E-mail this
Print Article

Transgenic Seeds –A Genetic Sham
by Jayne Kuriakose and Mayank Mishra1

Cite as : (2003) PL WebJour 18

1. Introduction: Bio-safety challenges in India

One of the most debated topics in international science today is that of the release of genetically modified/engineered organisms/food/seeds into the environment. The potential (and ongoing implications) on human health, environment, bio-diversity and socio-economic life of the people is reviewed and discussed around the world, yet ignored by successive governments in their haste to reap short term benefits.

This paper undertakes to give a brief overview of the effects and implications of the release of genetically modified seeds (GMS) into the environment without going into the detailed effect they have on the bio-diversity, environment, health and socio-economic life of a common man. Recently, the Government denied commercial clearance for Monsanto’s Bt cotton in India.2 This has been hailed as a big victory for environmentalists and farmers alike. Earlier the Government had denied commercial clearance for ProAgro–Bayer’s GE Mustard as well as denied the import of 10,000 million tonnes of corn-soya blend suspected of containing Bt. corn “Starlink” as food aid by two NGOs – CARE India and Catholic Relief Services.3 The paper looks into why these crops failed and were denied clearance and shows the effect GMO’s can have on our socio-economic lives. Though both these developments demonstrate willingness on the part of the government to go beyond short-term profits and look ahead, the paper seeks to analyse what more the government must do for a positive and healthy blend between technology, sustained development and food security. For this purpose the paper analyses the legislated framework governing the GMO’s and suggests legislative changes as well as policy reviews.

The need for vigilant monitoring

Genetic engineering (GE) is one of the most important technologies that have been developed. The advantage of GE drugs released into the market is that, if found to be harmful, one can stop manufacturing them. But this, unfortunately, is not the case with GE seeds/plants/micro-organisms/animals. Once released they are difficult to recall as seeds/plants spread widely and enter the food chain. Recently, a genetically engineered corn marketed by Aventis (a TNC) was found to lead to serious medical problems in a number of individuals, but its withdrawal, according to Aventis would take four years as it has already entered the food chain. Moreover, a developing country like India — because of the greater genetic variety intermingled with wild relatives, complex land tenure-technology relationship, smaller land holdings, heterogeneous growing conditions, mixing of traditional and transgenic seeds, etc – faces many more challenges. Hence, although GMS may have the potential of increasing productivity, they have to be strictly regulated. Unfortunately, the system for regulation is inadequate in India. The following examples are good illustrations for the fact that GMO’s must be regulated carefully.

2.Transgenic seeds: The controversy

A Genetic sham

Bt cotton is genetically engineered to contain a gene borrowed from a common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which produces a substance lethal to the bollworm that devastates more than half of India’s cotton crop, and hence was hailed as not requiring pesticides. Mahyco-Monsanto started its first trial of Bt cotton in India in 1998, before obtaining the written approval of the Department of biotechnology (DBT) or that of Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Commercial clearance to Bt cotton was granted on the grounds that it has been fully tested in Indian conditions, that it does not require pesticide sprays and gives higher yield and farmer’s higher incomes. All these claims were proven false.

Savings in crop losses were treated as high yields, as Bt cotton for all practical purposes acts like a pesticide and pesticides and does not increase yields. They have not broken the yield barrier, like the high-yielding varieties that ushered in the green revolution. In 2000, Bt cotton gave an increase of 50 per cent, yet the company failed to state that the seed was sowed two months late — when the dreaded bollworm attack is the heaviest, thereby escaping the attack. The seed also does not provide any benefit to the farmers economically. An average farmer spent Rs 3500 on seeds (per kilo used on one acre), which outweighs the Rs 2500–4000 the farmer anyway spends on fertilizers, depending on area and intensity of attack.4 Water consumption is another issue that was ignored–hybrid cotton requires more water, but what was little known is water requirement is more for Bt cotton than even hybrid non-Bt cotton.

