Agri-biotechnology Biodiversity GM Crops

GM Crop Technology is a Tool to Save Natural Bio-diversity: Ecologist Karanth

Ullas Karanth

Decision-makers do not have to balance ‘science versus nonsense’ just because a lot of people speak ill of GM crop technology, says wildlife conservationist and author of ‘The Way of the Tiger’ Ullas Karanth. But there should be checks on large corporations that own the technology so that the public good is not compromised. This is an edited speech he gave at Bangalore India Bio on 10 February, 2015.

India occupies two percent of the Earth’s surface but has thirteen percent of the world’s bird species and seven percent of its mammals. At one time it was one of the most bio-diverse areas of the world. Today, the areas meant to protect bio-diversity occupy just four percent of the land. The natural bio-diversity that was lost on ninety-six percent of the land is locked up in these protected area systems. How to secure this is a concern for conservationists.

Traditional agriculture is one of the biggest threats to bio-diversity. At the time of Independence India had one million sq km under agriculture. Today, it is sixty percent more. All this expansion has come at the expense of natural areas and natural diversity. This is also true of industrialisation, hydro-electric dams, solar cell banks and wind energy farms.

The earth’s population will stabilise at 10 billion or so. India’s will stabilise probably at 1.5 billion. This rising population will expect rising consumption. Experiments in simple living like that of Gandhiji is just talk. Nowhere has it worked.

Productive agriculture – concentrating increased production of food or bio-fuels – on existing land is absolutely central to the challenge of saving biodiversity. And certainly any technology that helps like GM cannot be thrown away. There are risks. There is an element of risk in any adventure. Fire was invented by pre-hominids one million years ago. The first man who lit the fire was running a huge risk but we benefited from fire. So risk is there in everything but it needs to be viewed in the context of science.

To me science is accumulation of knowledge. I find it very strange that GM is being criticized although all the national academies of science including Europe’s have endorsed GM. We had the same situation in the climate change scenario. Over time as evidence built up that climate threat is real, scientists shifted positions. There is always a dichotomy in science. Nobody agrees at the first point. But gradually scientific consensus builds up and then it becomes mainstream knowledge. It is strange that the people who accept the same academies of science, the same peer-reviewed process of generating science do not accept GM which has been endorsed by the same institutions.

Some of the best specialists on plant biodiversity, like Sir Robert May (professor in the department of zoology at Oxford University and former scientific adviser to the UK government) who is probably the greatest living ecologist and Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and one of the greatest specialists on biodiversity have endorsed GM precisely for this reason.

The Green Revolution pumped the earth with pesticides which killed birds. GM technology allows us to withdraw from this. We had to use those destructive technologies at one time to increase food production. Here is a technology that allows us to scale down the use of pesticides.

Of course, Europe is doing non-GM agriculture. But it is using extremely expensive next gen pesticides which are less harmful. Can we afford to go that way?

Nobody who has a piece of cheese or a glass of beer can say they have not consumed GM food.  Insulin  (which is synthesised using recombinant DNA technology) is widely used. A

Krisha Byre Gowda, Karnataka's Minister of State for Agriculture at Bangalore India Bio 2015

Krisha Byre Gowda, Karnataka’s Minister of State for Agriculture at Bangalore India Bio 2015

griculture cannot be an exception to such a powerful technology. It needs to be harnessed and controlled.

I would endorse one thing that the minister (Karnataka’s agriculture minister Krishna Byre Gowda) said that farmers have enormous common sense.  They are not fools to persist with something which is dangerous or uneconomical. But I disagree with the minster saying that because a number of people say things (GM technology) are bad, we as decision makers have to balance science versus nonsense.  I do not agree with that at perception. I think society has to move in the direction of reason and weighted science. That is how we can achieve progress.

(At Bangalore India Bio, Byre Gowda said there was ‘so much pressure from the left and the right’ on the Karnataka government not to permit GM crops trials and that ‘it has become difficult for us’ because of Europe’s anti-GM stance. ‘A responsible government cannot ignore the opinion of larger society.’)

I have one last caveat, which is the issue of perception. I was practicing farming in the 1970s when the Karnataka farmers’ movement was born. And I was seeing something there which I think those who promote GM and biotech should take heed, which is, the rich and powerful corporations in India have not been fair in many, many cases. This is true of telecom pricing and gas pricing in the Godavari basin. When corporate interests become very powerful they have an ability to control the markets and influence governments in ways that are not good for the public at large. The companies which are involved in GM and biotech have to be like Caesar’s wife. They have to be above suspicion.  A perception that GM technology is something that is controlled totally by industry and that policy is manipulated in its favour could be very dangerous for the promotion of this very useful technology. I have heard this perception not from ranting, flag-waving anti-GM activists but from a very senior scientist in the country who publishes in Cell which has an impact factor (a measure that reflects the average number of citations to recent articles published in that journal) of 27. (Cell says it has a five-year impact factor of 35). I do not know the truth of it; but the perception that GM is a tool of corporate vested interests needs to be demolished by making the policy bodies transparent and fair.

I think in the end science wins. Sometimes it takes a long time. When I was a farmer tractors were being used for the first time and many farmers said tractor beda sir, bhoomi kaav baruthade, bele barudilla (if you plough with a tractor the earth heats up). It is easy to play on these fears. But I think by standing up for peer-reviewed science and weighted evidence of science, eventually we should progress.


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