WHO frowns upon GM food crops
by Sandhya Jain on 16 Jun 2015 23 Comments
Thousands of people in 428 cities across 38 countries joined the March Against Monsanto on May 23, to support the right to naturally grown food amidst rising concerns about the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on the health of humans, animals, and the environment. Earlier, on March 15, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that glyphosate (key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup) was ‘probably carcinogenic to humans,’ after a study by scientists at its International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC); the report was published in the prestigious The Lancet Oncology.


The announcement led several countries (Switzerland, Germany, Colombia, Sri Lanka) to immediately ban glyphosate due to its alleged links with cancer, birth defects, kidney failure, celiac disease, colitis and autism. Denmark has officially declared glyphosate a human carcinogen. As most GM crops are engineered to be tolerant of glyphosate, sales are plunging steeply, causing Monsanto to demand a retraction from the WHO. The IARC scientists found ‘mechanistic evidence’ such as DNA damage to human cells exposed to glyphosate.


The IARC will next examine the herbicide 2,4-D (Agent Orange of Vietnam fame). If Agent Orange is shifted to the category of ‘dangerous chemical’, Dow Chemical may face similar bans and consumer boycotts. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the official medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, said in a study last year that Vietnam War veterans with prior exposure to Agent Orange may be at a higher risk for certain types of skin cancer even four decades after exposure.


In India, where findings of excess lead in noodle brand Maggi sparked nationwide recall of the product, the WHO decisions could seal the fate of GM food crops that have been promoted by an entrenched lobby for over a decade.


In an exhaustive four-year study with 400 experts from all regions, the World Bank’s  International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) examined the scientific understanding of biotechnology, particularly transgenics (GMOs). The Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report was approved by all Governments attending the Intergovernmental Plenary in Johannesburg, South Africa in April 2008, barring Australia, Canada and the United States. India approved the Report and participated in the Writing team.


The IAASTD takes its definition of biotechnology from the Convention on Biological Diversity and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which covers the manipulation of living organisms. The Synthesis Report noted that GM crops are contentious, the evidence to date is variable, many risks are still unknown, and there are concerns regarding intellectual property, restriction on seed saving and exchange, and liabilities for farmers. For instance, GM farmers could be liable for accidental presence of GM material in neighbouring fields which cause organic farmers to lose market certification; conventional farmers could be sued by GM seed producers if transgenes are detected in their crops via wind pollution (a bitter experience Western farmers have had with Monsanto). Hence, the Summary for Decision Makers recommended strengthening focus on agro-ecological sciences rather than GMOs for food security and agricultural sustainability. 


Indian environmentalists approached the Supreme Court in 2005 (the case is continuing) amidst mounting evidence of the risks from GM crops; their significantly lower yields as compared to non-GM crops; and escalating use of pesticides. The first Bt Cotton crop was harvested in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra in 2003; Gene Campaign found that GE seeds do not increase yield; it joined the public interest litigation with the backing of 6.5 lakh farmers through their respective associations.


In 2012, the Supreme Court appointed a five-member Technical Experts Committee to report on GM crops, but after the interim report, the Union Ministry of Agriculture got a sixth member added (with known links to the GM lobby). Environmentalists lament that the Ministry provided Monsanto access to premier public agri-research institutions such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and enabled the biotechnology industry to impact agri-policy in India. Currently, Monsanto decides which Bt cotton hybrids are planted and where, and owns over 90 per cent of planted cotton seed, all Bt cotton. They warn that if a GMO is unsafe, it is irreversibly unsafe and lingers in the environment forever.


The original five TEC members signed the final report in 2013; the sixth dissented. The report recommended a moratorium on open field trials of GM crops until: (i) definitive studies are available on the long term safety of Bt in food crops, and (ii) a proper regulatory and safety mechanism is in place. It said that herbicide-tolerant crops are unsuitable in the Indian context and would most likely exert a highly adverse impact on sustainable agriculture, rural livelihoods, and the environment. Finally, it said GM crops for which India is a centre of origin, such as rice, brinjal and mustard, should not be allowed. Yet, open field trials have been mooted in these very crops!


The ‘Jairam Ramesh Report’ (February 2010) imposed an indefinite moratorium on Bt Brinjal and cancelled the approval to commercialise it; the Sopory Committee Report and Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on GM crops (both August 2012) said GM seeds and foods are dangerous to human, animal and environmental health.


But, in July 2014, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee recommended field trials for 13 GM crops including rice, brinjal, chickpea, mustard and cotton. In January 2015, Maharashtra granted no-objection certificates for open field trials of GM rice, chickpea, maize, brinjal and cotton, at the recommendation of a state-level committee headed by Anil Kakodkar, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. The committee’s expertise in agriculture and biotechnology is unknown. This was condemned by the Coalition for a GM-Free India, Swadeshi Jagran Manch, and others.


A task force under NITI Aayog vice chairman Arvind Panagariya, comprising Ashok Gulati, former chairman, Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices; CD Mayee, former chairman, Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board; P Chengal Reddy, president of the Hyderabad-based Federation of Farmers’ Associations; Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj; all staunch votaries of GM crops, is currently examining the issue.


But with the Centre receiving reports about the direction the WHO is taking, a note of caution has crept in. Maharashtra has quietly halted field trials and asked the Kakodkar committee to revisit the issue on grounds of impact on India’s agricultural export trade, farmers’ livelihood, and seed diversity. At a meeting in Indore, MP, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar assured that sanction for commercialization of GM crops would be given only after studying the outcome of field trials (could take up to 10 years) and all available scientific research.  

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