Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Genetically Modified Foods : Areas of Concern

Suman Sahai

The application of genetic engineering or genetic modification to agriculture and food production has raised a swarm of controversies in Europe, Japan and to some extent the US. Whereas it is undeniably true that GM technology has the potential to address problem areas in agriculture, it is not being used by its dominant practitioners, the private corporations to produce either more or better food.

Does India need GM technology?

When assessing the relevance of a new technology. It is crucial to ask whether this technology really brings significant gains or whether alternative or conventional approaches can solve the problems more efficiently or more cheaply.

Post harvest losses

In India, where post harvest losses run from 15 % to as high as 30 %, we need to ask if we should invest in GM technology to increase food production. Should we not instead invest scarce resources into improving post harvest technologies to minimise losses. Should we not be investing in better storage, better transportation, value addition and processing and increasing the shelf life of perishable foods ?

Research focus

If we choose the GM approach then research priorities must be clearly set. The target must be food crops of relevance to small farmers and those crops where conventional breeding has not been successful. An obvious example is pulses. GM research on this crop would make sense but GM research targeted at brinjals , as is the case in a premier research institution in Delhi, makes a mockery of the social responsibility of science. Public money must be conscientiously and carefully spent to achieve the maximum public good.

And finally, in focusing the direction of GM research, it would be important and meaningful to consult with researchers and with small farmers, specially women. This will help to identify the needs of farming communities.

Bt disease resistance

Is the Bt route of disease resistance the best approach ? It is known that insects are quickly developing resistance to the Bt toxin. So now it is recommended to grow Bt crops with large refuges where vulnerability of the pest can be maintained. Is this really a viable approach for us in India where every inch of arable land is needed to produce food? Can we afford to divert land to maintain this artificially constructed method of disease resistance ?

Should we not invest in developing bio -control agents, bio pesticides and sophisticated Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques ? Promising results are coming in from work on bio-intensive IPM systems using biopesticides and closely related synthetic analogues. Spinosad, developed by Dow Agrosciences is a bioinsecticide developed from the fermentation of a fungus species

Despite its promise, there are real and credible concerns about GM crops. These exist at various levels.

Direction of GM research

GM technology is today fully controlled by six multinational corporations through patents and trade secrets. Corporate research is not targeted towards the needs of small farmers or towards helping to alleviate hunger and poverty .The bulk of the research in the private sector is aimed at commercial agriculture, not food production. Round Up Ready varieties of soybean; Bt corn ; Bt cotton, and the flavr savr tomato.

Making GM research more responsible

If the direction of privately funded research is not satisfactory, in what way should it be improved?

1 Research funds and new technologies must address hunger and the crop needs of small farmers.

2 Private and public sector partnerships should be forged. These structures must target food crops for developing countries because we have seen that the private sector on its own has not paid any attention to crops relevant to the poor.

3 Private corporations should be called to share GM technology with responsible scientists for use in developing countries. It is an atrocious situation that six corporations are sitting on and controlling a technology with the potential for alleviating hunger and yet they do not apply this technology towards these goals.

4 New collaborations should be struck between diverse players like public research institutions, international institutions , NGOs and Industry to spread the benefits of new research.

Safety and sustainability of food production using GM technology

Concerns about safety are expressed in two areas, human health and environmental safety. A third area of concern in this context, of special relevance to developing countries, is its impact on sustainable food production and self reliance of farmers. Our experience of the Green revolution shows that with the introduction of new technology, like high yielding varieties, small farmers tend to get marginalised. GM crops will also tend to marginalise small farmers.

In addition, GM technology will establish the dominance of corporations, if the kind of IPR regimes and seed patent demands are acceeded to. This will result in seed production and ultimately food production being controlled by corporations, posing a great threat to self reliance in developing countries and their ability to feed themselves.

Finally, the introduction of GM crops will strike at sustainable food production by increasing genetic erosion in the field, unless we take very determined steps to counter this effect. Our efforts will have to be directed to developing multi-strategy agricultural technologies that are based on genetic diversity and environmental sound practices.

Human health concerns

i. Antibiotic markers. There is great concern about the potential damage to human health that could be caused by the resistance induced by antibiotic markers that are used in breeding GM crops. Although there is little evidence so far that ingestion of antibiotic markers is harmful, it must be said that consumption of GM foods is a very new phenomenon and it is theoretically possible that the effects, if there are any, have not shown up yet. What is more, nobody is testing for negative effects, nor are there any testing procedures available for testing the long term effects of eating GM foods containing antibiotic marker genes.

In the public interest, it would be wise to act according to the Precautionary Principle in this case and ban the use of antibiotic markers.

ii. Allergenicity/ toxicity. Other concerns for human health relate to the fears that these novel foods could be allergenic and/ or toxic. Such fears have been raised primarily by the brazil nut episode . Allergic reactions known against brazil nuts was transferred into soybean when a brazil nut gene was used to produce a GM soybean variety ..

