GM Crops: The Societal Context of Technologies

The Bt brinjal debate has featured technological worries relating to genetically modified crops which appear relatively minor in comparison to the critical issue of who controls Indian agriculture and therefore food security in India.  While there cannot be a mere technological fix to the problems of Indian agriculture, technology — and therefore GM — will be part of the solutions.  This article is an extract from a larger manuscript to be published in the EPW.

The Bt brinjal debate has been largely simplified as an ideological disagreement between camps, either anti- or pro-genetically modified (GM) crops, at least in the public eye.  There is no denying that the vitriol of the debate is in part due to ideological differences.  However, what is missing is the public awareness that the disagreements fall into two distinct categories and that conflating those is a grievous error in determining public policy.

One disagreement is over the anti-GM characterization of GM technologies as intrinsically and catastrophically harmful.  A second disagreement is over the nature of the GM crop technology ownership and the effect of such ownership on agriculture in India.  Anti-GM groups have sought to brand GM technologies as intrinsically harmful and to identify GM with rapacious multinational corporations (MNCs).  This brings ideologically distinct groups together in uneasy and ill-fitting unity.  Thus, many socially progressive movements find themselves in awkward alliance with nativist and anti-modernity opinion.  On the other hand, pro-GM argument in the public sphere has portrayed GM technology with a patronizing air of triumphalism making the MNC ownership of GM technologies a core component.  This has made the weak voice of the Indian scientific community sound like a handmaiden of an international agribusiness juggernaut.  It is essential to separate the wheat from the chaff in all this if we are to make public policy about practical social good in agriculture.

The issue of genetic modification of crops and livestock is undoubtedly complex and replete with serious issues.  The key questions are, is it practically possible in India to evaluate the risks and benefits of such technologies, and to what extent are the concerns specific to GM technologies?

Any significant technological advance generally involves serious issues.  Major technological advances have always come with attendant uncertainties and risks.  When we have no data to evaluate risk, the situation is one of uncertainty, and little reasonable prediction can be made.  But we do know enough to be able to evaluate the risks of GM crops.  So long as we are not dealing with catastrophic consequences, we can set a ‘safety’ threshold of a certain low likelihood of adverse consequences in order to permit the use of a given technology.  The weight of evidence indicates that GM technology carries the risk of non-catastrophic consequences (as opposed to, say, nuclear weapons, which carry the clear risk of catastrophic consequences) and can therefore be reasonably examined and used with care.

One frequently heard criticism of GM crops is that horizontal gene transfer is an ‘unnatural’ technology.  This is a rather strange argument.  All technologies are more or less unnatural since they are human-made and do not occur naturally.  Any societal move away from food gathering has always been based on such ‘unnatural’ technologies.  In fact, this has been used by pro-GM groups to claim that the products are there in nature and just transferring traits from one set of organisms to another does not constitute anything radically new and potentially harmful.  Interestingly, they would also like to create monopolies through patents claiming these are novel products!  The fact is that, like any other technologies, each GM product is a new product and will need careful safety testing before release.

This is an issue that scientists have raised right from the beginning.  The Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in 1975 set out voluntary guidelines on what could be done consistent with safety.  Till the guidelines were formulated, they even imposed a moratorium on further research.  However, things have changed radically since then.  At that time, scientists were in the business of doing science — today a number are closely tied to corporate interests.  Scientists are no longer just experts — their personal fortunes could also be riding on their opinions.  And while one could say that scientific issues are best resolved by the scientists, the introduction of a technology into society is not a scientific question but a policy problem embedded within social and political issues.

More mundane safety related issues of biotechnology arise from the genetic material thus transferred.  There are health safety issues and environmental safety issues.  Some of these arise from the imprecise insertion of genes by this technology.  A variant of this concern is that the inserted gene, or even the insertion process itself, may re-engineer the biology of the plant and generate poisons.  While this possibility certainly exists, it is not unique to GM technology.  Breeders of potatoes, for example, know well the possibility that a hybrid potato made from two good varieties can generate high levels of toxic material.

Another safety issue arises from the possibility that genes and proteins may behave differently in contexts other than the one they were taken from.  This can give rise to the generation of allergic reactions.  A brazilnut protein in GM soyabean and a bean protein expressed in GM peas have, for example, generated significant allergic reactions.  Similar studies with many other GM crops, however, did not find any allergenicity.  Once again, food allergies are not unknown with non-GM foods either.

Another issue that arises, and sounds even more appropriate in cases such as Bt brinjal, is the potential of the introduced gene product, such as the Bt toxin, to cause human/livestock harm.  While there is a fair amount of understanding about the mechanisms by which, say, the Bt toxin works, this, like all other safety concerns, can only be addressed case-by-case through pre-release testing.

