Wednesday, December 24, 2008


It is fashionable to talk in platform speeches that world is facing a dark future because of the impending food shortages caused by the explosive population increase and there is no option but to go for another green revolution driven by biotechnology through genetically modified foods. The power of biotechnology is such that it is possible to achieve any thing by manipulating the genes from the same species or from other species through the recombinant DNA technology.It is this power that is being proposed to expand food production claimed to be necessary to meet the future demands that may emerge a few years from now. However what troubles the conscience of the world is whether resorting to gene modification is absolutely safe or not and whether the traditional breeding technology of 1000 year old history, cannot be improved to increase production dramatically if found necessary.

Foods that have had their DNA changed through genetic engineering technology are commonly referred to as GM foods. Combining genes from different organisms constitutes recombinant DNA technology and invariably these foods are also called GE foods or transgenic foods. The technology originated as a tool for microbiologists and found dramatic use in plant crops. GM technology is widely sought for imparting enhanced taste and quality for foods, reduced maturation time, increased nutrient density, better yields, higher stress tolerance, improved resistance to diseases, pests, herbicides and drought and many other desirable traits. First commercial GM food was Tomato developed by the US company Calgene in 1994 under the brand Flavr Savr with properties to resist rotting. However its commercial life was very short due to serious doubts about its safety by a U K scientist who reported that rats consuming the product under controlled conditions showed precancerous cell growth in the intestine, adverse effect on brain development, damages to liver, testicles, pancreas and immune system. Though the insecticide gene inserted into Tomato did not contribute to these adverse reactions, the genetic engineering process itself was found responsible. Even to day this study is the only conclusive findings accepted universally guiding the thought process regarding the vulnerability of GM foods.

Whether we like it or not GM crops have become omnipotent in to day's world which have been adopted for their recognized advantages like growing fast and bigger in more extreme temperatures, resistance to pests and diseases. As per the protocol of FDA of USA, 40 crops have completed the mandatory requirements for clearance. USA accounts for 83% of GM cotton, 61% GM corn and 89% of soybean produced in the world reflecting the growing confidence that country has in their safety. !3 countries market GM foods which include Argentina, Canada, China, Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, Spain and Uruguay. It is believed that 75% of all the processed foods in USA contain GM ingredients. Time is not too far away when GM animals also will dominate the animal food sector because they grow faster, emit less phosphate and methane in their manure, are resistant to diseases like mastitis and mad cow disease or have high omega-3 fatty acids at levels similar to that in fish. Probably Atlantic salmon fish that fatten up to market weight in 18 months instead of traditional 30 months may be the first GM food from the animal species to reach the market soon.

Interestingly GM technology is tightly controlled by some of the major transnational companies which have registered unprecedented profits this year. Monsanto increased its profit by 100%, Cargill by 86% and Archer Daniels Midland by 86% while the world is facing an economic melt down affecting the livelihood of millions of people. Intellectual property restrictions will make this technology exclusive privilege of rich farmers while their counter parts in poor third world countries can never hope to be benefited by the new revolution, even if the GM technology is found to be absolutely safe in the long term.The safety issues are clouded by uncertainties and lack of unanimity amongst the scientists as to whether long term consumption of GM foods can contribute to life time disorders of unknown nature. Sufficient grounds do exist to suspect that some GM foods may be linked to allerginicity, toxicity, decreased nutrient value, antibiotic resistance, cancer, kidney damage, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.

Final question is whether the world is really in need of GM technology for meeting any food contingency in future. It is a fact that GM technology has never shown to be capable of increasing the yield of any crops but it can increase the availability of food by cutting down food losses significantly. The world population which stands at about 7 billion to day is anticipated to reach 10 billion or less in another two decades. As per FAO statistics, to day's global food production can provide 2800 kC of energy per capita, if distributed equitably, sufficient to make a person obese! By 2030 the food production achieved, at to day's growth rate, can feed the entire world @ 3050 kC per capita if distributed uniformly. If this is so why does the world need GM foods? If there is even an iota of doubt regarding the safety, why cannot this technology be confined to non-food crops like cotton, jatropa, soft woods for paper industry, forest regeneration, jute crops, non-edible oils etc?

Nearer home the recent disclosure by GOI before the Supreme Court that GM foods have been imported into the country without any scientific examination of their impact on environment and human beings, is shocking. There are grave allegations that GM seeds of rice, brinjal, okhra and potato are being imported without any oversight since 2006 and if true it can have unpredictable consequences to the country. Mandatory clearance is required from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee before imports of GM materials are permitted into the country but it is a mystery why this was not done in the above cases. Most countries involved in marketing of GM foods with the possible exception of USA insist on appropriate labeling to inform the consumer who then can exercise the option not to buy them if not acceptable. Even this enabling provision seems to have been ignored in India and in the absence of any traceability mechanism no one is sure where these imported, uncleared seeds have been cultivated and where the crops have been marketed. A sad reflection on the accountability of those who is supposed to "govern" this country!


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