The media, rather than agreeing to the stance that GM crops are the business of “pure science/sound science” must examine the issue from ground level, work towards demystifying the narrative

Voices Saturday, June 07, 2014 - 05:30
By Aritra Bhattacharya The agribiotech industry in India is expected to touch $1 billion by the end of fiscal 2015, according to a study titled 'Access to Healthcare: Indian Perspective', conducted by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham). This was reported by Business Standard; the same report also mentions that the biotech industry as a whole (comprising biopharmaceuticals, bioservices, bioagriculture, bioindustry and bioinformatics) reached $4 billion in FY13, with bioagriculture constituting 15 per cent of revenues.  As is apparent from the figures, the stakes for biotech companies are huge, and such companies and lobby groups will employ all possible measures so that the market materialises. The efforts of lobby group International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), specifically its reports on adoption of GM crops, must be seen in this light. An ISAAA study in February 2014 indicated more than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops in 2013, reflecting a five million, or three percent, increase in global biotech crop hectarage. Global biotech crop hectarage increased from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to over 175 million hectares in 2013, said the study. News reports on this study (see here and here) mentioned the above figures, but failed to point out that 83 per cent of cultivation is still restricted to four countries in the Americas – the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Canada.  In India and China, the predominant GE crop grown is the controversial Bt cotton. This is data is available in the longer report, but the press release, as is obvious, glosses over it. The media’s role may ideally lie in questioning such tall claims, but in reporting on GM crops, ISAAA figures often become gospel truth.  The same ISAAA report is also misleading, as the Philippines is reported to have 0.8 million hectares of land planted to GE maize for 2013. International NGO Greenpeace claims this represents not the actual land area but the total aggregate area planted to corn over 3-4 seasons/year.  The Philippine Bureau of Agricultural Statistics in its October 2013 rice and corn situation and outlook report indicates that corn area planted per season ranges from 0.5 to 0.9 million hectares and this covers white and yellow corn. Yellow corn which is mostly the GE corn is grown in 0.2 to 0.6 million hectares per season.  Greenpeace also notes that according to the report, in 2012, the economic gains at the farm level from GM crops was said to be $18.7 billion. But the same report pegged the value of the global GE seeds, mostly owned by big corporations, at $15.6 billion in 2013. It is imperative for the media, therefore, to ask: who profits most from this ‘gains at the farm level’.  The importance of India as a market is also not lost on one with a keen eye. For, after reports that the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) had approved field trials of GM food crops, stocks of Monsanto surged, as reported by Business Standard. Monsanto India’s stock prices trebled between March 2013 and April 2014, as this report states. None of these reports, however, are concerned with the controversy over GM crops, or the several issues pointed out earlier. Among the global biotech majors, Monsanto has the deepest footprint in India, and is involved in an an equal joint venture with Mahyco called Monsanto Mahyco Biotech (MMB). The way stock prices of Monsanto India surged in the last one year, when the food security law was enacted and the present environment minister Veerappa Moily okayed field trials of GM crops points to the importance of India as a market. While reporting on GM crops and dealing with claims of those promoting biotech, journalists must keep this in mind. The market potential, and India’s position as a gateway into smaller markets in the neighbourhood is a big factor that colours the claims of proponents of GM crops. Gains in India are gains in the neighbourhood as well; one only needs to consider the case of Bt brinjal, which was developed in India, but could not be released after Jairam Ramesh as environment minister imposed a ban on field trials. The same seed was then introduced in Bangladesh, and the industry has been agog with claims of its success, and its roots in India (see here and here).  As in most other cases, one of the keys arguments employed by the industry while pushing Bt brinjal is food security. An analysis of the sample for this study shows how food security forms one of the cornerstones for the biotech industry, among other things. Bogey of food security  Ever since the food security bill was enacted, there have been several articles in the media tying the question of food security to genetically modified crops (See 1, 2, 3, 4). The argument in these articles, substantiated through quotes from agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, among others, is along these lines: following the enactment of the law, demand for food grain in the country is likely to shoot up, and India must allow for the introduction of genetically modified crops of meet the increased demand—genetically modified crops are not only more resistant to climate change, but also provide ‘higher’ yields compared to earlier hybrids.  The language in some of these articles makes one feel it has been lifted straight out of a press release, or they are full of tall claims. For instance, a Times of India edit, ‘Balance Food Security Bill by pushing GM crops’, dated 3 September 2013, says, “Global strides are well-known. Not only are around 90% of American maize and soybean GM, the US Food and Drug Administration has categorically declared that foods developed by bioengineering techniques do not entail greater safety concerns than those developed by traditional plant breeding.” Any mention of ‘global strides’ would necessitate mention of genetically modified crops being banned in most big countries in the European Union, as well as the strident opposition to genetically modified foods in the US, and the demand for clear GM labelling.  The other aspect these articles harped on is growth. The argument here was along these lines: the non-introduction of GM crops was holding up potential growth in India’s agricultural sector; since GM crops would increase yield by being resistant to pests and diseases, export revenues would shoot up as well.  