The flip-flop of the government in permitting genetically modified (GM) crops for trials is discouraging. The general refrain has been “we are not against GM crops. Their long-term impact on health safety and biodiversity needs to be studied before the trials are permitted”. What is the long-term impact? In our country GM technology has become synonymous with the use of Bt crops. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) has been in commercial use for nearly 75 years, first as a spray of the bacterial spores, to be followed additionally by transgenic Bt crops (corn, cotton, soybean, etc). Nearly 20 years of research went into using Bt gene as a biocide to combat major pests. Bt protein works only in the alkaline gut of the insect, but gets degraded in the acidic environment of animal or human. Bt crops have gone through extensive trials, both for environmental safety and health parameters in experimental animals. Millions of people (in the United States, Canada, China, etc) and livestock have been consuming Bt corn for over 15 years. Europe imports GM foods. Would developed countries allow their population and livestock to be fed on unsafe food?
Bt gene has not been transferred to any non-target organism, although horizontal gene transfer takes place in nature. Bt gene is not dominant and there is no authenticated report of environmental pollution or health hazard. Although these are scientific arguments attesting to the safety of Bt gene, there has been no compromise on the conduct of trials.
Arguments on the disappearance of biodiversity are not tenable, since farmers have traditionally been cultivating only specific varieties or hybrids of a given crop. This has happened ever since man started practising agriculture. Bt gene has actually been introduced into almost all varieties of cotton in India and this will only lead to greater protection of biodiversity. In the GM approach, strategies such as gene pyramiding and refuge cultivation are available to combat resistance development. GM crop cultivation can integrate with conventional practices, etc, including organic farming.
If all this knowledge is not considered as relevant to long-term effects on health, safety and biodiversity, one only gets the feeling that the country does not repose faith in science. India accounts for 18% of the world population and 15% of the global livestock— but occupies only 2.3% of global land area. Degradation of land, soil erosion, mineral deficiencies, depletion of water resources and global warming can all have major impact on agriculture, which is not keeping pace with the rate of population growth.
Should we not look for a technology that would address the issue of agricultural productivity even under adverse conditions of biotic (pest infection) and abiotic (drought and salinity) stresses as well as the nutrition status of the agri-product?
India has formulated very strict guidelines for the conduct of GM trials. All that it takes is to make the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) autonomous and make state- and district-level monitoring committees more effective to conduct field trials. Can’t this be fixed in three months, instead of complaining all the time that we do not have a regulatory system in place? Bangladesh has approved the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal. Twenty small farmers planted Bt brinjal in four different regions and have benefited by 30% increase in yield and a 80% decrease in pesticide spray. Bangladesh could take a bold decision to move ahead and all the data India generated over a period of eight years only led to embargo of even a trial Bt brinjal cultivation in the country. I guess Bt brinjal from Bangladesh would taste better.
G Padmanaban is INSA senior scientist, department of biochemistry,
Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
The views expressed by the author are personal
(Tomorrow: The hidden horrors in GM crops)