M.S. Swaminathan calls GM crops a failure; Centre’s adviser faults paper

A research paper co-authored by leading agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, which describes Bt cotton as a ‘failure,’ was criticized by India’s Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA), K. VijayRaghavan as ‘deeply flawed’.

The findings were published in paper ‘Modern Technologies for Sustainable Food and Nutrition Security’. It is a review of crop development in India and transgenic crops — particularly Bt cotton, the stalled Bt brinjal as well as DMH-11, a transgenic mustard hybrid.

Key observations made:

The paper notes that GE (genetically engineered) Bt cotton has failed in India. It has failed as a sustainable agriculture technology and has, therefore, also failed to provide livelihood security for cotton farmers who are mainly resource-poor, small and marginal farmers.

Besides, the precautionary principle (PP) has been done away with and no science-based and rigorous biosafety protocols and evaluation of GM crops are in place.

The paper also raises questions on the genetic engineering technology itself on the grounds that it raises the cost of sowing. Also, the insertion of foreign genes (in the plant) could lead to “molecular and cellular events not precisely understood.”

The government should only use genetic engineering as a last resort. Genetic engineering technology is supplementary and must be need-based. Only in very rare circumstance (less than 1%) may there arise a need for the use of this technology.

What is a GM crop?

A GM or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.

For example, a GM crop can contain a gene(s) that have been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring it through pollination. The resulting plant is said to be “genetically modified” although in reality, all crops have been “genetically modified” from their original wild state by domestication, selection, and controlled breeding over long periods of time.

Do we need GM crops?

Yes and why?

  • Higher crop yields.
  • Reduced farm costs.
  • Increased farm profit.
  • Improvement in health and the environment.

No, and why?

  • It is clear that the technology of genetic engineering is an evolving one and there is much, especially on its impact on human health and environment that is yet to be understood properly. The scientific community itself seems uncertain about this.
  • While there are many in this community who feel that the benefits outweigh the risks, others point to the irreversibility of this technology and uncontrollability of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) once introduced in the ecosystem. Hence, they advocate a precautionary approach towards any open release of GMOs.
  • One of the concerns raised strongly by those opposing GM crops in India is that many important crops like rice, brinjal, and mustard, among others, originated here, and introducing genetically modified versions of these crops could be a major threat to the vast number of domestic and wild varieties of these crops.
  • In fact, globally, there is a clear view that GM crops must not be introduced in centres of origin and diversity. India also has mega biodiversity hotspots like the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats which are rich in biodiversity yet ecologically very sensitive. Hence it will only be prudent for us to be careful before we jump on to the bandwagon of any technology.
  • There is also a potential for pests to evolve resistance to the toxins produced by GM crops and the risk of these toxins affecting nontarget organisms. There is also the danger of unintentionally introducing allergens and other anti-nutrition factors in foods.
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