Bio-politics of GM Crops: A Counter Point to “The Big Business of Genetically Modified Food”

Bio-politics of GM Crops: A Counter Point to “The Big Business of Genetically Modified Food”

By Dr. Amjad M. Husaini                   

Recently my father showed me an article “The Big Business of Genetically Modified Food” which was written by Mr. Mudasir Sheikh and published in Kashmir Reader on the 5th April, 2017. This is my attempt to clear the confusion created by this article and present a rebuttal to it very briefly. I am, therefore, reproducing some content of my invited lectures delivered in 99th Indian Science Congress (India), PennState University (USA) and University of Oxford (UK). Here I begin with a quote ‘Worry comes from fear, and fear is caused by Ignorance’ (Hazrat Inayat Khan).
The purpose of this piece is to dispel the fear of GM technology among the readers!
Let me begin with some basic statistics on the population. In 1800, the global population was less than 1 billion and it was reasonably simple to increase food production over the following 100 years by increasing the area of land under cultivation. In 1900, the world’s population was 1.6 billion and an increase in global food production over the following century was achieved through “green revolution.” Large-scale mechanization and an increase in the use of fossil fuel-based ammonium fertilizers were the prime catalysts. In the current century, the global population has reached 7.2 billion and is estimated to be 9 billion by 2030. The task of providing nutrient-rich food to such a large population is therefore more challenging.
As envisaged in United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, food must be grown “sustainably” on approximately the same amount of arable land using fewer resources and despite the enormous, new challenges associated with climate change.
Climate Change
Climate change is an additional challenge to sustainable agriculture. About 1.8 billion people are expected to suffer from the scarcity of fresh water by 2025, mostly in Asia and Africa. In June 2008, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), together with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system, convened the “High-Level Conference on World Food Security: the Challenges of Climate Change and Bio-energy.” One hundred and eighty-one countries adopted the declaration that “It is essential to address the question of how to increase the resilience of present food production systems to challenges posed by climate change”.
Climate change and environmental degradation have led to increased desertification, erratic rainfall distribution, prolonged dry spells, frequent floods, extreme temperatures. This constitutes critical obstacles affecting sustainability of agriculture production systems, as was declared 700 years back by the great Sufi Saint of Kashmir Sheikh Nur-ud-Din Wali (RA) ’Un poshiteli, yeli won poshi’ which means ‘Food security is subservient to Environmental sustainability’.
Biotech Crops: Contributing
to Food, Nutrition and
Livelihood Security
Biotech crops offer an opportunity to increase yields, ensuring food security and improving the micronutrient content of foods. The advent of ‘Golden Rice’ created through the use of modern genetic engineering by Ingo Potrykus and team, was a major advance in terms of addressing nutritional security. It involved the transfer of genes necessary for the accumulation of carotenoids (vitamin A precursors) in the rice endosperm. The endosperm of rice does not contain any provitamin A and the genes coding it are not available in the rice gene pool. The first generation of Golden Rice drew considerable criticism, with opponents arguing that Golden Rice would encourage people to rely on a single food rather than promote dietary diversification. Critics also pointed out that a normal serving of Golden Rice contained only a small fraction of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of ß-carotene.
It has also been demonstrated that ß-carotene from Golden Rice is efficiently converted to vitamin A in humans. It is well recognized that vitamin A deficiency indirectly interferes with iron (Fe) resorption, and an effort to increase the availability of Fe in the rice endosperm by expressing a ferritin gene from Phaseolus resulted in a 2.5-fold increase in Fe content of the endosperm. New transgenic plants aimed at combining the genes for Fe availability and absorption with the provitamin A genes by crossing are under development too.
Another notable example of biotech crops genetically-engineered for increased productivity by controlling major insect pests and imparting herbicide tolerance, is maize. Traits such as high lysine content, amylase enzyme, phytase enzyme (nutritional enhancement) are explored and incorporated in maize to make it commercial. The genetically-modified maize, “SmartStax™,” has already received registration from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and regulatory authorization from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). SmartStax™ is a multiple-trait product based on a total of 8 genes, and is the most advanced stacked biotech crop currently approved. It is designed to provide the most comprehensive insect pest control in maize (both above and below ground), in addition to herbicide tolerance for weed control.
Transgenic technology helps reduce the amount of ploughing required before planting crops and therefore helps retain soil moisture. Under drought conditions this can mean the difference between having a crop to harvest and crop failure. The United States has taken the lead in this direction, demonstrating that a GM solution to this important issue is well beyond the theoretical stage. Biotech DroughtGard™ maize, first planted in the US in 2013, increased 15-fold from 50,000 hectares in 2013 to 810,000 hectares in 2015 reflecting high farmer acceptance. The same event has been donated to the public-private partnership WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa), led by the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF). This is an example where the main aim was to develop new African drought-tolerant maize varieties with the best technology available internationally and share with selected countries in Africa by 2017.
