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Saturday, October 4, 2014

The genetics and politics of genetically modified foods: Has science been put on the chopping block?

European commission’s decision to ban genetically modified foods

            Few years back, the European Commission allowed its member states to decide on the decision to ban genetically modified (GM) foods. This decision was widely seen as EC’s ambivalent stance on the acceptance of GM foods, and allowing politics to overcome science and ground realities of mass food consumption and demand. This has been also widely seen as a trade dominance issue by the US based big Plant Biotech companies (like Monsanto, Inc.) over the European Union. Mainstream media and press have found it convenient to bash GMOs. Are genetically modified foods harmful? In the wake of this continuing dispute and some recent decisions by the EC to allow the expiration of the ‘reasonable period of time’ (RPT) of their compliance with the WTO rulings in the EC-Biotech dispute, the following article tries to look at the genetics and politics behind the GM foods; and some lessons that need to reckoned with while dealing with the issues of GM foods.     

Pertinent facts about GM foods…

The harm from genetically modified foods is not as much as the harm resulting from the economics of food trade and the incomplete dissemination of relevant data to farmers and general public. The issue arises when it comes to protecting and harnessing the perceived profits, simply because of the economies of scale involved.

However, countries showing resistance to GM foods have to realize a few facts –
1. There is no such thing as harmless or harmful GM foods. Caution often needs to be taken in cultivating practices e.g. greater requirement of water or nutrients.
2. Even simple plant breeding techniques involve genetic modifications. This is how better crops have been created in the past.
3. GM foods are inevitable if one has to address the growing food needs in the world.
Varieties of Corncobs - Image source: Wikiepdia

There are few kinds of GM foods – 1) Those that give increased yield 2) Those that are disease resistant. 3) Those that vary in color, shape, taste etc. The biological effects and the cultivating requirements will vary in each case. In this regard it is very pertinent to know that the practice of selective breeding to get better crops has existed long before genes and genetics were discovered. It is just that the issue has become more accentuated after the advent of modern biotech companies that have vied to capture the world market, often at the cost spreading relevant facts and/or adopting best practices in their science R&D.

Some long-term approaches

One needs to develop and craft a sound non-market strategy that addresses the concerns of the farmers and general public, before the negative trend spreads in Europe. While doing so, it must also drive home some mentioned below:

1)      GM foods are the future given the current population trends. If it is not a Monsanto or a Cargill or a Syngenta, there will always be someone else. When it comes to feeding more mouths and aiming for a hunger-free world, you either make better crops OR change your staple food. Even then, GM foods will eventually become inevitable when it comes to mass production of this new staple food. Hence, the problem lies in the incorrect planning and implementing the economies of the trade. In other words this also means the overbearing of the big multinationals who start influencing the most basic needs of our life – food. In their rush and excitement to harness their mass ‘streamlining’ capabilities (to maximize profits), it is the science that often falls on the chopping block. The R&D is purely geared to quickly churn out results that seldom have open standards of safety testing or whose current standards are not fully whetted out. A typical example is a case where a new crop variety has been generated that vastly improves crop performance (either in terms of yield or disease resistance). However, it nutritive and cultivation requirements largely go untested or the nutritive properties of the crop undergo only a convenient rigor. In other words, the new crop could fulfill the basic purpose i.e increasing disease resistance but not necessarily the human capacity to retain the same capacity to assimilate its nutrients. Any different variations of this scenario can be played out. This not only means developing comprehensive standards to pass the human consumption tests but also re-evaluating the long-term strategies to locate geo-specific markets to target its variety of products. This in turn means creating an international consortium to create and maintain a set of core online-networked databases/knowledgebases that contain strategic information about crops for human consumption. Information contained therein should include, but not limited to, documented human effects of crop consumption, changing biogeochemical information on arable lands across the globe, etc. Such a venture can and should also be taken privately by the R&D of these big Plant Biotech companies and create a highly curated and researched database of farmland characteristics across the world e.g. soil type, precipitation pattern, and affordability to purchase new products. This will greatly help to selectively targeting new crop varieties/biotech products to those farmers and countries whose growing fields and resources can afford the new technology. This will also remove the necessity of aggressive marketing strategies that are often insensitive to the local needs of the farmers, e.g. its recent history in precipitating farmer’s suicides in India (arising out of bad pricing, huge debts incurred and the negative effects on field). 

