Wednesday, April 10, 2013


The furious debate regarding the relevance and need for wide scale adoption of genetically modified crop technology world wide does not seem to be abating in spite of tons of scientific reports supporting as well as decrying this new agricultural tool emanating from many research institutions world over. Hardly a day passes without any publication coming out in this subject of intense interest for the consumer as well as policy makers. While the claim that GM technology can raise yield has not yet been conclusively established, it can cut down field losses due to some pests cannot be denied. Similarly long term safety of all GM crops is till uncertain though short term studies do not indicate they are harmful. Environmental issues are still to be sorted out as many fear that wide scale cultivation of GM crops can wipe out the native species over a period of time through contamination. Here is the latest on this subject which only adds to the already existing confusion. 

The US Congress adopted a clause in its 2013 agriculture budget bill that effectively bars the department of agriculture from any attempt to halt planting or harvesting a GM crop, even if the call comes from the judiciary, sparking outrage. India imposed a 10-year moratorium on field trials of GM crops in 2012. Organizations like Greenpeace and activists worldwide welcomed India's decision, but the IFPRI report describes it as a significant setback to food policy, and mainstream scientists argue that GM crops offer a way out of deepening food insecurity as growing conditions like the weather and water become compromised by climate change. IFPRI researchers P K Joshi and Devesh Roy note that the moratorium, "not based on scientific logic, will have negative effects on frontier research and demand-driven technology generation". The adoption of the US clause, nicknamed the "Monsanto Protection Act", was described by Greenpeace as a "sad day for democracy and the future of our food". Mark Bittman, a food writer for the New York Times, cites interviews with the Union of Concerned Scientists stating that GM crops purported to be weed- and insect-resistant are actually failing.  There is no reliable proof that GM crops are harmful to human beings. "That's not the same thing as saying that the potential isn't there for novel proteins and other chemicals to generate unexpected problems," Bittman writes, "which [is] why we need strict, effective testing and regulatory systems." The debate on GM crops is polarized between supporters and those who think it will have long-term impacts on biodiversity, possibly health, and lead to a takeover of food production by corporations like Monsanto. This has also been the case in Africa, where some countries have banned GM maize as food aid. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, 2001 World Food Prize Laureate and the author of a book on the politics of GM food, described India's moratorium as "nonsensical", and said it "reduces India's efforts to assure sustainable food security for its population". He is among the mainstream scientists who prefer to be open-minded on GM technology and believe that while it might not be the panacea to climate-proof plants, it is a tool with some potential to ensure food security in the coming decades.

There is some criticism about Indian Governments 2012 policy of imposing a moratorium on GM food crop cultivation though one cannot find fault with this step considering the rich diversity this country has vis--a-vis food and agriculture. The argument that such a policy will stifle research is misplaced because there is no stopping of research and development of this tool and if the scientific community can come up with GM foods based on "confined" research with safety questions fully solved, Government may be able to justify lifting the ban for the benefit of the country. Any attempt in introducing GM crops must satisfy the need to protect indigenous species through multiple gene pool collection and maintenance. No self respecting country can pass on the responsibility of developing such new technology to private sector monopolists like Monsanto or Cargil which can have potential danger of exploiting the farmers through stifling restrictions and restrictive patenting. Of course a rich country like the US has opted for a policy of protection to the GM seed industry in a big way with least concern to the well being of its citizens, third world countries should not mimic this strange country and opt for farmer and consumer friendly policies only.  

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