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MARCH 2010

Frequently Asked Questions about GMOs and Bt-Brinjal
Dinesh C. Sharma New Delhi, March 6,2010
What is GMO?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. But exactly does that mean? Well, all domesticated plants and animals have been genetically modified by human beings. For thousands of years we have been doing this by cross breeding and hybridization. Over the years more and more effective ways have been found for doing this. Since about the 1920s, we've been genetically modifying organisms using chemical and radiation mutagenesis, in which genetic mutations are induced by subjecting organisms to radiation and by exposing them to harsh chemicals.

Around the 1970s a new technology called genetic engineering made its appearance. Using this technology scientists were able to directly insert certain desirable genes into organisms. Think of it this way: cross breeding is like getting an i-Phone along with an AT&T contract, while genetic engineering is like getting an i-Phone without the baggage of an AT&T contract.

The first genetically engineered product approved in the United States was insulin for diabetes patients in 1982. Ever since then genetic engineering has become a very important tool in modern medicine.

In the U.S. genetically engineered crops were first approved for commercial cultivation in 1996. Today these crops cover millions of acres. Most of the corn and and soya in the United States comes from genetically engineered crops.

In general usage, the terms GMO and GM generally refers only to the agricultural application of genetic engineering, and it is only this that has become controversial. Even those who claim to be anti-GMO do not object to genetically modified organisms achieved through cross breeding or even through chemical or radiation induced mutations. Even genetic engineering itself is not controversial. Nobody objects to cancer drugs that are genetically engineered.

Are GM foods safe for humans?

Many people are concerned about the safety of GM foods. However, many studies have been carried out, and most have found that GM foods to be perfectly safe. In the United States GM foods including staples like corn and soya have been widely consumed for the last 15 years. In all these years, not even so much as a single headache has been attributed to GM foods. Not a single lawsuit has found GM foods to be liable for any kind of injury.

There are some scientists who hold the view that GM foods could be unsafe for humans. So there is not 100% scientific certainty regarding this. But then, that is the the way science is. Science is a perpetual argument. There is rarely 100% certainly about anything in science. Even global warming, and even Darwin's theory of evolution are not 100% settled. On a scientific certainty scale of 1 - 10, where 1 is wild speculation and 10 is absolute certainty, I would say Global Warming would be a 6 or a 7. The theory of evolution would be 9 or 9.5. The safety of GM foods would be somewhere in between, at around 8.

What about Frankenfoods?
Many people feel that genetic engineering is fundamentally anti-natural. They call GM foods "Frankenfoods". There is a feeling that it is something grotesque and goes against the will of God and Nature. This is a instinctive reaction and is quite understandable. But really, in nature itself, there is nothing unnatural about gene transfer between different species. There is a class of viruses called retroviruses that carry genetic material with them into human cells and insert them into the host cell's genome. In fact, scientists have found that more than 50% of our human DNA comes from viruses. So, in a way, we are actually more virus than human.

Who is to say what is natural and what is unnatural? These are mere cultural constructs. In U.S., there is a raging debate on homosexuality. Some say that it is unnatural, while others insist that is is perfectly natural. So it is with GM foods. Some are convinced that it is inherently unnatural, but others feel that it is perfectly natural.

Interestingly, nobody raises any concerns about genetically engineered medicines being unnatural. Nobody complains about tinkering with genes when it comes to cancer drugs. Nobody complains about genetically engineered Hepatitis-B vaccine being given to newborn babies. So why complain only when it comes to GM food?

Isn't GMO technology monopolized by Monsanto through its patents?
To a large extent, concerns raised about the patent regime and power of the U.S. based Monsanto Corporation are justified. In my opinion patenting of DNA sequences, as happens in the U.S. is very problematic. Monsanto has locked up far too many patents. And at times Monsanto has acted like a bully. But surely the answer is not to ban agricultural biotechnology outright. In the computer industry there are many who resent Microsoft's dominance, but they don't call for computers to be banned. Instead they try to develop alternatives to Microsoft.

Aren't GM seeds Terminator Seeds, engineered to be sterile?
A technology that would engineer sterility into seeds was developed by a company partially owned by Monsanto. However, the company decided not to commercialize this technology. As of now, there is not a single sterile GM crop anywhere in the world.

What effects do GM crops have on the environment and on biodiversity?
Some are concerned that cross-pollination from GM crops will threaten biodiversity. However, cross-pollination from GM crops is not likely to be any worse than cross-pollination from non-GM crops. On the contrary, practices like reduced pesticide usage and no-till farming, which are made possible by GM technology, have many environmental benefits. Moreover, by increasing marketable yields of existing agricultural lands, GM crops reduce the pressure to bring more land under cultivation in order to feed a growing world population.

