This is a rushed response to an article that appeared in Live Mint on ‘why India needs GM foods’  http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/rsIyj8Q63d01GUSdVtXiCI/India-needs-GM-food-crops-to-boost-agriculture-productivity.html

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My comments are restricted to this article per se and not to the larger issue of GM foods. Apart from making a limited point. There are different categories of GM foods. There is genetic engineering of seeds to increase business and productivity and there is the fortification of foods to improve nutrition. Clearly two very different things. Most engineered foods, currently on shelves, belong to the latter category. Also, it is imperative that GM foods of any kind must be labeled. That, is a consumer’s right.

As regards the article: Let me sum the argument for you – The government fails the farmer by not providing him access to irrigation and capital. He is made to buy a seed that is more expensive on the promise that it increases productivity and return – it does not; except perhaps in the initial years. It needs more water – they already have no water! The much acclaimed pest resistance is not so true after all; a fact, the company itself admits to. It is not giving them a return on investment. Has pushed the farmer to debt that in turn forced him to suicide. Yet, the authors address a correlation/causation disconnect, by suggesting that the fault lies not with the seed but with an inadequacy of irrigation and to further increase lending to the farmer. With what hope of recovery in a scenario such as this, wherein the expensive seed requires more water than available and is already becoming pest resistant entailing renewed investment in pesticide?

Bt does not stand for Biotechnology. It is the name of the bacterium that is incorporated into the cotton seed in order that the plant is resistant to the Bollworm pest. The seed is called Bollgard1. Productivity and yield increase because of reduced pest affliction and low pesticide use. Well, guess what? The Bollgard1, as the seed is called, developed resistance to pests; the seed failed, the pesticide use increased and now, Monsanto is pushing Bollgard 2!!

1. If the problem is not the seed and is inadequate irrigation and finance as the authors state; isn’t it simply obvious that where such infrastructural deficiencies exist; they should first be dealt with first by the government before threatening the fault lines of a precarious situation with the introduction of an expensive seed. Assuming they (the government, that is) are not complete imbeciles; why then did they do it? Because the seed was supposed to enhance productivity and better returns, DESPITE these problems. The experience however has not held up the claim. Incidentally, early recommendations to use it in water rich areas were ignored and the seed was widely pushed all over the land.

2. How do we know that the old version seeds (‘natural’ in quotes in the article) would not give the farmer, the benefits of increased productivity and return, once the infrastructural problems of irrigation and capital were tackled. Also, the Cotton Corporation of India has published data to show equal/better performance by the older seeds. Ideally a double blinded study must be conducted after eliminating such variables to ensure belief in new technology. Bt cotton was initially meant to be used only in well irrigated areas. Typically, Bt cotton, in the first few years after planting, gives a good yield. Subsequent years are unable to match the initial euphoria and the inherently high costs of Bt cotton start to pinch. Stagnation productivity and yield drag have been widely documented. In Gujarat too. Resistance to both primary and secondary species is considered the reason for this pattern

3. Equating GM foods to tractors and better farming techniques is clearly said for effect and can be set aside. The problem with GM foods is largely due to concerns with biosafety and unsatisfactory outcomes. Biotechnology in food suffers from information gaps that industry typically refuses to address and works back channels instead to force the population to accept measures that translate into profits for business. There is nothing wrong with profit making as long as the farmer is benefiting too. The misinformation spreads when reports such as the results of the field trials have not yet been made public. Another common misconception, this one unfair to industry, is that Bt cotton contains the terminator gene. It does not.

4. Ideology hardly matters when Mr Acharia chaired a committee that produced a report and that committee comprised people and experts across the spectrum of political and scientific belief.

5. Finally, the policies of the government are clearly an abject failure. The government has failed its peasantry critically with the dissemination of information and the regulation. Yet, it is hard to put down the committee recommendations for the cessation of field trials as unreasonable. In any case; a release of the data from earlier trials and a better analysis of a complex subject like biotechnology, that includes scientists, will serve to widen the debate and plug information loopholes. Indeed, as the authors opening lines state; those that are anti-bt are, perhaps, those that understand it best.

GM foods, like nuclear power, are technologies of last resort that we might will have to accept faced as we are with ever burgeoning numbers that need to be fed. It stands to reason therefore that policy must be approached with a long term view that benefits the human race and our ecology; rather than the short term industry-favoring measures that we have seen until now. More critical policy change, in the irrigation and public distribution systems for food, must be effected before GM food can be given a fighting chance at a fair trial. 

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