None of these pieces mention the fallout—highly contested in nature—of Green Revolution on Indian agriculture. While a group of scientists and ‘experts’ believe that Green Revolution pushed up yields and farm incomes, another group stresses on the impoverishment of small and marginal farmers and their being pushed out of agriculture (for instance, see here and here). In the event of such contradictions not being mentioned, the impression conveyed is one that suggests modern biotechnological intervention has been entirely positive, without any drawbacks. Citadel of science Among the many notions that the articles seek to underline is the supremacy of ‘science’. For instance, an article in Times of India titles ‘Take a decision on GM food crops on scientific proof: Monsanto’ quotes a Monsanto (one of the six biotechnology majors that dominate agriculture) official as saying “the debate has been going on in India for the past 15 years and it is time to take a decision. ‘Whether it (GM crop) is good or bad should be based on scientific evidence.’” In the above article, as also in others (for instance see 1, 2, 3), the basic idea being promoted is that science is above all debates on GM crops, and scientific evidence must dictate the direction that policies must take.  Here, it is important to point out that science does not lie outside society. The fact that science is socially constructed has been made by several scholars, notable among them being Bruno Latour's ‘We have never been modern’ and Ian Hacking’s ‘The Taming of Chance, The Social Construction of What’. These works underline how the construction of ‘facts’ is contingent on what can and what one seeks to measure and enumerate.  In the context of biotechnology, social construction of science and facts assumes much more importance because studies to analyse the impact of GM crops are funded by biotechnology giants behind the very innovations or umbrella bodies like ISAAA seeking to promote the use of biotechnology. Biotech companies have deep connections with agricultural universities; they fund research labs in these universities, and 100 per cent public funding of biotech research is a misnomer.  Moreover, lobby groups like ABLE-AG have strong relationships with such universities. Dr Seetharama from ABLE-AG says he has worked “very closely as (for) many years in ICAR (research admin – director) and at ICRISAT (as research scientist)…My involvement with National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) is only as a Fellow; but NAAS has great interest in promoting proven GM and other biotechnologies”. ISAAA also organises media workshops, according to Bhagirath Choudhary, ISAAA Director for Strategic Initiatives and Director of ISAAA South Asia Office based in New Delhi, “primarily in collaboration with public sector institutions (including) IARI, ICRISAT, Indian Society for Cotton Improvement (ISCI), state agricultural universities, state media academies and press clubs.” This shows how the entire chain in reportage on the issue is dominated by biotech proponents. Following Colin Macilwain’s article in the Nature portal then, one can say “'Sound science' is thus science that big business knows it can trust”. It is a given that pro-GM companies and lobby groups will only showcase data that helps their cause. While the debate about the impact of GM crops rages on, ‘scientists’—many attached to institutions where research is funded by biotech majors—repeatedly quote figures from studies on increased yields and smaller input costs using GM technology. One the other hand, there are no studies, on the long-term impact of GM crops and seeds on soil health, and the possible rise in input costs for farmers over a 15-20 year period of using GM technology.  Given the experience with Green Revolution—wherein yields increased rapidly over the first 5-6 years and plateaued for several years thereafter, only to start tapering after 15-odd years, while input costs kept increasing every year owing to deteriorating soil health—it is important to take into account studies on the impact of GM crops over a long period of time.  Another issue plaguing the GM debate is the absence of any third party studies on the efficacy and impact of GM crops. In South Africa, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ordered Monsanto to withdraw its ads on local radio in which the company boasted the supposed benefits of GM crops, including a “healthier environment” and “more food sustainably.” As this report states, “Monsanto responded to the complaint but was unable to provide input from an independent and credible expert confirming the ostensible benefits of GM crops, as is required by South African advertising law.” Dr Seetharama concedes that absence of independent studies on GM crops is a big problem, and India’s regulatory system, where biotech companies furnish details on the performance of their crops and there is no scope for independent analysis in the field, is a major drawback. But this is unlikely to change, and we may not see any studies comparing the performance of traditional vis-à-vis GM seeds. There are two reasons for this—one because the companies and organisations funding such studies are interested in convincing governments to allow the commercial introduction of such crops, and therefore there are no field studies spanning 15-20 years.  The other reason is that data on yields of indigenous varieties are absent. Decades of use of hybrid seeds have corrupted the gene pool of indigenous varieties of crops, so much so that farmers in many parts of the country report that even if they want to grow indigenous variety of, say brinjal, they can find no pure strains. In such a scenario, the base data against which GM crop yields are to be calculated is highly flawed—if present yield of hybrids are used, they are lower than the yields at the peak of Green Revolution yields; if older Green Revolution yields are used, they fail to account for the deterioration in soil health since. Same is the issue with using yields of indigenous varieties from decades ago. What complicates the matter further is the fact that climatic conditions even within a state differ greatly, and data from one region cannot be used as base material for yields in another region.The fact that those opposing GM crops are categorised as “emotional” and “ideological” does not help matters either. This categorisation is characteristic in Choudhary’s view on those opposing GM crops. “Opposing biotech crops becomes the business for hundreds of activists which are well funded by European countries and chemical industry…They are running campaigns on emotion and have been successful in instilling fear and misinformation in the mind of general public.” The media, rather than agreeing to the stance that GM crops are the business of “pure science/sound science” and its finer points can be understood by ‘experts’ alone, must examine the issue from the ground level, and must work towards demystifying the narrative. Examining how the language of reporting is a big barrier would be the first step towards this. The writer is a journalist and a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). He can be reached at aritra.bhattacharya@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.

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