One of the gurus of biodiversity, the person who is said to have first used the term 'biodiversity', Prof. E.O. Wilson of Harvard, is a supporter of GM crops because he thinks that GM crops will actually increase biodiversity.

Don't GM crops benefit only large corporate farms and hurt small family farms?

GM crops benefit farmers of all kinds, whether small or large, corporate or family-run. Most farmers who grow GM crops in the developing world are small farmers. In the U.S. the Amish, who are the very embodiment of the notion of small farming communities, have accepted GM crops.

What about choice? Aren't GM foods being forced onto people?
Many people in the U.S. complain that they are left with no choice but to consume GM foods because there is no system of mandatory labeling. They complain that their basic civil liberties are being violated. But then, there is no restriction on voluntary labeling. Many food products have voluntary labels such as "organic", "kosher", "halal", etc. In the U.S. one can avoid GMOs by choosing foods that are labeled "organic". There is no mandatory labeling in the U.S. because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not see any compelling safety reason to do so. Still, there cerainly is scope for improvement in food labeling, whether voluntary or mandatory.

On the other side of the coin, there are the farmers, and seed companies and biotech companies, who are eager to use genetic engineering in agriculture. Their civil liberties are important too. Using the force of law and the coercive power of the state to ban anything, whether it is a an idea, or a technology, or a book, is an extremely draconian measure in a democratic society. It should be done only if there are clear and compelling reasons for doing so.

What is the need for GM foods? Isn't there too much food in the world already?While it is true that there is a surplus of foodgrain production in some countries like the U.S., some one billion people in the world go hungry every day. Some say that it is simply a matter of redistributing food. But it is much more than that. Even if practical issues like transportation costs and lack of infrastructure, are overcome, being able to grow their own food is a matter of pride and self respect for developing countries, just as it is a matter of pride and self respect for individuals to take care of their families. Who would want to be completely dependent on the whims and mercies of donor agencies? What is more, the world's population is projected to increase by more than two billion people by 2050. So food production will have to increase correspondingly.

Isn't GMO technology too expensive and too complex for poor farmers in developing countries? Far from being too complex, GMO is the ultimate user-friendly technology. The beauty of this technology is that it is entirely packaged into the seed. The farmer can grow the seed as he has always done. Compared to green revolution era farming technologies, there is much less need to train farmers on how to use new types of fertilizers, or pesticides, or farming machinery.

Yes, GMO seeds tend to me more expensive than non-GMO seeds, but farmers save on other input costs like pesticides.

What is the long term future of GM foods?
I think the long term future of this technology is somewhat murky. It faces intense objections from some quarters. But I think most of these objections are not insurmountable. Objections about being too unnatural, about patenting life forms, etc., are equally applicable to genetically engineered medicines. But then why doesn't Greenpeace demand that the latest breast cancer drugs be banned? I think that it has to do with the benefits of the technology. For those of us who are relatively well off, living in cities, and working in industries far removed from agriculture, genetic engineering in medicine provides direct and visible benefits to ourselves, our friends and our families. On the other hand genetic engineering in agriculture has no direct benefits for consumers like us. It benefits mainly farmers, and to a lesser extent, the environment.

I think that unless consumers like us can see some direct benefits from agricultural biotechnology, such as say some GM food that will reduce our chances of getting cancer, this technology is unlikely to be embraced wholeheartedly. Many will keep asking: what is the need for this technology?

How did GMOs enter India?
The first - and till date only - GM crop approved for commercial cultivation in Indian is cotton. In 1997, the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), which is 26% owned by Monsanto, applied for approval for its genetically engineered Bt-Cotton seeds. As has been the case with Bt-Brinjal , Bt-Cotton, too, was controversial. Activist groups in India as well as international activist groups like Greenpeace were protesting against Bt-Cotton.

While all this was going on, an enterprising gentleman by the name of Dinkar Desai did something that changed everything. Mr. Desai was the boss of a small seed company in Ahmedabad called Navbharat Seeds. He had managed to get hold of some Bt-Cotton seeds, and had back-crossed them with his own hybrid seeds. The result was a Bt-Cotton variety that he named Navbharat 151. In 1998 Mr. Desai began selling these seeds to farmers in Gujarat. For three years nobody complained. Then, in 2001, a severe bollworm infestation swept through Gujarat. As many cotton fields in Gujarat were devastated, a few thousand acres remained gloriously unaffected. These were the fields planted with Mr. Desai's Navbharat 151 seeds. Soon everybody realized that these were unauthorized Bt-Cotton seeds. The government ordered that all fields growing Navbharat 151 be burned down. In response, farmers rose up in protest. A Farmers' mobilization began. In response, the govt. backed down and cleared Bt-Cotton for commercial cultivation in March 2002.