A global meta-analysis of 147 studies for the last two decades has shown that “on average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%”. According to ISAAA report (2016)  “From 1996 to 2014, biotech crops contributed to Food Security, Sustainability and the Environment/Climate Change by: increasing crop production valued at US$150 billion; providing a better environment, by saving 584 million kg a.i. of pesticides; in 2014 alone, reducing CO2 emissions by 27 billion kg, equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road for one year; conserving biodiversity by saving 152 million hectares of land from 1996-2014; and helped alleviate poverty for ~16.5 million small farmers and their families totaling ~65 million people, who are some of the poorest people in the world.”
The Regulatory Regime for
Biotech Crops
In 2015, India became the number one cotton producer in the world, to which Bt cotton made a significant contribution – benefits for the period 2002 to 2014 are estimated at US$18 billion. Our neighboring country China feeds a fifth of the world’s population with less than a tenth of global farmland. Confronted with land degradation, chronic water shortages and a growing population that nearly numbers 1.4 billion, China began use of GM technology through a huge investment of $3.5 billion in research and development. China has successfully grown Bt cotton since 1997 with economic gains of US$17.5 billion at the farmer level from 1997 to 2014, from about 10% increase in yield and a 60% reduction in insecticides, both of which contribute to more sustainable agriculture and prosperity. China’s research on Bt maize, herbicide tolerant maize, phytase maize and Bt rice, will have significant contribution to China’s food and feed needs. Notably, ChemChina recently bid US$43 billion for Syngenta and successful bid would provide ChemChina immediate access to a large number of ready-made safety-tested commercial GM crops grown globally for years together.
Despite the availability of promising research results, many applications of biotechnology have not met their full potential to deliver practical solutions   users in developing countries. These applications have remained confined to the research laboratories and have not translated into technologies at the farm. For example, genetically-modified beneficial crops with agronomic traits like enhanced drought tolerance, salt tolerance and insect resistance, developed by publicly funded research, have not reached end users because of the extremely high cost of regulatory compliance. It is estimated that it costs up to US$20 million to gain commercial certification of a single GM crop. As a result, these biotech crops which would help the poor are not commercialized. The famous rice breeder closely associated with the success of Green Revolution Padmshree Dr. Gurdev Singh Khush recently wrote in support of GM Mustard developed in University of Delhi “The first mustard hybrid based on a GM method of pollination control….has outperformed true breeding varieties by as much as 20 per cent. Unfortunately, up to now, it is still awaiting bio-safety clearance… For a country which imported around Rs 65,000 crore worth of edible oils in 2015, it is an awful loss of opportunity”
Even Golden Rice, the most acclaimed consumer-oriented biotech crop, has suffered from the bio-politics of GM crops, with unnecessary delay in its release to farmers. Besides political, socioeconomic, cultural and ethical concerns about modern biotech crops related to the fear of technological “neo-colonialism” in developing countries, intellectual property rights, land ownership, customer choices, negative cultural and religious perceptions, and fear of the unknown have impeded the spread of these crops. Such public concerns fueled and supported by vested interests have led to the over-regulation of this technology.
It is not the difference of “scientific” opinion that has hindered large scale acceptance of biotech crops, but the prejudiced campaign by vested interests and NGO’s. For example, in a report in 2001, the European Commission confirmed the safety of GM crops and food, after painstaking “research spanning 15 y and involving 81 projects with 400 scientists.” The report concluded: “GM plants […] have not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding. Indeed, the use of more precise technology and greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them safer than conventional plants and food.”
The former founder of Greenpeace, Dr. Patrick Moore denounced Greenpeace as committing a “crime against humanity,” for opposing the use of GMO Golden Rice. Further, recently 107 Nobel Laureates urged Greenpeace and its supporters to “re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against ‘GMOs’ in general and Golden Rice in particular……. Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.”
Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, once commented that “GMOs can play a very vital role in peoples’ lives. However, this must be accompanied by political good will because technology alone cannot survive without decisive support.” His close associate and 1st World Food Prize Winner Professor M.S. Swaminathan has pitched for promoting more public sector research in GM technology so that there can be inclusiveness in access to technology, “Private companies obviously will produce technologies, where the small farmer will have to buy the seeds every year and where the findings are protected by intellectual property rights. There is a very good expertise in our public sector institutions in the fields of molecular biology and genetic engineering and we should derive full benefit from them…..that ICAR should organize an All India Coordinated Project for the field testing of GM crop in the farms of Agriculture Universities with appropriate precautions…”.

—The author is a Senior Assistant Professor, Division of Biotechnology, SKUAST-K and can be reached at: amjadhusaini@yahoo.com

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