Transgenic crops: a questionable option?

Transgenic crops: a questionable option?
Seminar Magazine (Monthly Symposium), issue 595, March 2009
STAGNATING yields, crop losses due to pests and diseases, climate change – all these and more are issues in agriculture that are being sought to be addressed using so-called cutting edge technology. Genetic modification (GM) of crops is one such technology on which vigorous research and development is taking place in India. So far, Bt. cotton is the only GM crop that has been permitted for cultivation in India. Politicians, media, bureaucrats and seed corporations have time and again proclaimed that Bt. cotton has proved to be a miracle and that this success needs to be replicated in other crops. Scores of GM crops are under development and Bt. brinjal (eggplant) is likely to be introduced as the first GM food crop in India. It is time to take a reality check on this technology and its achievements.

To understand the implications of this technology, its numerous facets need to be studied – the situation worldwide, the role of the USA and big transnational companies, the productivity and chemical use of GM crops, food safety issues involved and so on. It cannot be sufficiently stressed that each technology has differential impacts on different communities, differentiated in both a geographical and temporal manner. Agricultural technologies, more than any other technology, leave a large impact for the simple reason that they are likely to be deployed on large areas of land and thus affect millions involved directly in farming. Besides, as consumers, the safety of food is of general concern. Without a broad and comprehensive impact assessment, no decision-making can be sound with regard to this technology.

Worldwide, more than a decade after the entry of the first GM crop on a commercial basis, only around fourteen countries have introduced GM crop cultivation on any substantial scale, i.e. more than 50,000 hectares. A majority of countries around the world have not allowed GM crops in their territory. Equally, consumers engaged in a debate on GM foods have, more often than not, chosen to reject GM foods, as the experience of Europe shows.

The global GM crop scenario is dominated by only two major ‘traits’ – herbicide tolerance (HT) and insect resistance (IR). In the case of the former, a gene that makes the crop immune to a particular chemical herbicide is inserted into the plant. A farmer can grow this crop and whenever weeds appear, that particular herbicide can be sprayed which kills the weed but does not harm the crop. IR, on the other hand, involves insertion of a gene that enables the plant to produce chemicals that kill certain pests which feed on it. It is claimed that this reduces the number of pesticide sprays on the crop.

At the outset, both technologies appear quite useful. However, nature thinks, acts and adapts fast. As has happened with chemical pesticides earlier, both HT and IR crops induce weeds and insects to develop resistance over time and this ultimately leads to increased use of chemicals in farming. That’s the way nature behaves and no technology can help overcome this behaviour.

A close look at data underscores this principle of nature. Because of herbicide-tolerant crops, since 1996 there has been a 122-million pound increase in agri-chemical use in the USA. Weed resistance is now being reported from more than 15 million acres in the USA. While two decades of herbicide usage did not create as many resistant weeds, in the first decade of introducing GM crops that were designed to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, 30 new glyphosate-resistant weeds have been reported.

In China, a Cornell University study shows that the amount of pesticides that Bt. cotton growers were using in 2006, seven years after the official introduction of Bt. cotton into the country, was the same as the pesticide use before the advent of Bt. cotton. Simultaneously it was found that the pest ecology in cotton fields had changed and secondary pests like mirid bugs have now become a major problem.

In India, B.M. Khadi, Director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) notes that while Bt. cotton seems to have reduced the overall quantity of insecticide substantially only in some parts of the country, coupled with spectacular yield increases reported from Gujarat, the other states have been showing mixed results despite an increase in the area under Bt. cotton. He points out that the presence of secondary insect pests such as mirid bugs increased significantly in unsprayed cotton fields and simultaneously the tobacco caterpillar staged a comeback.

There are other alarming reports related to Bt. cotton cultivation in India, apart from ecological changes. There are reports of large-scale morbidity and mortality of animals after grazing on Bt. cotton fields. This is admitted by none other than the Director of the Animal Husbandry Department of the Government of Andhra Pradesh. Further, there are human health impacts in the form of allergies being reported from different states where Bt. cotton is being cultivated. Yet, despite repeated media coverage and communication with the regulators, no cognizance was taken of this disturbing phenomena in the cotton growing villages. No scientific investigations were taken up. In fact, it took considerable effort to get the regulators to even partially acknowledge that the existing biosafety testing protocols were inadequate in the case of assessing impacts on animals.

It is often claimed that GM crops increase yields and that the recent increase of cotton productivity and production in India is attributable to Bt. cotton. However, a closer look at facts shows otherwise. A report brought out by Friends of the Earth, Europe, throws up some interesting findings. After studying the yield figures of crops like cotton, soy and corn in the USA from the 1930s onwards, the report concludes that genetic engineering has at best been neutral with respect to yield. At the macro-level, the report points out that average cotton yields have stagnated since the adoption of Bt. cotton in the USA, as also in other countries like Argentina, Australia and Columbia.

