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A Plate Full of Toxins

September 15, 2009

In times when food is genetically manipulated and chemically contaminated, the metaphor “food for thought” can also stand for manipulated information and be toxic food for thought.

Unfortunately, Dr M.S. Swaminathan’s GM: Food for Thought (August 26), is as manipulated as the genetically-modified (GM) foods which were the subject of his article. Dr Swaminathan’s first scientific manipulation was the argument that conventional plant “breeding methods are very time consuming and often not very accurate. However, with the recombinant DNA technology, plants with the desired traits can be produced very rapidly and with greater accuracy”. This is scientifically false. Genetic engineering is a crude and blind technology of shooting genes into an organism through a “gene gun”. It’s like infecting the organism with a “cancer”.

It is not known if the transgene is introduced, and that is why antibiotic resistance markers have to be used. Nor is it known where in the genome the transgene gets introduced.

This is not “accuracy”, it is literally shooting in the dark. Further, the genetically engineered construct is introduced into existing crops that are bred by conventional breeding methods. Thus Bt Cotton (Bt stands for Bacillus Thuringenesis) is the introduction of Bt genes into existing hybrids in the case of Mahyco (a company that produces and markets a broad range of seeds developed with biotechnology), and into a selection in the case of the Central Cotton Research Institute.

GM technology does not substitute conventional breeding, it is dependent on it. Thus the arguments of “speed” as well as “accuracy” are false.

The second scientific inaccuracy in Dr Swaminathan’s article is the claim that through GM technology “we can isolate a gene responsible for conferring drought tolerance, introduce that gene into a plant, and make it drought tolerant”. Drought tolerance is a polygenetic trait. It is, therefore, scientifically flawed to talk of “isolating a gene for drought tolerance”.

Genetic engineering tools are so far only able to transfer single gene traits. That is why in 20 years only two single gene traits have been commercialised through genetic engineering. One is herbicide resistance and the second is the Bt toxin trait.

Navdanya Trust’s recent report (Biopiracy of Climate Resilient Crops: Gene giants are stealing farmers innovation of drought resistant, flood resistant and salt resistant varieties) shows that farmers have bred corps that are resistant to climate extremes.

And it is these traits, a result of a millennia of farmers breeding, that are now being patented and pirated by the genetic engineering industry. Using farmers’ varieties as “genetic material”, the biotechnology industry is playing genetic roulette to gamble on which gene complexes are responsible for which trait. This is not done through genetic engineering; it is done through software programs like “Athlete” that uses “vast amounts of available genomic data (mostly public) to rapidly reach a reliable limited list of candidate key genes with high relevance to a target trait of choice.

Allegorically, the Athlete platform could be viewed as a “machine” that is able to choose 50-100 lottery tickets from amongst hundreds of thousands of tickets, with the high likelihood that the winning ticket will be included among them”.

Breeding is being replaced by gambling, innovation is giving way to biopiracy, and science is being substituted by propaganda.

One aspect of the propaganda related to GM crops is that they will feed the world. Dr Swaminathan writes, “The world population has crossed six billion and is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is a major challenge in the years to come. GM crops promise to meet this need in a number of ways”.

The claim to increased yield is false because yield, like climate resilience, is a multi-genetic trait. Introducing toxins into a plant through herbicide resistance or Bt toxin increases the “yield” of toxins, not of food or nutrition. Even the nutrition argument is manipulated.

Golden rice genetically engineered to increase Vitamin A produces 70 times less Vitamin A than available alternatives. The same applies to the iron-enriched rice that the M.S Swaminathan Research Foundation is working on. The low-cost, high-impact route to reduce anaemia (iron deficiency) in women and children is by growing and making available iron-rich foods such as bathua, methi, shajan etc. The false claim of higher food production has been dislodged by a recent study by Dr Doug Gurian Sherman, a former biotech specialist for the US Environmental Protection Agency and former adviser on GM to the US Food and Drug Administration, titled “Failure to Yield”. Sherman states, “Let us be clear. There are no commercialised GM crops that inherently increase yield. Similarly, there are no GM crops in the market that were engineered to resist drought, reduce fertiliser pollution or save soil. Not one”.

Another aspect of science being substituted by propaganda is the false claim of safety. Dr Swaminathan claims, “Environmental activists, religious organisations, non-governmental organisations, have all raised concerns about GM foods, and criticised agribusiness for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards, and criticised the government for failing to exercise adequate regulatory oversight. Most concerns about GM foods fall into three categories – environmental hazards, human health risks and economic concerns. Unintended harm to other organisms; reduced effectiveness of pesticides; gene transfer to non-target species are some of the concerns of the environmental concerns of GM crops. There is no scientific evidence to prove any of these concerns as real, since commercialisation of transgenic crops have taken place over the past 10 years in the world”.

Percy Schmeiser stands as the most important victim of genetic contamination. His canola crop was contaminated by the “Round Up Resistant” canola produced by Monsanto, a chemical company. Monsanto sued him claiming that the genes of “Round Up Resistant” canola were their “intellectual property” and that he was a thief. The “polluter pays” principle has been replaced by the “polluted gets paid” principle.

France, Germany and Austria have banned Monsanto Mon 810 corn, a Bt corn, because of scientific research showing risks of genetic instability, allergenicity, infertility, turmorogenecity. Dr Swaminathan’s statement that “there is no scientific evidence” to prove risks and hazards flies in the face of all evidence.

Dr Swaminathan is also wrong in claiming there are no socio-economic risks. The concentration of farmers’ suicides in the Bt cotton belt of Punjab, Vidarbha, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka is tragic proof of the high socio-economic costs of Bt cotton.

Dr Swaminathan has also manipulated the “safety” of Bt cotton. He states, “One of the best known examples of using non-plant genes to transform crops is the use of Bt genes in cotton and many other crops. Bt, or Bacillus Thuringenesis, is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins that are lethal only to insect larvae, Bt genes are lethal only in the acidic, insect gut environment and do not get activated in an alkaline environment, prevalent in humans and other animals that feed on these plants”.

While it is true that the naturally-occurring Bt, which is an endo toxin, becomes a toxin only in the gut of insect larvae, the genetically-engineered Bt toxin is a readymade toxin. But Navdanya’s research in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, this has shown that Bt cotton is killing beneficial micro-organisms in the soil. Reports of deaths of animals grazing in Bt cotton fields are also related to the fact that Bt toxin in plants is a broad spectrum, readymade toxin unlike the naturally occurring Bt in the soil organism. (Andhra Pradesh’s animal husbandary department’s report takes note of an increasing number of deaths of animals and pests who graze in Bt cotton fields.)

We cannot afford toxic “food for thought” as a diet for our minds, just as we cannot afford toxic, genetically-engineered food as a diet for our bodies. It is time for authentic, unbiased, independent and holistic science to inform the GM data. Not the false propaganda being peddled as science. Dr Vandana Shiva is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust

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