The debate over genetically modified organisms (GMO) has intensified in recent months. On one side of the debate is scientific evidence that GMOs are not delivering on their promise, and on the other side is ideological propaganda by the genetically modified seed industry and scientists whose careers are locked into the GMO trajectory.
The technical expert committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court of India, made up of India’s eminent and independent scientists, has clearly recommended in its report to the apex court a ban on open field trials of genetically engineered crops till a robust regulatory mechanism is put in place.
After two decades of commercial applications, data clearly shows that GMOs do not increase yields and do not decrease the use of agrichemicals, but have instead created super-pests and super-weeds. It is because of these failures and the fact that GMOs are linked to patents, which translates into royalty extraction and high prices, that GMOs worsen the economic status of farmers.
India has witnessed more than 2,84,694 farmer suicides in a span of 17 years, between 1995 and 2012. The worst off is Maharashtra, which has the maximum area under cultivation of genetically modified Bt cotton. According to P. Sainath, a journalist who has covered farmers’ suicides systematically, “The total number of farmers who have taken their own lives in Maharashtra since 1995 is closing in on 54,000. Of these, 33,752 have occurred in nine years since 2003, at an annual average of 3,750. The figure for 1995-2002 was 20,066 at an average of 2,508.” Suicides increased after Bt cotton was introduced.
Farmers chose Bt cotton not because it was the best alternative but because all other alternatives were destroyed. The seed varieties were replaced. The Central Institute for Cotton Research has not released any public varieties since Monsanto entered the market, and most Indian seed companies are locked into licensing arrangements with Monsanto. Nor is it true that yields have increased. Yields of cotton in the pre-GMO period reached 1,200 kg in good years. After Bt cotton was introduced the yield has stagnated at 500 kg.
As the University of Canterbury research team led by Prof. Jack Heinemann has shown, North American crop production has fallen behind that of Western Europe, despite US farmers using genetically modified seed and more pesticide.
According to the researchers of University of Canterbury, the main point of difference between the regions is the adoption of GM seeds in North America and the use of non-GM seed in Europe. The failure to control pests has led to an increase in pesticide use. A study published in the Review of Agrarian Studies also showed a higher expenditure on chemical pesticides for Bt cotton than for other varieties by small farmers.
Non-target pest populations in Bt cotton fields have exploded; it is expected that this will likely counteract any decrease in pesticide use. In China, where Bt cotton is widely planted, populations of mirid bugs — pests that previously posed only a minor problem — have increased 12-fold since 1997.
A 2008 study in the International Journal of Biotechnology found that any financial benefits of planting Bt cotton had been eroded by the increasing use of pesticides needed to combat non-target pests.
In the US, due mainly to the widespread use of Roundup Ready seeds, the use of 4 herbicide (a group of herbicides) increased 15 per cent from 1994 to 2005 — an average increase of one-fourth pound per each acre planted with GM seed — according to a 2009 report published by the Organic Centre.
Moreover, the rise of glysophate (the herbicide in Roundup) resistant weeds has made it necessary to combat these weeds by employing other, often more toxic, herbicides. Farmers are being asked to use 2,4D, an ingredient of Agent Orange, the toxic material that was sprayed by US troops in Vietnam. This trend is confirmed by 2010 USDA pesticide data, which shows skyrocketing glysophate use accompanied by constant or increasing rates of use for other, more toxic, herbicides.
In Argentina, after the introduction of Roundup Ready soya in 1999, overall glysophate use more than tripled by 2005-2006. A 2001 report found that Roundup Ready soya growers in Argentina used more than twice as much herbicide as conventional soya growers.
This is the scientific evidence. Yet, contrary to the evidence, Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar stated in the Lok Sabha on August 27, 2013, that farmers prefer genetically modified cotton as it gives higher yields, is more disease-resistant and more profitable.
Every claim is false. Bt cotton has not given higher yields. It is not disease resistant. Diseases that never affected cotton, like aphids and jassids, have exploded. The bollworm, which Bt cotton was supposed to control, has become resistant and Monsanto has had to introduce Bollgard II, a higher variety of insect-resistant genetically modified cotton. All this has created debt not profits for farmers. If seed costs jump 8,000 per cent and pesticide use increases 1,300 per cent, farmers’ incomes do not increase.
Mr Pawar’s unscientific promotion of GMOs against all evidence is echoed by scientists whose careers are locked into the development of a failed technology. Dr Deepak Pental, a professor of genetics, who has been promoting GMO mustard says, “Transgenic approaches are necessary to tackle yield decreasing diseases. Certain misguided NGOs have specialised in spreading fear, while some scientists are seeking moratorium on testing and use of transgenic crops.”
Swapan Kumar Dutta, deputy director-general (crop science) at the New Delhi-based Indian Council of Agricultural Research, who was involved in an unethical clearance of GMO rice trials by his wife, and who has said that India should hand over the 400,000 accessions (a collection of plant material from a particular location) in the national gene bank to multinationals, is very active in defending GMOs in spite of the evidence of its failure.
Good science looks at evidence and takes feedback from the real word. Bad science that shuts its mind to evidence and becomes propaganda. Sadly, in the GMO debate, those defending GMOs have only power and propaganda on their side.