Agri-biotechnologyAgriculture PolicyBriefingBt cottonBt technology

Govt Must Stand Up to Anti-science Opponents of GM Technology: Ashok Chowgule

Ashok Chowgule, VHP's Working President (External). Photo provided by author.

Ashok Chowgule, VHP’s Working President (External). Photo provided by author.

Given the proven technical and commercial benefits, and no known harmful health effects, it is a surprise that there is so much opposition to Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) technology among educated people all over the world. Clearly the issue has become so emotionalized that it has been phrased as if there is a sort of war going on between two camps holding diametrically opposite views. That there could be a third choice is not often considered. This third choice is not that one is neutral on the subject. It is that while the technology may be benign, it does not appear to give any benefits as far as an individual is concerned. Hence there does not seem to be any particular advantage in its adoption.

Reality one – the middle class

All over the world, and, in particular, the developed world, for an increasing number of educated people, hunger and lack of nutrition is no longer a reality. With the Green Revolution which Norman Borlaug fathered, the threat of tens of millions dying has receded. Borlaug was deservedly given the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. He thought the vast increases in productivity of many grain crops that his work made possible gave agricultural scientists a window in which to develop new technologies to take care of problems that may arise. What happened next were not breakthrough technologies like the Green Revolution, but incremental increases in productivity that saw a growing population being fed. With increased economic prosperity, the middle class could buy a mix of food items, to meet its nutritional requirements. Or buy expensive nutritional supplements, often made from synthetic products when sufficient food items were not available. Adequacy of food, even in drought years, has led to another reality – obesity. The middle class now has to eat less to remain healthy.

The organic food industry is projecting its supposed natural method of farming as a solution to the problem of obesity. As part of its marketing strategy it has subtly tried to demonize the new technology and create an impression that GMO food is unhealthy. But potato chips, considered to be junk food, have been around for a very long time before the advent of GM potatoes. The problem of junk food has to be tackled by consumer education while realizing that potatoes are an important dietary item in many countries. GM potatoes will help in ensuring viable farming for such purposes.

Reality two – the poor consumer

There are countries that are still poor, and there are some people in the rich countries for whom hunger and/or lack of nutrition is a reality. However, the rest of the world sees the images of famished people only in the context of a serious strife, civil or military, and not in the context of daily life in peace time. These images overpower the ones that exist in the non-strife situation. Thus the well-fed think the solution is to resolve the strife and provide food aid in the meantime.

With respect to nutrition, let us consider the issue of vitamin A deficiency, which affects the eyesight of the young, and the health of pregnant women. It is estimated that 250 million pre-school children are vitamin A deficient and that two million people die of the deficiency. Between 250,000 to 500,000 children go blind due to the deficiency, and half of them die. But educated people do not see these images on a regular basis. This situation exists in some areas where rice is the staple food. The farmer does not have the income to buy supplements, even if logistics can be organized to deliver them to the remote areas. Nor does he have the luxury of growing the necessary supplements himself since it would divert land and other resources from the income-generating activity of growing rice.

Two German scientists used genetic engineering to place a gene in rice which would provide the necessary vitamin A to the consumer. This technology was then transferred to Syngenta, one of the large corporates in the GMO technology industry, for further development, by which consuming a small quantity of rice is sufficient to take care of the deficiency problem. This technology has now been transferred, free of cost, to the International Rice Research Institute, a public sector institute in the Philippines, to make it available to farmers at as low a cost as possible, But the anti-GMO proponents have used every trick in the book – legal, illegal, and even unethical – to thwart field trials. And they vandalized field trials  which were conducted after a thorough regulatory evaluation, This effectively stopped the process of commercialization of the crop.

