When a scientist who basked for decades in the glory of a technology that ‘rescued’ India from starvation says the green revolution was a failure and the claims made for Generation Next genetically modified (GM) crops are utterly bogus, the shock waves are likely to resonate for a long time.Unsurprisingly, “Modern technologies for sustainable food and nutrition security”by geneticist P.C. Kesavan and agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan (Current Science, Vol. 115, No. 10, 25 November 2018), has set the cat among the pigeons.
Given sharp rebuttals by angry scientists, the article merits scrutiny. Kesavan-Swaminathan state that none of the modern technologies aimed at boosting food production, including the Green Revolution of the 1960s, is sustainable because of “adverse environmental and social impacts”. The Bt- and HT (herbicide-tolerant) crops are highly unsustainable, cause environmental damage, exhibit “genotoxic effects” and have failed to achieve “the original objective of reducing the need for chemical pesticides”. Swaminathan claims he warned about the ecological consequences of the Green Revolution at the Indian Science Congress, Varanasi, in 1968. This is hardly known even today and does not match his public positions, especially the promotion of GM crops, in recent years.
The gene-based Green Revolution reduced the height of wheat and rice crops without altering the length of the grain-bearing panicle, hoping that these dwarf and semi-dwarf plants could uptake high levels of chemical fertilizers and water, and produce greater number of heavy grains. This high-input technology of inorganic chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides and fungicides needed copious irrigation with groundwater drawn with thousands of pumps (electricity was given free). Some of these high-yielding varieties were grown continuously over large areas, displacing several locally adapted varieties and land-races, leading to loss of biodiversity, while being more susceptible to pests and diseases with potential for widespread failure.
Kesavan-Swaminathan claim it “was already known that chemical inputs exert deleterious effects on soil and water”, which constitute the ecological foundations of sustainable agriculture. Given the extent of soil and water degradation, and the explosion of health epidemics among the population, we need a White Paper on which authorities knew about the ill-effects of chemical agriculture and let it be extended all over the country, barring hill regions. In the West, private companies are being sued for suppressing data that exposed the poisonous effects of glyphosate; India must also fix responsibility. Swaminathan says he warned that the Green Revolution was showing ‘yield fatigue’ by the late 1980s and reached peak decline by the mid-1990s.
Modern biotechnology using recombinant DNA (r-DNA) allows genes from widely different species to be ‘inserted’ into another species. This is so undesirable and fraught with danger that one is astonished it never raised moral qualms with scientists worldwide.As Kesavan-Swaminathan now admit, the problem with genetic engineering is that all molecular and cellular events triggered by the process are not yet understood. As the cost of GE seed like Bt cotton, and inputs, are exorbitant compared to non-GE seeds, small and marginal farmers cannot withstand financial losses if crops fail for any reason.
GE organisms have shown many ‘unintended’ effects, raising health safety concerns. Calgene Company’s ‘Flavr Savr’ tomato, the first GE food crop in the US, was withdrawn in barely two years in the late 1990s after stomach lesions developed in experimental rats. GE failed in L-tryptophan, causing the deaths of 37 people and paralysis in about 1500 people, hence Kesavan-Swaminathan insist that“the assumption of ‘substantial equivalence’ to give market approval to genetically modified (GM) crops is wholly unscientific and extremely dangerous”. Ironically, all arguments in favour of commercial cultivation of GM Mustard rest on equivalence.
The duo debunk claims that hybrid Bt-cotton has led to an unprecedented increase in India’s cotton production. According to Keshav Kranthi, former Director, Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, from 2008 onwards, Bt-cotton yield stagnated at around 500 kg/ha and may be lower at present, despite large increases in the area under Bt-cotton cultivation. Pest resistance to Bollgard II was already evident in 2008 and secondary pests area serious concern. As Kranthi observes: “Bt-cotton was supposed to have conferred two major benefits to cotton production: (a) high yields due to effective protection of bolls from bollworm damage and (b) reduction in insecticides recommended on bollworm control. Official data show that none of these promises was kept in the past ten years in India”.
The Union of India in its counter affidavit in the Delhi High Court (in WPCC No. 12069 of 2015), correlated farmer suicides with failure of Bt-cotton. Simultaneously, leading American cotton scientists, Gutierrez and co-workers, showed that farmers’ annual suicide rates in rainfed areas are directly related to increases in Bt-cotton adoption (i.e. costs). Indian data establishes the failure of Bt-cotton due to rising resistance, hybrid policy and secondary pests.
Blaming Monsanto is not enough. Why did state governments allow poor farmers to incur debt from private moneylenders (not covered by loan waivers) and grow high-input food and/or cash crops in rainfed areas? The failure of these crops triggered farmer suicides year after year, yet no state agriculture ministry ever told poor farmers to grow hardy crops and practice sustainable agriculture. In irrigated areas, farmers were not educated about the soil and water pollution caused by chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
The Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee had recommended a total ban on HT-crops. Given the failure of Bt-cotton and rising health concerns with Bt-crops, Kesavan-Swaminathan support the ban on commercialization of Bt-brinjal, imposed by Jairam Ramesh, then Union Minister for Environment and Forests. Two Parliamentary Standing Committees (of 2012 and 2017) concluded that Regulators failed to uphold rigorous and independent test protocols for GMOs and conflicts of interests hampered proper regulation.
All HT-crops of corn, soy and cotton are resistant to Roundup, whose active ingredient is the herbicide glyphosate, which was classified as a group 2A carcinogen by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer,in 2015. Today, Argentina suffers significant birth defects and cancers in HT-soy regions. After the California Supreme Court’s verdict on Roundup’s link to cancer, Kesavan-Swaminathan advocate that Deepak Pental’s HT-mustard hybrid DMH-11, tolerant to glufosinate, must be banned as the genotoxic glufosinate is as hazardous as glyphosate. They add that India has several mustard varieties and hybrids that out-yield DMH-11. This is what activists have consistently argued.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library; the views expressed are personal)
The Pioneer, 25 December 2018