Saturday, January 25, 2014


Genetically modified foods (GM Foods) face enormous resistance when it comes to acceptance by majority of the consumers across the world. The million dollar question that begs for an answer vis-a-vis GM food is whether this unnatural version is absolutely safe beyond a shadow of doubt. It is unfortunate that a beautiful technology that can have many advantages when it comes to production of food and their conservation is mired in enormous controversy for which geneticists, agricultural scientists, policy makers, biotechnology industry and consumer activist organizations are equally responsible. Without going into the merits and demerits of the case as propounded by the antagonists as well as the protagonists, it is suffice to say that whole world is being held to ransom by these stakeholders because of their inability to reach a consensus!

There is no doubt that GM food production technology can provide enormous variety of crops with various traits and nutritional diversity but ultimately it is the consumer who is the sole arbitrator as to whether the final product churned out by GM technology is acceptable to him or not. For example, the famous Golden Rice developed two decades ago, through GMO, was supposed to be rich in Pro-vitamin A, a nutrient deficient in natural rice but why this has not become an instant success? While suspect safety may be one reason the main factor is the appearance of the cooked rice which is yellow, contrary to the white color consumer is used to. Thus any thing and every thing nutritionally better does not click in the market due to consumer inhibition.

According to figures put out by pro-GMO lobby there are 16 million farmers around the world using GM technology for a variety of crops including food crops, most widespread being soybean and maize. The area under cultivation reached a significant figure last year and over 170 million hectares are planted with GMO seeds. This is a trend which indicates that as far as the farmers are concerned GMO crops are more profitable for them compared to conventional agriculture. Should this be a real reflection of increased yield from GMO technology? Need not be as the increased profitability can be due to several factors such as lesser wastage due to vectors, lesser use of fertilizers, more efficient pesticide use etc. 

One of the major constraints for wide scale use of GM technology is its limitation vis-a-vis seed generation locally making the farmer eternally dependent on the commercial seed producers who have practically the monopoly in this business. The fear factor is that once the GMO technology is regularly used the seed producer can hold the farmer to ransom by continuously hiking the price frequently as the farmers have no alternate option to fall back on. This situation can be obviated to some extent if government agencies buy the rights to generate foundation seed technology and produce them in captive facilities to supply to the farmers at reasonable prices. This does not seem to be happening as the monopoly suppliers are not willing to part with the technology as their profitability comes from royalty from seed supplies. 

Coming to the safety aspects, one of the pioneers of GM technology recently cited the fact that more than 70-80% of corn and soybean produced in the US are GMO versions and almost 80% of food products in American market contain one or more of GMO ingredients. Obviously he must be referring to the absence of any major health hazards to the American population during the lat two decades by consuming GMO foods in such large quantities day in and day out. Of course this is a solid point worth keeping in mind while condemning GMO foods outright. Whether the ill effects of consuming GMO foods will manifest over long years and after multi generation elapse, one does not have the wherewithal to know now! 

It is interesting that there is a powerful movement world over to let the consumer know that he is eating GMO foods through transparent label declaration which the GMO food industry is desperately resisting. Why? If the GMO food is absolutely safe what is the harm in declaring its presence in the food marketed by the industry? This is giving rise to the suspicion that GMO food industry has some information raising doubts about the safety of GMO foods which they are suppressing fearing adverse impact on their business! The claim that there are 2000 scientific publications bringing out the safety of GMO foods cannot be the basis for blanket clearance of these products as even a single publication based on sound scientific study raising doubts about the safety cannot be brushed away as irrelevant. To brand all those opposing GMO foods as criminals does not speak well about the attitude of those relentlessly pushing GMO food technology!

Recent claim that world hunger problem can be solved if GMO technology is deployed world over is obviously an over simplification of the case. One may ask whether the hunger problem faced in some continents like Africa, Asia and South America is really due to food shortage? Obviously it is not. The low purchasing power among two billion people across the three continents does not give them adequate access to the food currently produced and added to this large scale diversion of food crops for animal feeds and renewable energy sources like alcohol is making the food dynamics some what skewed. To assume that increased production through GMO technology will rectify this situation in 2050 when population is estimated to touch the 9 billion mark, may be far fetched.    

No comments: