The biotechnology industry's annual report "Global Status of Commercialised Biotech/GM Crops: 2012" by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which hailed biotechnology as the "fastest adopted crop technology" is facing emerging contentions that it has misrepresented and drastically overestimated its figures.
South Africa's genetically modified (GM) crop area, according to the ISAAA report, increased by a record 26 per cent or 600,000 hectares over the last one year. The African Centre for Biosafety, however, has pointed out that "the ISAAA in its desperate attempt to bolster the popularity of GM crops in the media has overestimated the spread of GM crops in South Africa by a staggering 400 per cent! According to the latest figures from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the combined maize and soybean cultivation in South Africa increased by less than 150,000 ha over the stated period and the area planted with GM cotton has declined by 3,000 ha".
A closer reading of the ISAAA report reveals that out of the 170 million ha of GM crops planted in 2012, about 106 million ha, i.e. 63 per cent, were planted in just two countries - Brazil and America.
In India, the "enormous" yield increase attributed to Bt cotton, as claimed by GM proponents, is not an accurate picture of what has really transpired. Data from the Office of Textile Commissioner of India, cited by the Cotton Advisory Board, shows that between 2000-01 and 2004-05, when the area under Bt cotton increased from zero to six per cent, there was a 69 per cent increase in yield which, therefore, arose from factors that cannot entirely be attributed to GM. However, after Bt cotton expansion, between 2005-06 and 2011-12, when acreage increased from six per cent to 90 per cent, yields increased by a maximum of 18 per cent up to 2007-08 and then declined to a mere two per cent increase over the gains achieved in 2004-05. Central Institute for Cotton Research Director Kranti notes that "the yield increase by 2004 was mainly due to the IPM/IRM [integrated pest management/integrated resistance management] strategies, new insecticides, new hybrids and new area in Gujarat, apart from the 5.4 per cent area under BT cotton". Sherman - for the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists - conducted a study that sought to separate yield increases of GM from other factors in a 12-year review of the two main GM crops in the US - corn and herbicide-tolerant soya. The study found that in the case of corn, GM contributed 14 per cent to the yield increase in contrast to 86 per cent yield increase from other factors, while there was no increase for soya.
Dismissing the anti-GM lobby as "activists" or "non-scientific" can no longer be sustained since there is an increasing number of studies by highly qualified scientists, refuting the yield benefits, highlighting unforeseen impacts and pointing to adverse health impacts of GM foods. According to a report by Test Biotech, the cultivation of insecticide-producing plants has led to "an arms race in the field" against pests and weeds, which have adapted quickly. Farms in the US are now plagued with 61.2 million acres of resistant weeds, according to Stratus Agrimarketing, resulting in the increased spraying of toxic herbicides. A recent article in Farmer's Weekly indicates that American farmers are considering returning to conventional seed owing to increased pest-resistance and crop failures, despite the higher costs of GM seeds - paid year after year - given GM seed companies prohibit reuse of seeds.
On the health side, the position is less clearly ascertainable since GM foods have not been labelled or tracked in the US. GM maize and its attendant herbicide were alleged to lead to premature death and manifold incidence of tumours in the first long-term toxicology study undertaken by the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering's Seralini. This study was challenged by a number of scientists and scientific academies, but received support from more than 300 scientists from 33 countries. The reputed peer reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, which published this study, has not retracted it. The technology is, in fact, facing unprecedented controversy not only regarding its impacts on consumers, ecology and farmers, but for jeopardising nations' seed sovereignty as giant seed companies consolidate their control over the global seed market. Three companies (Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta) control over 50 per cent of all commercial seed and the patent regime of GM technology will only facilitate greater control.
Owing to their potentially harmful impacts on health, environment, farmer income and national self reliance, and the failure of India's GM regulatory mechanisms, a moratorium on open-air field trials of GM crops was unanimously recommended last year by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, consisting of 31 members of Parliament across parties. Recently, an interim report by the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee recommended a 10-year moratorium on most GM crops and over 150 eminent Indian scientists have refuted submissions by the ministry of agriculture and supported these recommendations. Despite this, the fundamental issues that could save farmers' lives and livelihoods remain unattended while there is continuous lobbying to accept a risky technology that is currently grown on just 3.4 per cent of the world's agricultural land.
The writer is a Researcher with the LEAF Initiative, a citizens' initiative on issues relating to livelihood, environment, agriculture and food