It is also now known that the Bt cotton has less fibre strength, as a result of which the farmers are getting reduced prices in the market. In addition, boll shedding is more in Bt hybrids and the insect resistance remains for about 90 days after which the total pest attack multiplies. There has been a substantial attack of bollworm and sucking pests like jassids, aphis and thrips on Bt. Additionally, the cotton crops were attacked by two fungal diseases, root rot and wilt, which was confirmed by plant disease scientists at the Zonal Agricultural Research Centre in Yawatmal, Maharashtra. Monsanto itself recommended plantation of 40 per cent refuge in the fifth generation of its Bt cotton crop as resistance to bollworm (among others) had considerably reduced. After intense media pressure as well as oppositions from NGO’s and environmentalists, commercialisation has been refused.

Some time back, GEAC deferred the approval of GM mustard to be released commercially by the Indian arm of the MNC’s Aventis and PGS, Pro-Agro Seeds Ltd (PAS). GM mustard was claimed to be resistant to glufosinate, a broad-spectrum herbicide, and the company claimed that the gene modification will help increase mustard productivity by 20-25 per cent. What the company, however, failed to mention is that these seeds will actually help in the sale of its own chemicals. Numerous studies have shown that the usage of chemical actually increases in herbicide-tolerant plants, thereby negating any positive impact on environment. Moreover, PAS developed a seed, which is resistant to gulfosinate, its own brand of herbicide. Therefore, PAS would have killed two birds at one time–sell its seeds as well as the herbicide. To control the weeds one would have to buy gulfosinate, which alone is resisted by the crop. In Canada, scientists have found three “superweeds” that have come up in GM canola (rapeseed), which has become uncontrollable.

Scientific studies also show that genetically engineered crops can cause insecticides to build up in soils, cause food chain effects, transfer genes to wild relatives, and contaminate natural crops. Health concerns include allergenicity; gene transfer, especially of antibiotic-resistant genes, from GM foods to cells or bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract; and “outcrossing”, or the movement of genes from GM plants into conventional crops, posing indirect threats to food safety and security. Moreover, GM crops (include potato, canola (rapeseed) and creeping bentgrass) with protease inhibitors are known to affect the longevity and behaviour of bees. Many other GM crops around the world are proven failures.5

Recently, the Government proposed to feed millions of malnourished children with genetically modified potatoes through the free midday meal programme.6 It has drawn widespread protest. This is ironic as India already has 60 million tonnes of grains rotting in granaries and a glut of unsold potatoes in U.P., Punjab, and Maharastra with protein content as high as that claimed in GM potato.7 Moreover, many experts have said that GM potato currently under development does not contain more than 2.8% protein per 100 grams which is just 0.5% over that of the average potato.8 Moreover, the stability of the transgenic potato in the long run cannot be determined as studies on gene insertion have been done in only one vegetative generation, not in several sexual generation, as it should be.9 Whether the Government learns from the experience of the above two GMs before considerable harm is done to the farmers and ecology, is to be seen.

Though the final commercial clearance has been denied to Bt cotton, thousands of farmers are now suffering because of the failure of their Bt cotton. Great controversy as well as a public interest litigation rest behind the conditional clearance given by GEAC for the release of Bt cotton on a trial basis.10 This indicates that India does not have a proper set of guidelines, rules and systems for evaluating the biosafety and ecological and environmental impacts of genetically modified organisms used in crops. This legislative framework and policies are analysed below.

3.Regulatory Framework

Genetically modified organisms and products are governed under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 (“EP Act”). The Central Government, exercising its powers under the Act, passed the 1989 “Rules for the manufacture, use, import, export and storage of Hazardous Micro-organisms, genetically engineered organisms or cells” (1989 Rules). As required by the 1989 Rules, DBT also issued guidelines in 1990, which were further revised and expanded in 1994 and 1998 (DBT 1994, 1998). These rules and guidelines regulate the entire spectrum of activities relating to GMO’s. They also regulate production facilities, like tanneries and distilleries as well as laboratory practices and containment facilities. It may be noted that the 1998 DBT guidelines call for a demonstration that the transgenic plant “is both environmentally safe and economically viable”.

