Genetically modified technology arrived in India in 1995 when US biotech giant Monsanto teamed up with India’s Mahyco to import Bt cotton seeds, which are resistant to bollworm infestation. To date, Bt cotton remains the only genetically modified crop in India that has been released for commercial use.
Proponents say Bt cotton has led to decreasing use of insecticides and improved yields. Opponents point to a high rate of suicide among cotton farmers in parts of India, though a direct link with Bt cotton has not been established.
In early 2010, protests broke out in some Indian cities over plans to introduce Bt brinjal or aubergine in the Indian market. The crop’s release has been suspended. But it would be potentially India’s first GM food crop.
Deutsche Welle spoke to Suman Sahai, who heads Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy group to protect farmers’ rights and food and livelihood security. A prominent scientist, she has worked as a faculty member of the universities of Heidelberg, Alberta and Chicago and has won several international awards for her contribution to agriculture and the environment.
There’s been a lot of controversy in India surrounding genetically modified food and crops. Are the concerns justified?
Yes, I think the concerns in India against GM crops are genuine. Both in the case of Bt cotton and more so in the case of Bt brinjal because of the fact that it’s a food crop. I’m a geneticist by training so my take on GM technology is not a rabid anti-position. Yet my biggest fear regards safety and the risks posed to human health and the environment. When we do genetic engineering, all sorts of new things happen within a cell – you could have proteins that are created that are harmful, could elicit an allergic reaction or are toxic. Genes can flow out into the environment and run away into related plants and create problems. That’s a particular problem in India where land holdings are typically small and densely packed together. There’s a strong scientific rationale why this technology needs to be regulated. And if you can’t regulate it properly, then it becomes a dangerous technology.
Are you saying that genetic engineering isn’t well regulated in India?
India has a huge research program on genetically modified crops, and unlike many other parts of the world, it also has a very large public sector investment. That means a lot of the research programs are government-funded. There is also the presence of private seed companies and collaborations of these companies with the large US seed company Monsanto.
At the same time, GM regulation in India is simply not as good as it should be. There’s no provision for environmental impact assessment, testing and safeguards often aren’t adequate, and people aren’t trained well in bio-safety practices. Unfortunately, there the industry is at fault, too, because it so plays down that anything could be wrong with the technology. At times, the regulatory system suffers from a clear conflict of interest. People whose labs are working on creating genetically modified or transgenic crops are also part of the regulatory process – the jury and the judged sometimes gets blurred. That’s certainly very unhealthy and cause for concern. What we need is a stringent and transparent regulatory system.
Can GM technology help tackle the problems facing Indian agriculture?
Indian agriculture is in a terrible crisis. There are a number of reasons but at the heart of it is the fact that agriculture is not remunerative. The cost of cultivating a crop is very high and the price for the produce is not high enough for agriculture to be profitable. Climate change is also set to worsen things for largely rain-fed Indian agriculture. One way to improve preparedness for climate change is having access to a large genetic diversity in crop plants.
Our organization has been collecting traditional crop varieties and evaluating and testing their properties. All these gene banks are in the village and we work together with the farming community to evaluate them. So far we have 2,000 rice varieties – there are drought-tolerant, disease-resistant amongst those – because over the generations, farmers have saved all kinds of seeds and rice varieties to use in different situations. Rather than this big tech approach, the first step should be to conserve your traditional biodiversity and agro-diversity. That means conserving the gene pool and those genes that may be useful for traits required by crops under changed conditions. That will give you the genes and the starting point to breed new varieties much faster.
I’m not suggesting you don’t do science. But I don’t think genetic engineering is going to take you very far with this. I also think that the future belongs to technologies such as marker-aided selection. It’s a much safer technology, and that’s where the emphasis should be.
Do you think GM technology has a role to play at all in a country like India?
I think the question we need to ask is how relevant is GM technology to Indian food and agriculture? I think this is a solution looking for a problem. A lot of the plants that biotechnology companies in India are working on don’t make sense to me. I’m also opposed to herbicide tolerant crops - we absolutely do not need them in India. That’s because the weeds they kill sustain millions of people, women in particular, who earn through weeding. The weeds are also used as either food or fodder in India.
I think unfortunately that most GM research is driven purely by commercial interests. A lot of companies have invested a lot of money in it. The mentality is “I’ve got this Bt gene and I’m milking it.” That’s what’s wrong with GM technology in India. I often give the example of lathyrus sativus, a highly nutritious legume that grows in bad soil. It’s a real boon for the poor. But the problem is that it has toxins. If you eat too much of it, it leads to a form of paralysis, which is called lathyrism. Why does the Indian GM research program not concentrate on this and knock off the toxins and produce a clean lathyrus? We need to prioritize our interests and conduct a cost-and-risk-benefit analysis for every GM crop. And we need access to trial data to see how GM products perform. Putting public institutions under public scrutiny testing in the public domain is very essential.
Do you think GM technology can help boost global food security?
No. The one thing you never tire of hearing is that this technology is needed to produce more food. But I don’t think genetic engineering has lived out its potential. If you use it in a targeted way and if you are careful about applying it to a specific problem such as improving drought resistance or salinity tolerance in a crop, it may one day solve that problem. But I don’t see how one particular technology is going to solve a larger food problem that has many complex aspects. Hunger is not a very straightforward situation – it results from a number of factors. It’s absurd to claim that you have this one intervention and that’s going to take care of hunger.
Sonia Phalnikar interviewed Suman Sahai
Editor: Sean Sinico