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  1. Assess long-term health impact first

Assess long-term health impact first

While people raising questions on GM food are often tarnished as anti-science, the data indicates something else.

By: | New Delhi | Published: September 19, 2018 2:06 AM
Another 2013 study refers to more than 400 peer-reviewed studies from around the world on other harmful impacts related to GM crops/food, too. (Representational photo)

Tn the article “Tapping technologies for farmers: Bt cotton” (goo.gl/uY3PWB), Ashok Gulati and Ritika Juneja of ICRIER painted Bt cotton as a success story, stating that because of it India emerged as the largest producer of cotton. This couldn’t be further from truth, as the yield of cotton has stagnated in the decade since Bt cotton acreage started gaining substantial percentage. While Bt cotton was officially introduced in 2002-03 when cotton yield was 302 kg/hectare, it only achieved 11.7% proportion of overall cotton acreage until 2005-06 when its yield was 472 kg/hectare (see table).

Move on to a decade later in 2015-16 when Bt cotton percentage was more than 92%, the yield, after initially increasing, came down to 484 kg/hectare. The yield only increased by 2.5% between 2005-06 and 2015-16 in the period when Bt cotton became predominant. Whilst the production did increase more than 40% in the same period, this was primarily driven by increase in cotton cultivation area, which rose 37%. The major yield increase took place in the period when Bt cotton proportion was minuscule.

Whilst Bt cotton failed to increase the yield, the fertiliser and pesticide usage increased in the same duration by 140% and 79%, respectively. Cotton is reported to have the second-highest share of pesticide consumption in India, after paddy.

This is what led the former textiles secretary TSR Subramanian to say, in May 2017: “The alluring promise of higher yield and lower pesticide usage which induced many, including myself as textile secretary to the government of India in the 1990s, to welcome Bt cotton has now been belied. Despite increased fertilisers and irrigation, the expectations of enhanced cotton yield have not been realised. Most of the countries that have higher cotton yields than India do not grow GM cotton.” In 2017, India was ranked 32nd in the ranking for cotton yield globally, of which 21 countries ranked above India grew non-GM cotton.

The high cost of seeds, and increased cost of fertilisers and pesticides is what, in part, led to huge losses to cotton farmers. According to AR Reddy, principal scientist, Agricultural Economics, Central Institute for Cotton Research, in 2014-15 an average cotton farmer made a loss in net income of Rs 6,318 per hectare.

Dr Gulati and Juneja implore the government to approve Bt brinjal and GM mustard. What they do not talk about is that the biosafety dossier for Bt brinjal, which was approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), was found to have significant differences in aspartate aminotransferase (AST) levels in both males and females between non-transgenic brinjal and transgenic Bt brinjal treatments when looked at by the Supreme Court Technical Expert Committee. AST is a marker of organ integrity and increased AST could indicate damage to liver or heart. The same report also mentioned that “the dossier for Bt brinjal had been examined by others including international experts who had commented on the data and pointed out certain concerns … also found other instances where there were significant differences in biological indicators between Bt and control samples in the case of cotton.”

Cows fed Bt cotton for consumption, from the promoter’s own data as submitted to regulators, can be seen having reduced milk yields than for cows fed non-Bt cotton. In a chronic toxicity study in rats, their serum, blood and organ parameters were found to have significant differences between Bt and non-Bt fed female rats. This also raises serious competency questions on GEAC.

One can only wonder why Dr Gulati and Juneja would want such Bt brinjals to be fed to humans. A lot of these issues only became clear when the biosafety dossier was made available to public for Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, which has still not been made available for GM mustard after repeated requests. While more long-term health impact studies are needed, one cannot turn a blind eye to these results coming from promoter’s own results whose implications were missed by regulators. In the meantime, people are being sold Bt cottonseed oil illegally on a large scale.

Even the 2012 Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture report on ‘Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops—Prospects and Effects’ stated that animal feeding trials on biosafety studies with Bt cotton crop using seed meal observed “Bt cottonseed feeding increased liver weight, testicle weight and testicle fat g/kg empty live weight.”

Another 2013 study refers to more than 400 peer-reviewed studies from around the world on other harmful impacts related to GM crops/food, too. This calls for long-term health impact studies on GM food/crops in India. As the late PM Bhargava pointed out in 2015, only 15% of the tests that should have been done, have been done on GM material in India. This also flies in the face of claims by FSSAI CEO Pawan Kumar Agarwal incorrectly stating in his interview with Vivian Fernandes (goo.gl/YEZTD3) that “there is no verifiable health impact of GM food vis-a-vis conventional food on humans.”

Whilst people raising questions on GM foods have often been tarnished as being anti-science, the above data indicates something else.

-Rohit Parakh works on themes related to safe food for consumers

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