The authority to regulate GMO’s is divided between the DBT and Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). All transgenic experimental research in the country is to be overseen by the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) under the DBT, while deliberate release and commercialization of GMOs is to be overseen by the GEAC under the MEF. State Biotechnology Coordination Committees and District-Level Committees are to be set up to facilitate information exchange between the centre and the states. The most recent addition is a Monitoring and Evaluation Committee to oversee the agronomic evaluation of the transgenic crop during field tests. It may be noted that India was one of the few countries that had a regulatory framework for GMO’s in place before its commercialisation. But although India has one of the strongest regulatory frameworks for governing GMO’s and GMF, the implementation mechanism, like many developing countries is not satisfactory. Several steps could be taken to reduce the shortcomings in the legislative enactments per se.

4.Policies and regulations — rethinking needed

Legislative changes

The RCGM and GEAC both contain scientists from different fields like molecular biology, genetics, and agricultural sciences and belong to public sector institutions as well as the government representatives. However, considering that policies of these institutions directly affect farmers and consumers, there is almost no representation of social scientists and the general public. Though they can call representatives from NGO’s and the industry, this is not mandatory. Moreover, RCGM has public sector_scientists who are themselves engaged in transgenic research, which means that they are regulating themselves instead of having an independent autonomous body doing the same.

Public participation is an important aspect of most environmental legislations. Risk communication would have to be an essential feature of the regulatory framework. Lack of transparency during the Bt cotton trials was one of the main reasons for the farmers in the southern states for protesting against the field trials.11 The clearance of Monsanto’s trials with toxic plants without the democratic consent of concerned Governments, from state to local level and democratic participation of the public in biosafety decisions reveals the loopholes and inadequacies in the present biosafety regulations from the democratic perspective. Before any clearance is granted for trials of a particular genetically engineered crop the application for trials should be notified to the public as part of the citizen’s right to know. Public hearings need to be organised in the specific villages and districts and States where the trials and introductions are planned. This will ensure democratic participation and decision-making. Moreover, to make the public aware of the future of GMO’s, especially farmers, GEAC must go public with the results of trials conducted over the last five years for Bt cotton.

Moreover, prior to commercialisation, trials must be carried out in the public system and not by the private firms themselves. The Andhra Pradesh Government’s order to Mahyco-Monsanto to stop trials and to only carry them out in the research stations of N G Ranga Agricultural University under the direct supervision of government scientists is a precedence that should be applied nationwide.12 Public participation in the monitoring of trials is also essential.

The farmers’ seed supply and direct exchange network must be strengthened through community control and local participation. Farmer’s seed supply system must be treated totally distinct from the commercial seed supply system. While the commercial private seed supply system needs strong state regulation, farmer seed supply should function free of state interference with strong community control and public participation.

One of the biggest drawbacks of regulating GMO’s is the inherent uncertainties that lie in predicting their behaviour and effect on the environment. Added to that most countries (including USA) do not have a set guidelines for risk assessment and mostly rely on agronomic performance and do not have any ecological dimension. In India, although most of the institutions have well-defined roles, the law is vague on what each of the regulatory authorities should look for while regulating a particular GM crop or food. Though the DBT guidelines13 specify the procedures to be followed in developing GM plants and monitoring them with a view to ensuring environmental safety the guidelines do not lay down the procedure and information required for a full environmental risk assessment, and appropriate safety and emergency responses. There are no published guidelines that the GEAC follows while dealing with approvals for experimental field trials. The GEAC’s mandate under the Rules of 1989 is to consider for approval import, export, manufacture, processing, use or sale of any genetically engineered organism or cell. GEAC approval is also required at the stage of developing, testing and experimenting with GMOs. The procedure for risk assessment prior to the grant of approval by the GEAC, however, is not specified in the law. But complete risk assessment may not be possible if the technology developer does not pass on all the information, such as the genetic construct of the particular material. The Indian law also does not provide for instructions and conditions for use or labelling and packaging of products containing GMOs.

Jurisdictional authority for human health and food safety is also left ambiguous. Whether the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act would cover transgenic seeds would depend upon how broadly “food adulteration” is read to include transgenic food additives. There is also the question as to how the Indian Seed Act would be applicable — whether the system of “truthful labelling” or “certification” must be allowed.

Policy reviews

All said and done, the material question is whether we really need GMOs at present? Is the hunger faced by many in India only curable through genetically modified organisms/food? Though the question is basic enough, it is time we don’t resort to blind adaptation of technology without doing any ground work. This is one policy initiative that the Government must work on comprehensively by using some practical and easy solutions available to them.

