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No, there are too many risks involved

Genetically modified foods (GMFs) may not be on everyone’s plate yet but they certainly are on everyone’s mind. In India, the green signal for commercial use of bt brinjal given by the  Ministry of Environment has got farmers, agricultural activists, non-governmental organizations, and common consumers seeing red. The approval, coming after just a six-day review of reports submitted by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (Mahyco), the Indian arm of Monsanto, the international agricultural giant, has sparked a campaign of protest and petitions. (The “bt” comes from the gene of a bacterium that is inserted into the plant to make it resistant to certain pests.)

Promoters see GM crops as the only way to wipe poverty and hunger from the face of the earth. Bt crops (corn, potato, eggplant) are supposed to prevent environmental damage by eliminating large-scale application of chemical pesticides/herbicides. Future GM crops could be made disease-resistant, cold/salinity/drought-tolerant and root/bore worms-protected. They could have infused nutrients and carry edible vaccines. A GM-heaven, indeed!

Ironically, opposition to GM foods cites  environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns as main issues. Studies show GM-fed animals have disrupted growth, damaged organ development and poor immune responsiveness. A recent study in Madhya Pradesh produced data that severe allergy outbreaks in farm and factory workers were correlated to exposure to bt cotton. Studies on  high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars show bt toxins kill indiscriminately.

What if insects become resistant to bt crops, like they did to DDT?

What about gene-transfer to non-target species like “superweeds?” Patenting plant varieties could also push up seed prices. There are GM plants with “suicide genes” that grow for a season and produce sterile seeds, forcing farmers to buy fresh seeds each year. Bt cotton was introduced in India in 2002. A recent scientific study carried out by NGO Navdanya showed that the soil of fields where bt cotton had been planted for three years had drastically reduced levels of good bacteria and vital soil beneficial enzymes.

Can the food industry be trusted to label GM foods? Will governments monitor them effectively? There is no telling what the long-term effects of GMF consumption will be. No legitimate study has ever proven GM foods to be safe or nutritious.

Sustainable agriculture and biodiversity benefit most from the use of a rich variety of crops. The exclusive use of herbicide-tolerant GM crops would make the farmer dependent on these chemicals and dependent on the company that produces them. Impoverished nations like India should not become testing grounds for large global corporations.

Geeta Padmanabhan is based in Chennai.

Yes, India has been ready for centuries

How was last night’s dinner?  Did you have roti and sabji?  Perhaps if you’re a non-vegetarian in a hurry you had a Big Mac.  Either way, you were munching away at a genetically modified food.

Back in 1970, Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the Green Revolution that made Punjab the breadbasket of India. The high-yield-variety (HYV) seeds that he developed from research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology resulted in revolutionizing a strain of wheat that was spectacularly more productive than what farmers in India, Pakistan, and Mexico had previously been accustomed to.

As noted in his biography on the Nobel website, this genetic modification arranged to “put the new cereal strains into extensive production in order to feed the hungry people of the world—and thus providing, ‘a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation,’ a breathing space in which to deal with the ‘Population Monster’ and the subsequent environmental and social ills that too often lead to conflict between men and between nations.”

Did Borlaug contribute to feeding the hungry? Yes.  Was it a temporary success?  Yes. Have those HYV seeds and associated irrigation systems and pesticides resulted in unintended consequence such as those that modern-day opponents of GMFs rally around? Again, yes.

The above affirmatives suggest that when change of any kind is undertaken, some things are optimized and some are suboptimized. As a society, we have to prioritize what needs to be optimized and mitigate against the risks of what inevitably will be suboptimized. Along the way, when we find ourselves running out of breathing space, we need to rally our best and brightest to consider new solutions.  Thus the innovation cycle goes on.

Genetically Modified Foods are a part of this endless innovation cycle.  The cycle began centuries ago when a farmer experimented with one type of seed that was particularly well suited to the ecosystem of his field.  It continued through Borlaug’s Green Revolution. And now this cycle pits the scientists and marketers of Monsanto’s products against  champions of sustainable agriculture. The difference today is the speed with which change takes place. While the farmer of yore would work through years of experiments with a very gradual impact, today’s businesses look for much more rapid new product introductions.

What our policy makers require is a middle way. Neither Monsanto’s green-light-go nor opponents’ red-light-stop is viable. Today’s hungry need to be fed and our bountiful soils must feed generations to come. Let’s take the time to balance the present and the future, leverage technologies that help us now, and put in place contingency plans for the “bugs” that those same technologies will introduce down the road.

Dr. Rajesh C. Oza is a change management consultant.