Genetically Modified Food – The Time has Come
By Manan Vyas
“My conclusion is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.” – Mark Lynas, one of the founders of the anti-GM campaign.
For the past 2 decades, the debate over Genetically Modified crops has been among the most central issues in agriculture. Few issues from the agricultural sector have captured public interest and attention as genetically modified crops.
Essentially, genetically modified crops are defined as “Plants, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering techniques, to resist pests and agents causing harm to plants and to improve the growth of these plants to assist in farmers efficiency.”.
The debate on genetically modified foods, has 2 sides.
First, I shall present to you the Anti-GM side of the debate followed by the Pro-Side.
Of all economic fields in the world, perhaps it is agriculture that has resisted the invasion and domination of large multinationals for the longest time. Agriculture in many parts of the world is still a proprietary, self run and independent activity in which the farmer guards his independence fiercely (This can be gauged also by the traditional Indian protest against land acquisition even though in many cases the FD interest from the compensation amount might exceed the annual income of the farmer). Monsanto, the largest bio-technology firm involved with genetically modified seeds, has been trying to establish a universal patent system for plant breeders. This has come to be known as: Plant Breeder’s Rights.
Farmers however allege that Monsanto and the big seed companies indulge in bio-piracy. They pick out the best indigenous farming practices, mix it with their lab-manufactured seed traits and then patent the finished product, allowing them the right to sell the genetically modified seed back to the farmer at a higher rate. Farming as a community has always been open-source and patents have generally not applied to farming technology. As a philosophy, farmers generally tend to share advancements in seed or fertiliser technology with each other in the spirit of cooperation. Thus Monsanto’s expensive proposition is counted among the farming community as an attempt by the large chemical companies to control farmers.
The chief concerns from the consumer community have focused on 2 aspects: Whether GM foods are safe for human consumption and the effect of GM crops on environmental bio-diversity.
The primary aim of the genetically modified crops in the market thus far has been to reduce the usage of insecticide. This is done by injecting the genetic characteristics of Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) into the seed. Bt produces chemicals that are toxic to insects and thus naturally prevents insects from destroying the farm, acting as an insecticide in itself. Bt was formerly used as an insecticide in its own right. Thus activists raised the concern that due to the presence of an insecticide in the basic genetic set up of the crop, it could be harmful for human consumption.
With regard to loss of bio-diversity, 2 main argument threads have emerged. One of them states that due to the natural insecticide present in Bt Crops, it is not only pests that are affected. Such allegations claims that useful insects may also die due to the consumption of Bt crops, thus reducing bio-diversity. Moreover, a second allegation claims that when pollen from a genetically modified field flies over to neighboring fields, it results in cross breeding thus leading to more species carrying the genetically modified characteristic and destroying the diversity that prevails in the area.
Another accusation has been that genetically modified foods are allergenic and tend to cause allergies.
Moreover, Monsanto’s GM sees have been unpopular among Indian farmers as well. Their high cost has even been accused of causing farmer suicides in India. One of the primary reasons that Indian farmers were protesting was because there a rumour that large chemical companies such as Monsanto were developing a seed that would lead to a plant with sterile seeds. Essentially that meant that the farmer could not use his own grown seed to replant his field but instead had to buy expensive seeds from the chemical company all over again. This was called the Terminator gene. Moreover, it has been remarked that genetically modified seeds are solely the domain of extremely large chemical Multi-national companies and thus represent the takeover of the small farmer by the large corporation. Moreover it is alleged that genetically modified foods positively affects only the bottomline of these companies while not particularly benefiting either farmers or consumers.
With regard to insects, it is also believed that the fields surrounding GM fields would be adversely affected since all the harmful insects would be diverted to non-GM fields in greater numbers and thus wreak havoc to other fields!
Another one of the studies that demonizes GM crops has claimed that rats fed Roundup Ready corn (manufactured by Monsanto) over a period of 2 years, developed cancers and died at a higher rate than the control group.
Thus essentially GM crops are alleged to harm the human body, the environment and the bio-diversity of planet earth.
“After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from the commercialisation of genetically engineered crops.” - (Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Committee on Environmental Impacts Associated with Commercialization of Transgenic Plants, National Research Council and Division on Earth and Life Studies 2002).
“…no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” – World Health Organisation
Let us tackle each of the claims and arguments that were presented to us in the anti-GM stance.
