GM seed threat remains
by Sandhya Jain on 06 Jul 2010 4 Comments

A possibly weak Nuclear Liability Bill is not the only threat facing citizens who are now alert to the apocalyptic potential of environmental disasters like the Bhopal gas tragedy. As an inadequate monsoon cannot be entirely ruled out, it may be appropriate to rethink the wisdom of opening domestic agriculture to the multinational genetically modified organisms (GMO) industry, which it eagerly awaiting entry.


A section of our malleable bureaucratic-political elite is still committed to inducting GM seeds and foods in to the country, regardless of the consequences to the soil, water, food cycle, and animals and humans who consume this controversial harvest. The recent attempt to push BT Brinjal failed due to intense public hostility, but no serious effort has been made at the official level to evaluate the reported experiences of other countries with GM seeds.


In November 2009, France’s apex court ruled that a US agrochemical giant lied about the safety of its top-selling weed-killer, Roundup, which it claimed was “bio-degradable” and “left the soil clean.” In 2001, French environmental groups went to court as the European Union had labelled glyphosate, Roundup’s main ingredient, as “dangerous for the environment.” France’s Supreme Court upheld two previous convictions against the firm by the Lyon criminal court in 2007, and the Lyon court of appeal in 2008.


According to environmental activist Dr Mercola, the GM industry will lead the world into an era of hazardous genetic modification of seeds. They will patent not merely their own GMO seeds but also large numbers of crop seeds, thus patenting life forms gifted by nature. Worse, they have produced two of the most toxic substances ever known – polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, and dioxin or Agent Orange (remember Vietnam?). Can we afford to let these firms infiltrate and dominate Indian agriculture?


Far from being biodegradable and environmentally friendly, Glyphosate was found to cause pesticide illness among landscape maintenance workers in California. Further, the surfactant ingredient in Roundup is far more toxic than glyphosate itself, and the combination of the two is even more toxic. Glyphosate is suspected to cause genetic damage. It is acutely toxic to fish and birds and can kill beneficial insects and soil organisms that maintain ecological balance. Laboratory studies have identified adverse effects of glyphosate-containing products in all standard categories of toxicological testing.


In one animal study, rats given 1,000 mg/kg of glyphosate showed 50 percent mortality rate; skeletal changes were noted in over 57 percent of fetuses! This is worrying as millions of pounds of Roundup are used annually in US gardens, lawns and farms, especially on GM crops engineered to be Roundup resistant. Roundup works by inhibiting an enzyme called EPSP synthase, which is necessary for plants to grow. Without it, plants cannot produce essential proteins so they slowly yellow and die.


A line of genetically modified “Roundup Ready” crops, such as soybean, cotton and corn have been developed, which are popular as farmers can spray Roundup herbicide directly onto their fields without harming the crops. Ordinarily, a glyphosate-based herbicide will kill a plant if sprayed directly. But Roundup Ready crops produce an enzyme that has the same function as EPSP synthase, but is not affected by Roundup. This has pushed up the use of Roundup herbicide and serious problems have been reported ever since. 


The critical issue – which applies to all GM crops – is that they contain pesticide / herbicide residues, which are very toxic to health. One study found that residues of herbicide in GM food and feed can cause cell damage and death, even at very low levels. The study found that human cells died within 24 hours with formulations diluted up to 100,000 times or more! There was damage to cell membranes and DNA, along with an inhibition of cell respiration.


The researchers found that the mixture of components used as Roundup adjuvants intensified the action of glyphosate, making at least one of its metabolites even more toxic: “... the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death around residual levels to be expected, especially in food and feed derived from Roundup formulation-treated crops.”


The dirtiest trick from the GM industry is the ‘terminator technology.’ These are seeds genetically modified to “self-destruct,” so that the seeds (and forthcoming crops) are sterile, and farmers have to buy seeds again every year – a bonded consumer market!


The greater danger is that terminator seeds can affect the world’s food supply by passing on the trait of seed sterility to other non-genetically-engineered crops, thus making most or all seeds in an entire region sterile. This could be the most serious threat to the human race since the invention of nuclear arms.


Jeffrey Smith, a leading activist on the dangers of GM foods, who visited India last year for the release of his book Genetic Roulette, warns that GM foods are different from natural foods and could prompt unknown and unpredictable health problems. Another direct danger to animals comes from the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rbGH/rbST) which has been banned in Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand because of cancer risks and other health concerns.


The only hope lies with natural (organic) farming. In quake-shattered Haiti, local farmers and communities have formed the National Haitian Network for Food Sovereignty and Food Security (RENHASSA), which rejects the multinational seed industry in totality, arguing that “seeds are the patrimony of humanity. No one can control them.” It has begun a nation-wide movement against GMO and hybrid seeds, and in favour of native seeds.


In India, there is growing realisation that promotion of hybrid seeds in the Green Revolution pushed highly nutritious and sturdy arid zone seeds off the national menu, with adverse consequences for the national health profile. We could take a leaf from the Haitian peasant movement and commit ourselves to native food and seed sovereignty, which is also the way to preserve our staggering variety of seed and food. The global recession has taught us the ephemeral nature of wealth without growth in the real economy; it is time to get back to basics and sharply increase government spending in agriculture. We must also recognise that there is no meaningful agriculture in disharmony with the environment.


The author is Editor, 

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