GM contamination

Emergence of superweeds

Several years back, the late P N Haksar said in an interview that all the estimates of silt deposition in the big dams that the engineers have time and again projected have gone wrong. I recall vividly that he pointed to a report of the Central Water Commission, which found that the silt deposition rate was 500 times more on an average than what was initially projected.

The life of the big dams therefore turned out to be much shorter than expected, and all projections of irrigated area also went awry.

This is not only true of the big dams and hydel projects. Agricultural scientists too have made projections, which have time and again turned out to be a gross underestimate. I am not only talking of the crop estimates that are made before the harvest, but invariably you find that the projections for crop yield and productivity too fail. More recently, most studies estimating the distance the pollen of genetically modified (GM) crops flows, and which leads to cross-pollination with related species, have proved to be wrong.

Genetically modified crops like Bt cotton, for instance, have a gene from a soil bacteria taken out and inserted in the cotton plant. This gene produces poison within the cotton plant, and when the insect feeds on the plant it dies. This gene can however flow with wind or can be carried by insects like honey bees and can cross with the related or native varieties of cotton being cultivated in the neighbourhood.

Contamination of wild species assumes importance in the wake of the commercial approval pending for Bt brinjal — India’s first GM food crop. Brinjal is normally a cross-pollinated crop, the extent of cross-pollination varying between 5 to 48 per cent, and therefore poses more threat of contamination. Such contamination of normal plants with GM plants can create weeds that cannot be controlled with herbicides. These are called superweeds.
Let me first explain what are these superweeds, and why farmers should be concerned.
Farmers have traditionally been fighting the menace of weeds, but the newly emerging superweeds pose a much bigger threat because they cannot be controlled with any chemical pesticide. In wheat, for example, farmers encountered mandusi (technically called phalaris minor) weeds, but these could be kept under control by spraying herbicides. Even though these herbicides are expensive and add to the farmers cost of cultivation, still farmers do have a way to eliminate mandusi.
Imagine if the wheat field had weeds, which could not be controlled with any chemical. Such weeds would turn the crop fields into a wasteland. This is exactly what is happening in many parts of America. And this is what farmers in India need to be worried about. Scientists will tell you that GM crops do not cause contamination, but that is not true.

In southern America, more than 1,00,000 acre in the province of Georgia is seriously afflicted by a new evil superweed, called pigweed. This weed has also appeared alarmingly in other provinces like South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri. Such was the devastation that more than 10,000 acre in the Macon county of Georgia province had to be abandoned by farmers.

In other words, Georgia province is fast turning in an unmanageable wasteland. “Last year, we hand-weeded 45 per cent of our severely infested fields,” said Stanley Culpepper from the University of Georgia. These superweeds emerged after farmers had undertaken intensive cultivation of Monsanto’s GM soyabean and cotton.
In India too, scientists are denying any threat from superweed invasion. Ironically, the US department of agriculture too had ruled out any possibility of large scale contamination from GM crops. And yet, the US faces a major problem turning farmlands into weed battlefields.

Superweeds have now appeared in 28 countries where GM crops are cultivated. At least, more than 30 known weeds, which were earlier manageable, have now turned into superweeds.

So much so that a US federal court has ordered the seed multinational Bayer Crop Sciences to pay $2 million to two farmers in Missouri province whose rice crop has been contamination by a GM rice variety under research trials. There are more than 1,000 lawsuits by farmers pending in the US courts against GM seed companies.
Estimates of total cost incurred due to contamination of normal crops with genes from GM crops, range from $741 million to $1.28 billion. Bayer Crop Science has admitted that it has failed to check contamination of normal crops despite following strict regulations and best practices.

In India, unfortunately there is no liability clause that fixes the cost for contamination that companies must pay. It is only recently that the supreme court, which is hearing a PIL seeking a moratorium on GM crops, has asked the government to respond as to why the field research trials cannot be held under controlled conditions. But this measure itself is not enough, as the US experience shows. There has to be a financial liability that must be ascribed on GM seed companies.

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