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  • The genetic genetic scandal
    Devinder Sharma on genetic pollution and eroding diversity
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    July 2002 : Some years back, Oman made an unusual request to India. The oil-rich Middle East country was looking for four pure-bred animals of the cattle breed - Tharparkar - found only in the dry and arid regions of Rajasthan. Tharparkar derives its name from its unique genetic ability that enables the animal to walk across the massive desert of Thar in Rajasthan.

    A frantic search for procuring four genetically pure Tharparkar males failed. It was then realised that the indiscriminate cross-breeding of Indian cattle with the exotic Jersey and Holstein Friesian breeds under the Intensive Cattle Breeding Programme (ICDP) and the Operation Flood, has rendered more than 80 per cent of the Indian cattle in the non-descript category. In a country which has the largest population of cattle in the world, with some 26 recognised breeds of cattle, genetic contamination had taken its toll. More than a dozen of the Indian cattle breeds have now disappeared. The unique genetic diversity and wealth that India possessed in cattle has gradually eroded.

    And if you are wondering as to why no legal recourse was taken to stop the genetic pollution of Indian cattle, the reality is that unlike vehicular pollution from diesel-exhausts, genetic pollutants have the ability to multiply. Unlike the automobiles, which have jammed New Delhi's streets, the nondescript cattle which also throngs the city roads have the ability to reproduce and pass on the genetic contamination from generation to generation. The Supreme Court can crack down on the erring vehicles as well as force the government to bring in environmentally less polluting fuel, but it has no means to check genetic pollution.

    The genetic pollution in cattle, however, evoked no anger. Nor were any lessons learnt. The scientific and administrative machinery responsible for keeping the genetic purity of India's massive plant and animal genetic resources - so vital for the future generations as well as for the economic growth - has simply turned a blind eye to the way genetic contamination is being justified. The same scientific community which has all along told us that genetic diversity is humanity's insurance against future threats from disease, pests, climate change and biotechnology mishaps, remains quiet when it comes to deliberate genetic contamination by the sunrise genetic engineering industry.

    Soon after India approved commercial cultivation of Bt cotton in March 2002, a premier fair trade organisation purchasing organic cotton from Maharashtra region for the past three years and converting it into knitting yarn and knitted garments for exports to Japan, was faced with a peculiar problem of genetic contamination. It couldn't source viable 'straight variety' seeds any longer from the Vidharba cotton growing belt. 'Straight variety seeds, which is an indication of the stability of the genetic character of the plant, is an essential requirement for certified organic cotton production. DNA tests have shown that the cotton varieties, including the high-yielding ones, are contaminated by hybrids as a result of which the genetic make-up becomes unstable. With Bt cotton now introduced, the resulting genetic contamination is going to be still worse.

    The Indian Ministry of Agriculture as well as the Cotton Corporation of India have preferred to remain quiet. In fact, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the umbrella organisation that overlooks the country's agricultural research, even refuses to acknowledge that genetic contamination is a serious problem!

    In Canada, genetically modified canola has spread widely, finding its way into conventional seed through pollen or accidental seed mixing. The result: GM canola has contaminated the normal canola seeds. Rene Van Acker, a plant scientist at the University of Manitoba, admits: "I think its very significant and I also think its a formal recognition that genetic pollution does happen." For farmers it means adding a second kind of herbicide to their regular spraying to kill the plants that have been genetically modified to resist their regular herbicide. For organic growers it's a serious problem. Any contamination of seed stock with genetically engineered crops is too much for organic production.

    Traces of alien genes have been identified in three cereal crops in the Navarre region of the Basque Country, Spain. The three crops, two maize and one of soya, were carefully analysed in two independent laboratories. Further tests on one of the maize crops revealed that the polluting agent was the Bt 176 maize, better known as the Compa CB variety of genetically modified maize, commercialized by the Swiss company Novartis, currently known as Syngenta following its merger with Astra-Zeneca of the UK. In New Zealand, the government would have been liable for compensation claims of nearly $1 million if it had ordered the destruction of corn crops suspected of containing genetically modified seeds.

    More recently, the biotechnology industry through its scientific loudspeakers, orchestrated a dirty campaign to discredit research by two scientists from the University of California, Berkeley. So powerful was the deafening chorus by the key protagonists of the biotechnology industry that even the prestigious scientific journal Nature was forced to succumb to pressure. Mexican plant biologist, Ignacio Chapela, and his student David Quist, were the target of attack for their painstaking research that established the spread of transgenes in the centre of origin of maize. Such genetic contamination would ultimately destroy world's available genetic purity and that too in the very hotspots of diversity.

    Despite Nature disowning the research paper, the National Biodiversity Commission of Mexico accepted the findings. "It is confirmed. There is no doubt about it," Jorge Soberon of the Commission was reported as saying. Accordingly, two separate teams found transgenic DNA in around 10 per cent of crop plants sampled in Oaxaca province, describing it as "the world's worst case of GM contamination." This happened because transgenic Bt maize imported for food purposes from neighbouring United States, apparently was cultivated and therefore spread by cross-pollination.

