Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to listen to Kavitha Kuruganti as she addressed a gathering about the perils of Genetically Modified food. Kavitha is the the convener of the Alliance For Sustainable And Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) through which she tirelessly struggles for the causes of sustainable agriculture, farmer livelihoods and safe food. She is also the founder member of MAKAM (Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch) an initiative to further the rights of female agricultural workers.
Kuruganti’s has been among the leading voices campaigning against the entry of GM mustard into India, raising serious concerns about its repercussions on Indian agriculture, farmer rights, health, environment, and food safety.
She says that anti-GM advocates are often labelled 'anti-development'. She explains, "Unlike other forms of technology, genetic engineering (GE) is an irreversible technology that modifies living host organisms by introducing genes from unrelated, foreign organisms into them"...and then releasing them into the environment to interact with other living organisms.
But genes move around even in Nature, so what’s the problem? The movement of genes by GE varies in 2 crucial ways from what happens in Nature:
- In nature, most gene transfers take place in lower organisms like bacteria and viruses. Their occurrence in higher order organisms is rare.
- The scale and frequency of genetic transfers forced by GE is spacio-temporally unprecedented in nature. As part of its evolutionary cycle, an organism, based on its internal molecular environment, will decide for itself whether at all a new gene will get integrated, how it will integrate, how and when it will function, its impact on other genes, and its interaction with external environment. Genetic engineering forces the new gene to work in the new environment. To make it work, it’s not just a single gene that gets introduced into the host organism but, to make that gene function and express itself in the new environment, other genes are tagged along with it - a promoter gene, a terminator gene, a marker gene - to create new genetic constructs to be transformed into new organisms.
Here are some arguments from Kavitha's talk:
1. The question of environmental safety
The case of Bt cotton clearly illustrates the issue of long term safety of GM technology. India adopted Bt cotton in 2002 on the grounds that the plant had new genes which would make it poisonous to a particular set of pests called bollworms, thereby relieving farmers of the dependence on commercial chemical pesticides. We have evidence 15 years hence that the very claim on which it was brought has disintegrated The pests that Bt Cotton was meant to kill have developed pesticide resistance; there is evidence that more chemical pesticides are used on Bt cotton today than in 2002. Further, 2.5 times more chemical fertilisers are being used despite a panoply of government programmes to improve soil health and farmer welfare such, as the Soil Health Mission. Increased chemical inputs are directly linked to higher GhG emissions, accelerated climate change, and reduced soil fertility.
2. The question of farmer livelihoods and sovereignty
In India, farming provides employment to more than 50 percent of our workforce. If risky, unproven technology is introduced millions are forced to teeter on the edge of life and death.
Again, there is much to learn from India’s Bt cotton experience. Since the introduction of Bt cotton, we have ceded control of 95 percent of our cotton seeds to Monsanto. The corporation decides whether farmers will get cotton seed on time to sow or not, it determines what seed brands will enter the market, and at what price and in what quantities they will be sold to farmers. Using its monopoly over India’s cotton crop, Monsanto controls whether cotton can be grown in India or not. Most mustard in India is grown from farm-saved seeds. With GM mustard, once seeds are purchased, there might be 100 percent germination at the first sowing. Eventually however, the seeds will prove sterile, and the farmer is forced to go back to buying inputs again and again, trapping her in an endless cycle of debt and despair.
In India, farmer suicides continue to be higher among cotton growers than among any other category of farmers. Many farmer suicides in Punjab are being directly connected to failure of the cotton crop after pest problems emerged in Bt cotton. Much of Punjab's agrarian health crisis can also be traced back to farmer exposures to excessive synthetic pesticides.
The herbicide-tolerant variety of GM mustard threatens the livelihoods of India’s invisible toilers - scores of poor, rural women, 78 percent of whom rely on manual weeding of fields to earn a livelihood. In the face of GM mustard, these women stand to lose their only source of income, and in the absence of alternatives by the government, it is the poorest women of the country who stand to lose a fight not of their making.
3. The question of need
GM mustard is being promoted because ostensibly, this combination of technology will allow hybrids, and thereby, hybrid vigour to be created in mustard plants, something that can't be done in India's existing self-pollinating varieties. Farmers are told that the new hybrid will increase their yield by 25-30 percent, and that if those yields go up, India won’t need to import edible oil and bleed foreign exchange. It is true that in India we import Rs. 70,000 crores worth of edible oil. But 60 percent of that is unhealthy palmolein oil, our insatiable appetite for which destroys tropical forests in Malaysia and Indonesia. The demand for palm oil is driven by the packaged and processed food industry which is gaining larger market share in the country. Health activists argue that India has already exceeded its per capita levels of healthy oil intake and that we shouldn't be asking for more.