It is high time that the Government resorts to more adaptive technological mix and policy measures, which can achieve monumental results. GM potato is being introduced to overcome the protein deficiency in the poor and is being planned to be given to school children for free.14 Potato would sprout before they reach the school children. Dal or pulses, which is the common diet of an average Indian, contains about 20-24% protein (as opposed potato-1.98%), requires less water and is known to enrich soil by fixing atmospheric nitrogen. Increasing its production would have made its price cheaper, making it easily available to the poor. Instead, the country, which consumes the largest quantity of pulses gradually turned into a major importer. There has been no effort at all to encourage the domestic farmers to cultivate pulses and pull the crop out from the marginal areas. Such were the lopsided policies that in fact, at one stage, India was contemplating “contract farming” for pulses in Africa to meet the country’s need.15

And wheat, which is lying stacked under the sun, contains on an average eight to nine per cent proteins—roughly four times more than what potato contains—and that too without any harmful effects associated with GM foods. It would make terrible economic sense, if the biotechnologists were for once to forget the “novel” foods under preparation and urge the Government to speed up food distribution among the hungry masses. After all, bulk of the surplus foodgrains that lie stocked in the open have already turned into cattle feed. Instead much effort and money is spent on coming up with GM food, which is not required.

Again, GM mustard was being introduced to meet the ever-growing industry of oil seeds. Why did the Government then reduce import duties on edible oils, thereby turning India from a net exporter of edible oil to net importer? Safeguard for farmers by way of procurement and assured prices are being slowly done away with to enable the corporate sector to move in and push the farming communities out of agriculture.

Coupled with this fact is that India is not equipped at present to deal with GMOs. This is because the ambiguous regulatory mechanism as well as the tremendous uncertainties surrounding GMOs would be too much of a burden on the farming community of India. It has been suggested by some that a five-year moratorium should be introduced on all commercialisation of genetically engineered crops both through imports and through seed production and distribution in India while full and adequate ecological and regulatory frameworks for assessing the ecological impact of genetically engineered crops and public participation is evolved.16

When injustice and inequity is the root of the problem, technology can never be the golden solution that it professes to be. If biotechnology must benefit agriculture and human development, it must be based on the informed participation of the farmers; it must be people centric and not profit centred.

1. Vth year students. National Law Institute University, Bhopal Return to Text

2. On 25th April 2003 the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, denied the commercial clearance to Monsanto's Bt. cotton for the northern Indian states. V. Shiva and A.H.Jafri, “Failure of the GMO’s in India”, www.mindfully.org Return to Text

3. ibid Return to Text

4. Sharma, Devinder, A Scientific Fairytale, February 2003, www.indiatogether.org, Return to Text

5. For detailed analyses refer V. Shiva and A.H.Jafri, “Failure of the GMO’s in India”, www.mindfully.org Return to Text

6. R. Chinai, “GM Potato no answer to malnutrition: Experts” Times of India, 25-6-2003, at p.7 Return to Text

7. ibid Return to Text

8. D. Sharma, “From Pomato to Protato”, www.indiatogether.org Return to Text

9. S. Sahai, Slice of life: GM potato could come a cropper Times of India 21-6-2003, p. 8 Return to Text

10. V. Shiva and A.H. Jafri, “Failure of the GMO’s in India”, www.mindfully.org Return to Text

11. B. Dhar, Regulating Biotexchnology in India, http://www.gapresearch.org/governance /RISIndiafinal.pdf. visited 1-9-2003 Return to Text

12. V. Shiva, A. Emani, et al, “Globalisation and Threat to Seed Security Case of Transgenic Cotton Trials in India” Economic and Political Weekly, March 6-12, 1999 at p. 24 Return to Text

13. Revised Guidelines for Research in Transgenic Plants, 1998, DBT Return to Text

14. supra note 7 Return to Text

15. supra note 9 Return to Text

16. supra note 7 Return to Text

Search On Page:

Enter Search Word:

  Search Archives
  Search Case-Law
  Search Bookstore
  Search All

Archives of SCC Articles
  Subjectwise Listing of Articles
  Chronological Listing of Articles
  Articles Exclusively on the Internet
  More Articles.

Most Accessed Articles
Recent Articles