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Breaking the myths surrounding the anti GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) Propaganda

  • Why India is the center of Anti-GMO epidemic?
  • The GMO Issue

Article by Mr. K.Vijayaraghavan – Chairman, Sathguru & Regional Coordinator, IP CALS, Cornell University                                                                                                                        

CaptureOver the two decades it is proven that GM technologies have contributed to increased food productivity and environment improvement due to lower deployment of toxic pesticides.  However, traditionally anti-GM activists have protested against the GM technology on the following grounds –

 1) It is an elite multinational domination with protected product ownership meant to exploit small farmers and deny technology at affordable price to small farmers

2) It is US dominated and is thrust on other countries

3) Its safety and long term implications are unknown over the next 50 years and beyond,

4) It is detrimental to biodiversity and finally

5) While the world can be fed fully with organic food (no matter what it takes to grow them all) why go for any technology application at all, proven or unproven?

India is the first country in the world to de-mystify all of these myths and prove to the world that –

a) GM crop development is not the sole domain of 4 or 5 multinational companies

b) GM crops bring immense economic contribution at the bottom-of-the pyramid – the marginal farmer, who grows a variety of neglected crops

c) The technology is not the limitation for any one to pursue the research and product delivery goals – The technology is accessible.

d) The intellectual property is not an impediment for breaking the dominance of top 4 multinationals, but a facilitator for small ventures and public research organizations to legitimately secure technologies and deliver trait specific varietal seeds to small farmers who can grow and save their own seeds in their own right.

In India the deep engagement of the public sector and national level private enterprises and the wide recognition of the technology at the farmer end has triggered the global ire of anti-GM lobby groups, triggering deployment of unprecedented global resources in India to the tune of several million Dollars and Euros to oppose this effort. If Indian success is allowed it is detrimental to the activism across the world and hence the epicenter of this activism rests in India currently.

There are number of elements that have contributed to Indian public and private organizations breaking these myths.

Myth No.1: Elite multinational dominance: World over, four or five international seed companies have focused on corn and oil seeds for the trait improvement due to large acreage of farming and the resultant economy of scale in adoption of GM technologies by large farmers focused on these crops.  The economy of scale provides the large corporation the ability to recover high investment cost in research, validation, and post release monitoring of the product. However, these large corporations have not focused on crops of regional relevance for most developing countries. In India the crops under development are predominantly focused on grain crops, vegetables, lentils, millets, groundnut, mustard and other edible crops and these are the domain of interest to multinational companies. Indian developers have licensed genes from international sources or in some cases cloned their own genes with patent filing and have pursued integration of these genes in crops of regional interest. This has provided opportunity during 2004 to 2009 more than 20 crops to be developed and tested by public and private enterprises in wide variety of crops. The focus of crop improvement related to a wide basket of crops such as Brinjal, okra, tomato,  rice,  potato, cotton, chillies ( pepper),  banana, papaya,  Chickpea, Pigeonpea and  Groundnut. Indian productivity in most of these crops has stagnated over the years due to inability of the genetic resources to overcome chronic pests and pathogens. Indian productivity for most of these crops is at about half or one third of the best productivity when benchmarked to countries having highest productivity. Most chemical solutions have been less effective in mitigating pests and pathogens in these crops. Application of biological solutions externally to the plant has only very limited success (confined to few thousand acres forming a fraction of one percent of the total acreage in the country) but the success has not been uniform due to impact of the varying environment on the performance of the organism. The alternate NPM technologies and organic farming practices have not yielded currently even fraction of 1% of total Urinal produced in the country or anywhere in the world. The molecular solutions have been explored with the help of plant and soil borne bacterial genes that have proven effectiveness in mitigating these pests and pathogens.  In other developing countries such as Brazil, Indonesia and Philippines too, independent researchers in the public research and national companies have developed products in their focus crops such as sugarcane, beans and potato. In Indonesia, the sugarcane crop has been developed by in-country researchers and has been recently approved for plant multiplication. The Late Blight Resistant Potato is in advanced stage of evaluation and will be approved for release to farmers in Indonesia within the next few months. Similarly, in Brazil Brazilian regulators have approved the transgenic bean. None of these had any interest of multinational companies. In Philippines several varieties and publicly developed Bt Brinjal hybrids are under review by the regulatory authorities for release to the farmers. Similar efforts are undertaken in Vietnam as well for crops of local interest.  India was in the forefront of this effort until 2009 and has taught the model for Asian and South American countries to follow. The dismantling of the regulatory mechanism in India subsequent to the imposition of moratorium by the then Environment Minister has put India behind by a decade in pursuing these developments. While Central Potato Research Institute ( CPRI ) was the first in the world to advance the Late Blight Resistant Potato with gene transfer from another public university, University of Wisconsin, they were denied field validation of their crop during the last 5 years. Now the Indonesian research organization, that started the effort several years after CPRI, has taken the lead to commercialize this product far ahead of India. Even if field evaluations are permitted now, it will take another three to four years for this crop to be introduced in India in Indian potato varieties. Indian farmers will now look for the Indonesian seed producers to supply them Late Blight disease resistant seeds, as at times the late blight can be having devastating effect on the potato crop. The gene here is the potato gene itself, isolated from a native potato.

Myth No.2: GM crops’ contribution to the resource poor, marginal farmers:  When the technology is adopted in public varieties, the technology has no barrier for it to spread among the marginal farmers. In case of Bt Brinjal, in Bangladesh the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute developed 9 varieties of Brinjal and out of the 9 varieties 4 are already approved for cultivation by farmers. The farmers cultivating them have the right to save the seeds and replant them for successive seasons. Additionally, the public research organization provides seeds to the farmers growing brinjal and there by ensuring complete affordability for the technology by all small farmers.  When I interacted with one of the Bangladeshi farmer, he indicated that Indian farmers from West Bengal keep calling them to secure seeds from them. His answer to the West Bengal farmer was to buy fruits from them and not the seeds. It reflects how the Indian farmer is denied the right to secure the varieties developed by Public research institutions in India which they could have sown and saved in their own right.