4. The question of increased yields
The issue of the capacity of increased yields in GM mustard hybrids itself stands questioned. India already has non-GM hybrids that don’t rely on the Bar Barstar Barnase technology of the GM variant. Another technology called Cytoplasmic Male Sterility (CMS) which is far safer is also known to geneticists. By being contained in the plant’s cytoplasm rather than its DNA, CMS technology doesn’t have genetic implications of being inherited and contaminating other crops. CMS hybrids are already available in the market, but despite being better performing than GM hybrids, they have not reduced India’s imports.
A second method - System of Mustard Intensification, promoted by the Madhya Pradesh Agriculture Department, has yielded twice as much as GM hybrids. In this method, instead of tweaking the genetic makeup of seeds, improvements to yield are brought about by altered agricultural practices such as changing the distance between plants and reducing the quantities of inputs like water. There is also evidence from around the world that countries with the best rapeseed mustard yields are those using non-GM hybrids, including China.
5. The question of fraudulent data
The government’s claims that GM mustard will result in a 25-30 percent yield increase was a major scientific fraud: They compared the yields to those of 30-year-old varieties instead of with other hybrids which always yield better than open-pollinated varieties. The government's push for GM mustard is based on this data demonstrating higher yields which claim to create a favourable import balance for edible oil.
6. The question of human health and consumer rights to safe food
GM mustard is ‘herbicide tolerant’ which means it contains the Bar gene that can tolerate a chemical weedicide called Glufosinate. The inevitable consequence of this, as evidenced by the case of Bt cotton, is a rise in usage of chemical pesticides by farmers, an often indiscriminate use. The herbicide tolerant crop not only withstands higher volumes of chemical sprays, but it absorbs them and passes the poisonous residues along to us through our sarson da saag, kasundi, and tadka, infringing our right to safe food. This will have health implications for the health of farmers and consumers. In many South American countries, there are reports of major health crises such as cancers, congenital defects, and reproductive health disorders unfolding where herbicide tolerant crops are deployed on a large scale. If Punjab, which is already reeling under the consequences of the Green Revolution and Bt cotton failure, and infamous for its Cancer Train, laps up GM mustard, it will be inviting disastrous health implications.
7. The question of irreversibility
In the case of Genetic Engineering, when genes are moved around in the plant kingdom in a forced, random fashion to produce seeds, the pollen from the new plants begins spreading in the environment. It can leave these new genes in related and wild species and contaminate crops in neighbouring farms. This makes this as yet unproven technology irreversible and uncontrollable.
8. The question of the political economy of GM mustard
Today, 95 percent of the world's GM crops are grown in only 5 countries. Most countries have rejected or banned GM technology. Yet why are we in such a hurry to adopt GM technology?
- Intellectual Property Rights: The laws of several countries, India included, make it illegal to claim patents on entire plants. However, if like in the case of GM mustard, even 3 new genes are inserted into the plant, it gives the geneticist the right to claim to have invented a new variety, and proceed to patent it. Much of the control exercised by large multinational corporations like Monsanto and Bayer over food systems is operationalised through its patents on seeds. Once seeds are patented, it is illegal for farmers to propagate a crop using seeds saved from her previous crop - a practice that's at the core of farmer sovereignty. Thus, of all the tools of modern biotechnology, genetic engineering is particularly fascinating to corporations for its promise of the easy and eternal money to be made from patented seeds.
- Trade security: By 1996-97, the US had already approved for commercial cultivation about a dozen GM crops patented by different corporations. In 1998, a study by Hungarian biochemist Árpád Pusztai warning of the possible health impacts of GM crops caused Europe to ban imports of all GM crops and several other countries quickly followed suit. This was a blow to the US, whose agricultural economy is held afloat by global export markets for 3 or 4 of its major crops. Since then, it has been aggressively pushing GM technology in developing countries of Africa, India, Bangladesh, and Philippines, many of which have little choice in the matter because they rely on multilateral aid from the very governments selling them GM technology. Thus, while GM mustard is being touted to us with a public sector face under the guise of farmer welfare and reduced forex spending on edible oil, activists like Kavitha call it a Trojan horse for many other GM crops in the pipeline.
What can you do?
We are but 3 months away from mustard sowing season. GM mustard has already received regulatory clearance from the Environment Ministry and only awaits the approval of the Minister for Environment and Forests. As a citizen with rights to safe food, here’s what you can do to keep GM mustard from coming into the country:
- Sign the online petition to Dr. Harshvardhan rejecting GM mustard.
- Write a postcard to the PM and the Environment Minister with your own personal message.
- Volunteer time to spread the campaign message through public outreach.
- Tweet your message to @PMOIndia, @narendramodi @drharshvardhan, @GMWatchIndia
- Learn more about the implications of GM mustard at India GM Info.
- Leave your message on the PMO website.
Featured image: Flickr CC/ Abhijit Kar Gupta