2)      There is no single statement to describe GM foods as harmful or harmless. Creating a new variety with increased yield is all about telling the plant to make a product it always knew (except on a larger scale). However, creating a disease resistant plant means that it has a new injected gene to encounter a disease that it never knew how to deal with. This means a lot of changes in its metabolism. In simple words, every act of creating a GM crop is case dependant and it requires more than a Codex Alimentarius to set the ‘overarching principles on the risk analysis of foods derived from modern biotechnology”. Quite often, negative press for a product (and the company) results from the lack of an independent information source that disseminates information on each GM agro product released in the market. One may well consider setting up an independent non-profit body that would assess the quality of every newly developed agro-product and disseminate this information through highly visible medium e.g. internet and electronic media. This should clearly include advice to the farmers (first level consumers) on the ideal kinds of soils and land suited to grow its new GM products.

A cornfield in Liechtenstein. Image source: Wikipedia
3)      A simple act of creating better strains through age-old practices of selective breeding is also a GM crop and it is a well-established practice across all countries. This is how crops have evolved through ages. Just holding a test tube and inserting gene does not make it a GM food/crop. In fact, successful adaptation to environment requires ‘evolution’ to occur and this means being involved in the process of attaining a better genetic make-up. Does modern-day science have the wherewithal to claim complete mastery over this – NO. But will it ever reach that state – DEPENDS on how we are prepared to define it. Till then it always pays to reconcile to the fact that genetic modification of foods is more of a necessary evil until one comes up with a more economically viable concept of feeding the world.

Some short term steps…

1)      Given that GM foods are going to be around for a while, maybe longer, countries all over need to realize how they could also make their own varieties and command their own market. The big plant biotech could also pay a role by promoting research in these countries and let them be a part of the intellectual property rights arising out of such discoveries. It is useful in this regard to understand the repercussions of the IP dispute in regard to the ‘Neem’, ‘Turmeric’ and ‘Basmati’ case that made India realize the importance of protecting its own crop varieties and consider looking more favorably at complying with the TRIPS (Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). By showing the risk of losing its native medicine to business interests outside, India could realize the potential of protecting and upholding its biodiversity. Going along similar lines, European member states like France can be encouraged to create their own business interests in making GM foods. For example, promote local farmers to come with their own new varieties that have their unique market, and allow them to create their own brand entities. This could also allow them to independently stand up to the big multinationals on an even platform.

2)      Big Plant Biotech companies must be strongly urged to adopt and project a stronger farmer-centric image in Europe (besides the rest of the world) where traditional farming practices may be very relevant. Setting up training camps for local farmers and educating them on best practices would greatly help in this regard. Centrally managed ‘certification programs’ by an independent body would further enhance the efficacy of this approach. Investment in this direction by the big plant biotech companies would reap great rewards in the long run. An educated farmer who knows to use the right kind of seeds will not benefit himself but also the brand being used. After all, one has to understand that farmers represent the first level of consumers for these companies and a happy farmer means a happy economy. 

3)      EC has member states that differ in their approaches to cultivation and consumption of GM foods. For example Spain is beginning to be an emerging player in production of GM foods and looks more favorably at developing GM crops. This creates an environment for healthy competing economies that could benefit EC as a whole. A whole new market remains to be tapped if major EC players like France also become more open GM foods albeit in a way that is more well thought out. To begin with local farmers can be made to realize the benefits of planting some new GM crops through promotional distribution of well-tested varieties.

Feeding the future 

The growing demands for mass production of agricultural crops or livestock is only likely to further increase. Unless there is a change in food habits and preferences, the demand for staple crops and livestock will continue. Research in plant biotechnology and genomics has unfortunately fallen a prey to the exacting demands of the big companies who vested needs often overtake the global needs and its well-being. Oddly enough, it’s probably the lack of more such big plant biotech companies (and their investment) that results in the existing MNCs bereft of enough man and brainpower. This in turn leads to such companies having to make hard choices and madly push for better crops without fully testing them. Funnily enough, the answer to address this dichotomy probably lies in the creation more such multinationals who need the load of the back of the current breed of MNCs. Hence if it is not the EC, the burgeoning economies in Asia, South America or others will have to come to the fore and create their own multinationals to answer such growing global needs.  China has been already developing the world’s largest plant biotechnology capacity outside of North America. Countries like India and Brazil will not be far behind either. Hence in a crunch like situation like this, not only the EC but also countries all over need to come together with other economies and actively support better means of crop development. Not just the EC but also governments across the world with agrarian based economies need to urge their private sector and encourage them to set up more R&D and business enterprises and remove the current bottleneck to address the growing global needs.

Note: This article was written a few years back as a part of a classroom exercise and lots of things have happened in between. The core thought process, however, remains roughly the same. 

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