Tuesday 7 July 2009, by Sailendra Nath Ghosh
According to a report in The Hindu of April 13 last, the Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice issued three welcome directives to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee while giving a verdict on a PIL petition filed by the Convenor of Gene Campaign, Ms Suman Sahai, an internationally famous Indian geneticist. The directives to the GEAC are that it must (i) consider the toxicity and allergencity of the proposed GM crop; (ii) study the requirement of isolation distance of the experimental field from other fields to prevent contamination; and (iii) post the relevant data on the web so that independent experts could examine the data obtained from the experiments. Pursued in letter and spirit, these could be safeguards against the misuses that the GMO producers are now indulging in, in large parts of the world.
The hon’ble Chief Justice, again, in his speech at the seminar at Chandigarh on “Law and Environment” organised by the Asia-Pacific Jurists Association, warned against corporates “making a fast buck at the cost of nature” and advised the shelving of projects which appeared suspicious from the ecology angle. These were wise sayings indeed and were in accord with the “precautionary principle’ which is basic to good science.
Genetic modification is variously known. It is called “transgenic engineering”, “horizontal gene transfer technology”, and also “recombinant DNA technology”. To call it a “suspicious” project, in 2009, is, however, a gross underestimate. It is the most dangerous technology that mankind has ever known. It is more lethal than nuclear bomb manufacturing technology. Man, even after manufacturing nuclear weapons, can keep these bottled up. But once the products of transgenic genetic engineering are released, their chain reactions are unstoppable.
This brings us to the basics of this technology. Transgenic engineering, by definition, is implanting the gene of an organism into the genome of an unrelated species – for example, the gene of a pig into a tomato, the gene of a snake into an orchid. Since every organismic species has its own natural defence mechanism, the implantation of a foreign gene requires a carrier which can pierce through the target organism’s defence barrier. Commonly, viruses, or combinations of viruses or of infectious bacteria are the vehicles for this kind of gene implantation. Can such atrocious violation of the natural order produce any beneficial result?
The next question is: Will the gene or genes implanted in a species remain confined to the targeted species? Science is clear on this issue. “The very cellular mechanisms that enable the foreign genes to ‘force-integrate’ into the genome can also mobilise these genes to jump out.” Which means, the foreign genes can re-insert into other sites of the targeted organism and also jump out to re-integrate into other organisms by secondary, tertiary, quarternary transfers. Thus, it is a demonic technology. This is tearing apart the genome of every species of the plant and animal kingdom. This is Genetic holocaust. Certainly it is more lethal than nuclear holocaust. In nuclear-bomb-devastated Hiroshima, after 60years, blades of grass have started growing. But the effects of transgenic engineering are Irretrievable and will last till eternity.
There is a world of difference between genetic engineering—of the type that Borlaung did in the 1960s—and the transgenic engineering that is now being pushed through.
It is because of this that the highly venerated Nobel Laureate in Medicine, George Wald, eminent Professor of Biology, Harvard University, had, at the very beginning of this concept, warned against its pursuit with the following trenchant words:
Recombinant DNA technology faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of three billion years of evolution. Such intervention must not be confused with previous intrusion upon the natural order of living organisms: animal and plant breeding....... All the earlier procedures worked within single or closely related species....Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part the bargain...this (new) direction may be not only unwise, but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics.
To hide this hideous character, the companies selling GM products try to allure the farmers by falsely advertising their higher productivity, their lesser requirement for pesticides, hence their supposed environment-friendliness. Some other companies indulge in advertisements about their higher herbicide tolerance.
