GM Crops — a scientific temper needed

Guest post by Anjana Kaul

A mention of GM crops (genetically modified crops) tends to invite strong opinions – both in favour and against. Those in favour believe that GM crops are a key to addressing food security not just in India but globally. Those against have many arguments, the most emphatic being that the effect of consuming or using GM crops on the human body are unknown.

In the heat of passion, there have been many objections raised against GM crops that are clouding the narrative and preventing a serious scientific assessment of the risk and the value of this new technology. Let’s discuss some of the objections raised:

Genetic modification is wrong in principle: Anyone who studied biology in school understands that every living thing that is present on earth is a result of many genetic modifications. Some proponents of this argument qualify it – genetic modification by humans is not right. Almost every food crop in its original pre-historic form was toxic for human consumption. The early settlers selected the wild varieties that were consumable and cultivated them thus hugely influencing the natural selection of those species. In more recent times, hybrid varieties are new plant varieties created by combining two or more existing varieties so that the new varietal has genes from the parent varieties. So one could take a variety with high yield but low resistance to disease and another with high resistance to disease and combine them to get a hybrid that has both high yield and high resistance to disease. The hybrid is a genetically modified version of the two original varieties. Does that imply that all types of genetic modification is good or should be allowed? All new technologies have risks and some technologies fail altogether. One could argue that nuclear power carries a significant risk to human life as well but we continue to use it.

Big multinational seed companies will benefit from GM crops: The argument here is that since most of the research on GM crops has been done by large multinational seed companies, if GM crops are allowed, these companies will dominate the space and misuse their power. That is analogous to saying that since only large pharma companies can afford to develop new drugs, we should not allow any new drug development as these large pharma companies will have an undue advantage. In fact, unlike pharma, agriculture gets a lot of government funding for research. Just in India there are more than 100 government institutes and about 50 private ones working on genetic engineering of various crops.

GM crops will destroy genetic diversity: The effect of GM crops on genetic diversity is not that different from the effect of hybridization. There is absolutely no doubt that we are losing genetic diversity in crops (when was the last time you saw 2 or more varieties of potatoes for sale?). This is happening because neither farmers nor consumers in India are sensitive to it. Since consumers don’t care about potato varieties, the farmer doesn’t pay much attention to mixing new seeds with old; seeds of one variety with another. Where consumers do care e.g. rice, some amount of diversity and distinction does prevail. In high value varieties like Basmati, the farmer is extra careful. To preserve the genetic diversity scientifically, there are now gene seed banks being maintained by various countries both for internal and global use.

GM crops will ‘infect’ normal crops: All plants have flow characteristics i.e. pollen from a field of one variety gets blown over to neighbouring fields and pollinates those plants. This happens in all farms today as well. To prevent such mixing of varietals where purity is important, farmers buy certified seed from seed companies rather than planting from an existing crop. It is true that the crop yield from a farm next to a GM crop farm may contain produce that inadvertently carries the genetic modification. A farm using chemical fertilizers and pesticides will ‘infect’ any organic farm next to it as water and air will carry the chemicals across the farms. To prevent this, a buffer zone is created and the organic farms are periodically tested to ensure there is no impact. The same principles could be used to devise techniques to prevent GM crops from ‘infecting’ neighbouring farms.

The effect of GM crops on human bodies is unknown: This is indeed true. Not enough research has been done to be certain of what the long term effects might be. Every new drug and almost every new technology invented for mass consumption goes through an evaluation phase. Watching too much television harms the eyes; cell phones destroy brain cells; microwave ovens destroy nutritional value of food are all popular beliefs or were at some point of time. True or not, these technologies exist and are being used extensively. The consumer evaluates the benefits and risks and decides whether to use them or not. Even today the consumer is choosing between food products that may contain harmful chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) and various kinds of organic foods.

The passion that surrounds any debate on GM crops makes it difficult to have a purely scientific discussion about it. Just as with drugs, there need to be standards created that all food crops (not just GM) must adhere to. The process for testing must be rigourous and independently carried out by an accrediting agency before any crop is passed for field trials and later for mass release. Such a process exists and has been in use – this is how new drugs are developed and released into the market. We need to develop a similar scientific evaluation process for GM crops as well. Let there be trials; empirical data collected; analysed; studies on animals; etc. and let the scientific community and a regulatory authority make a dispassionate recommendation.

Anjana Kaul is a participant of the 13th cohort of GCPPB, the flagship course of Takshashila Institution