Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Today's Editorial 07 September 2014

                   Genetically modified

Source: By Bharat Jhunjhunwala: The Statesman
The UPA Government had permitted trials of about 60 Genetically Modified (GM) food plants, such as wheat. The NDA Government has put such tests on hold in view of doubts and anxieties. Nature carries out gene modification via breeding. The male and female genes from different parents combine to produce a new strain. But the modification is gradual and limited to within the species. A wheat male cannot breed with “Congress Grass female” in natural conditions. Genetic Modification speeds up and widens the process. Genes from a particular plant are isolated and these are “bombarded” onto the genes of a parent plant. The donor and host plant can be of different species altogether. The two genes combine under the “bombardment”, so-called. But we do not know which qualities of the two will join. For example, bombarding the wheat plant with the gene of Congress Grass could produce a variety of wheat that is resilient to drought; or it could also produce wheat that causes asthma. This gene modification activity is undertaken by seed companies like Monsanto in their laboratories.

The varieties that appear promising to the seed company are sent for field trial to assess their performance in farm conditions. It is here that the Government of India enters the picture. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has established a Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) that decides whether to allow a seed company to undertake field trials in the country and to sell the GM seeds. The GEAC did not give permission for field trials when Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan were environment ministers. However, it was Veerappa Moily who reversed the stand and approved the field trials. Now the NDA Government has again reversed the stand and put the trials on hold.

As of now, the seeds of only one GM cotton are allowed to be sold in India. American bollworm is a pest that can damage the cotton crop. Bt is a poisonous bacterium that kills the bollworm. Scientists have taken the poisonous Bt gene and genetically implanted it in the cotton plant. As a result, the entire cotton plant-roots, stem, leaves and the cotton fibre of the Bt Cotton becomes poisonous. The Bt poison enters the digestive system of the bollworm when it eats the leaves of the Bt Cotton.

The Bollworm dies. The cost of cultivation of cotton is reduced. It is no longer necessary to undertake an extensive spraying of other chemical insecticides to kill the bollworm. Bt Cotton constitutes almost 95 per cent of the cotton that is produced in the country.

The risk is that the Bt gene may spread and contaminate the entire cotton gene. The pollen of the Bt Cotton can “jump” from the fields and fertilise the indigenous varieties of cotton. That will render the indigenous varieties of cotton poisonous. The USA had approved the cultivation of a Genetically Modified (GM) variety of maize. Only about one per cent of this maize crop was grown. Yet, a study revealed that the modified gene had entered into almost half of the American maize crop. A similar spread of Bt gene to indigenous varieties will mean that non-poisonous cotton may become extinct.

A UK Government report on GM trials found that genetically modified plants such as oilseed and rapeseed have contaminated conventional crops up to 200 yards away. They have also interbred with weeds, making them resistant to herbicides and raising the spectre of ‘superweeds’, which would be almost impossible to eradicate. The study also revealed that GM oilseed results in fewer broad-leaved weed seeds, which are a major source of food for farmland birds, bees and butterflies. This means that a single GM crop has the potential to harm the entire ecology of an area. What might happen if the wheat crop becomes poisonous because of a stray gene entering the crops?

In Bhatinda, farmers had been cultivating guar and bajra till the 1970s. In the Eighties, they started growing cotton and earned a tidy profit in the first few years. Then the American bollworm attacked their crops. They were advised to use insecticides. Initially a few sprays were successful in killing the insects. But soon the bollworm developed resistance to the pesticides. As a result the farmers had to undertake up to 25 sprays, yet they lost their crops. They became heavily indebted and some committed suicide. Had they relied on the traditional methods of pest control, they might have been able to avert the predicament. According to Mr Som Pal, former Member of the Planning Commission, traditional pest control technologies are quite effective. Cow urine and garlic can be sprayed. Tall crops like that of bajra can be planted amidst the cotton. That enables the birds to perch on the bajra plant. They can then spot the bollworm and eat it. Such pest control technologies are less expensive. But the sprays are more effective and profitable if resistance does not develop.

There is no global consensus on GM Crops. France has banned all genetically engineered crops, though Spain has adopted them. In India, Maharashtra and Punjab are supportive of the variety, while Tamil Nadu and Kerala have opposed the experiment. This confusion indicates that there is inadequate information about these issues. Therefore, caution should be the watchword.

The safety norms for GM trials are still in preparation globally. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva says that Article 19.3 of the Convention on Biological Diversity called for a Biosafety Protocol that is currently being negotiated. There seems to be no reason to move in utter haste as Mr Moily had done.

Let us now consider the arguments in favour of quick adoption of GM Crops. The first relates to malnourishment and the need to increase food production. Actually malnourishment has become a problem because we have diverted large tracts of land for the production of biodiesel or for export crops. There can be no shortage of food if we stop diversion of land presently being done for the cultivation of these crops. The second problem is that of competition in the global market. Indeed we are engaged in a “race to the bottom.” The use of GM crops by one country will enable it to produce cheap goods and all other countries will have to perforce adopt the technology if they are to withstand the competition. The remedy is not to destroy our ecology but to impose barriers to the import of cheap GM crops and provide subsidies to exports of our non-GM crops.


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