Its deceptive appeal is so great that even the most enlightened people often get deluded. During a PIL hearing on GMOs, at least one honourable judge out of a three-member Supreme Court Bench headed by the Chief Justice, permitted himself the expression: “GM foods, capable of dramatically increasing productivity, could be the answer to hunger and poverty in India...GM seeds could possibly be a means to eradicate hunger and poverty. Poverty is probably more than dangerous than the side-effects of GM seeds.” (As reported by the Delhi edition of The Times of India of May 1, 2009)
If the honourable judge takes the trouble of making enquiries about the experiences of the people of Argentina, and the farmers of South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and our country’s BT. Cotton growers, he will hasten to revise his own opinion. Brief mention of a few experiences from different countries where “poverty alleviation through GM crops” were tried, would be revealing.
i) Argentina, which was a country that used to produce a surplus of diverse and health-giving food for eight times its population, is now, thanks to its widespread use of GM soya crops, having to import milk, lentils, peas, cotton etc and “communities all over the country are suffering the effects of agrotoxins”.
ii) The use of GM cotton in South Africa, GM sweet potato in Uganda, GM. maize and sweet potato in Kenya—all showed lower yields, proliferation of super-weeds, compulsive use of many times more of pesticides/ herbicides, soil toxicity, and emergence of newer and newer diseases of both mankind and cattle.
iii) In our country itself, the limited use of GM cotton—named B.T. cotton after the bacillus thuringiensis—led to farmers’ suicides due to higher costs and lower yields
iv) The three-year farm-scale evaluation of three spring-sown GM crops—oilseed rape, beet and maize—in the UK by the Royal Society conclusively showed their damaging effects on biodiversity, which is the very basis of sustainability of agriculture. The Royal Society had made it very clear that it would not focus on key questions such as gene flow, transgenic contamination, creation of ‘superweeds’ and ‘superpests’ and would observe only the impact of managing GM herbicide-tolerant crops on farmland biodiversity.
v) In the USA itself, studies showed that in most field trials, the GM crops called “Round-up ready” soyabean showed lower yields than the conventional varieties. Still, the clout of GMO producing companies—Monsanto, Novartis, Du Pont etc.— is so strong that they are being allowed to experiment with many GM crops with impunity.
However, it is worth noting that Maxico has imposed a ban on not only the cultivation of GM corn but also on its research. The anti- GM sentiment in the countries of European Union is so strong that Monsanto, the leading GMO producer, had to discontinue its transgenic wheat and barley seed-making and seed-selling business in Europe as far back in 2003. It had also to withdraw from its kind of research in plant pharmaceuticals.
A question can yet be asked: if GM crops are so unsafe, why are the Americans, who are eating some GM crops for a decade or more, not falling ill on a mass scale? The answer is: hardly anybody dies immediately after eating a GM crop. Apart from acute toxins and allergens, other harmful effects are likely to appear in the longer term, just as the carcinogenous effects of tobacco became apparent after years of smoking. There is no doubt, however, that the health standards of US citizens are fast deteriorating. A review paper by Nathan B. Battalion of Jonathan Campbell’s publication 50 harmful effects of Genetically Modified foods says: “Whereas in 1900, cancer affected only one person in the USA, it is now one out of two men, and one out of three women.” While water, air and food pollution made their contributions to this increase throughout the century, it is the acceleration of use of chemicals as antibiotics, pesticides, weedicides, herbicides that led to galloping increases in “systemic, whole body immune system breakdowns”.
GM crops are inevitably linked with multiplying uses of chemicals in the above forms. According to the review paper mentioned in the preceding para, scientists have found that random combinations of chemicals (mostly pesticides) can cause one thousand times more cancer than the sum of the individual chemicals indicated in separate tests. Even more startling was the fact that some chemicals which were earlier thought to be harmless by themselves, proved lethal in combinations.
In a word, GM crops are fraught with famine, hunger, disease and death.
After these pointers, it is necessary to point out how the Supreme Court’s salutary directives mentioned at the outset may be scuttled.