More than 90% of soybean cultivated in the USA is genetically modified. If one goes by the official statistics, no claims of dramatic yield increases can be made about this largest cultivated GM crop. The 2008 yield of US soybean, the bulk of which is genetically modified, stood at 40 bushels per acre, lower than the 1994 yield of 41.4 bushels when GM soybean was yet to be introduced. This underlines the fact that yield levels are in reality governed by much more complex factors than a linear function of a single technology.

Decreased yields of GM soybean have been recorded even in field trials. A University of Nebraska study found that RR Soy varieties (RR or Roundup Ready Soy is the brand of Monsanto’s GM Soy that is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate) yielded 5% less than their closest conventional relatives and 10% less than high-yielding conventional varieties. This corresponds to a loss in production of nearly 200 kilos per hectare.

This yield drag of RR Soy is also apparent from the trend of soybean yields from 1995 to 2003, the years during which GM soy adoption increased to 81% of US soybean-planted land. A 2007 study by Kansas State University, led by Barney Gordon, an agronomist, suggests that RR Soy continues to suffer from a ‘yield drag’. Gordon’s study finds that glyphosate applied to the GM crop is inhibiting the uptake of nutrients like manganese, essential to plant health and performance.

At the micro-level, a study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that looked at adoption of GM crops and its relation to net returns/yields, throws some light on different GM crops. The study flags a pertinent question. ‘Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative’, it says, suggesting that ‘other considerations may be motivating farmers’ – what is now called the convenience effect. Basically, when labour or time is a restriction, it might be ‘convenient’ to grow GM crops.

Coming to India, Gujarat is one of the most important cotton growing states. By 2007, Gujarat’s share in total cotton production in India increased to 39%. This increased production is invariably attributed by biotech seed manufacturers to the runaway success of Bt. cotton in the state. This is clearly a narrow perspective and seed manufacturers are being economical with the truth.

In a letter dated 9 May 2005, the Secretary-Agriculture, Government of Gujarat, wrote to the Chairperson, GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee): ‘Yes, the productivity which was 175 kg/ha in 2002-03 is touching 460 kg/ha in 2004-05. But this is not solely due to Bt. cotton hybrids as Gujarat recorded 450 in 1998-99 when there was no Bt. cotton. In our opinion, all these years were good years with low to medium boll-worm activity, hence this increase.’

The Secretary-Agriculture is pointing to an important aspect related to yield analysis with insect resistant GM crops here – that if pest incidence itself is low due to climatic and other conditions, there cannot be yield increases due to protection from crop losses through insect resistant varieties!

There is more. Through their official monitoring and evaluation report of Bt. cotton in 2006-07, the Gujarat state authorities have also revealed that ‘The productivity of cotton crop also increased due to increase of irrigation facility by massive water harvesting programmes. The rainfall too has been very good during past three years. Parameters like irrigation facility, good monsoon, use of drip irrigation, low pest incidence, black soil and farmers’ experience are contributing in the success of cotton crop in the state.’

Let’s examine the above statement in the light of ground realities. From 2002 onwards, the increase in irrigated cotton area in Gujarat has remained steady. The area under irrigated cotton went up by a whopping 43.3% during 2000-01 to 2005-06. Any analysis of change in cotton yield at the state level in Gujarat has to note this increase. In addition, the watershed programmes of the government would also have contributed their share to yields even in the rain-fed cotton plots.

Further, as per the official figures available for Gujarat, the area under hybrid cotton has almost doubled over the last five years. A report by B.M. Khadi of the Central Institute of Cotton Research in 2007 points out that one clear impact of Bt. cotton on Indian agriculture appears to be the replacement of large areas with Bt. hybrids since the (transgenic) technology is available in India only in the form of hybrids.

Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh, hybrid cotton varieties were estimated to be on 28 per cent of cotton land in the state in 2002-03, the year of introduction of Bt. cotton. Data obtained from the department of agriculture shows that the land under such cotton varieties has come down to 1.3% by 2007-08. It is estimated that on an average 20-30% of yield enhancement can be attributed to a phenomenon called heterosis – hybrid organisms performing better than their parents.

Thus, the key reasons for yield increases are hybrids, better irrigation, and favourable weather conditions, among others. All that the Bt. gene does is impart protection against the bollworm, a pest that farmers dread a lot. Yield increase is not a single gene phenomenon and the Bt. gene has nothing to do with it. Yet one finds numerous reports in the media, fed largely on propaganda by GM seed manufacturers, publishing glowing reports on yield increases due to large-scale adoption of Bt. cotton across the country.

