Discussion about GM crops/foods amongst scientists.
"The Science & Politics of Genetic Engineering"
Talk by Dr Michael Hansen, Senior Staff Scientist, Consumers Union , USA
IMAGE, 23rd August'2008
Organised by Living Farms, Bhubaneswar
On 23rd of August 2008, Dr Michael Hansen, Senior Staff Scientist, Consumers Union, USA, delivered a talk on the "Science & Politics of Genetic Engineering".
Dr Michael Hansen Ph.D. is a Doctorate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Michigan with a post graduation on the Impacts of Biotechnology on Agricultural Research from the University of Kentucky. He is a Senior Staff Scientist with Consumers Union, USA. He has talked widely on this subject in Asia and in other parts of the World and also authored books, framed policies and published reports that have been widely acclaimed. He has held senior positions in various US Government bodies and also acted as a consultant to WHO/FAO on biotechnology issues. He has chaired three international expert committees on GM crops.
Dr Michael Hansen in his talk pointed out the imprecise nature of Genetic Engineering . There is no way to ensure the intended effect and the process is highly unpredictable, he said. He cited various scientific studies to point out the adverse effects this technology was having on agriculture as well as health of farmers and consumers worldwide. He busted the myth of high yield and low pesticide use being associated with the Genetically Modified (GM) crops by showing statistics that showed such effects were temporary and GM crops fared much worse than their traditional counterparts in the long run.
He also criticized the proponents of GM crops for trying to project GM crops as the solution to the food crisis that loomed ahead. GM technology was yet to fathom all the conditions behind increased yield and therefore such statements were mischievous he stated. The companies advocating GM crops were the ones that once said DDT was safe for humans. Thus it will be fallacious to assume that these industries are doling out correct information.
The solution to the present crisis is not a new and untested technology but exploring other safe and sure methods that exist but are ignored because they cannot be exploited for profit by the industry. He exposed the industry science nexus by quoting from correspondence between the companies advocating GM crops and the scientists and institutions that supported their views.
The effect of GM foods on the health of consumers has never been seriously studied , he said. He cited medical studies which pointed out that the foreign proteins created by the inserted Bt gene over stimulate the immune system and cause allergenicity. Studies on rats and mice have revealed serious health disorders that have never been seriously followed up.
In India cultivation of Bt Cotton, a genetically modified crop has been allowed in five States. This is not a food crop and yet those handling it have come down with severe allergies. The crop by products eaten by cattle and other animals has affected them severely. What would happen when genetically modified food crops are introduced is a question all Indians should seriously ponder upon, he suggested.
Genetic Engineering is reductionist in approach that fails to study the local ecology and evolve holistic solutions, Dr Hansen revealed.
Dr D P Ray, Vice Chancellor, OUAT, said that his institution was indeed concentrating upon alternating methods than jumping into the GM bandwagon. He said industry sponsored studies should not be taken at their face value. Higher yields can be possible by ensuring the fertility of the soil, choosing appropriate crops, lessening chemical inputs and using such methods as Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) that did not require the physical insertion of foreign genes. Orissa is a State with a rich biodiversity. It would not be wise to let Genetically Modified crops contaminate this , he emphasised.
The Dean, Agriculture, OUAT, was of the opinion that GM technology was a risk that should be best avoided. The first generation crops were already proving to have serious adverse effects. When the second and third generation crops would be introduced the effect would be disastrous, he said.
Col Sudhakar Satpathy, a Sena Medal Awardee and a senior official of the Red Cross, wanted to know why the entire matter is not being presented in simple terms to the lay person so that a public debate in the real sense can be initiated to obtain the informed consent of the public.
When Dr P Jayashankar of CIFA enquired about sheep deaths after grazing in Bt Cotton fields, Dr Hansen said that it could be a combined effect of the Bt toxin and the extremely hazardous organophosphate pesticides that are being sprayed on Bt Cotton to tackle the substantial increase in secondary pests as the natural enemies of these pests are being destroyed by the Bt toxin. Dr Hansen warned that the long term effects of the Bt toxin should be studied before venturing into Bt food crops.
Sri Satya Sundar Barik of The Hindu wondered if independent studies not sponsored by industry on Bt Cotton were available. Dr Hansen said such studies were indeed available but the findings were being ignored in the mad rush to push in GM crops. He cited a very well researched study from China which brought to the fore that yields from Bt Cotton were not stable and declined drastically with time.. It also showed that pesticide use steadily increased and overcame the usage with non Bt Cotton.
To a statement from HOD Biotechnology OUAT that GM was about solving the food crisis and feeding the hungry, Dr Hansen pointed out that most studies that made such claims were by the industry that resorted to manipulation of data. In reality GM is focusing on crops that are not consumed by the hungry of the world, but was being mass produced in America and Europe. He also said that 75% of the GM crops acreage was devoted to herbicide resistant strains. Thus the entire process is about controlling seeds, selling herbicides and pesticides, and thus gaining a monopoly over the total food chain.
Prof Radhamohan was of the opinion that Genetically Modified crops should be rejected per se, a view that found favour with a large section of the audience who were shocked at the revelations. They agreed with Dr Michael Hansen that agriculture and food production is too important to be left to profit seeking industries. "We need to have a knowledge based approach and not brute force that seeks to change nature with an untested and imprecise technology that was already showing its seamy side."
The meeting ended with a vote of thanks and an appeal to the policy makers to review their stand on Genetically Modified crops. The need of the hour was eco friendly sustainable agriculture that produced safe and nourishing food using nature as a friend and not going against its rules that have been shaped by centuries of careful adaptation, opined Dr Dhanada Mishra who chaired the session.
The discussion session was attended by Professors, senior scientists and doctors from the OUAT, CTCRI, CIFA, CRRI, Institute of Life Sciences, Institute of Health Sciences, Regional Medical Research Centre, Government Ayurvedic Hospital , Utkal University and the Directorate of Horticulture. Sri GVV Sharma, Revenue Secretary, Prof Radhamohan, former Information Commissioner, Sri S Raghavan, Director Biotechnology were some of the other participants.
On behalf of all those who attended the discussion we would appeal to every concerned citizen to intervene and ensure that the menace of Bt cotton is tackled in all sincerity and further experiments with GM crops is stopped altogether. It is now time to ensure our food safety and sovereignty by introducing the practice of eco friendly sustainable agriculture that is not a terrible burden to the farmer and can produce safe and nourishing food for the malnourished majority of the State.
Debjeet Sarangi & Jagannath Chatterjee
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