24 February 2009


The onset of rise in food prices which is projected to get worse puts GM food squarely back in the spot-light. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Genetic engineering allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.

GM foods are developed – and marketed – because there is some perceived advantage either to the producer or consumer of these foods. This is meant to translate into a product with a lower price, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both. Initially GM seed developers wanted their products to be accepted by producers so have concentrated on innovations that farmers (and the food industry more generally) would appreciate. The GM crops currently on the market are mainly aimed at an increased level of crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses or through increased tolerance towards herbicides.

All of this sounds much like magic, you take a gene put it into another plant and hey presto! the plant is resistant to diseases which reduces use of pesticides. On the flip side, essentially what the technology does is introduce foreign genetic material into a natural environment.

What's so bad about that you might ask - nothing much, except that genes move around a lot and one of the things they are adept at doing is mutation. So this brings about the question of human health - how does consuming GM food affect human health? The three main issues debated are tendencies to provoke allergic reaction, gene transfer and outcrossing. It has been shown that people living near GM fields ave developed skin rashes and other ailments. As for gene transfer which frankly, worries me more - gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract can occur. This would be particularly relevant if antibiotic resistance genes, used in creating GMOs, were to be transferred. Additionally transfer of genes to other soil microbes is also a possibility. The movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild is outcrossing, as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with those grown using GM crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and security.

I'm not even going to get into the environmental hazards of GMO but for the record one of the things it does do is kill Monarch butterfly larvae. So why has such a relatively untested technology deemed safe after field trials that have lasted less than 10years? The simple reason is that GM represents big bucks to seed companies who can monopolize the agri-industry by touting GM as the new miracle food. These companies are based in the US and by clever marketing strategy have fooled poor farmers into thinking that this super-seed is better.

The US has embraced GM for the last 30 years and about 80% of soya and maize products consumed is now GM. The EU continues to oppose GM and India is slowly opening out into the new technology. India of course is under pressure to feed its growing population in the midst of failing monsoons. Inspite of this, let us be clear that there is no short-fall of food production (yet) but the country lacks proper distribution channels. Instead of spending on GM research; it would make more economical sense to invest in establishing better distribution channels, encourage the small farmers and protect existing agricultural land to ensure future food security.

As far as India and other developing nations are concerned, GM is absolutely the wrong way to go. One of the pit-falls that the big seed honchos fail to mention is that GM technology only works on large scale and India's agricultural backbone are the small farmers. In this scenario, small-scale permaculture or organic farming is the way to go which has been proved to produce more yield per acre as opposed to chemical farming.

Most worryingly India has no clear rules and regulations in place to check in-coming GM contamination by form of food imports nor does it have in place stringent methods of testing and approval of GM food products. The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in collaboration with Monsanto is now moving towards introducing GM Brinjal with the Bt gene transcribed to increase pest resistance. Think about this - with food grains, there is a processing stage that diminishes the effect of the toxin but with a vegetable, it is consumed with absolutely no processing. All I'm saying is that people have a right to know what they eat and where their food comes from. With current, very ambiguous laws in place, this information isn't going to reach the consumer. If Bt Brinjal is introduced in the market, we will not be able to tell the difference as India does not package and label fresh produce. As a result we will lose a basic consumer right of knowing what is in our product before we buy it.

No comments: