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The GMO Issue Reaches Boiling Point in India

Interview with Aruna Rodrigues

Image source here.

In a recent article published on the India-based News18 site (CNN), prominent US biologist Nina Federoff was reported as saying it is time for India to grant farmers access to genetically modified (GM) crops. In an interview with the site, she says there is no evidence that GM crops are dangerous when consumed either by people in food or by animals in feed. Federoff says that the commercial release of various GM crops in India has been halted by the Indian government due to opposition from environmental activists.

She adds that we are rapidly moving out of the climate regime in which our primary crops were domesticated, arguing that that they do increasingly worse and will yield less as temperature extremes become common and pest and pathogen populations change. She says GM will become more or less essential in an era of climate change.

In recent weeks, aside from Federoff’s intervention, GM has been a hot topic in India. In late November, a paper appeared in the journal Current Science which argues that India doesn’t need GM crops and that the track record of GM agriculture is highly questionable. The paper is notable not just because of what it says but because of who is saying it: distinguished scientist P.C. Kesavan and M.S. Swaminathan, renowned agricultural scientist and geneticist and widely regarded as the father of the Green Revolution in India.

I recently spoke with prominent campaigner Aruna Rodrigues about developments surrounding the GM issue in India, particularly the views of Federoff. Rodrigues is lead petitioner in a case before India’s Supreme Court that is seeking a moratorium on GM crops and selective bans.

Colin Todhunter: What do you make of Nina Federoff’s recent comments advocating for GM in India?

Aruna Rodrigues: Nina Federoff is a long-time supporter of GMOs. The last time she offered advice to India (in her role as scientific advisor to Hilary Clinton) was when Bt brinjal (eggplant) was being pushed for commercialisation. She advised that Bt brinjal would be good for India!

CT: She is a high-profile scientist. Did government officials take her advice?

AR: Her advice was straightforwardly ignored by the then Minister of the Ministry of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. He instituted a unique four-month scientific enquiry and public hearings. His decision to reject the commercialisation of Bt brinjal was supported by advice he received from several renowned international scientists. Their collective appraisals demonstrated serious environmental and biosafety concerns, which included issues regarding the toxity of Bt proteins resulting from their mode of action on the human gut system.

CT: What were some of the other reasons they put forward for rejecting Bt brinjal?

AR: Genetic contamination was the outstanding concern. India is a centre of origin of brinjal with the greatest genetic diversity. Contamination was a certainty. In his summing-up of the unsustainability of Bt brinjal and of its implications if introduced, one of the experts involved, Professor Andow, said it posed several unique challenges because the likelihood of resistance evolving quickly is high. He added that without any management of resistance evolution, Bt brinjal is projected to fail in 4-12 years. Jairam Ramesh pronounced a moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010 founded on what he called “a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach.”

CT: So, it is clear that, despite Federoff’s claims, there are valid reasons why GM has not been commercialised in India, aside from cotton that is. Can you say something about the health safety aspects of GM crops? Federoff says GM crops are safe for human and animal consumption. Is she correct?

AR: She is wrong. There are numerous studies that indicate the possibility of harm. All the major scientific bodies of the world, including the US National Academies, the World Health Organisation and the American Medical Association, agree that the potential for adverse effect is real and that these crops, both existing, but especially any new ones, need to be tested more thoroughly than they have been in the past (for example, for long-term toxicity for cancer). Meanwhile, agroecology that minimises the use of pesticides and uses no GMO has a proven safety and nutritional record and out-yields GMOs at a fraction of the cost.

CT: Federoff makes a blanket claim about safety. But each genetic modification poses unique risks and as a technology, according to molecular geneticist Michael Antoniou, GM is fundamentally scientifically flawed. So, it is impossible to say up front that they are all safe – or in fact that the ones on the market have been rigorously tested because they have not. But a food crop isn’t just eaten. There are effects on the environment too.

AR: Federoff fails to address all the ways GM crops can be unsafe. Existing GM crops do not have a history of safe use in the environment. Even a cursory examination of the US cropping system is enough to prove that the legacy of pesticidal GM crops has fuelled the epidemics of herbicide- resistant weeds and emerging insecticide resistant pests. This proves that you cannot rescue scientifically flawed ways to farm by introducing GM technologies that only exacerbate the most damaging farming practices.

CT: Federoff claims that we need GM if we are to mitigate the effects of climate change and produce sufficient food.

AR: This is rubbish. Agroecology has demonstrated far more effectiveness already than even the best hypothetical hopes of GM crops. But more to the point: it is the machine we call industrial agriculture that is a major cause of climate change. Giving that machine more fuel in the form of GM crops is not a solution but a dangerous distraction from what is needed to halt climate change.

CT: The paper by Kesavan and Swaminathan coincided with a mass march by farmers in Delhi at the end of November. Farmers in India have a list of grievances, with the effects of Bt cotton being a prominent one. Surely, given the devastation caused by Bt cotton (which these two authors say “has failed in India”), to introduce more GM crops at this time would cause further hardship for farmers. The paper by these two eminent scientists could be seen as a timely intervention.

AR: It is certainly courageous of Nina Federoff, given the failure of Bt cotton and her earlier unfortunate advice, to indulge in yet another round of misconceived guidance to the Indian government. I must also express disquiet and surprise that a bold charge has been levelled against that paper by Prof Vijay Raghavan (Scientific Advisor to the PM), which he says is “deeply flawed”. It is expected that any such statement is buttressed with sound data and science, especially when addressing scientists of the stature of Swaminathan and Kesavan. Therefore, without substantiation, a specific response to Raghavan is not possible.

However, it is relevant to the context to state that Bt cotton has failed and within a time-scale of less than 12 years. We need only look at the work of Dr. K Kranthi, ex Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, and Prof Gutierrez et al in the paper ‘Deconstructing Indian cotton: weather, yields, and suicides’.

CT: It was predicted that Bt brinjal would fail within 4-12 years. It seems that’s precisely what has happened to Bt cotton in India. So, the last thing India needs is another ill thought out GM experiment pushed through without proper independent assessments that consider health and environmental outcomes or the effects on farmers’ livelihoods and rural communities. But isn’t this what is on the horizon? You have for many years been highlighting flawed regulatory mechanisms in India where GM is concerned. I have been following the current case concerning herbicide-tolerant (HT) GM mustard. It is disturbing to say the least to read about deep-rooted conflicts of interest across the entire regulatory framework and what you describe as ‘regulatory delinquency’ as well as scientific malfeasance on such a massive scale.

AR: Collective regulatory misadventures with Bt cotton must indict the regulators for ‘connected’ farmer suicides in rain-fed Bt cotton cultivation. They must take responsibility. Despite this history of regulatory adventurism with hybrid Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, this has not deterred our regulators as they attempt to introduce HT GM mustard. It is sobering that documents in the public domain reveal clear cover-up, invalid and even fraudulent field trials, the results of which were nevertheless accepted by the regulators. Perhaps, the greatest regulatory mystery surrounds the fact that the regulators themselves admit that there is no claim made by the government that HT (GMO) hybrid mustard out-performs non-GMO hybrids. Therefore, there is no ‘need’ for this GM Mustard. ‘Need’ must be established as a prior regulatory step in risk assessment.

CT: Nina Federoff says that what is preventing the widespread adoption of GM in India is political disagreement and activists. This is a well-worn tactic: try to cast valid criticisms of GM as ‘unscientific’ and politically motivated. But as you have outlined, there are valid reasons why the introduction of GM food crops is being prevented in India.

AR: It is proven in copious evidence in the Supreme Court in the last 13 years that our regulators are seriously conflicted: they promote GMOs openly, fund them (as with HT mustard and other public sector GMOs) and then regulate them. Truth is a massive casualty. This is not lightly stated. It would also be prudent to recognise that unsustainable HT and Bt crops (Bt maize in industrial systems in the West) and failed hybrid Bt cotton in India serve to put farmers on a pesticide treadmill as increasing levels of pest resistance becomes manifest. In fact, a new paper in the journal Pest Management Science based on research over a seven-year period shows progressive field-evolved resistance of pink bollworm to Bt cotton in India.

We also have a new paper by Prof Andrew Paul Gutierrez in which he concludes that extending implementation of the hybrid GM technology to other crops in India will only mirror the disastrous implementation of Bt cotton in the country, thereby tightening the economic noose on still more subsistence farmers for the sake of profits.

CT: Federoff and others are fond of making claims about what GM has or will achieve. GM crops have been on the market for over two decades. Do you see any validity in these types of claims?

AR: Most GMOs on the market now provide technological fixes to kill weeds or pests. They have no trait for yield. Together, they account for nearly 98% of all GMOs planted worldwide. 25 years of official US data on HT crops show they have led to intractable problems of super weeds, significant increases in herbicide use because of resistant weeds, higher farmer costs and no yield advantage. Claims made for GMOs with various traits, for example, drought or saline resistant or providing yield or nutritional enhancement, are futuristic. The few that have been tested for drought resistance and some other traits are according to prominent scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman out-performed by traditional breeding techniques hands-down.

Colin Todhunter is an independent journalist who writes on development, environmental issues, politics, food and agriculture. He was named in August 2018 by Transcend Media Services as one of 400 Living Peace and Justice Leaders and Models in recognition of his journalism.

14 Comments

  1. Thanks Colin for this enlightening series. Chile has been the target of a very well-funded propaganda campaign of fake news about the wonders of GM seeds and related pesticides. After copper, fruits and vegetables are our second highest export.
    As your article points out, with so many scientific studies finding evidence of toxicity without increases in yields why risk implementation at this time? Perhaps investors need maximum dividends now. ChileBIO tells us there is no risk. It’s made up of 4 corporations: Monsanto-Bayer, Dow, Syngenta and Dupont. Its logo is: “biotechnology for a sustainable agriculture”(sic).
    In 2013 a proposed “Law for the Improvement of Varieties of Vegetables” (aka The Monsanto Law) was introduced to allow GM vegetables to be grown in Chile. Various civil society organisations began to mobilise and in August of that year several thousand marchers (my first march ever) protested. The first term of the neo-liberal billionaire Piñera was ending so he left it to Bachelet (centre-left) to deal with. She declared a moratorium during her four-year term, but now the re-elected Piñera is pushing TPP and the Monsanto law in tandem.
    With some experimental GM plots being permitted, contamination of local seeds is a major concern, especially the indigenous ones around for centuries, and the stealing of intellectual property through non-indigenous patents on seeds. Rather than commercialise them, Mapuches exchange seeds locally through bartering, a concept foreign to most of the Chilean elite. The holder of the most patents, father of a Senator, is a close ally of ChileBIO.
    On the brighter side, an activist alliance of about 100 organisations has formed, including the original anti-Monsanto GM group, to combat TPP and GM food legislation jointly. Hopefully they can counteract the millions spent by the GM lobby. Ultimately consumer ignorance needs to be reduced through product labeling and other forms of education, and organic alternatives increased rapidly.

  2. ttshasta says

    Watching conventional TV in a hotel on my vacation two nights ago, a feel good liberal show documented the plight of Monarch butterflies’ decline, and growers of Milkweed, their sole breeding plant. The entire feel good blurb failed to mention that 90% of Monarchs are gone due to eradication of Milkweed across the Western U.S. due to the use of RoundUp which has removed all weeds from farmlands. What folly.

  3. Don’t forget that Bill Nye (who despite being marketed as “The Science Guy” is an engineer, not a scientist) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is an astrophysicist, not a geneticist, and therefore not competent to speak on GMO crops) were both…. induced, let’s say……to support GMO crops in videos and public statements. Scientists can be sellouts just like anyone else if the price is right.

  4. Antonym says

    The GMO Issue Reaches Boiling Point in India
    Nice example of fake news. I read /see the Indian news daily, I live here, and no GMO is not even in any headline. Plenty of other non related issues are.

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  5. Robbobbobin says

    “Nina Federoff is a long-time supporter of GMOs. The last time she offered advice to India (in her role as scientific advisor to Hilary Clinton) was when Bt brinjal (eggplant) was being pushed for commercialisation.”

    At the risk of sounding as racist as Gilad Atzmon and as I understand it BICBW, Federoff is a descendant of Russians, Clinton is a descendant of Martians, both of them were born, raised, educated (so to speak) and are working and residng in the USA, all of which are several thousand or million miles away from India. I think it is time the aforementioned worthies enlist the assistance of the current German-Scots POTUS to sanction and otherwise fuck up the Indian banking system until all those little brown dhoti-wearing bastards on that distant subcontinent give up and join the consensus on who is right and who is good, which at this moment in time is not them. God bless America.

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  6. Fair dinkum says

    And what are the 1%, movie millionaires, pop divas and educated upper middle class eating?
    Organic or biodynamic produce of course.

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  7. Derrick says

    It’s like an echo from The Omen II, where one of Damiens protectors envisions a similar enslavement of farmers.

  8. Full spectrum breakdown is the objective says

    “Prominent US biologist Nina Federoff says GM will become more or less essential in an era of climate change”

    Nina Federoff is an ‘approved’ scientist, speaking for the Establishment. When she talks about food safety and food security for third world countries, she echoes precisely the same sentiments you get when the exceptionalists from the Pentagon plot to bring democracy and freedom to Vietnam, Chile, Iraq, Syria, Libya etc ..

    Like other blood thirsty criminals, she should be awarded a Nobel prize.

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  9. Grafter says

    Nina Federoff…………”in her role as scientific advisor to Hilary Clinton”. Tells you all you need to know about this person and the people she associates with. GM…..Yet another avenue for the rich to screw us with their money making crap along with a callous and criminal disregard for our fragile planet. A plague of GM filth on all their houses !

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  10. “….Even a cursory examination of the US cropping system is enough to prove that the legacy of pesticidal GM crops has fuelled the epidemics of herbicide- resistant weeds and emerging insecticide resistant pests. This proves that you cannot rescue scientifically flawed ways to farm by introducing GM technologies that only exacerbate the most damaging farming practices….”
    These facts have been known for many years but those promoting GM crops had much to gain financially but little to offer those they inflicted their unevidence based claims onto. It is also worth remembering that as the need for more “new” and “better” pesticides has increased, those companies providing for this turn of events(the fighting of disease resistant weeds and bugs)have been raking in vast fortunes, compabies like Monsanto have much to answeer for and the effects will not be limited simply to bees but all insects. The true extent of the damage done by GM crops has yet to be realized but without the invertebrates and birds, farming on a massive scale globally will be under threat. It is utterly irresponsible to inflict unknown and untold damage on fragile ecosystems which could be weakened or even destroyed simply because a “few” stand to profit at the expense of the “many”.

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  11. olavleivar says

    First of All : The MODEL of ” CLIMATE CHANGE ” is a GLOBALIST HOAX in order to
    grab POWER over ENERGY DISTRIBUTION and CONSUMPTION

    CO2 is PLANT FOOD …our Plants need CO2 ..so everything can grow and the Planet GREENER.

    CO2 REDUCTION SCHEEMES are in reality POPULATION REDUCTION SCHEEMES

    Second : FOOD PRODUCTION depends on CONSERVING the QUALITY of the SOIL .. not on GMO SEEDS of DUBIOUS and UNPREDICTABLE NATURE
    CHINA has for 1000 of Years been a LEADER in Implementing the REQUIREMENTS for preservation of the SOIL , which has an overriding Principle known by any Farmer of Quality :
    WHAT COMES OUT …MUST BE PUT IN

    Third : FARMING needs CAPITAL …. USURY – FREE CAPITAL !
    There are a variety of fiinancing models for applying such scheemes …
    basically such scheemes must
    CUT OUT PRIVATE USURIOUS and EXPLOITATIVE BANKING

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