Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO’s as we commonly know them, if put simply are a human attempt to play “God”, an attempt that I’m afraid has gone horribly wrong. Before I can write my views, it is necessary that every one of our readers have a clear idea of what are we going to talk about.
So, what exactly are GMO’s? GMO’s are not natural i.e. they were not created by nature but are created through artificial modification of genetic material in living organisms which in this case are plants. The concept of genetic engineering in plants came with the need to dramatically increase food production in order to feed the ever-growing population. And this need gave birth to the concept of commercializing this dangerous trend of modifying the genetic structure of crops. This trend was first picked up by Monsanto.
Monsanto is a multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation with headquarters in Missouri, US. It was one of four groups to introduce modified genes in plants (specifically cash crops) and the first company to conduct field trials of genetically modified crops in 1987. Earlier it mass-produced products such as DDT, PCBs and Agent Orange to name a few. If you have forgotten or have no idea what Agent Orange is then it is the same chemical (herbicide) used by the US military in the Vietnam war from 1961 to 1971 as a part of their herbicide warfare strategy in order to destroy the highly fertile and diverse ecosystem of Vietnam. The program was called Trail Dust and the US Air Force launched Operation Ranch Hand to spray Agent Orange and Napalm (A highly destructive flammable liquid) over large areas of agricultural and forest lands. Up to 4 million Vietnamese people were exposed to the chemical and now 46 years later 1 million people still suffer from serious medical conditions.
The herbicide alters the human structure on a genetic level which means that it affects not only the people in direct contact with the substance but also the later generations to come in the form of birth deformities. It basically is a softcore version of a Nuclear Bomb. I refer to it as softcore just because it lacks the flare and drama of a Nuclear warhead and have no intention to glorify it in any manner.
With that said let us come back to GMOs. Monsanto’s most commercially significant patent until GMOs was a broad-spectrum herbicide called Glyphosate (product name roundUp) in 1970. As of 2009, roundUp was responsible for 10% of the company’s total revenue second only to GMO seeds which acquire the top position accounting for an estimated 50% of the total profits for the company. In 1996, Monsanto acquired Agracetus, a biotech company which had generated the first transgenic cotton, soybeans and peanut plants. Now it is very important to consider that just after 2 years of acquiring a biotech firm, Monsanto purchased Cargil’s international seed business. The important part of this transaction was that it gave Monsanto the access to sales and distribution facilities of Cargil in 51 countries.
Wait a minute! A company modifying genetic structures to suit their personal greed sounds to me a lot like Umbrella Corp from the movie Resident Evil. Keeping that aside, roundup or Glyphosate being a herbicide destroys unwanted weeds from the fields but in turn also tends to affect the crop adversely.
Monsanto now developed genetically modified varieties of cash crops such as cotton, soybeans and mustards to name a few. The modification in the genetic structure meant that these crops were now herbicide tolerant i.e. farmers could now spray herbicides without them having to worry about inferior yields as the plants had now developed tolerance towards herbicides. Interestingly, the crops were only tolerant to a very specific herbicide which turned out to be Glyphosate or roundUp for which Monsanto held patents since 1970. The last patent on the herbicide expired in the year 2000 for Monsanto and since then hundreds of manufacturers use glyphosate in different concentrations for different products. Though Monsanto still accounts for majority of glyphosate sale, thanks to its GMO seed varieties. The company refers to these varieties as “roundUp Ready”.
Monsanto and India
Monsanto’s entry into India began with the company’s takeover of MAHYCO (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co.) in 1998. According to an article by Dr Vandana Shiva, one of the most active and outspoken environmentalist, MAHYCO imported 100gm of cotton seeds which contained the MON531-Bt Gene into India without the consent of GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee), the authority that authorises the import, export, transport, manufacture, process, use or sell any hazardous microorganisms of genetically engineered organisms/substances or cells. Instead they got approved by RCGM (Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation under the Department of Biotechnology (DBT)) which has no authority to provide permissions for the same.
In simple terms, MAHYCO smuggled a controlled substance in India. They did not stop there and further released the GMOs into the environment by conducting open field trials of these modified seeds. The scale of the operations can be measured by the fact that they operated freely in 9 states across 40 locations conducting open field trials. All this happened without the approval of GEAC, right under its nose. RCGM’s control is restricted to lab research only and any open field trials must only be conducted after GEAC’s approval.
In the year 2000, Monsanto finally got the desired approval from GEAC. It should be kept in mind that this approval came amidst Bill Clinton’s visit to India at that time. US government is long known to handle all of Monsanto’s dirty work. This approval was illogical as Monsanto and MAHYCO both had a case pending in Supreme Court regarding the unauthorised field trials they had been conducting since 1998. This moment in history, according to me was the first step towards the destruction of not only our environment but the whole of agrarian society in India.
As of today, Bt Cotton (GMO variety) accounts for an estimated of 87% of all cotton produced in India. Being genetically modified, Bt Cotton was resistant to Bollworm (the biggest pest towards cotton). People would say that this would be beneficial for farmers, yes indeed. It was indeed beneficial for farmers but not for long, Bollworm soon developed immunity towards this variety. If any of the larva survive from the earlier crops, they became immune to the effects of the GMO variety in the very next generation. Farmers suffered huge losses which led to the areas of Telangana, Maharashtra and Gujarat to be termed as Suicide Belt of India. Since the introduction of BT cotton in 1998 to 2013 around 300,000 farmers and their family members have succumbed to this genocide. 84% of all suicides in this belt are attributed to Bt Cotton, directly or indirectly.
It is not the droughts that force farmers to give up their lives, it is our arrogance and ignorance that forced them to do so. We have blood on our hands, all of us because we chose to stay silent. Droughts will continue to occur, farmers will continue to die if such practices are continued. Complete ecosystems will vanish from the black soil rich regions of our country.
The next crop Monsanto plans to introduce in India and the crop that has already been approved by GEAC is Mustard. Up till now it was just cotton, something we as civilians do not ingest. It will not be the same with mustard, as this will now surely enter our food chain if not already there. The beautiful yellow mustard flowers will no longer signify prosperity as they will now turn red, red from the farmers’ blood. If the Environment Ministry clears commercial Mustard farming then God help us.
I know this article has been fact heavy and too long but if it awoke interest even in some of us then I have another fact for you: Monsanto has now been bought by a German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, the same company that gave the world the substitute for the highly addictive Morphine in the form of diamorphine or as we know it Heroin.