While there is a general view that the success of Bt. cotton is indicated by the rate of adoption of these GM seeds, this view ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is fair to contend that the desirability or success of a technology cannot be assessed by adoption alone. If that were so, chemical pesticides were adopted and used in huge quantities too.

Coming to Bt. brinjal or eggplant, which is sought to be introduced in India in a few months time, it is worth remembering that so far no GM vegetable crop which is more or less directly consumed is grown anywhere in the world with the Bt. gene in it. Though approvals have been given for Bt. tomato in the USA, there is no record of its cultivation, not even by industry propaganda bodies.

Brinjal is known for its medicinal value in different streams of health care in India. Ayurveda experts have already written to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) pointing out that the impact assessment of Bt. brinjal did not take this aspect into consideration. Further, we are the centre of origin and diversity for brinjal and nowhere in the world has a GM crop been introduced in a country of origin.

While it is well-acknowledged in scientific literature that brinjal had originated from this country, an expert committee set up by the GEAC on Bt. brinjal brushed this fact aside and concluded otherwise! No credible evidence was offered for this stand either. It is interesting to note that the Bt. brinjal development was mainly supported by several American agencies in India.

And herein probably lies the crux of the controversy over this technology: a powerful country with the world’s largest seed company headquartered there (which to this day sells more than 90% of the GM traits sold in the world), and whose agricultural economy depends on global markets, has rushed in with this technology for reasons of its own, despite evidence of associated hazards. In fact, many crops that have been subsequently approved by the US government have not been selected for cultivation by American farmers themselves. Now, getting the global markets to accept these products is a crucial battleground for countries like the USA.

It is well documented that the US regulatory regime has been opportunistically shaped through revolving doors between the industry and the regulatory bodies throwing biosafety considerations to the winds. The principle of ‘substantial equivalence’, i.e., GM food is to be regarded as similar to non-GM food, guides regulation in the USA and products are declared by developers as ‘Generally Regarded as Safe’ (GRAS) for commercialization. Any GM food that is part of the food chain in the USA is usually available in a processed form only as an ingredient. Since it is already a ‘cocktail’ situation at the consumption end, correlating health problems with the GM foods becomes challenging.

There is by now adequate scientific evidence from across the world about adverse health impacts expected from GM crops, including potential inter-generational effects. A recent study commissioned by the Austrian government has found time related negative reproductive effects in mice which are fed GM maize. The study, probably the first on long-term feeding study, says that the number of offspring produced reduced over generations in the case of mice fed on GM maize as compared to those fed on non-GM maize.

Recently, biosafety test data on Bt. brinjal generated by Mahyco-Monsanto was independently analysed by a leading scientist. Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini of the France-based CRIIGEN pointed out that Bt. brinjal had not been properly tested from the safety and environmental point of view. He further observed that in feeding trials significant differences were noted in animals fed with Bt. brinjal compared to those fed non-Bt. brinjal. He finally concluded: ‘Clear significant differences were seen that raise food safety concerns and warrant further investigation. The GM Bt. brinjal cannot be considered as safe as its non GM counterpart. Indeed, it should be considered as unsuitable for human and animal consumption.’

While the GEAC has as of now put the commercial release of Bt. brinjal on hold subject to verification and analysis of Gilles Seralini’s assertions, the Indian scientific community continues to live in a state of denial.

Does the world really need GM crops and foods? There is ample evidence that other options, including organic farming, will address food security and livelihood security imperatives as well, as also be viable options in an era of climate change. The International Assessment on Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) process has concluded that smallholder ecological farming is the best option for this planet. It is, therefore, obvious that the only conceivable reason for pushing GM crops and foods is the business opportunity it offers to seed corporations and biotech firms.

To cite an example from the ground, women farmers from all over Andhra Pradesh, supported by the Department of Rural Development, are taking the lead in implementing what is probably the world’s largest state-supported ecological farming project called ‘Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture’. These women have shown that pest management in farming is fairly simple to manage provided appropriate extension and other support systems are developed. This experience of non-chemical farming on a whopping one million acres proves that farming without chemicals or GM seeds is indeed possible and that it is only a matter of political will. It is here that we need to remember what the IAASTD chairperson had to say about the future of farming on this planet: ‘Business as usual is not an option.’

(The above article is from the March 2009 edition of Seminar Magazine (, which include presentations made at a symposium entitled "Agrarian Transitions: a symposium on the growing distress in agriculture". The March issue is available online at:

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