Sunday, June 15, 2003


Suman Sahai

The predominantly agricultural countries of Asia have barely begun to debate the pros and cons of agricultural biotechnology or its relevance to their agricultural and food needs. Information levels are poor and available material is full of scientific and technical jargon that is by and large incomprehensible to most people. Most administrators, policy makers, politicians, legislators, the bar, and the judiciary have very little comprehension of biotechnology, and are either bewildered or overwhelmed by it. Equally, most scientific experts are unaware of public perceptions of risk and safety in the field of agriculture and food production, which are often at variance to their own, more clinical understandings. To add to this, most of the decision-making at the governmental level is ad hoc, influenced neither by sound scientific research nor by genuine consumer concern but by various pressure groups and extraneous factors. A sound public policy framework that takes into account real public concerns is yet to be worked out let alone initiated.

This is since the governments of most Asian countries rarely allow public participation in the decision-making process nor do they explain the basis of their decisions. Since scientists too, by and large, work for the government, regulatory review processes remain secretive with the public having no mechanism by which to understand the rationale of decisions. Demands by civil society to have a dialogue and know more about the decision making process go unheeded. Indeed, the public's demands are seen as illegitimate and hostile by definition. Such a situation breeds suspicion and opposition to biotechnology.

In the prevailing situation, despite the dearth of information, an array of groups are speaking up both for and against biotechnology, making it extremely difficult and challenging for policy makers and administrators to facilitate safe and appropriate technology adoption.

In India, in addition to the poor awareness, no studies have been done that evaluate public understanding and perceptions about biotechnology among the various stakeholders. The recent ISAAA – University of Illinois study (2003) conducted in South East Asia was the first comprehensive study to shed light on the situation in those countries. But the ground reality in the countries of South Asia like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, remains largely unknown. At least the first four of the nations mentioned are potential GM nations. India has already cultivated its first commercial transgenic crop (Bt Cotton) amidst a storm of controversy and reports showing field performance to be poor (Frontline June 6, 2003,

The adoption of biotechnology can have far reaching implications for the health and welfare of a country's citizens. There are already serious concerns about the impact of agri-biotechnology on the environment and human and animal health. Yet in India and South Asia, these complex and controversial technologies are being administered by a handful of bureaucrats insensitive to public concerns and lacking the relevant skills and technical competence to assess biotechnology. Equally disconcerting is the fact that academia, and the scientific community (Science Academies) are rarely included in biotechnology policy development.

It is clear that priorities for the development of agricultural biotechnologies must be based on indigenous needs and a thorough needs assessment. Yet most developing countries copy the concepts and structures of regulatory and oversight systems straight from the industrial countries, without any effort to incorporate developing country perspectives and sensitivities. Even the research priorities in agricultural biotechnology are based on what the industrial countries have developed, and very little has been done to evolve an indigenous set of priorities based on the needs of small farmers and local agricultural production systems. Amidst this confusion, a variety of biotechnologies and their products are being considered for commercialisation by regulatory agencies.

The Focus on India

India is an important agricultural country with significant concerns about food security and the livelihoods of millions of small and subsistence farmers. A targeted and informed biotechnology policy can help to solve some of India’s agricultural problems. However, if policy is ad hoc and ill informed, as is the case now, it could end up hurting rather than helping farmers. India can ill afford to be careless or irresponsible in bringing about biotechnology intervention in agricultural development. More so, since Indian decisions are likely to have an impact on the rest of South Asia with respect to the systems they put in place and the decisions they take. If countries in South Asia are on the brink of adopting biotechnology, India has already started the process. The need for transparent and accountable systems is very great otherwise the technology will get mired in controversies to the extent that it could fail to reach those farmers that it has the potential to help.

The Indian Bt cotton case:

In India, the commercial approval granted to Bt cotton, is a good example to demonstrate what can go wrong when ad hoc, ill informed decisions substitute for a sound policy framework.

India permitted commercial release of its first ever GM crop, Bt cotton, in the year 2002-2003. The Bt cotton varieties belonging to Mahyco-Monsanto are reported to have fared poorly in most of the locations where they were grown (Frontline, June 6 2003). The decision to approve these Bt cotton varieties was widely criticised at the time, by civil society groups like Gene Campaign because the varieties were known to be poor performers with respect to yield and would lead to farmer immiseration. But the agencies went ahead, refusing to acknowledge the public’s concerns. Attempts by NGOs to engage the apex regulatory body to address public concerns led to a token dialogue that had no bearing on the ultimate decision.

When the Bt cotton harvest came in, first the government made statements that the harvest was very promising, then it admitted poor performance and has now asked for a state-wise review to assess the reasons for poor performance. On the other hand, Mahyco- Monsanto-continues to present data everywhere showing that their Bt crop has done well by increasing yield by 30%. As all this unfolds, an illegal Bt cotton variety, which was detected over two years ago, continues to be planted season after season making a mockery of the regulatory system’s ability to take any action.

In the absence of credible information and a clear cut policy, some farmer leaders are demanding that there should be no regulation of GM crops and everything should be freely available to farmers. Other farm leaders are virulently opposed to GM crops. Ill informed political leaders have taken positions for and against GM crops. The Agriculture Minister of one state where illegal Bt cotton had to be confiscated declared he would not allow the confiscation. Some farmer’s organisations have set fire to GM crops, others who are pro- GM threatened government regulators when they came to confiscate the illegal Bt cotton seeds. None of the farmer organizations supporting or opposing GM technology can explain their positions.

It is startling to note that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India had approved commercialisation of Bt cotton even though the mandated State Level Committees and District Level Committees (that are required to be put in place to oversee the performance of GM crops in the field), had not been constituted . This kind of violation of the prescribed rules by the regulatory body itself does not inspire public confidence in their ability to regulate biotechnology.

The Indian GM Mustard Case:

In the case of GM mustard, the government first looked like it was going to approve it, and then it suddenly withheld approval. As it stands, GM mustard is neither approved nor rejected and the public has no idea on what basis these decisions are being made, as the process is not transparent and the entire exercise lacks scientific and technical competence.

Friday, June 13, 2003


Suman Sahai

There was a startling statement in the press two days ago, that a GM potato variety would be available in India within six months. Curiously, the Genetic Engineering Approval committee (GEAC) has not even received an application to consider approval for the GM potato in question. The chairman of the GEAC has expressed his displeasure at premature pronouncements being made in the press about the release of transgenic crops. His resentment is understandable since it is his turf that is being encroached!

So what is the status of GM potato? Is it six months away? Is it five years away? Who determines these things? What is India’s policy on GM crops? First we had the mess with Mahyco –Monsanto’s Bt cotton that was approved despite several questions about its quality, then its subsequent failure in the field. Then we had the GM mustard, which is in limbo, neither rejected nor approved and now premature announcements on GM potato. India’s policy on GM crops appears to be a bit like the emperor’s new clothes, invisible. Decisions are ad hoc and taken whimsically in the absence of a sound policy framework. The net result is that confusion reigns supreme.

First, the GM potato is quite far away from commercial release. Its promoters appear to be jumping the gun deliberately, in order to pressure the agencies for its release on a human suffering angle. The emotional button for Bt cotton was the farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh and the need to give them a cotton variety that would slash the heavy expenditures on pesticides and by inference, stop them killing themselves due to debt burdens. We know now that the Bt cotton practically failed in almost all locations it was grown. The emotional button being pressed for GM potato is malnutrioned children susceptible to blindness and how this potato will solve all of that and bring smiles to their well fed little faces. What is not explained is how the potato supposedly with enriched protein will cure night blindness, which is brought about by vitamin A deficiency. Curing night blindness has been entrusted to Golden Rice whenever it sees the light of day, not potato.

In fact the premature announcement made a specific reference to the fact that as soon as the potato was cleared, it would be given free to millions of school children across the country. This is even more worrisome than the fact that at the moment the GM potato is only an experiment, not a product. If the GM potato is improved to the extent that the protein content rises significantly, and it is judged to be safe, we could discuss its merits then. At the moment it will do nothing for school children except expose them to an untested food, which could have harmful effects. Potatoes belong to the botanical family Solanacea, the same family as the poisonous nightshade, a family known to have many plant toxins.

This talk of feeding GM potatoes to schoolchildren is unacceptable adventurism. If there is such an urgent need to save these children, food supplements can be added to their school meals. This will be a safer and more certain path to nutritional enhancement than rushing untested GM potatoes to them. Nutritional enhancement by food supplements is easy to do in schools and has an established tradition. It is difficult to make the case for GM potatoes as a preferred route for enhanced dietary protein, compared for example to pulses or soya blended wheat flour.

As it stands today, even the science done on GM potato is inadequate and we are talking about an incompletely tested product. One thing is clear to everyone that the increase in protein in the GM potato is negligible and will make no real difference nutritionally. This has been emphasised by scientists working at the central Potato Research Institute. What has not been brought out is the fact that this GM potato might not even pan out, not in 2005, not ever. We do not know yet because the appropriate experiments have not been done to test whether this transgenic potato is stable or not.

All the experiments on the GM potato so far have been done only on the vegetative cycle, which means we do not know how the variety behaves when it is sexually reproduced (flowering and setting seed). At present we cannot say anything about the stability of the transgenic potato in the long run since studies on gene insertion have been done only in one vegetative generation, not in several sexual generations, as it should be.

Potato is mostly vegetatively propagated in India , which means , potatoes are cut up into pieces and serve as ‘seed’ for sowing the next crop. The little pieces grow into bigger potatoes and when they are large enough, the crop is harvested and so it goes from crop to crop. During the potato cultivation process in the plains, no flowering takes place, no seed is set and there is no “next generation” as is for example, the case with wheat and rice.

Before any judgement can be passed on the value of the GM potato, studies need to be conducted to evaluate the stability of the gene from one generation to the next generation, to ensure that the amaranth protein gene is actually integrated into the genetic material of the potato. If this is not the case and if the gene is only temporarily lodged somewhere, the protein expression in the potato will be unstable , it may vary in amounts from potato to potato and from crop cycle to crop cycle. It may even disappear altogether. Such an unstable variety cannot be given to farmers.

Stability of gene insertion cannot be tested in the vegetative cycle only, it must be tested through sexual cycles of flowering and setting seed. For this the GM potato variety needs to be grown and tested in the cooler climates of high altitudes where flowering and seed setting takes place. This work has not yet been done for the GM potato that is being promoted. So we have no idea whether the gene is stably integrated, how many copies of the gene have been integrated? One? Many? What else is inserted along with the amaranth gene? Is there foreign genetic material there, which could create problems later? Putting the variety through several crop generations can answer many of these questions.

Apart from protecting the farmers from an unstable variety, there is the question of liability. Whoever markets this variety should be fully aware that if the potato shows itself to be unstable and the genetic function of the protein gene is unreliable, it is likely that legal suits for compensation will be brought against them. If India wants to use agro-biotechnology, its scientific and regulatory establishment will clearly have to demonstrate far greater maturity and responsibility than it is doing at present.