“GM benefits only large companies”: The present regulatory set up has made the field of genetically modified crops among the most highly regulated in the world. Empirical evidence and years of experience has shown that in most highly regulated industries, the small firms are winnowed out and only the large ones can sustain the cost of negotiating each regulation. At present it costs $140 million (Rs 700 crore) to move a new crop trait from discovery to commercialization. In such a regulatory setup, can a small firm ever benefit? (In the context of the link between liberalisation/non-regulation and the benefit to small firms, it is essential to look at smartphone apps. A largely unregulated industry with almost zero barriers to entry, smartphone apps have already benefited thousands of independent developers from across the globe. Teenagers sitting at their bedroom PC have designed apps that are used by millions across the world. If critics of GM food want smaller firms to also benefit from the technology, they must tear down the wall of regulations that they themselves have helped build)
In 2010, GM crops were grown by around 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries. This figure has grown steadily year on year reaching about 160 million hectares in 2011. This represents an 8% increase in the number of farmers and the area grown since 2010. If small independent farmers are increasing their intake of GM seeds, it begets the fundamental question, is it not benefiting them? These are independent farmers taking the independent decision (since GM seeds are not only NOT subsidised, they are more expensive than normal seeds) to increase the consumption of genetically modified seeds. This clearly points at a beneficial correlation between GM seeds and the crop yield, a benefit that accrues straight to the independent farmer. Thus the argument that GM is not helping the small farmer also does not carry much weight.
With regard to the accusation of genetically modified seeds leading to farmer suicides in poorer countries, an independent study carried by a UN study group found that the number of farm suicides in India had remained around constant since 1997 and no link could be seen between GM seeds and increased suicides. Crop failure on account of drought (due to lack of irrigation facilities) had led to the farmers unable to pay their large debt (the seeds costed more, leading to the farmers to pay more for them, on credit. The atrocious credit rate was effectively the cause for the increased stress on farmers. Moreover the seeds had promised to act as natural insecticides, drought resistance was not a feature they advertised) and the resulting stress had led to the tragic suicides.
With regard to the accusation that GM crops would cause harm to their surrounding fields since all the pest population would focus on them (since the pests would steer clear of GM crops): A 2 decade long independent study was carried out in China by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The results of the study indicate that the benefits of GM crops extend to neighboring fields. The use of GM crops led to fewer pesticides being sprayed in the area. Pesticides generally uniformly kill pests and their natural predators. However in GM fields, pesticides were not sprayed. Due to this, the population of the natural predators (such as ladybirds and lacewings) increases, allowing them to naturally destroy the pest population in the entire area. This study is supported by the real life case of Bt Cotton. Bt Cotton makes up 95% of China’s plantations and this has halved pesticide use and led to the doubling of the natural predator population. The positive impact of this has been seen on conventional corn, soyabean and peanut fields.
Another study supports this conclusions and makes a powerful point with regard to the bio-diversity: “Planting of Bt crops has also supported another important goal of sustainable agriculture: increased biological diversity. An analysis of 42 ﬁeld experiments indicates that nontarget invertebrates (i.e., insects, spiders, mites, and related species that are not pests targeted by Bt crops) were more abundant in Bt cotton and Bt corn ﬁelds than in conventional ﬁelds managed with insecticides” – (Mervier et al. 2007)
With regard to Plant Breeder’s Rights that the larger firms are trying to establish, it is important to realise that the best innovation and technology emerges only in a for-profit environment. Which corporate body would be ready to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into revolutionary innovation and technology unless that corporate body is also able to recoup its investment? It is important to realise that the profit motive drives the millions of dollars of investment that is required to be pumped into agriculture to transform it from a traditional and outdated industry (in countries such as India) into a dynamic profit making industry that will be able to feed 9 billion mouths by 2050. Moreover, Plant Breeder’s Rights would also give an incentive for smaller firms to innovate and patent their discoveries, allowing them to benefit from their research and tech know how. Thus it is important to preserve the profit motive in research oriented industries.
While the criticisms of GM foods are steeped in conjecture, the studies FOR GM food have emerged, in many cases, over decades of real life research on real fields. “Planting of Bt crops has resulted in the application of fewer pounds of chemical insecticides and thereby has provided environmental and economic beneﬁts that are key to sustainable agricultural production. In Arizona, where an integrated pest management program for Bt cotton continues to be effective, growers reduced insecticide use by 70% and saved $200 million from 1996 to 2008 (Naranjo and Ellsworth 2009).”
Oh and the Terminator gene that the Indian farmers protested against? That never happened. That seed was never made commercially available.
Consumers are also now waking up to the benefits that GM foods offer. GM foods are cheaper in the long run (assuming some of the regulatory barriers come down) since they use lesser insecticide. A quarter of Britons are now unconcerned about GM food. Recently in California, voters decided against a legislation that would make it compulsory for GM products to declare that they were genetically modified. Thus consumer opinion regarding GM foods is evolving as their use becomes increasingly widespread.
With regard to the allergenic nature of GM foods, bio-medical lab tests have revealed the allergenic substances in GM foods constitute a percentage so negligible that it cannot produce an allergic reaction under virtually any circumstances.
With regard to whether GM food leads to a health risk for consumers, well: “..over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.” – Mark Lynas, virtually the founder of the anti-GM movement.