The Bt Brinjal development effort, authorized by Government of India in 2004 as a collaborative project, has provided for the first time three national public sector research institutions – Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad and Tamilnadu Agriculure University the legitimate right to deploy the Bt gene licensed without royalty charge by Mahyco as a member of this government formed consortium, in 16 varieties that are publicly bred by these research institutions. These were varieties adopted by farmers in different regions and were most susceptible to fruit and shoot borer. Since these varieties were not resistant to pests, farmers were shelving them and moving over to other crops. It was but natural that these varieties needed access to the gene that could provide them the resistance property to fruit and shoot borer pest so that the resource poor farmers who cannot afford the costly hybrids could continue to grow them. Three public research institutions in three regions of the country developed these products and got them ready for delivery to resource poor farmers who can secure these seeds and save them for replanting.   Public institutions releasing transgenic seed varieties unheard of in western world. The varieties of Bt Brinjal developed by public institutions are developed by Indian institutions for Indian farmers to grow them and save their seeds in their own right.  In the Western world, the only other public good development was the virus resistant papaya the Cornell University developed for Hawaiian papaya growers and today this technology is widely adopted by papaya growers in USA. The Bt Brinjal collaborative project was predominantly funded by Government of India extensively and this funding was approved by a Joint working group in which the Ministry of Environment was also a member.

When Mahyco’s product was evaluated and proposed for approval to GEAC, the varieties of Tamilnadu Agriculture University and the Dharwad University were also proposed for approval and release. However, the moratorium withheld the access to these seeds by resource poor farmers in the region.  Over the last 5 years, the three public sector institutions have totally disassociated themselves in pursuing these brinjal varieties due to the moratorium.  Even if these varieties have been adopted in 100,000 farmers growing brinjal varieties it would have benefitted marginal farmers to the tune of 600 crores per annum on account of saving on pesticides and incremental marketable fruits. Currently farmers loose more than half of their produce due to poor marketability on account of fruit and shoot borer infestation.

The reality is that the technologies are not dominated by Multinational companies and the Indian ability to address these crop solutions, hitherto not addressed by global multinationals is a true negation of the argument of anti-GM activists. The Indian public sector bringing a product for the benefit of the resource poor farmer, providing the right to the farmer to save their own seed and replant them is a complete contrary to the myth created by the anti-gm NGOs. In Bangladesh, the public research institution has provided a Bt Brinjal variety to the farmer that the farmers are re-planting in their own right. More than 100 farmers have grown seeds and the produce and the seeds of 4 public varieties are provided to these farmers. This has never happened in any developed country and Bangladesh could secure the technology due to Indian partner institutions, both public and private.  The multinational companies give it a damn to ever market a brinjal variety to resource poor farmer. Only the public institutions can do that.

The then Minister for Environment not only denied the introduction of the Mahyco hybrids but put the lid on all of the varieties developed by the public research institutions. He did not end with that. He initiated through one of the bodies affiliated to his Ministry, prosecution proceedings against all the partners for supporting public researchers in adopting technology including serving of non-bailable arrest warrant on the University administration engaged in the bt brinjal development by invoking the draconian National Biodiversity Act based on a pseudo complaint from a non-government organization. The subsequent Minister made all of them criminals by declaring them as criminals in the Parliament without an iota of enquiry.  The two ministers will go in the history as only ones to prosecute scientists for improving crops and delivering them for public good, with legitimate approval of their own ministry. The NGO collected several million rupees by propagating this info in Al Zaheera and other international TV channels to fuel the legal proceedings and to fund their efforts. The whole matter is sub-judice over the last three years, but the negative propagation goes unabated.

Myth No. 3: Technology and human competency is the limitation to develop crops by national companies:

If only multinationals have the genes in their possession and the competency to develop GM crops, how did Indian companies and even the Indian public research bodies develop these products? The gene discovery is the domain of leading global universities, large multinational companies and a few smart young companies( start-ups). Several candidate genes have been isolated from plant and soil sources that have demonstrated ability to induce traits in crops. Though there are a few institutions engaged in upstream invention of gene discovery, the access to these genes are made available to other product developers through licensing of genetic traits for specific crop trait improvement. The model is akin to the licensing of INTEL chips by INTELÓ to electronic appliance makers. There are only two or three discoverers of electronic chips in the world. INTEL is largest among them. That does not deter an Apple or a Dell to make most productive computers in the world. Indian smart private sector ventures have licensed genes from global public research institutions, private enterprises and from Indian research organizations too to validate the efficacy of these genes and adopt them in their crop improvement program.  Similarly, public research institutions in India have partnered with global institutions and have also on their own cloned genes for specific trait targets. Some of these have now won international patents.  Several of them have been licensed to Indian companies for adoption in the crops of national interest such as chickpea, pigeon pea, groundnut, okra, tomato, karela, cassava, potato, banana, papaya and cotton. In deed, the cottonseeds in India are currently having the Monsanto gene in the background of several hybrids developed by Indian companies. Public research gene discoveries from developed countries have provided considerable access for application by Indian private sector and a host of Indian public sector for their crop improvement research.  An Indian start-up company Metahelix, isolated its own gene and secured a patent for licensing to other companies.  There are other Indian private ventures too who have secured patents for their discovery.

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