1. It is common knowledge now that, in the USA, the decision making positions in the FDA (Food and Drug administration), which is supposed to be authority to allow or disallow the cultivation of GM crops have been usurped by persons linked with GMO producer companies. In India, how many among the members of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee are, or would be, really independent and endowed with holistic understanding would need to be probed. As of today, men like Dr P.M. Bhargava, the founder-Director of India’s Centre of Molecular Biology Studies, has no voice there, even though his pointers tally with people’s experiences. Genuine environmentalists have now no place on GEAC. Who will decide the composition of the GEAC?
2. Since transgenic engineering is gunshot-like violence that pierces the nuclear membrane of the cell, should not the GEAC’s every decision be reported to the Parliament and debated before any trial of GM crop in the field is allowed?
3. For the first time in history, the GMO issue has brought about a new nexus—the academic-industrial-military complex. (Earlier, it was industrial-military complex.) Hence the scope for free unbiased debates on the scientific technological level is getting virtually shut out. Prestigious science journals like Science, Nature, New Scientists, Lancet have now come to be dependent on corporate advertisements and sponsorship, often of the whole series of pro-biotech (read pro-GMO) articles. They are now refusing to publish papers by scientists which confirm the early whistle blower’s predictions. Only the involvement of farmers in open debates can clinch the issue. If the debates are limited to the position-holding experts, the Supreme Court’s expectations are likely to be belied.
4. As a result of widespread and mounting consumer rejection of GM crops in the countries of European Union, the US agribusiness is now seeking to profit more from Africa, Asia and Latin America—all in the name of ‘poverty alleviation” and “fighting hunger”. If they can monopolise the seed market and the market for its concomitant agrochemicals, these will be the richest business corporates in the world. Hence they will seek control the research institutes and the Faculties in the Universities by lavish funding. A recent study by the Third World Network—Africa, after offering evidences to show that the GM projects are inappropriate for poverty alleviation, have concluded that “their claim is a public relations strategy to reduce public resistance to GM products and that their carefully crafted and well-funded campaigns are designed to recruit GM advocates: “Politicians have latched on to biotechnology to illustrate their otherwise absent commitment to the poor. Academics have found another fad. Corporations try to sell their (GM producers’) products. Scientists have projects that need funding. The result of all this unjustified publicity is muted debate.”
5. Apart from the above ways of controlling scientific and technological manpower, questions will be raised about the “unfeasibility” of maintaining distance from non-GM crop-growing fields for preventing contamination. A famous case in Canada may be mentioned here. The University of Manitoba sought to establish the distance that genetically modified pollen could travel. They found that wheat pollen would stay airborne for at least one hour. They related it to wind speed. If you had a 35 kilometres per hour wind speed, how far can it travel? Canola pollen stays airborne for nearly three hours. So, if there is 35 kph wind, how far should be isolation distance? If your pollen gets into a whirlwind, it could travel over 60 km! In our country, the problem can be even greater. Hence maintaining safe contamination-free distance will be more problematic.
The solution is to ban GM research and GM cultivation altogether. As the great scientist-philosopher Heisenberg said, demonic technology-based enterprises should never be allowed.
Armchair politicians would ask: is there any way to increasing food production without using GM seeds, without the use of chemical fertilisers? In our country, there are numerous examples where organic farming, aided by Eathworm culture (vermiculture), yields much more, both quantitatively and qualitatively, than these anti-natural methods ever can.
A book titled Organic Farming Source Book, which was originally published a decade and half back, is being republished by the Other Book Store, Mapusa, Goa. The stories narrated there are living proofs of the truth that bounteousness is in-built in Nature. We need to know how to harness it.
India is home to a vast reservoir of biological—hence genetic wealth. This is the foundation of the country’s food and nutritional security. Preserving the wild relatives of crop plants in the vicinity is the surest means of infusion of healthier germplasms—and hence of crop improvement and abundance. Selection by farmers and cross-breeding, if necessary, is a superior alternative to any kind of genetic engineering, which invariably reduces diversity. As for transgenic engineering, it should never, never be allowed.
The author is one of the country’s earliest environmentalists and a social philosopher.