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Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops: The Credibility Crisis
Prof. C. Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

Recently, Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot published a new study ‘GM Crops: The Global Economic and Environmental Impact--the First Nine Years 1996-2004’.  The main message is that a) farmers have gained $27 billion in incremental net income from biotech crops since they were first introduced in 1996, b) reduced pesticide applications by 378 million pounds, c) reduced fuel consumption by 1.8 billion liters, and d) reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 10 million metric tons.   The report covers all transgenic crops under commercial cultivation in different parts of the world. 

With amazing alacrity GM Watch (10/13/05) found arguments against every benefit from GE crops, highlighted by Brookes and Barfoot.   The report is trashed also on the basis that a) Monsanto has commissioned the report from PG Economics Ltd., b) the report was written by the company’s directors Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, c) Barfoot also heads an organization called Bioportfolio which has the motto: 'Serving the biotechnology industry', and d) both Brookes and Barfoot have a long and controversial history of producing reports that do exactly that.   None of these points is relevant to be the basis for rejecting the report, but enough to make the anti-tech lobby happy in the belief that the report is shredded.  

Almost all the currently commercialized transgenic crops are from the private sector.   Nowhere public institutions provide the whole gamut of data needed for evaluation of transgenics at different stages of crop performance, such as the controlled field trials, open field trials and commercial cultivation, except in India where the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, provides pre-commercialization trial data, in part.   Consequently, only the product developer provides the data for evaluation by the regulatory authority and the public in almost every country.   Unfortunately, these massive dossiers are not in the public domain.  There is a genuine difficulty in obtaining authentic information, particularly in the developing countries, as neither the product developer nor the regulatory authority responds to requests from a third party to have access to the data.  

It is their prerogative if some do not believe, rather do not want to believe, reports prepared by the product developer.   But they do not trust even independent institutions or agencies if the survey brings out the benefits of technology.  Some such reports are even twisted to their advantage (The Hindu, 09/05/2005).   Aspersions are cast on the credibility of the agency itself, if the product developers commissioned the reports.   The horoscopes of the agencies and of the authors spill on to the websites.   It looks that the anti-tech lobby considers survey reports as credible only if they are negative.

In India, Monsanto commissioned a survey of the performance of Bt cotton by AC Nielsen ORG-Marg for the 2003 season and by IMRB International for the 2004 season and both the reports were trashed by the anti-tech groups, simply because they were sponsored by the product developers and they highlighted the benefits of Bt cotton cultivation. 

Independent survey agencies have to do a professional and credible job that stands scrutiny, if they have to survive.   Projecting untruths at the behest of the sponsor would jeopardize their professional reputation and their very existence.   Professional agencies adopt scientifically accepted methodologies and procedures of analysis of data and often the reports are peer reviewed.   Notwithstanding, any report that brings out the benefits of technology is described by the anti-tech groups as fabricated, doctored, tailored, or whatever.  

The anti-tech groups in India cite extensive data in support of their contention that the Bt-cotton is a failure.   Their websites project the same reports, data and arguments unchanged, again and again, giving the impression of new observations.   Nowhere one can get the faintest idea of the locations, sample size, the methodology of data gathering and analysis.   A number of ‘scientists’ and ‘experts’ are quoted to support the pronouncements of doom and the antecedents and contact information of the scientists and experts is at best vague.  

If the agencies and institutions that produce pro-technology reports have the interests of the product developers at heart, whose interests the anti-tech groups have?   The anti-tech agencies spend millions of US dollars worth local money year after year to oppose technology.   Is this money coming from the harried consumers and the poor farmers in the third world or is it coming from the other industrial lobbies whose interests are threatened by the new technology?

In a situation where if you read more, you understand less, and where each group oozes extreme confidence, questioning the other’s credibility, and with the Media concerned only about newsworthiness, it is the public who are at loss as to whom to trust.  

We have to trust some one somewhere.    We need to evaluate both pro- and anti-tech views rationally on a scientific basis and not on the premise of deep-rooted and never-dying prejudice.  A ‘holier than thou’ mantle does not help.

October 15, 2005