GM crops: Here to stay

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

Published: Tuesday 30 September 2003

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.

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