GLOBAL APPEAL FOR FINANCIAL SUPPORT
ENVIRONMENT-INDIA: Activists for Rooting out GM Crops
By T V Padma
NEW DELHI, May 30 (IPS) - "Keep our agriculture free of genetic modification," demanded more than a hundred activists who recently joined hands to demand that genetically modified crop technology be rooted out from India.
The environmental group Greenpeace and representatives of farmers, environmentalists, academicians, lawyers, human rights activists, and church people from India earlier this month submitted a petition to the government to seek an immediate halt to trials on genetically engineered crops in the country.
The petitioners, who described genetically modified (GM) crops as a potential health and environment hazard, sent copies to the ministries of health and agriculture, as well as to the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) that supports and promotes GM technology in India.
Chief among their fears are the adverse impact of GM food on human health and the risks posed by accidental release of pollen from GM plants into neighbouring plants and the resulting new species that may be virulent.
DBT Secretary Manju Sharma justified the GM crop technology initiative, saying "everywhere, soil fertility and arable landmass going down."
"We need to double our food production to feed the growing population. For that we need plants with nutritional value, pest and stress resistance through new technologies like genetically modified plants," Sharma added.
"World over in the last one year, there has been an 11.4 percent increase in area covering transgenic crops, amounting to an increase of 44.12 million hectares. Most of this has been in the United States, Canada, China, Brazil, Argentina and Ukraine," Sharma said.
GM food opponents are particularly irked over what they perceive as the Indian government bending backwards to permit countrywide trials on genetically modified cotton by the U.S. seed giant Monsanto, without ascertaining the fool-proof safety of such crops.
Monsanto's pest-resistant cotton, cleared for limited trials in 1998 in 40 locations in India, received further permission last year for large-scale field trials.
Also drawing their ire is the "surreptitious manner" in which the technology is being introduced into India, Michelle Chawla of Greenpeace said.
For the Indian trials, Monsanto entered into a joint venture with Mumbai-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company Ltd (MAHYCO). MAHYCO bought Monsanto seed and tested in 40 sites spread over nine states in India.
"From the beginning, the Monsanto-MAHYCO cotton affair has been shrouded in secrecy," Chawla said.
But a Monsanto official in India, Ranjana Smatecek, denied this, saying the Indian government has given necessary clearance at every stage got the trials of pest-resistant cotton.
The activists' petition says India ought to be on its guard because other countries like those of the European Union have imposed a de facto moratorium on commercial release of genetically engineered or modified crops.
Recently in Asia, Thailand banned the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment and halted approvals for ongoing trials of GM cotton and corn. Sri Lanka this month imposed a ban on imports of all GM foods.
"We would like to point out that there is growing evidence that genetically engineered crops pose serious dangers to ecosystems, with the potential to threaten biodiversity, wildlife and sustainable forms of agriculture," Chawla said.
The introduction of Monsanto's genetically engineered cotton in India has been mired in controversy since the start. The cotton is genetically modified to become resistant to bollworm or Helicoverpa armigera, a major pest that is estimated to cause at least half the cotton losses in India. The cotton contains a foreign gene from a bacterium Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt) that codes for a protein that is lethal to the bollworm. It is also called Bt cotton or bollgard cotton.
According to MAHYCO, a team of crop scientists who conducted detailed studies in four Indian states from 1998-2000 found that "there was a significant increase in the yield from transgenic plants." Likewise, it said, "there was a noticeable reduction in the spraying of chemical pesticides for bollworms."
There were no residues of Bt protein in the soil, and studies of Bt cotton seeds on goats showed they were not harmful, the company says.
MAHYCO managing director Raju Barwale has repeatedly stressed in public fora that genetically engineered crops like Bt cotton are environment-friendly and are an effective alternative to the present pest-vulnerable varieties.
Both Indian crop scientists and biotechnologists also back the Bt cotton trials on grounds that any technology that can save the country such huge losses should be given a fair chance.
The Indian National Science Academy, along with national academies of United Kingdom, United States, Brazil, China and Mexico and Third World Academy of Sciences, last year released a report endorsing GM technology for widespread agricultural use.
Indian scientific institutes too have started working on indigenous GM technology in a modest way. Chief among these are efforts by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) to develop pest-resistant cotton and the DBT to produce affordable and high-quality drugs, vaccines and diagnostics through genetic engineering.
But critics, the most vocal of which is the Delhi-based non- government organisation Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), question the adequacy and authenticity of data collected from the limited trials.
While Monsanto claims that there was significant increase in GM cotton yield in states where their cotton was being tested, RFSTE director Vandana Shiva asserts that independent rapid assessment by her organisation in some of the states has shown the claims on higher yields to be false.
Shiva says Bt crops are not a sustainable solution to pest control, as they may lead to the creation of new and resistant super pests that will need more pesticides. "All models suggest that in three to six years, Bt crops will fail to control bollworm due to emergence of resistance," she said.
Greenpeace adds that early resistance to the bollworm has been detected in China, while in the United States a 10-fold tolerance to Bt toxin has been shown in three years from 1996-98.
Greenpeace also demanded that the results of the 1998 trials, on the basis of which government gave the go signal for large- scale trials last year, be made public.
Information about the second round of trials -- location, number of sites, and supervising institutions -- should also be made public, Chawla said.