Who knew that a mere vegetable – the humble purple, shiny brinjal, eggplant, aubergine – could create such an uproar?
And why retailers and consumer product companies should be concerned about genetically modified (GM) crops is a complicated story with multiple twists and turns across political, economic, social, scientific and philosophical landscapes.
At their basic level, brinjals have so far been possibly equally hated and loved for their flavour and texture across the world. But their newest avatar – Bt Brinjal – is now being viewed on the one hand as an evil alien transplant that will kill everything good and natural, and the first step of capitalist monopolies to dominate food crops in a large and growing market, while on the other hand it is seen as a saviour of the embattled farmer, an eco-friendly alternative to pesticides and a well-thought out scientific solution to agricultural productivity.
Though it might appear that genetically modification is a 20th century invention, the fact is that such food is not new. Since the time we began farming some 10,000 years ago, we have been carrying out genetic screening and selection, and modifying to create plants and animals that suit our purposes. All farmed products are a product of artificial rather than pure natural selection, as humans have pure-bred and cross-bred strains of crops that are seen as more beneficial in terms of nutrition, hardiness and ease of cultivation.
However, there are some important differences between earlier efforts and now, which underlie the recent loud and violent debate. Let me outline the concerns as seen from the anti-GM side of the table.
Previous genetic selections and modifications happened not just over generations of plants, but generations of human beings. By default, this allowed time to try and test different variants and arrive at varieties that met multiple criteria – profitable cultivation, nutrition, taste, durability and safety. There are concerns that not enough is known about the eventual impact of the new GM crops on human and environmental health, and the speed of adoption frightens people. (In 1948 a Swiss chemist was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on DDT’s effectiveness as a pesticide, just a few short decades before it was banned from widespread agricultural use for – among other things – apparently causing cancer, and being acutely toxic to organisms other than the pests at which it was targeted.)
Secondly, variety as an insurance.
In the past, if some variety was wiped out due to climatic variation or pests, it was very likely that alternative varieties were close at hand to substitute it. (Estimates about the number of brinjal varieties in India alone vary widely, from 2,000 to over 3,500 though most of them are not actively cultivated in any significant number.) On the other hand the agricultural information and supply chain today is far more integrated, allowing a previously unknown speed and completeness of adoption of new technology and inputs, frequently at the cost of traditional knowledge. Extinction of natural species is not just due to hunting or disasters, whether man-made or natural. If a new engineered variety is profitable in the foreseeable future, farmers would very likely replace other varieties without examining the long-term impact. (This is true also of other inputs, like overuse of heavily promoted synthetic fertilisers or pesticides.)
Third, the methods of genetic engineering itself.
Previous ‘engineering’ was restricted to pollination, grafting and selection, whereas now we are attempting to manipulate individual genes or sets of genes, and transplanting genes across species (from a bacterium in the case of Bt). This approach is similar to how we look at most things, today – individually, separate from or devoid of the natural context, ignoring any interaction with other elements (other genes, in the case of genetically modified crops). While in some cases there may be no significant impact on the outcome, our knowledge of genetics is far from complete and holistic to be able to confidently make the statement about no long-term harm.
Finally, the politics of economics.
All agriculture in the last 10,000 years was based on the assumption that future generations of the crop could be raised from seed saved from previous generations. Current genetically modified varieties, on the other hand, are seen as corporate intellectual property created with huge investments, where the return of investment is sought from fresh seed being sold by the company to the farmer for each planting. This is one of the most violently opposed aspects of GM crops, not just in developing economies like India but in developed economies such as the US as well.
I believe I’ve listed the major concerns of the anti-GM side of the debate above, with the rider that not everyone on the anti-GM side shares all the concerns equally.
Unfortunately, the debate is neither simple nor clear as emotions and stakes run high on both sides of the debate.
Pro-GM groups and individuals express the view that their opponents are stuck in the past and are standing the way of progress that is urgently needed to solve immediate human problems.
For one, proponents of genetic modification will point out that the humongous increase in human population needs new strains of crops that can grow more with fewer inputs in terms of water, fertilisers and pesticides. Without such crops, we run the risk of widespread food and water shortages around the world. ‘Green’ concerns may also be quoted in favour of GM crops. The argument is that using genetically modified crops would actually do less damage to the environment than conventional crops, for instance by needing lower doses of pesticide, or producing more crop from smaller patches of land.
Another concern quoted by the pro-GM group is that publicly funded organisations do not have the skills, the scale or the funding to undertake massive and rapid research for the breakthrough agricultural solutions needed in the short term, and that fundamental research needs to be carried out by commercial for-profit organisations. Obviously, as an outcome of that, the profit from the intellectual property needs to be protected such that it can provide adequate returns over a period of time.
For now, most governments (including in India) are playing it safe by maintaining the current status, and disallowing the introduction of GM crops, although there are opposing viewpoints even within each government.
As consumers, also, we could take the view, as many consumers are taking, that what exists (or what existed many years ago) is the best and safest option, since it is the most proven. We could give more muscle to producers and sellers of natural, organically grown varieties, by choosing to buy only such merchandise and rejecting GM foods completely.
I wish it was that simple.
I wish we could say that everything artificial is harmful and everything natural is beneficial. I wish we could blithely accepts labels such as ‘Franken-foods’ for genetically modified crops, treating them as a monster creation.
I wish we could say that one side or the other is adopting more robust scientific methods so that we can take clear and well-informed decisions.
As consumers, unfortunately for us, the truth is not so clear. There are pros and cons on both sides, which will get quoted in and out of context, to support different arguments, for and against genetic modifications.
More importantly, both for consumers and the industry, what is not clear is how complete separation of GM and non-GM products can be maintained. Once GM foods enter the supply chain, it is likely that they will mix with non-GM produce, whether at the farm, in storage or in processing. The current compliance standards in the global food sector offer no confidence that the non-GM and GM supply chains can be sealed off from each other and monitored separately, such that retailers and consumers can make their choice with complete confidence that they are buying what it says on the label.
In this case, more time, and a more robust and holistic investigation may be the only solution. The Environment Minister has asked us to ‘watch this space’.
Now what we end up with in terms of individual, social and economic health will depend on what kind of effort and intent goes into that space. Industry, consumers, scientists, farmers, and governments, all have a role to play in shaping that intent. We all choose whether we want the green organic genes – or the other kind, be they blue genes, purple or yellow.