Why Genetically Modified Food Is Not the Solution to India’s Problems

Posted on Posted in sustainable agriculture

One of the biggest blots on India’s image is poverty and hunger. People living in poverty in rural Orissa (43%) and rural Bihar (41%) are among the world’s most extreme poor. For an aspiring superpower with a billion plus consumer market to boast of, it has become one of the biggest talking points for its detractors. For the rural poor, it is an everyday struggle to survival. Unsurprisingly, there have been several initiatives and movements to bring food security to the poorest of the poor living on under $1 a day. Genetically Modified crops feature high in the list of solutions simply because they promise higher yield and more disease resistant crops. They have been positioned as the key saviors which can help feed India’s vast population. However, is GM food really the panacea for everything or is the faith on it misplaced? Here are some arguments that we’re sharing, on why genetically modified food is not the solution to India’s food problems.

Why Genetically Modified Food Is Not the Solution to India's Problems

A Hazy Field

Well, the first thing we must accept before offering any opinion is that this field is still pretty hazy. Strong supporters and detractors can both be found and in absence of any conclusive evidence, often personal ideologies also impact the judgement. As a result we have a long drawn system.

Organic Consumers Association, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace are examples of organizations that have not been supporting genetically modified food. They believe that the long term effects on health and other risks have been clearly identified yet. There’s a strong growth of organic-only and non-GMO led movement in the Western world, where new organic businesses are presenting a strong consumer-centric argument against genetic modifications in food. The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) claimed that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GM foods in 2013. Other surveys have shown that the consumer fear of GM food has actually been decreasing. But at the same time, 93% of Americans wanted labeling of GM food, before they purchased it, according to a New York Times survey in 2013.

Health Concerns

The biggest concern shared about GM food is that of a negative impact on health. Although there are no definitive studies, there have been claims that the altered genes can also alter the structure of proteins in respective food products. In turn, such food can lead to unwanted consequences in our constitution. Some researchers have alleged that it develops new allergies. GM food is also feared to develop antibiotic resistance to some bacteria. Some claims have suggested that GM foods have pesticide resistant qualities which may lead to various birth defects and serious illnesses like cancer.

In view of these issues, Australia, Japan, countries in the European Union and many others have posed restrictions or bans on the production and sale of genetically modified foods.

Environmental and Economic Issues

A bigger concern that most groups do agree on is that of the impact on the environment as well as the native economies. Modified genes can be transferred to other vegetation in the area and eventually a powerful gene can subdue all other genes, thus destroying biodiversity. Many poor and local farmers may suffer because they will always be forced to purchase GM seeds from the MNCs at high prices compared to native crops that they might have been maintaining themselves for generations. Pesticides and artificial additions in crops is likely to stay put in the land for years and may not be sustainable on a long-term basis. So while farms may get immediate benefits of higher yield, this will come at the cost of higher investment, and non-organic mechanisms. 

According to the GMO facts shared by the non-GMO project, in order to make GMO crops more resistant a lot of new chemicals are added to the composition. This can then lead to the emergence of super bugs that can only be treated with even more strong chemicals. Here is an extract that’s particularly strong:

Over 80% of all GMOs grown worldwide are engineered for herbicide tolerance. As a result, use of toxic herbicides like Roundup has increased 15 times since GMOs were introduced. GMO crops are also responsible for the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs:’ which can only be killed with ever more toxic poisons like 2,4-D

Animals feeding on these genetically modified crops could potentially get genetic modifications through to the food chain, potentially creating unexpected changed (see details here).  Other organisms may also be impacted negatively in the process. There’s also a potential that non-GM and GM seeds/ crops get cross fertilized leading to further issues in preserving the non-GM crops.

Another issue that GM crops may lead to especially with respect to the impact on farmers, a report here states is the contractual binding with biotech companies. The report states,

Under a private contract between a grower and a biotech company, the grower’s rights to the purchased seed are significantly limited. Such contracts generally contain a “no saved seed” provision. This provision prohibits growers from saving seed and/or reusing seed from GM crops. In effect, the provision requires growers of GM crops to make an annual purchase of GM seeds.

While, this can naturally depend on the exact conditions of the contract and may vary, but the dependence of farmers on biotech companies will definitely go up. And if it does contain a no-saved seed clause, it would be particularly rough on poor farmers in the Adivasi belt. The farmers who have been able to save seeds in community led initiatives have in fact seen improvements in their overall food security, as they are able to choose which seeds to use depending on climatic conditions. In absence of a seed bank or the requirement of new purchase from companies, the real burden on the farmer may in fact go up. So, for those favoring the GM food program as a pro-poor initiative, it may become actually become an impediment for the poor farmers.

Fixing the real problem

Another issue is about the efficiency of the public distribution system. If we have a look at annual budgets of India, we can see a reasonably large amounts set aside year after year for “uplifting the poor”. These poor not only include the farmers but also a lot of landless laborers. Simultaneously, we also read news reports about tons of food grains getting wasted in ill-maintained storage facilities. So, while the focus on GM food is due to a belief that more production will feed more people, we’re not looking at our existing issues. There is enough for those who can afford and the rest is being wasted due to mismanagement in the public distribution system.

Thus overemphasis on GM foods might seem futuristic and glamorous. But the first step to reducing the hunger of India’s poor may lie in banal processes such as fixing the inefficient storage and distribution systems. 

It is also important for us to work on indigenous studies to check the impact GM food has on the lives of the landless farmers and smaller forest led communities. The cost of any new innovation must not outweigh its perceived benefits. GM crops apart from alleged ill-effects on health, will definitely create an unsustainable impact on the environment.

Maybe the real answers lie in the checking our own internal systems first and focusing on the wisdom locked in the traditional practices of our local communities which suffer in abject poverty. If a new system touted to help the poor actually harms them with additional costs, then perhaps it really isn’t worth the effort.

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