GE crops: Hope or hoax?


MANY poverty-ridden nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America are trying to extricate themselves from the quagmire of under-development. Various models of economic growth and many new technologies are dangled before them by “development experts” as panaceas for their problems.

Unfortunately like the proverbial desperate patient who attracts quacks, the governments of third world nations are often lured by theories and technologies that do more harm than good. A case in point is genetic engineering that is being heralded as a new weapon against poverty, hunger and agricultural under-development.

Is genetic engineering a dream or nightmare, a hope or hoax? Is it capable of producing miracle crops to feed the hungry? Does it offer greener agriculture to protect the environment and provide a magic cure against crop diseases? Or does its promise pale besides the perils lurking in large scale commercialisation of an untried, inadequately researched technology that can get horribly out of control?

The Government needs to examine these issues with utmost care.

A number of highly respected British and American scientists have offered a cogent and convincing indictment of the harmful effects of genetic engineering in the area of food technology.

Health hazards: According to them there is strong evidence that the biotechnology of genetic engineering is inherently hazardous to human and animal health.

Harmful effects of GM potatoes on lab rats have been proved in clinical tests. Allergic reactions on children have been demonstrated.

Genetic modification can make disease-causing bacteria resistant to antibiotics. This could lead to potentially uncontrollable epidemics. Bio-safety laws and GE labelling regulations are, therefore, needed on the lines of the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-Safety.

Environmental harm: Instead of reduction in the use of chemical weed killers, in most GM countries fertiliser and herbicide use and abuse have increased.

Many GM crops become herbicide tolerant. Pests become resistant to GM genes within one or two years. Genes modified to make crops herbicide resistant is often transferred to related weeds which then become herbicide resistant. In some cases, one set of pests are replaced by a more virulent type.

Further, GM crops do not offer any answer to soil infertility.

Corporate control: Adopting GM crops would place farmers and the food chain under the control of a handful of multinational corporations such as Mosanto, Syngenta, Bayer and DuPont. In the USA farmers with GM crops are forced to

buy expensive new seeds and

herbicides from biotech corporations and to pay them a technology fee.

In third world countries where GM crops are introduced no consideration is shown for the socio-economic conditions of local farmers. As GM applications require high investment, they need large-scale operations to be profitable. This leads to marginalisation of small farmers.

Argentina is a case in point. In the 70s and 80s the soy boom displaced cattle raising. Small farms were replaced by large holdings of up to 20,000 acres. Thousands of farmers were forced to migrate to the towns.

Re-planting: Storing of seeds for the next season reduces the cost of farming. In addition, the practice of seed saving is tied up with the cultural and religious folklore of many societies.

But the seeds of engineered crops are doctored with “terminator technology” that stops GM plants from producing fertile seeds. This will stop two billion small time farmers in the world from their age old practice of saving seeds. Instead they will be forced to make annual, expensive seed purchases from biotech firms.

Higher seed cost: Seeds of engineered crops are more expensive by up to 40% because the cost of research and of paying royalties for patent claims is added to the cost of the seeds.

Research cost: The funding required for biotechnology is very high and is hardly warranted by the insufficient returns. For example Golden Rice, genetically modified rice engineered to produce vitamin A, was offered by corporate giant Astra-Zeneca as a gift-horse for the poor and a cure for widespread vitamin A deficiency in the third world.

But there are many cheaper sources of vitamin A as green vegetables and unpolished rice. As such the Golden Rice project costing nearly US$100mil (RM343.88mil) was hardly justified.

No higher yields: The expectation of higher yields from GM crops is an illusion. There is no evidence that biotechnology will spur the development of the countries of the South and lift them from the realm of under-development. Studies in Africa have demonstrated that GM crops are poverty insensitive. The claim of the miraculous potential of genetically modified crops for dealing with famine and poverty has proved to be false.

Consumer choice removed: If commercial growing of GM crops goes ahead, it will be difficult to guarantee any GM-free food. This is because GM genes dominate when cross-pollination between GM and conventional species takes place or when seed mixing and spillage occurs.

It must be noted that sustainable and organic options do exist for an agriculture that nurtures biodiversity, maintains high yields and is socially and economically viable.

Projects to improve conventional farming in India raised millet yield by 154%. In Burkina Faso millet and sorghum produce went up 275%. In Honduras maize production jumped 300%.

Sustainable farming can feed the world. Combined with equitable land ownership, protection from subsidised food imports and re-orientation of production from export crops to staple foods for indigenous production, hunger can be eliminated.

Our technology choices should not be based purely on utility or profitability but must be rooted in safety and in ecological and social justice dimensions. We need an independent public enquiry into the hazards of genetic engineering biotechnology. This enquiry must take into proper account third world perspectives.

Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi is Professor of Law at UiTM

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