All you need to know about the GM food controversy


A letter to Greenpeace endorsed by over 100 Nobel Laureates has yet again ignited a debate on whether genetically modified crops are safe or not.

Last week, over a hundred Nobel laureates shot off a letter to NGO Greenpeace calling its campaign against genetically modified (GM) crops “misleading” and “unscientific.” The letter has re-ignited the debate over how safe it is to consume GM food.

What does the letter say?

Addressing Greenpeace, the United Nations, and governments across the world, the letter points to how global production of food will have to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population. “Organisations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects,” the letter says. It also urges Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the issue in the light of experiences of farmers and consumers worldwide as also new scientific findings. The letter wants Greenpeace to abandon its campaign against GM crop in general and Golden Rice in particular. It says Golden Rice, a genetically modified variety of rice infused with Vitamin A, is a must for curing Vitamin A deficiency in children in Africa who are affected by partial blindness because of the deficiency.

How have opponents of GM crops responded?

Indian environmental activist and anti-globalization author Vandana Shiva. PHOTO: V. Raju

Environmentalist Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya, an organisation promoting organic farming, is clear that GM crops contaminate the environment and the letter by the Nobel winners is merely an opinion, and not an authoritative study to go by. In a written response to The Hindu, Ms. Shiva referred to the backlash the letter had received from several agriculture researchers and experts internationally. She cited Devon G. Peña, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, Seattle, and an expert in indigenous agriculture, who noted how the signatories were “mostly white men of privilege with little background in risk science, few with a background in toxicology studies, and certainly none with knowledge of the indigenous agro-ecological alternatives.” Ms. Shiva further said that the laureates’ letter relied for its impact entirely on the supposed authority of the signatories. Referring to a tweet from Philip Stark, Professor of Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, she said the signatories comprised: “One peace prize, 8 economists, 24 physicists, 33 chemists, 41 doctors”. She also shared details as to how Greenpeace activists were stalled from attending the Washington press conference where the letter in question was released, as one of the security managers for the event John Bryne was a former head of corporate communications for Monsanto, the GM seeds giant. Thus tracing the entire episode to a GM lobby-driven public relations exercise, Ms. Shiva said the letter should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Further Greenpeace has denied accusations that it is blocking genetically engineered ‘Golden’ rice. Its spokesperson from South East Asia, Wilhelmina Pelegrina, told The Hinduthat golden rice has failed as a solution and isn’t currently available for sale, even after more than 20 years of research. “As admitted by the International Rice Research Institute, it has not been proven to actually address Vitamin A Deficiency,” she said, further adding: “Corporations are overhyping ‘golden’ rice to pave the way for global approval of other more profitable genetically engineered crops. Rather than invest in this overpriced public relations exercise, we need to address malnutrition through a more diverse diet, equitable access to food and eco-agriculture.”

What is the science behind GM crops?

A DNA double helix is seen in an undated artist’s illustration released by the National Human Genome Research Institute on May 15, 2012. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ever since the discovery of the DNA double-helix model by Watson and Crick, scientists realised it was possible to manipulate the DNA features of an organism to create new traits in them by borrowing genes from other organisms and mixing it with theirs. In the case of GM food, scientists insert into a plant’s genome one or several gene from another species of plant or even from a bacterium, virus or animal. This is to inject desired traits such as pest-resistance or Vitamin A (as in the case of golden rice).

Is GM food unsafe?

Most studies on the safety of GM food are heavily debated; with the result that it is hard to conclude they are unsafe. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate, a herbicide that goes with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready product, as “probably carcinogenic” in 2015. However, this has been challenged by food scientists. This ensures that only the weed dies and not the crop itself, as the GM food is modified to resist glyphosate. In a review paper of GMO safety assessment studies, environmental scientist Marek Cuhra has shown that glyphosate-tolerant GM food plants accumulate glyphosate residues at unexpected high levels. Minimum residue levels of glyphosate allowed on GM food has been notched up due to increased use of this herbicide on the glyphosate tolerant GM food crops, said Kavitha Kuruganti, an activist associated with ASHA – Kisan Swaraj Alliance. “The way the plant resists the herbicide has allowed more residues to remain on the plant, so this has increased exposure to glyphosate among GM food consumers,” she said.

Till date the most controversial study around safety of GM food has been on GM corn by French molecular biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini. In a 2012 journal paper, he had shown that rats fed GM corn and the herbicide Roundup developed tumours. But his journal paper was withdrawn after its data was shown to be flawed. A study released by the Japanese Department of Environmental Health and Toxicology, based on a 52-week feeding of GM soybeans to rats, found “no apparent adverse effect in rats” in 2007. In 2012, scientists from the University of Nottingham’s School of Biosciences released a review of 12 long-term studies and 12 multi-generational studies of GM foods, concluding there is no evidence of health hazards from GM food. The European Commission too funded 130 research projects on the safety of GM crops and could not find anything that could prove the risks from GM crops.

Is there more to the GM controversy?

Activists protesting against Bt Brinjal, the first GM food item to be introduced for trial in India. Picture was taken in Hyderabad in 2010.PHOTO: P. V. Sivakumar

It isn’t just about safety. There are arguments against GM food that are economic and social in nature. Advocates of organic farming like Vandana Shiva have voiced serious concern about multinational agribusiness companies such as Monsanto and Bayer taking over farming from the hands of small farmers, which includes several poor women in developing countries like India. This would mean loss of autonomy over the manner in which agriculture itself is practiced, with increased dependence on GM seed companies and herbicides manufactured by them, putting financial strain on farmer households.

There are also concerns regarding loss of food biodiversity if corporate food varieties begin to flood the markets. In a note published on the Navdanya site, Ms. Shiva wrote that Golden Rice is less efficient in providing Vitamin A than the biodiversity alternatives that those grown by indigenous farmers. She also wrote that GMO ‘iron-rich’ bananas have less iron than turmeric and amchur (mango powder). “Apart from being nutritionally empty, GMOs are part of an industrial system of agriculture that are destroying biodiversity, and we are losing access to the food systems that have sustained us throughout time,” she wrote.

However, scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are firm that GM food can resolve the hunger challenge in the developing world, as the Nobel Laureates’ letter states. They also speak of the benefits of insect-resistant food crops that can increase farm productivity for farmers.

The GM scene in India 

Though India has resisted GM food production till now, Ms. Kuruganti said there have been instances of GM food being imported into the country (including corn, baby food and breakfast cereal, which have been introduced without adherence to relevant labelling laws). While a Directorate General of Foreign Trade notification in 2013 addressed the issue of labelling by requiring those importing GM food to explicitly mention it in their labels, in the case of home-manufactured products like edible oil, there are chances of GM cottonseed oil being mixed with other edible oil without any labelling, she said.

Though no State government in India has permitted commercial cultivation of GM food till now, field trials for 21 GM food crops, including GM vegetables and cereals, have been approved by the government.


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