautious in recent years. Europe saw several scandals over food safety in the 1990s -- mad cow disease, bacterially contaminated meat and dioxin in poultry, pork and beef. These led European consumers to doubt their governments, scientists and the regulatory process, which had suppressed facts and mishandled public health crises. Thereafter, EU has been bringing out several regulations to label foods in which more than one per cent GM ingredient can be traced. It first implemented a mandatory labelling policy on GM foods in 1997 under the Novel Foods Regulation, which required that any GM food on the market be shown to not harm human health, and required labelling if the GM content was 'detectable'. And since 1998, the Union has not approved any GM crops for cultivation.

This de facto moratorium caused significant decline in the import of US corn to the EU and in May 2003, the US sought the World Trade Organization's (WTO) intervention over the matter. As a counter, in July 2003, the EU came out with a new legislation on labelling and tracing of GM foods. The EU hopes that labelling will restore consumer confidence in the food regulatory system by providing consumers the choice to not eat GM food. Traceability is to help the withdrawal of a product if an unforeseen risk comes up. Traceability would also help monitor the potential health or environmental effects of GM foods and crops, and to control and verify labelling claims (see box: EU labelling policy). The new regulations will enter into force in October 2003. All member states of the EU would be required to begin complying with these rules by April 2004, and the European Commission will review the rules two years later. The regulation brought to an end a five-year moratorium on import of GM foods.

What's new
The US had contended in the WTO that there is no scientific basis for the moratorium and the labelling, and that GM crops and foods are as safe as conventional foods. So, the EU actions are violations of WTO agreements. Europe's hostility to the US complaint brings memories of the WTO case by the US against the EU's refusal to buy beef raised with bovine growth hormone. Rather than allowing hormone-treated beef as recommended by the WTO dispute settlement body, the EU chose to face increased tariffs on other EU goods exported to the US.

US farmers and biotech companies are concerned about the potential impact of the new rules on exports of GM crops such as soybean, which were not directly affected when the moratorium was in place. Now, labels would have to be put on these and it is likely that the GM-vary consumers of Europe will avoid foods and feeds with GM ingredients. But avoiding the GM label would also cost dearly. GM grain is routinely mixed with conventional varieties of corn and soybean. To escape the EU threshold for labelling (0.9 per cent), farmers and food producers in the US would have to segregate GM crops and foods derived from them -- that too at every step of crop harvesting and food processing. This will bring down the competitiveness of the existing commodity grain production mechanisms.

It is very unlikely that the amount of GM content would be brought down to no more than 0.9 per cent, because some amount of mixing is bound to happen even with segregation, say, due to pollen drift. Segregation difficulties will also result in a lot of other exports -- processed foods made from cooking oils -- getting the GM label. Soybean is the single largest GM crop in the world, and it is grown primarily for animal feed and food processing. A major chunk of the market for US farmers lies in its exports. US estimates point out that such a scenario could cost them up to US $4 billion in annual agricultural exports to the EU.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, the UN food standards agency, brought more bad news for the US on July 7, 2003 -- on that day, the commission adopted new standards for GM crops. While nations are not bound to follow Codex standards, these are widely used as the legal basis for resolving international trade disputes. The new standards provide detailed procedures to determine if GM foods are safe. It also endorses the concept of 'traceability', which is central to EU actions. "These documents provide a legal basis under WTO rules for the EU's strong safety regulations for GMOs," said Michael Hansen, representative at the Codex meeting of Consumers International, a consortium representing more than 250 consumer rights organisations in 110 countries.

Poor-proof

-- The United Nation Development Programme's Human Development Report (HDR 2001) Making new technologies work for human development, declared, "Biotechnology offers the only or the best 'tool of choice' for marginal ecological zones -- left behind by the green revolution but home to more than half of the world's poorest people, dependent on agriculture and livestock". Monsanto was naturally elated; civil society groups in the South incensed. This was a clear case of poverty being used as an excuse for profit-making. Anybody who understands poverty in the South knows that it is not due to a lack of food but due to lack of access to food.

Several studies were have begun to nail the lie (see graphs: Not for the poor, Whose concerns?, Where the seed has been sown and Following suit). Two of these were released recently: GM crops -- going against the grain by ActionAid and Voices from the South: The Third World Debunks Corporate Myths on Genetically Engineered Crops brought out jointly by Institute for Food and Development Policy and Pesticide Action Network, North America. The ActionAid report is a scathing statement. Here are some sobering snippets:

Nearly 800 million people go hungry every day because they cannot grow or buy enough food

Only 1 per cent of GM research is aimed at crops used by poor farmers in poor countries

A small range of GM crops that might address poorer farmers' needs are being researched but they stand only a one in 250 chance of making it into farmers' fields

It can cost up to US $300 million to develop a GM crop and the process can take up to 12 years. (Pose this against the HDR 2001 : "Traditional cross-breeding takes a long time, typically 8-12 years. Biotechnology speeds the process of producing crops with altered traits.")

The four corporations that control most of the GM seed market had a combined turnover from agrochemicals and seeds of US $21.6 billion in 2001

Six corporations based in the US and Europe controlled 98 per cent of the market for GM crops and 70 per cent of the world's pesticide market in 2000

Six corporations own 54 per cent of US plant biotech patents

Ten corporations supply 33 per cent of the global seed market, as compared to thousands of companies 20 years ago

The main GM crops now being grown commercially -- maize, cotton, canola and soybean -- account for 99 per cent of all GM crops planted in 2002. Apart from cotton, these crops are used primarily for animal feed or processed foods

Some GM crops on the horizon have the potential to devastate rural livelihoods by enabling corporations or farmers in rich countries to farm crops currently grown in developing countries, depriving export-producing countries of income and employment. Canola, for example, has been genetically engineered to produce oils that could replace coconut and palm oils grown in the developing world. 10 million families rely on coconut farming for their livelihoods. And then there are oil palm producers in Malaysia and Ghana

Up to 1.4 billion people in developing countries depend on saved seed as their primary seed source. Up to 90 per cent of farmers rely on this system in Africa. They have complex systems for using, saving and exchanging seeds from one harvest to the other. Intellectual property rights and patents protect GM seeds. These are enforced by restrictive contracts that oblige farmers to pay a royalty, to agree not to save or replant seeds from the harvest, to use only proprietary chemicals on them, and to give the corporation access to their property to verify compliance.

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