Reality three – the farmer

A third reality is that of the farmer. In the developing countries, farming is often a subsistence level occupation, particularly where there is dependence on rain as the only source of water for the fields. With the small size of farms, the farmer may not have enough financial means to procure fertilizer and pesticides for economic farming. Hence, if nature is even mildly unfavourable, the farmer has serious monetary problems. Wherever GMO technology was permitted for commercialization, farmers have wholeheartedly accepted it. They saw the benefits, in terms of increase in incomes to levels that made farming viable. Very often the technology is scale neutral, and the small farmer has nearly the same proportional benefits as the large one. It is also easy to use, often drastically reducing the need for one of the main inputs like pesticides.

In India, the use of GMO technology in cotton has been prevalent since 2002. The increase in the acreage under the crop has been more than 50 percent and more than 95 percent of farmers have adopted it. (In fact, more than 90 per cent of India’s cotton acreage is under genetically-modified bt cotton-editor). This clearly establishes that the farmer finds the technology useful to increase his income. Today India’s share in world cotton production has increased from 12 percent to more than 25 percent, to become the world’s largest producer (until 2009). The total production has increased by more than 250 percent,  yield has increased by 60 percent, and domestic consumption by almost 80 percent. From zero, exports form 25 percent of the crop making a valuable contribution to our external trade balance. This is a success story that needs to be celebrated. This was achieved by reducing the usage of pesticides by 70 percent, and improving the productivity of the rest since the yield has increased by 60 percent. Productivity of two other resources – water and fertilizer – also improved in a similar way. Labour productivity increased not just in terms of the increased yield, but also requiring less labour since the use of pesticides declined dramatically. The higher cost of the seed was more than compensated by the reduced cost and increased revenue, leading to a substantially higher profit than otherwise.

This concrete example available in India can also be emulated if GMO technology is permitted in growing brinjal. Today, there is heavy use of pesticides in growing the vegetable. The farmer would benefit in the same way as the cotton farmer has done by reducing cost  and increasing revenue. The increase in supply will benefit the consumer since the farmer can sell it at a lower price.

This technology developed by an Indian company has been made available in Bangladesh with well-documented beneficial results. Some of the GMO technologies deal not only with creating resistance to pests but also being tolerance to drought and flooding. And the technology has also been developed to insert more than one gene in the seeds so that multiple benefits can be available to the farmer. And, in all the cases, the technology is scale neutral.

Due to the proliferation of the relevant pest in Hawaii the papaya crop was nearly wiped out, and in Florida, the orange crop was nearly wiped out. Both problems were resolved by the application of GMO technology, which saved a large industry as well as many jobs. In the developing countries, many of the staple diets are continuously at risk due to pests, even where pesticides are available to deal with the problem.

Reality four – the scientists

A fourth reality is that of the scientists. A lot of pioneering work has been done by them in the private sector in India and abroad. Equally importantly, such work is also being done by government and university labs all over the world. These scientists feel frustrated that their work will not be put into practice for quite trivial reasons, and on the basis of anti-science. They think they should abandon their research and move into new fields where they can see thefruits of their work. This  discourages younger people from venturing in the area of improving agriculture. This will mean a whole generation of scientists will not be available to work on not only improving the quantity of food but also the quality.

Robert S Zeigler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines, recently wrote in The Times of India, “The anti-science, anti-technology and anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) movements hindering the use of transgenic crops in India, such as Bt brinjal and pro-vitamin A-fortified Golden Rice (GR), are having a chilling effect on students who are now wondering if they should devote any time at all to studying agriculture and biology.” There have been many scientists who have been vocal about the benefits of the technology. All the national-level science institutes have come out forcefully in favour of the technology. But, they are not trained to use idioms that emotionally connect to the people at large. They are not comfortable to use the tactics that the opponents use and thus are not able to effectively counter the false perceptions that have been created. Furthermore, they have to deal with a hostile media, since the journalists themselves do not face hunger and lack of nutrition, and so see no benefits of the technology for themselves as individuals. They too have been emotionalized into thinking that GMO technology has a lot of hidden dangers.

So, we have the following four realities:

  •  A large and growing number of people for whom obesity, and not hunger and lack of nutrition, is a reality.
  •  Poor people for whom hunger and lack of nutrition is a reality.
  •  Farmers, whose economic well being GMO technology will help improve.
  • Scientists who cannot realize the reality of proving the benefits of science.

It is the views of those in the first category that dominate over the views of the other three. They are a vocal section in society, and part of a circle frequented by decision-makers – bureaucrats and politicians. The media, too, has uncritically publicized the arguments of opponents of the technology. Images of supposed super-bugs, use of terminology like frankenfood, claiming that the technology could cause cancer and other health related issues, etc. are part of the armoury that is used for emotionalization.

Through the fog of fear, those in the first category are not able to consciously comprehend that the technology provides significant benefit to the other three categories. They have had fear instilled in them by the various tactics followed by the opponents of GMO technology. These tactics are not just anti-science but use the classic method of scare mongering by attributing characteristics to the technology which really come out of science fiction. Visuals are used that one sees in comics, or in movies using a lot of computer-generated animation.

GMO technology does not change the essential nature of the product that is produced with the conventional system. What the technology does is enable the plant to have characteristics that help in dealing with problems in nature, which are today handled, less efficiently, by other means. There is no reduction in the nutritional value in case of crops. At the same time, the alternative of not using the technology is rarely presented. In fact, just as the farmer (traditionally a poor person in developing countries) will benefit in monetary terms by the technology, the better-off non-farmer will also benefit because it expands the market for the products they make, or the services that they render on a professional basis. This growth in the economy is actually a win-win situation.

The technology is also more environmentally friendly and hence would lead to a more sustainable form of agriculture. Apart for better use of resources mentioned above, there has been a lesser need to deforest South America because the present land occupied is producing more. Many of the staple crops in poor countries are often destroyed by pests. This can be easily controlled by GMO technology, without any additional inputs of water, fertilizer or pesticides. The ones in the first category are also proponents of preventing environmental degradation. Hence, their opposition to GMO becomes that much more difficult to understand. They have been the beneficiaries of the GMO technology in items like flowers (for example, long-stemmed roses). They are clamouring for more of genetic engineering technology to be used in medicines and health science. But an irrational fear has been instilled in them when it comes to food. What is needed is for educated people, particularly the decision-makers, to dispassionately study the technology. They need to take the lead in standing up to the anti-science activists, and sift the wheat from the chaff. They should have the political courage to explain to the people the benefits of the technology. They should follow the example of the agriculture minister of Bangladesh, Matia Chowdhury, who took the bold decision to side with her scientists, and against anti-science NGOs, to allow Bt brinjal to be grown in her country.

This political courage is happening slowly in the developing countries, with a greater realization that hunger and/or lack of nutrition is a reality for the poor. And the only way to resolve the issue is to utilize science in agriculture. Furthermore, the scientists teaching at universities in their own countries have also been working on GMO technology and have conducted tests which confirm their safety as claimed by the large, multi-national companies. These scientists have rightly looked at how their own countries will benefit, rather than worry about how much profits the corporate sector is earning. Given the research that has already taken place in the public and private sector over the last twenty/thirty years, there are many products that are waiting to be released in the field. These will lead to intelligent farming in terms of optimizing the use of all the resources – land, fertilizer, pesticides, water, labour, fuel, etc. This will also make farming environmentally sustainable, and also deal with the fear of a water crisis that is said to be looming. And, most importantly, feed the nine billion people in terms of quantity and nutritional values. Let the reality not be of one of hunger.

(Note: The views and perspectives expressed in this note are those that I obtained by reading articles, and seeing videos of various scientists involved in the development of GMO technology. There are too many for me to list. As a general comment, I would like to state that I am grateful to the scientists for providing me with so much information. I am personally not a scientist and have no financial interest in the industry. I have studied the technology from a point of economic development of countries, particularly India.)

Top photo: The well-off are turning organic and eating health foods like amla. Featured here is an amla garden in Coimbatore. Photo by Vivian Fernandes on 4 July, 2015.

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