Climate change is responsible for extreme weather conditions across the globe and has caused droughts and floods and severely affected agricultural production. This has revived anxiety over food security and global hunger, especially in developing countries which are the most vulnerable to disruptions in their food supply.
Past interventions to deal with food shortages, specifically the“Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 70s, brought a measure of security. But it also led to the food market being inundated with mass-produced, cheap food grown at the cost of environmental degradation including loss of soil nutrients, erosion, water overuse and pollution.
Equally, the green revolution created an unprecedented homogeneity in crop production. Traditionally, a diverse variety of crops were grown across a region, but now they were replaced by ‘monocultures’ that have made the crops more vulnerable to pests, diseases and weather conditions. As the market has increasingly come to dictate what farmers grow, the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops has been a logical progression.
In GM crops, the DNA of the seed is modified to create desirable traits using genetic engineering techniques. Resistance to pests, salinity and drought can be enabled by introducing genes from other plants. They also alter its nutrient-absorption profile and significantly increase yields.
However, the introduction of GM foods has created discord between environmentalists and the scientific community over their safety for human health and the environment. According to an article in The New York Times, about 90% of scientists believe GM foods are safe — a view endorsed by the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the World Health Organization.
But environmentalists cite ‘unintended effects’ and toxicity as reasons for avoiding them. While some GM crops eliminate the need for harmful pesticides, others, in fact, make their use possible. The most common example is that of glyphosate, a herbicide that is sprayed on Monsanto’s GM maize but isn’t used on regular maize. Glyphosate is said to cause cancer, skin irritation and endocrine disruption.
However, scientists claim that this is an exception rather than the rule. They make a distinction between Ht (herbicide tolerant) crops and Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) crops. Bt corn, which is insect-resistant, reduces the need for pesticide yet prevents losses from infestation.
Another criticism, levelled by some environmentalists is lack of control over ‘gene flow’ or the unintended intermingling of genetic material in the field. But scientists point out that the practice of selectively breeding crops, the basis of agriculture developed over millennia, is nothing but cross-breeding to create a hybrid plant with better traits, something that also occurs in nature.
Conversations on GM crops inevitably boil down to the role played by agribusiness and the conflicts between farmers and corporations over ownership of the technology. A recent example is the dispute between PepsiCo and Gujarat farmers overgrowing its patented potato crop. The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001 allows farmers to grow or sell produce of registered varieties as long as they do not sell branded seed. PepsiCo ultimately withdrew the cases against the farmers after facing the threat of boycott on social media.
The new Seeds Bill that the government has introduced is an opportunity to examine all these issues afresh. Will a monopoly over GM crops discourage scientific progress and limit their acceptance among farmers? Will labelling of GM foods increase or decrease consumer acceptance of GM foods? Companies must be accountable, transparent and abide by the regulatory framework. GM crops need to be tested on a case by case basis before introduction. Only continuous research can decide whether GM crops are key to solving global hunger and sustainably provide food security.