How has India's experience with Bt-Cotton been?
There are many claims and counter-claims about the success or failure of Bt-Cotton in India. Some have claimed that Bt-Cotton has been responsible for a spate of farmers' suicides in India in certain pockets like Vidarbha in Maharashtra. But others have have found this not to be the case. [For my own analysis of farmers' suicides in India, see this]

Whatever the truth of all the claims and counterclaims, what is undeniable is that cotton farmers all over India have fully embraced Bt-Cotton technology. Within only eight years of its approval, more than 80% of India's total cotton area is under Bt-Cotton cultivation. India's annual output of cotton has doubled from about 15 million bales to about 30 million bales, and India has gone from being a net cotton importer to a net cotton exporter. And all this, while the amount of chemical pesticides used by cotton farmers has fallen by 50%.

So overall, India has had a very good experience with the one GM crop that has been allowed so far.

Isn't Monsanto exploiting Indian farmers with its Bt-Cotton seeds?
When Bt-Cotton was first approved in India in 2002 there were fears that Mahyco and Monsanto would monopolize the supply of seeds. But such a situation has not materialized. There is vigorous competition among seed companies for the Bt-Cotton market, and many choices are available to Indian farmers. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has cleared more than 500 varieties of Bt-Cotton seeds from dozens of seed companies. Not all are based on Monsanto's DNA recombination events. Many Bt-Cotton seeds are based on events developed by other organizations, such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad, and even the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

What is Bt-Brinjal?
The brinjal plant is highly susceptible to insect infestations. Now, here is a bacterium called Bacillus Thuringiensis or Bt, which naturally produces a toxin that is effective against these insects. Because of this quality Bt has been used for pest control in agriculture since the 1920s. it is considered environmentally friendly and is used widely by organic farmers since it is harmful only to a small class of insects and does not have any affect on other insects or animals or human beings. What scientists have done is that they have isolated the gene responsible for producing the Bt-toxin in the bacterium and have incorporated this gene into the brinjal genome. With this modification the plant itself produces it own Bt-toxin. As a result brinjal growers can use much less pesticides, thus potentially saving them time and money while also and reducing their crop losses. Since chemical pesticides are reduced it has environmental benefits as well.

One thing that must be pointed out is that Bt is a trait and not a variety of Brinjal. And it is important to point this out because people tend to confuse trait and variety. This Bt trait is added to existing varieties of Brinjal by back-crossing. Think of this as an automatic transmission in a car. An automatic car is not a car model itself, but a feature added to an existing model. Similar is the case with genetically engineered crops. For example, there are hundreds of varieties of Bt-Cotton in India, just as there are many non-Bt varieties as well.

What is the Current Status of Bt-Brinjal in India
The govt. of India has announced that more safety tests will be conducted. But it is not clear what safety tests will satisfy the anti-GMO activists. It is true that the regulatory mechanism in India is not perfect. But it is also true that Bt-Brinjal has cleared many more safety tests than any other food product in India. There have already been some 20 to 30 different trials and studies conducted on Bt-Brinjal over the last 8 - 9 years. Some of the trials have been conducted by Mahyco, which developed Bt-Brinjal, but others have been conducted at various government and private labs and agricultural universities. No safety problems have yet been discovered. It has been declared safe by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which consists of some 20 to 25 top scientists (though about 4 of them have been accused by anti-GMO activists of having potential conflicts of interest).

In my opinion the opposition to Bt-Brinjal has much more to do with ideology, and has very little to do with public safety. In general food safety in India is very poor. Every year in India some 400,000 children below the age of five die from diarrhea caused by contaminated food and water. It is surreal to see activists raise worries about the remote possibility of someone in the distant future getting allergies and rashes from eating Bt-Brinjal, while being totally unconcerned about thousands of people dying every day from ordinary food and water contamination.

Anyway, let us give them the benefit of the doubt. If the real concern is about safety, then it should be no more than a simple matter of conducting some more safety studies over the next 3 - 5 years at the most. Either the studies should uncover some real tangible safety problems, or else the Bt-brinjal should be cleared for commercial cultivation without any objections. Let us see.

Is the GMO controversy really a question of science, or is it a political issue?
It is definitely not about the science. It is much closer to being a political issue. But I would not really characterize it as a strictly political issue. Politics, after all, is said to be the art of compromise. The opposition to GM foods is the exact opposite of compromise. The further scientists go in demonstrating the safety of GM foods, the more implacable and uncompromising the GMO opponents tend to become. This has more to do with ideological fundamentalism, dogma, and prejudice, than about either science or politics.