A key question is, for how long is monitoring to be done in the pre-release tests?  There is no obvious endpoint, since in theory, it could take years or decades to make the ill-effects of a poisonous substance manifest.  But in the absence of any evidence that GM crop technology carries the risk of catastrophic consequences, demands for the unattainable absolute proof of safety begin to sound like ploys to keep the technology out of use no matter what the evidence.  Undoubtedly, there was need for abundant caution and rigorous testing when Bt was first introduced into crops.  While it was true that Bt in its natural state in the bacteria has been long used as a bio-pesticide, that by itself does not mean that Bt is going to be safe in its new form in a GM crop.  However, by now the world has experienced a fair diversity of Bt crops, including food crops.  Bt Corn has now been accepted for imports even in Europe.  In this context, while food crops require particular attention, almost all crops enter the food chain one way or another; there is no impermeable barrier between food and non-food crops.  A case in point is Bt cotton in India.  Bt cotton stalks go into cattle feed and milk products obviously come from cattle.  Cottonseed oil also enters the food chain.  While case-by-case safety testing still remains the correct norm, the argument that there could still be a catastrophic danger from the Bt protein in GM crops seems less and less valid.

The issue of long-term toxicity with GM crops has also been particularly raised since, once a GM crop is released, there is no effective call-back.  This is also the context in which the potential threats of GM technology for diversity in both crops and the biosphere have been excitedly discussed, since there is a possibility that the introduced genetic modifications would spread naturally both to other varieties of the same species, and also to other related species.  How harmful is such spread likely to be to crop diversity and to biodiversity?

Most GM crops have one (or two) genes introduced into them.  These genes can be easily bred into any variety of the crop, as is done, for example, with Bt cotton.  This does not appear to lead to a ‘loss’ of the variety in the sense of flattening out the diversity landscape, since the same number of varieties, with differing trait profiles albeit with an introduced gene, would still be available.

However, it is nonetheless true that GM crop usage has led to a reduction in the diversity of crop varieties being planted.  It is useful to note that this is not related to the ‘GM’ nature of the technology, but to the imperatives of the marketplace and to the fact that the technology is owned and marketed by MNCs which, in order to achieve the profit scales they need, will aggressively drive high-volume seed sales.  Such corporate control of agriculture is likely to promote the process of monoculture that tends to thin down biodiversity on the ground.  Thus, this is not an issue intrinsic to GM technology, but to its ownership.

In essence, the issue is not whether GM crops are without risks, but whether the regulatory protocols developed and used for testing them are sufficient for the purpose of evaluating their safety.  As noted above, GM crops appear to carry risks of non-catastrophic consequences of the kinds and scales that society is familiar with.  Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that familiar safety-testing protocols will serve societal needs well in this context too.  Protocols for testing GM crops have been developed by international and national bodies over time.  They will continue to be strengthened and improved, but either-or positions vis-à-vis GM crops are unlikely to contribute to that process.

One major criticism of the basis on which the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) cleared Bt brinjal has been the alleged unreliability of the safety data.  Safety data submitted by the company, with a vested interest in a favourable outcome, are deemed to be suspect in this argument.  And in this context, the real issue that arises is a question we are depressingly familiar with: do we have strong implementation of these regulatory processes and protocols?  The answer to that is likely to tend to be more and more in the negative the greater the involvement of powerful interests, such as deep-pocketed MNCs.  This is as true of, say, drug approvals, as of crop approvals.  Again, who owns GM technology appears to be far more crucial an issue than its ‘GM’ness.

These issues need to be seen in the larger context of Indian agriculture and food security.  With a growing population and with persistent problems of poverty and malnutrition to address, there is little doubt that increases in food production would be immensely useful.  What is the possible role of GM crop technologies in this context?  The anti-GM position is frequently apocalyptic with regard to the risks of GM crop technology and therefore negates any useful role for it.  It is also frequently allied with nativist anti-technology views of agriculture, in which back-to-nature approaches are seen as the most appropriate solution.  On the other hand, the pro-GM position frequently sounds as though GM crop technology by itself can be a major solution.

As far as the evidence goes, there is no reason to think that GM crop technology carries catastrophic consequences, and therefore it is indeed proper to consider its possible advantages for Indian agriculture and food security seriously.  However, anybody who thinks that any one category of approach, nativist or GM, is going to be a common panacea for India’s food security is refusing to acknowledge the sheer diversity and complexity of agricultural practices and needs across the country.  For example, anti-GM favourites such as the integrated pest management system (IPMS) or the system of rice intensification (SRI) depend for their success on rigorous practices and additional equipment and may be successful in some situations and not in others.  Thus, the use of GM crop technology is going to be a part of our food future, not because it is the sole answer to the problems of Indian agriculture, but because it can expand the basket of choices available to a wide variety of farming communities.  While GM is certainly not the only answer, there is little doubt that it can very much be a part of the answering strategies.  It is possible to grow more drought-resistant or salinity-tolerant crops, or use less pesticides, for example.  Some of these do not need transgenic technologies.  Molecular genetic marker-assisted selective breeding is another tool that can help in achieving some of these aims.  Achieving true breeding of hybrids will also help in a different way.  But all of these tactics together would help to expand the basket of choices available.

It is thus clear that, while there cannot be a mere technological fix to the problems of Indian agriculture, technology will be part of the solutions.  The farm sector is also seeing a huge squeeze on its income — the prices of inputs are rising faster than the output prices.  The increasing corporatisation of inputs, as exemplified by the Monsanto-driven Bt-crops, exacerbates this squeeze further and must be an issue of concern.  The technological worries relating to GM crops appear relatively minor in comparison, yet, sadly, it is these techno-worries that hold centre-stage in the ongoing debates.

Satyajit Rath, National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi.  Prabir Purkayastha, Delhi Science Forum.  This article was first published by NewsClick on 8 May 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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