    The journal - Nature - was not the only one to stumble. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, one of the 16 international agricultural research centres being run by the CGIAR, was the next one to fall. Asserting that such contamination would not spell doom, it said that diversity could actually increase as a result. "And if plant scientists find a desirable trait in a contaminated variety, they can easily breed plants that contain the desired trait but lack the Bt gene."

    CIMMYT's defence of the genetic contamination unleashed by the private seed industry in the heartland of genetic diversity for maize in Mexico, is a clear pointer to the alarming breakdown in scientific discourse. In fact, CIMMYT's assertion is in complete variance with the principles of conservation and utilisation of plant genetic resources. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), for instance, states: "genetic diversity per se is valuable in that it evens out yield variability, provides insurance against future changes and is a 'treasure chest' of as yet unknown resources." It accepts that plant genetic resources are seriously threatened with erosion "the consequences of which will be serious, irreversible and global."

    And it is primarily for this reason that the CGIAR centres are engaged in collection, storage and conservation of plant genetic resources in genebanks. World food security depends to a large extent on the 30 crop species that provides most of the dietary energy or protein and in particular on the three crops - wheat, rice and maize - that together provide more than half. Other major crops, such as cassava, sorghum and millet, are also essential to food security, particularly for resource-poor people. Genetic diversity within all these species is important for their continued stable production.

    If genetic diversity can be made to 'actually increase' as a result of genetic contamination -- the argument that CIMMYT forwards -- and thereby 'make the overall mix that little bit richer', it is time to overhaul and possibly disband the international effort by the FAO, the CGIAR and the multitude of plant genetic conservation centres to collect and store the available plant variability. Contrary to what CIMMYT says, agricultural scientists have made tremendous effort in the past two decades to make global ex situ collections of over 6 million plant accessions. This all began when the FAO recognised the threat posed by genetic erosion and set up the Panel of Experts on Plant Exploration in 1963.

    The number of storage facilities has increased dramatically over the past two decades. Before the Second World War, the earliest plant germplasm collections were started by the legendary scientist, N. I. Vavilov, in the former Soviet Union. By 1970, there were about 54 seed stores, of which 24 had long-term storage capacities. Today, there are over 1,300 national and regional germplasm collection centres with many countries having a number of storage facilities. In India, for instance, which has one of the largest plant collection activities, collections are stored at 70 different locations. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being raised every year to maintain the viability of these collections, knowing that any lapse would be suicidal for humanity.

    Given the importance of wild and semi-wild food plants to the livelihoods of many poor communities, an additional effort is also being made to conserve these species in Protected Areas. In Mexico, genetically unique wild populations of perennial maize are being specifically conserved in a small portion of the Sierra de Manantlan Biosphere Reserve. The importance of this collection can be gauged from the fact that in Mexico only 20 per cent of the local varieties of maize known in the 1930s are now cultivated. The decrease in the land area planted with maize and the replacement with other profitable crops has already resulted in serious genetic erosion in corn. How much damage the Bt maize contamination has inflicted on the limited genetic diversity that exists, is something that should be cause for worry.

    For some strange reasons, the CGIAR has refrained from commenting on CIMMYT' s unscientific claim that such contamination actually adds to the available genetic diversity. If CIMMYT, which houses the world's largest collection of wheat and maize germplasm, remains unperturbed at the pace and speed at which genetic contamination is growing, isn't it time to take a fresh look at the policy to conserve plant germplasm? After all, if genetic pollution 'actually increases' available diversity, much more biodiversity can be added to the world's decimating genetic wealth by encouraging genetic pollution. Why seek taxpayer money to maintain plant genetic collections globally when more efficient results can be achieved by allowing for indiscriminate genetic contamination?

    To say that genetic contamination is nothing to be worried about, is to debunk the understanding that old varieties and wild relatives of crop plants are a valuable resource for researchers and farmers, and are disappearing fast. Genetic erosion coupled with pollution will destroy that unique genetic base and thereby create an unforeseen crisis on the food front.

    The biotechnology industry, however, is not even remotely concerned. "It is better to acknowledge that a minimum of cross-pollination cannot be avoided, and not to panic," Guy Poppy of the British Biotech Association had told the British science magazine, New Scientist. Amidst growing incidences of genetic pollution world wide, the 'shouting brigade' of the biotechnology industry - comprising distinguished scientists and the political masters - has already browbeaten the governments to accept genetic pollution as inevitable. Governments have been made to believe that the likelihood of such 'inadvertent' genetic contamination in future will grow along with the increasing number of GM crops being grown around the world.

    If you are wondering why the industry, and its 'shouting brigade' remains immune to the crisis that is unfolding on the genetic pollution front, the answer is simple. The industry is in reality making serious efforts, whether legally or illegally, to contaminate the cultivated species all over the world. From Canada to New Zealand, and from Greenland to Cape Horn, the industry is busy in spreading genetic pollution. Aided and abetted by a 'distinguished' class of agricultural scientists, and backed by financially-starved governments, the industry goes on merrily destroying crop diversity. And once genetic contamination reaches a 'significant' level, the world will be left with no other choice but to accept the sad reality. Genetically engineered crops will then be pushed with impunity.

    The great genetic scandal is only beginning to unfold.

    Devinder Sharma
    July 2002

    Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among his recent works include two books GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap

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