GMOs: Myths, Falsehoods, Superstitions
In February, the Minister of Environment Mr. Jairam Ramesh put a moratorium on Bt. Brinjal. He is now pushing trials of GM rubber on Kerala which is a GMO free State. The Kerala Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and Kerala Agriculture Minister, Mullakkara Ratnakaran have both reiterated their commitment to keep Kerala GMO free.
Mr. Jairam Ramesh has stated that GM rubber is not transgenic i.e it does not have genes from unrelated species. This is totally false. While the gene MnSOD comes from the rubber, the MnSOD construct is transgenic. It contains CaMV35S, a virus used as a promoter, an antibiotic resistance marker npt II (Kanamycin) and a CUS reporter gene from bacteria (E.Coli.). Putting viruses and bacteria into a plant is a transgenic transformation. The Environment Minister should not be misleading the nation on the issue of GMOs which has far reaching consequences.
The GM rubber is being developed to spread rubber cultivation to regions beyond Kerala by making it drought resistant. However, engineering drought resistance is linked to “pleiotropic effect”. Pleiotropy is the ability of a single genetic change to cause unintended physiological effects throughout a plant. Companies focusing on genetically engineered drought-tolerance are finding that genes for drought-tolerance can have unwanted effects on other traits.
Researchers pursuing genetically engineered drought-tolerance are finding that the expression of genes for drought-tolerance can have unpredictable and unwanted effects on other traits, including yield and quality. Like a sluggish computer that’s over-loaded with bloated software, the genes associated with drought tolerance slow down the plant’s development, resulting in smaller plants and delayed flowering. According to a report prepared by Australia’s Grain Research & Development Corporation, “The flaw is a profound one. It amounts to shifting the yield losses experienced in dry seasons onto the good years.” (Ref : ETC Report)
Researchers at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India also report drawbacks working with stress-responsive genes in transgenic crops. In a 2007 article they write: “Evaluation of the transgenic plants under stress conditions, and understanding the physiological effect of the inserted genes at the whole plant level remain as major challenges to overcome. The genetic engineering is thus not a reliable technology for drought tolerance.
Besides the ecological risks of adding viruses and bacteria into plants, GM rubber will promote monocultures and displace diversity. By replacing food crops in other regions it will aggravate the hunger crisis in India which has deprived half the children and one third adults of their share to adequate, safe and nutritious food.
Another GMO controversy has been created by CPM Politburo member S. Ramachandran Pillai who at a seminar in Kerala said that it is superstitious to oppose GM seeds. Mr. Pillai had argued that GM seeds would help increase productivity and address malnutrition, and that developments in science and technology should not be blindly opposed.
The blind acceptance of GMOs as a solution to hunger is the real superstition because genetic engineering does not increase the yield of crops. It is a crude tool based on reductionist science which ignores the latest developments is the sciences of the fields of gene ecology, epigenetics and agro economy. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) carried out by 400 scientists over four years for the UN has categorically stated that the future of food security does not lie in genetic engineering. This is the largest and latest assessment of genetic engineering available from the scientific community. Genetic engineering is a sloppy technology because it is based on bad science which is reductionist and mechanistic and which fails to take into account the complexity and self organisation of living systems.
As the Knowledge Manifesto of the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture states, the following principles are now generally accepted by the scientific community:
a) Living and non living systems are all dynamically interconnected, the consequence being that any change in one element will necessarily lead to not fully predictable changes in other parts of the network;
b) variability is the basis of change and adaptation while its absence leads inevitably to death;
c) Living systems actively change the environment and are changed by it in a reciprocal way;
An example of a reductionist approach is the so called “Enviropigs” which have been engineered with genes from mice and from E.Coli bacteria to excrete less phosphorous. The problem is of course not the phosphorous itself. Phosphorous is a nutrient which plants need. However, factory farming with tens of thousands of pigs turns this vital nutrient into a pollutant. The excess phosphorus runs off into surface waters where it promotes algae growth, which prevents sunlight reaching deeper levels and uses up dissolved oxygen thus killing fish and other organisms. “Enviropigs” is not a “green” solution. It maintains a violent farming system which will continue to torture animals, and it maintains a polluting and non-sustainable factory farming system which uses ten times more grain protein as feed than it produces as meat. This contributes to a food crisis.
It is time to remove reductionist blinkers that allow genetic engineering to be seen as a sustainable and safe solution to hunger. We need real science and real sustainability not the pseudo science and pseudo sustainability being offered by corporations and scientists in service of corporations. The alternative to a genetically engineered pig is a free range pig. The alternative to GM rubber monocultures spreading across the country is promoting biodiverse ecological production to promote food security through increased nutrition per acre as well as climate resilience.
The tools of corporate agribusiness are tools for profit. They cannot be treated as the measure of science. Adopting the tools and paradigms of corporate science is to fall prey to corporate superstitions.
As Einstein said, problems cannot be solved by the same mind set which created them.
We need to move beyond the Monocultures of the Mind and the crudeness of mechanistic reductionism on which the superstitions of the false solutions of genetic engineering are based.