Hype or hysteria: A rational policy on GM food?


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As India decides on whether to approve its first genetically modified (GM) crop, three experts consider if GM offers a solution to the global food crisis or represents a threat to biodiversity and the future of agriculture.

Dr Anita Ramanna, Department of Politics, University of Pune

GM (Genetically Modified) crops evoke either hype or hysteria around the world. Proponents see biotechnology as an answer to hunger and the food crisis. Opponents warn of dangers to consumers, the environment, and view GM seeds as the cause of farmer suicides in developing countries. With both sides presenting ‘facts’ and ’scientific evidence’ to bolster their arguments, one is left asking, how do we make rational policies?

Firstly, the biotechnology debate needs to be reframed. Bio-engineered seeds need to be viewed the way farmers do – not as ‘miracle’ or ’suicide’ seeds, but as one option among many within a wider agricultural strategy. No quick fix exists for all the current agricultural problems. Farmers in developing countries are faced with lack of access to basic services: electricity, water, quality inputs, reliable information, fair prices, markets to sell their products, credit and insurance. As Bt cotton farmers in India told us, administrative and political obstacles prevent them from getting a good price for cotton, whether they adopt GM cotton or not.

We must also re-assess our priorities. Are GM crops to deal with environmental concerns, help poor farmers to increase yields, develop better products for consumers, or solve agricultural problems? Clear choices would enable us to provide incentives for technologies we want to promote, and create disincentives for others we may not (eg. the ‘terminator’ gene). Biotechnology may not have emerged from a desire to fight hunger (the first GM product in the market was a tomato engineered to ensure longer shelf life), but it appears to be the goal now, providing us with the opportunity to shift focus from technologies geared towards western consumers, towards crops that could benefit poor farmers.

A fine balance between IPR and access to technology is required. A trade-off, such as allowing open access to crops that are designed for solving hunger while granting IPRs on technologies targeting big cash crops, must be devised; otherwise, we may be in for a gridlock (for example, Golden Rice, where several patents prevented utilisation of the technology).

Finally, and most importantly, farmers must be consulted at every stage. Decisions made in a top-down fashion could backfire, as witnessed in the spread of ‘illegal’ Bt cotton in India, or unauthorised GM soybean from Argentina to Brazil. Basing decisions on ‘farmer’s choice’ is not simple, however. Without adequate information and power, we cannot expect farmers to make informed decisions, nor should pro and anti-GM leaders portray the ‘farmer’s choice’ wrongly. Involving farmers in policy-making must go beyond surveys listing statistics about the ‘failure’ or ’success’ of GM crops. We must listen to farmers who are happy with GM and those who are not (our surveys found both types in the case of Bt cotton in India) and channel their feedback into policy.

Eric Rey, President and CEO, Arcadia Biosciences

We’re all world citizens. And as world citizens, we have a responsibility to develop and use the appropriate tools and technologies to help us respond to the social, economic and environmental pressures. These pressures are directly associated with a necessary higher food consumption by middle and lower economic strata, and a finite amount of land and fresh water.

These are the facts: agriculture is the second leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and nitrogen fertilizer is a major contributor; the global population is expected to increase from its current count of 6.7 billion to 9 billion by 2042; the total amount of arable land is decreasing, while the demand for arable land is increasing; there is more than a 25 year history of safe use of agricultural biotechnology in the field, and nearly 20 years of safe use in the human diet. The environmental risks we all face are real and immediate. Food safety needs must also be met. Regarding food biotechnology, there is not one substantiated instance of compromised safety to justify any rational fear of using advanced genetic methods as compared to older practices.

When assessing benefits and risks using these known variables, it’s clear that current trends will lead us to a breaking point at which we will run out of arable land and significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. Advanced biotechnology techniques can significantly boost agricultural productivity on available land and, at the same time, decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Technologies like these provide an economic incentive for farmers to get the most out of their land while minimising the overall environmental impact. That’s the true definition of sustainable agriculture – techniques that are both environmentally and econ-omically sustainable.

In the end, I believe that market forces and environmental realities will mesh, and the agricultural biotechnology products that best satisfy these intrinsically related issues will have a significant and positive impact.

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