Earlier this month, India’s Parliamentpassed a bill aimed at delivering subsidized food to around 800 million people. While well-intentioned, the law is expensive and has raised questions about whether India produces enough food to meet demand.
Proponents of genetically modified food say GM technology will boost production to meet India’s food requirements, but critics argue that it is unsustainable, and that the main challenge is not one of production but distribution.
Dilnavaz Variava doesn’t believe that GM food will address India’s food crisis. She is honorary convener for consumer issues for the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, an alliance of farmers, scientists, economists, non-governmental organizations and citizens who advocate for ecologically and economically sustainable agriculture.
Ms. Variava has worked for a range of organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund India, where she was chief executive, and the Bombay Natural History Society. She has also served on several federal government committees as well as one in Maharashtra for the development of agriculture.
Ms. Variava spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time about GM food in India. Edited excerpts:
The Wall Street Journal: Parliament’s passage of the Food Security Bill reflects the urgency of addressing the food security challenge. Would genetically modified food do this?
Dilnavaz Variava: India has enough food grain — almost two-and-a-half times the required buffer stock — and yet 200 million Indians go hungry. The problem of sufficiency is not one of production, but of economic and physical access, which the Food Security Bill attempts to address. Poverty, mounds of rotting food grain, wastage and leakages in the Public Distribution System are the real causes of food insecurity. GM food cannot address this.
WSJ: Is there evidence from other countries that GM food improves food security?
Ms. Variava: Macroeconomic data for the largest adopters of GM food indicate the opposite. In the U.S., food insecurity has risen from 12% in pre-GM 1995 to 15% in 2011. In Paraguay, where nearly 65% of land is under GM crops, hunger increased from 12.6% in 2004-06 to 25.5% in 2010-12. In Brazil and Argentina, GM food has not reduced hunger. In any event, GM does not increase yields, as the Union of Concerned Scientists established through a review of 12 years of GM in the U.S.
WSJ: How does GM food differ in quality from non-GM food?
Ms. Variava: About 99% of all GM crops have either one or both of two traits that make food unsafe: a pesticide-producing toxin (Bt) present in every cell of the plant and a herbicide tolerant trait that enables the plant to withstand herbicides used to kill weeds. While food safety regulators have cleared GM foods as safe, many independent scientists disagree. Their studies point to health risks: allergies, cancer, reproductive, renal, pancreatic and hepatic disorders. They say regulators give safety assurances based on studies which the GM industry conducts for a maximum period of 90 days on lab rats. This corresponds to a human life span of less than 15 years, which is too short for long-term health effects such as organ damage or cancer to manifest.
WSJ: In India, why did the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee call for a moratorium on field trials of GM crops in July?
Ms. Variava: The TEC majority report by five scientists from the fields of molecular biology, toxicology, nutrition science and biodiversity called for an indefinite moratorium on field trials, stating that ‘the regulatory system has major gaps.’ They concluded that the quality of information in several GM applications was far below that necessary for rigorous evaluation. They recommended a moratorium on field trials for Bt in food crops until there was more definitive information on its long-term safety, and for crops for which India is a center of origin/diversity. They also recommended a ban on the release of ‘herbicide tolerant’ crops, which are inadvisable on socioeconomic grounds in a country where farms are small and weeding provides income to millions of people.
WSJ: Does the report take food security into account?
Ms. Variava: Yes, the report notes that although India has a food surplus in production terms, one-third of the world’s malnourished children live here. It does not see GM as the answer to this.
WSJ: Does it make sense to ban even field trials of GM food?
Ms. Variava: Field trials involve open-air releases of GM. Given that rice and wheat survived their supposed destruction after field trials in U.S. and caused import bans leading to losses of millions of dollars to U.S. farmers, field trials are not harmless scientific experiments. Banning field trials makes sense until a strong biosafety and liability regime is in place.
WSJ: Isn’t India taking regulatory steps to promote the safe use of modern biotechnology, for example with the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill?
Ms. Variava: The BRAI Bill appears to be promoting rather than regulating GM. It proposes a single window clearance, with power to clear GM crops dangerously concentrated in the hands of just five people. All its other committees are merely advisory. It will overrule the constitutional powers of state governments over agriculture and circumscribe the Right to Information and legal redressal. It does not mandate long-term studies, assure labeling and post-release health monitoring, or have adequate punitive provisions. There is no mandatory consideration of safer alternatives or preliminary need assessment based on socioeconomic factors. GM crops are input intensive, requiring adequate fertilizers and timely irrigation. With over 70% of India’s farmers being small and impoverished, and 65% dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon, GM is a high cost, high debt and high risk technology for India. The BRAI Bill does not ensure caution for this unpredictable and irreversible technology.
WSJ: What would economically and environmentally sustainable agriculture for India look like?
Ms. Variava: A World Bank commissioned study found that agro-ecological approaches and not GM provide the best solution to the world’s food crisis.In March 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food also reported that small scale farmers could double food production within 5 to 10 years by agro-ecological farming.
An Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India study for West Bengal found that organic farming could increase net per capita income of a farmer in the state by 250%, lead to wealth accumulation of 120 billion rupees ($1.9 billion), generate exports worth 5.5 billion rupees ($87 million) and create nearly two million employment opportunities over five years.
In Andhra Pradesh, Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture was started in 2005-06. It promoted ecologically and economically sound agriculture with state government and World Bank support. About 10,000 villages with one million farmers practice non-pesticidal management on over 3.5 million acres. Pesticide use in the state has decreased by more than 45%. Net income increases were 3,000 to 15,000 rupees per acre, in addition to meeting a household’s food needs.