While heated debates on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) is going on throughout the world, Express contacted PV Satheesh, National Convenor, Southern Action on Genetic Engineering (SAGE), Hyderabad to know more about it. He was in city for three-days to attend the SAGE campaign to declare Mysore City as GMO Free city. Here are the excerpts:
What exactly are GMO and GM Foods?
Any organism whose basic genetic structure, DNA, has been artificially altered is known as GMO or Genetically Modified Organism or sometimes Genetically Engineered (GE) organisms. The technology allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism to another as also between non-related species.
Genetic Engineering artificially forces genetic material between species. This completely alters the genetic make up of the host organism thereby destroying its biological integrity. The method used is to force a selected gene [say a virus or a bacteria] into the DNA of the host plant [say tomato, brinjal or rice] using a 'gene gun' or through bacterial infection.
To quote a few examples: Inactivated Hepatitis or Cholera viruses are transferred into a banana plant which then produce bananas which are edible vaccines. Similarly a silkworm gene is introduced into a grape seed to protect grapevines from a disease called Pierce’s disease. Unlike Hybrids where plants from same family are used [wheat to wheat], GE technology allows genes of plants to be implanted with animals, insects and bacteria to produce what the detractors of the technology call a Frankenstein food.
While scientists developing GMO foods claim such methods increase crop yields, provide resistance against pests, enhance nutritional qualities in foods and so on, these have been proved false by opposing scientists, environmentalists and farmers organizations all over the world.
It seems there are some advantages in this new technology. Why then so much opposition?
When proponents of GE crops claim that they withstand pest attacks they are showing only one side of the story. The most famous of these claims in India is that of Bt Cotton which is a cotton crop into which the gene of a soil bacteria called Bacillus Thurengisis has been forced. The Bt gene produces the Bt toxin which is produced from every part of the Bt cotton plant. Though as a result the most dreaded cotton pest, Helicoverpa Armigera, is contained, a sudden spurt in the attack of other pests like Aphids is observed.
We from the Deccan Development Society [an environmental NGO working in Andhra Pradesh] have ourselves done continuous research on hundreds of Bt cotton fields in AP for the last nine years and found that the soil in which Bt cotton was gown gradually turns turns toxic. In 2003 this was about 2 per cent of the soil on which Bt cotton was grown, but by 2007 it had grown to 40 per cent, a 20 fold increase. Thousands of animals which grazed on Bt cotton fields started dying.
People who had worked on Bt cotton fields were complaining of skin allergies and breathing disorders. Small and marginal farmers who cultivated Bt cotton in drylands suffered crop failures forcing several of them to commit suicide. Therefore the negative dimensions of the Bt cotton were so many that a large number of farmers had desparately tried to stop growing it. But by then all non Bt cotton had been withdrawn from the market by the Bt seed syndicate, as such farmers were forced to reluctantly continue growing Bt cotton.
Several countries have already enacted laws to display GM Foods on separate shelves in shops and Supermarkets along with a prominent sign to display that it contains GM ingredients. Will it be implemented here?
The contention here is that if the producers and sellers of GE crops feel that they are safe to be consumed by human beings and animals, let them label their produces that these are Genetically Engineered. Just the way organically grown foods are labeled as Organic, since that helps buyers to know what they are eating. But the GE industry has fought this practice tooth and nail as they fear that once consumers know that a produce is GE they might refuse to eat it. This is held out against the GE industry that if they are so confident of the safety of their produce why then should they oppose to its labeling?
In India, GE products are not allowed officially to be sold in the market. But there are suspicions that they are sold clandestinely. The most suspect products are the imported Soyabean and Corn products. Soyabean oils imported from abroad are used in popular food chains. As we don’t have an effective regulatory mechanism to screen GE foods, Indian consumers are forced to eat them unknowingly.
What is the present research status on the dangers of growing and consuming GM Foods.
There are several scientists who have studied and documented many harmful effects of consuming GE foods. In a seminal book titled, 'Genetic Roulette', one Prof Jeffrey Smith working with more than 30 scientists around the world, has documented 65 health risks caused by consuming GM foods.
His studies have documented several cases of toxic or allergic-type reactions in humans who grow and frequently come in contact with them, as also livestock falling sick and becoming sterile when they consumed such plants. Genetic contamination of other plants around these fields is the greatest threat, which is quite dangerous because genetic pollution cannot be reversed. Even organically grown crops can be affected if a GE crop is grown in its vicinity. Organic farmers in Seskachwan, a region of Canada have sued agrobiotech corporations for growing GE crops and polluting their crops.
Recently farmers here in Mysore went on a strike urging authorities to provide long staple varieties of Bt cotton seeds. How this sudden change was possible?
As illustrated earlier, Bt cotton has been a false messiah for farmers. The farmers are desperate to grow cotton because of the sudden increase in the market price. The non Bt cotton seeds have been more or less withdrawn by seed companies from the market since they can sell Bt seeds at higher rates and make fatter profits. That was the main reason for farmers’ demand for Bt cotton seeds.
Besides they still have not experienced the negative effects of Bt cotton, which begins to show after 3 to 5 years of its cultivation. In countries such as Indonesia and South Africa farmers who have been growing Bt cotton for over a decade are now incurring heavy losses because of soil erosion. It is the similar case with thousands of small farmers in Andhra Pradesh. They have all been caught in a web of deception and manipulation.
How to identify in market which vegetable grown using GM technology
There is no technology in India to do this. A Bt Brinjal or a Bt Cotton does not appear different from its non GE counterpart for sight. In Europe, where there is the highest consumer opposition to genetically engineered products, there are small detection kits that consumers can carry and detect which of the products has been infected by GE and which has not been. This device has not yet been made available in India.
The USA which is the largest consumer of GE foods is also a nation known for the highest obesity among its population. There are many evidences to say that nearly 25% of children in USA suffer from diabetes, BP, Autism. Many thinkers and scientists want serious research to see whether this is related to consumption of GE foods. But since large research funds are with biotech corporations, they are hardly interested to look into this area. The governments are too beholden to biotech corporations for their electoral funds, national incomes and employment generation etc. Hence they are not ready to fund research to uncover truth. That is why much of the world is kept ignorant about the dangers of GE foods.
Will there be a legislation to conduct field trials and use GM Foods by the Centre, noting so many advantages it has?
Alarmed by the strong opposition from farmers groups, scientists and environmentalists against the introduction of GE crops in the country, the Centre withdrew its plans of introducing GE Brinjal in the market with the result progressive environment ministers such as Jairam Ramesh. Eminent scientists such as Dr P M Bhargava and Dr Vijayan have been able to lead an enlightened debate on the issue and have argued that until India is capable of establishing its own reliable world standard bio-safety assessment systems, it should not allow field trials.