|Despite warnings, India bent on GM
By Ranjit Devraj
DELHI - Dire warnings by food security experts and crop
failures have not deterred India from going ahead with
plans to allow farmers to grow genetically modified (GM)
food crops that are developed indigenously, as well as
from seeds supplied by transnational firms.
March this year, the Genetic Engineering Approval
Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment and
Forests cleared for commercial planting Bt cotton. These
are cotton seeds spliced with genes taken from the
bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is deadly
to the bollworm pest.
GEAC cleared Bt cotton,
developed by the US seed giant Monsanto, in spite of the
legal challenges to its planting pending in the Supreme
Court. These challenges, by farmers' unions and
non-government organizations led by the Research
Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, allege
Now farmers are reaping the
bitter fruits of GM crops. There have been spectacular
crop failures in the three major cotton-growing states
of western Maharashtra and Gujarat and adjoining central
Madhya Pradesh. A fourth state, southern Karnataka, has
banned the sale of Bt cotton seeds.
officials have told Inter Press Service that the crop
failures have been due to droughts followed by
unseasonal rains, and that this has resulted in root
rot, to which the Bt cotton crops have no resistance.
But according to newspaper reports, Bt cotton
crop failures in Gujarat state were due to bollworm
attacks. This means, they say, that the Bt crop showed
no resistance to bollworms, given the failures in the
districts of Bhavnagar, Surendranagar and Rajkot.
The state-run Gujarat Agricultural University
has now been tasked by the state government to submit a
detailed status report on the extent of the bollworm
attack on the 18,000 hectares now planted with Bt
But in spite of the failures, the
government is keen on another crop spliced with Bt
developed by the Delhi-based Indian Agricultural
Research Institute (IARI) - the "golden acre" variety of
cabbage that is consumed in large quantities locally.
As with Bt cotton, the main advantage of Bt
cabbage is its vastly reduced use of pesticides, say its
developers at the IARI, rated one of the world's major
agricultural research organizations.
laboratory conditions, the genetically modified cabbage
plant expressed a resistance level of 70 percent against
its most dreaded pest, the diamond-back moth," said R C
Bhattacharya , a scientist at the IARI. The moth
destroys more than a billion dollars worth of cabbage
around the world each year.
But according to
Devinder Sharma, director of the Forum for Biotechnology
and Food Security, crops like cabbage are not important
for food security in India. Thus, he says, the money
invested in developing Bt cabbage may not be worthwhile.
But, he adds, there is a real danger of the
toxic Bt gene entering the food chain with unknown
consequences to public health and to the environment
from a series of genetically engineered vegetables -
including tomato, tobacco and eggplant - being developed
at government laboratories. "Even GM material unintended
for human consumption could end up in the human food
chain," Sharma said.
But the most immediate
concern of anti-GM activists is the GEAC move to grant
approval for the large-scale farming of genetically
modified mustard seed developed by Aventis/Proagro and
promoted by Proagro PGS (India), a subsidiary of the
Belgium-based Hoechst Schering AgrEvo.
performance of this variety of mustard is inferior to
existing Indian varieties and there are reports of high
levels of genetic contamination of normal mustard
varieties in neighboring fields," said Suman Sahai, who
leads Gene Campaign, an NGO based in the national
capital. Sahai and other campaigners have demanded that
the GEAC make public the result of the mandatory Food
and Feed Safety trials that have been carried out so
A Gene Campaign statement released last
week said, "The administration appears anxious to please
TNCs and curry favor with the money bags, even if it
spells ruin for this country's farmers." The statement
cited tests conducted by the Indian Council for
Agricultural Research in five locations, which showed
pollen had flow of as much as 200 meters when the
recommended isolation distance is 50 meters.
Such is the fear of genetic contamination that
recently the European Union banned imports of honey from
Canada because Canadian producers could not guarantee
that their honey was free of pollen from GM plants that
were not approved in Europe.
Organic farmers in
Canada have launched a class-action suit against
Monsanto and Aventis, transnational firms that sell
herbicide-resistant GM canola widely grown in Canada.
The farmers argue that these companies should be held
liable for lost sales due to contamination by its GM
Similarly in India, Kishore Tewari,
president of the influential Vidarbaha Regional People's
Movement in Maharashtra state, is asking the government
to make good the estimated $100 million worth of loss to
cotton farmers in the state which used Bt cotton seeds.
Cotton experts like K Venugopal, a former
scientific officer with the Central Institute for Cotton
Research in central India, have said that Monsanto's Bt
cotton, unlike local varieties, was susceptible to the
leaf curl virus.
When it approved Bt cotton, the
GEAC cited its acceptance by China. But since then, the
Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences reported
that Bt cotton, which makes up 35 percent of the
neighboring country's cotton crop, harmed natural
parasitic enemies of the bollworm and encouraged other
pests as well.
An additional danger for India is
that unlike in other countries, oil is extracted from
cotton seed and used for cooking and the residue fed to
cattle, raising the possibility of the toxic genes
entering the human food chain.
China has also
refused to commercially release 46 other genetically
modified crops that it has developed for fear of human
and environmental risks.
GM crops under trial in
India and which involve the Bt gene include tobacco
being developed by the government's Central Tobacco
Research Institute in southern Andhra Pradesh state.
But what activists truly dread is the splicing
of BT genes into staples such as potato and rice -
potato at the Central Potato Research Institute in
northern Himachal Pradesh state, and rice at the Bose
Institute in Kolkata and at the IARI station in
northeastern Meghalaya state.