Environmental concerns

Horizontal gene transfer. Concerns have been expressed about genetic pollution by genes being transferred to related crops through pollen. Horizontal gene transfer through pollen is known . It happens between oilseed rape and its relative, the wild radish, between wheat and rye and between different varieties of oilseed rape, like low erucic acid and high erucic acid varieties. However data on pollen/ gene transfer for crops of relevance to developing countries are not available. To formulate guidelines for our field trials, it is important that we compile baseline data for the crops that are important for, tested under our climatic conditions.


1.Human toxicity and allergenicity tests for novel proteins that are expected to be expressed should become an integral part of testing GM crops.

2.Information concerning potential allergens and toxins should be compiled and made available to researchers , regulators and to the public.

3.To the extent possible , unless there are overwhelming benefits of some kind, genes/ proteins that are known to cause allergies, should be avoided.

4. Clear and precise labeling of GM foods should be made mandatory, both at the level of farm produce as also when these are used in other processed products.

5. On the basis of the precautionary principle, and to assuage public fears, antibiotic markers should be replaced by alternatives that exist.

6.Stringent pre-release assessment should be conducted in order to minimise the possibility of environmental damage.

7. Safety tests for GM variety. It is important to routinely evaluate the out come of genetic modification on human health and the environment. Once the transgenic line is created, it must be critically assessed agronomically, physiologically and in all the other ways that new varieties are tested after conventional breeding.

8. Radical review of guidelines. The risk assessment and regulatory guidelines that are in place today are vague and/ or defective. Benbrook (2000) has pointed out that most studies on risk assessment were done after the guidelines were in place. The US " Substantial Equivalence " theory was put in place in the mid eighties, much before most of the important risk concerns had actually been studied.

An analysis on how field tests are actually conducted show that they are often shoddy and inadequate. Mostly, experiments are done for just one or at best a few seasons of field trials. An Indian scientist recently defended his field tests saying he had conducted pollen transfer studies for one year, for crops that means one single study! Pollen transfer studies will have to be conducted longitudinally over several seasons for each crop, before we can begin to understand the dynamics of pollen / horizontal gene transfer.

Also, conclusions about large scale releases are often extrapolated from small scale, controlled field studies . This is dangerous since controlled studies can not predict the complex interactions arising out of large scale release and cultivation.

9. Protecting Centres of Diversity

Regions that are centres of origin of particular crop plants or where genetic diversity of those plants is found or where wild relatives of crop plants are known to occur, must be treated with the utmost caution. Related species and wild relatives will be the natural recipients of the foreign genes contained in transgenic crops. Since genes can not be recalled once they are released into the environment and we do not understand the consequences of foreign gene transfer yet, it is best to avoid release of transgenics in areas where its wild relatives are found.



The purveyors of GM technologies and products are quite rightly accused of non-transparency in their operations. The serious objection ( as against the ill informed terminator scare ) to Monsanto's cotton trials in India was because of the complete lack of transparency about what exactly Monsanto was doing . The public and the local farmers had no idea and information was difficult to get.

It is necessary to create open and transparent systems. The debate on the risks and benefits should be publicly conducted. Reasonable data should be accessible to the public that wants to satisfy itself about the safety or desirability of a particular crop.

Field trails of GM crops must be conducted by independent experts, not the party interested in releasing the variety.


A great deal of legitimate criticism is leveled at corporations for the extraordinary greed displayed by them in attempting to extract the maximum possible profit regardless of the cost to farmers. Launching the concept of the 'Terminator' technology to induce seed sterility as an instrument of complete control on the farmers seed has caused the kind of public outcry that such a notion of greed deserves. The use of sterile seed technologies as an instrument of control must be banned.

'Variety' not 'Sequence' protection

The kind of protection that plant breeders and companies are asking for on new plant varieties should be limited to Plant Breeder's Rights and not to patents or even to the trade secrets that are being increasingly applied to gene constructs.

Benefit sharing

Very often farmer varieties and land races form the basis of high yielding varieties and of GM crops.The profits that are derived from a GM crop must be shared with the farming communities whose land races and varieties have been used as basis materials.

Exemption from IPR regimes for poor farmers

If the purveyors of this technology would make special exemptions from Intellectual Property Protections for the really poor farmers in the world, it would go a long way in gaining acceptance for GM technology.

Improving access to the new technology.

Access to new technologies must be improved by forging new partnerships between the private and public sector and a willingness on the part of the corporate sector to share the fruits of basic research. Monsanto's announcement of sharing the 'working plan' of the rice genome is a welcome step in this direction.


GM technology applied to the field of agriculture has inherent potential. Unfortunately the science has been derailed by corporate greed so that suspicion and rejection instead of curiosity and enthusiasm greets this exciting if still immature technology. Instead of its application to the needs of the poor and hungry , GM technology is now viewed as an unsafe and unnecessary tool which will oppress rather than help farmers as it rakes in money for the corporations.

The fact is that this technology has been pushed far too prematurely on to the market place. Much more research is needed to clean up the science and make the technology pro- poor. Data for crops relevant to developing countries who should be but are not, the greatest beneficiaries of these new food production technologies is very inadequate. This must change. GM technology will only be an acceptable technology for developing countries if the science is made safer and if there is a commitment to transparency and equity in the practice of this technology.