The Geo-politics of GM Crops

Written by ASHOK B SHARMA | Updated: Mar 10 2010, 04:35am hrs
Worldwide the acceptance of information technology has been spectacular leading to what may be called the IT Revolution. Compared to this, the transgenic technology in agriculture has not made much headway. There are reasons to believe why it is so.

Whatever technology the scientists or technologists may produce, public acceptance and consumer confidence is crucial. The acceptance of information technology has been swift and its benefits were perceptible at the grassroots level. The IT Revolution was not motivated by politics, unlike that of food and agriculture. Since the colonial era, politics has played a key role in food and agriculture.

Food security is critical for nations sovereignty. A food insecure nation cannot maintain its sovereignty. It has to crawl before the providers of food.

In todays globalised world there is a geo-politics for food. The multinational corporations are making attempts to control the food chain. Incidentally these multinational corporations are based in industrialized countries where corporate farming and industrialized agriculture are largely prevalent, backed by heavy subsidies.

Agriculture in the industrialized countries cannot exist without subsidies. The subsidy regime and protectionist tariffs in the industrialized countries have rendered farmers in the Third World uncompetitive in the global trade. The negotiations for the Doha Development Round at the WTO could not be concluded due to the adamant attitude of the industrialized countries in refusing to ensure a free and fair trade regime by eliminating their subsidies and protectionist measures.

Similar is the geo-politics for the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. However, in the case of GM crops the industrialized countries are divided. Europe is against the forceful introduction of GM crops, while the US is aggressively promoting it. Leading developers of GM crops like Monsanto are based in US. There are some European multinationals which are developing GM crops, but their businesses of GM crops are mostly outside this continent. Some European countries like Spain, Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Poland and Slovakia have introduced GM corn only for feed, but the area under cultivation have decreased in 2009.

One of the main reason for the European countries to take a different position on the issue of GM crops is the presence of a strong consumer resistance. The European consumers are aware of the conceived health and environmental hazards of GM crops revealed by scientists in their independent studies. In US, however, the consumer resistance is not strong enough to deal with the politics of GM crops, practiced by the multinational corporations in league with the administration.

GM crops have become a tool for the multinational corporations for controlling the politics of food and agriculture. GM crops through cross pollination can genetically contaminate non-GM crops. Monsanto charges heavy royalty for its GM seeds. There had been instances in Canada where the non-GM corn fields were genetically contaminated by nearby GM corn fields and Monsanto sued these growers of non-GM corn to pay royalty.

Genetic contamination of crops would ultimately lead to monoculture and a serious loss of natural biodiversity. The danger of genetic contamination is more so if a particular crop which is the centre of origin in a particular place is genetically modified and cultivated there. GM corn cultivation in Mexico has genetically contaminated different indigenous corn varieties of Mexico. India is the centre of origin for brinjal and there is a possibility for such consequences once the Bt brinjal is allowed for cultivation in the country.

A false bogey of food and nutritional security is being raised by the protagonists of GM crops. In fact whatever GM crops are commercialized so far, they are mostly herbicide resistant and insect resistant crops. None of these commercialized GM crops are for increasing nutritional security.

Largely the commercialized GM crops like corn and soybean are used for feed and not for food and canola for oil.

Similarly false promises are being made that transgenic technology increases yield. The fact is that so far the transgenic technology has not been effective in increasing the potential yield of crops. The insect resistant Bt gene are resistant to only one or two insects, not a host of them. In the case of Bt cotton in India, bollworms became resistant to Bt gene and the seed company had to introduce Bt cotton with stacked genes to solve the problem. There were new incidences of yet unknown pests like mealy bug on Bt cotton, which never occurred earlier on cotton crops.

In US the area under herbicide tolerant GM crops is increasing as compared to insect tolerant GM crops. The reason is that herbicide tolerant crops are more suited for industrialized agriculture.

Despite 14 years of commercialization of GM crops, the area under transgenic crops is only 2.7% of the worlds cropped area. GM crops are cultivated in only 25 countries Commercialised GM crops are soybean, corn, cotton, squash, papaya, alfalfa, sugar beet, tomato, poplar, sweet pepper, canola.

According to the ISAAA data, area under GM crops increased largely in Brazil and US in 2009. There has been some increase in area under Bt cotton in India and in areas under GM crops in Canada, Argentina and South Africa. There has been decrease in area under GM crops in China, Paraguay and in Europe. Germany discontinued GM maize cultivation. Earlier Indonesia had pulled out of the global GM crop map. The area under GM crop in Australia remained static at 0.2 million hectare. Thus the latest figures of area under GM crops have suffered a setback in many countries.

It is clear that the general public opinion across the world is not in favour of GM crops. As the consumer resistance against GM crops is high in developed countries in Europe and in other parts of the world, the GM crop industry is aggressively pushing for market in the developing countries. In other words the developing countries are becoming dustbins for hazardous GM crops.

The ISAAA, which is sponsored by the seed multinationals, in its latest report has documented 17 developing countries growing GM crops. Growth of biotech (GM) crops has been substantially higher in developing nations - 13% or 7 million hectare in 2009 compared to just 3% or 2 million hectare in industrialized countries. As a result, almost half (46%) of the global hectarage of biotech (GM) crops were planted in developing countries., the ISAAA report said.

The ISAAA report has taken satisfaction over China issuing biosafety certificates for GM rice and GM phytase corn. But the commercial cultivation of these two GM crops is still a long way off as these crops are yet to undergo some years of mandatory field trials. The area under other approved GM crops in China have already declined.

Earlier it was planned that the ISAAA chairman, Clive James would release its 2009 report in India after India allows commercial cultivation of its first GM food crop, Bt brinjal. But the dreams of ISAAA did not work. The release of the report was delayed by over a month, eagerly waiting for the green signal for Bt brinjal. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had approved Bt brinjal, but the environment and forests minister, Jairam Ramesh withheld its release and preferred to go for public consultations. After a series of public consultations, the minister said NO to Bt Brinjal. The ISAAAs hopes were dashed and it preferred to release its report in Beijing in China, only to take the credit for the issuance of biosafety certificates for GM rice and GM phytase corn in that country.

The politics behind the issuance of biosafety certificates for GM rice and GM phytase corn in China can be easily guessed. It followed after the US President Barack Obamas visit to China.

Another aspect which the ISAAA report takes pride in focusing is Burkina Fascos GM cotton area soaring from 8,500 hectare to a substantial 115,000 hectare or from 2% to 29% of the countrys total cotton area the largest percentage growth on record at 1,350%. It may be recalled that Burkina Fasco is one of the major four African countries which is distressed by the US subsidy on cotton. The US by heavily subsidizing cotton has rendered African cotton uncompetitive in the global market. Burkina Fasco has been politically pressurised to adopt Bt cotton against which some unilateral concessions has been assured by US.

There is a growing pressure on India to speedily adopt GM crops. There is a mounting pressure for the release of Bt brinjal. The US seed multinational, Monsanto is lobbying hard for its release. Under US law the US multinational can have funds for educating public and lobbying is allowed. In the geo-politics of GM crops the developing countries are the receiving end. The developing countries which have adopted GM feed and fibre crops are Brazil, Argentina, India, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay, Bolivia, Philippines, Burkina Fasco, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Costa Rica, Egypt. There is, however, a growing resistance in many developing countries against GM crops.