"GM food has been safely cultivated and consumed across the world"

Hardnews sent some critical questions to Monsanto regarding safety of GM food. This is full text of an exclusive e-mail interview with Monsanto-India's spokesperson. The company refused to name their spokesperson. 

Q: Farm animals are naturally grass-eating, which includes multiple sources of nutrition, but now they're consuming a diet rich in GM-corn (in the US) instead. How does that impact or alter their health? Have you done any health monitoring for livestock? Is this aspect of risk assessment important for you?
A: Firstly, biotech crops are being successfully and safely cultivated globally for the past 14 years. Agri-biotech products are studied much more extensively than any other plant product in the world, and provide equal or greater assurance of safety of these products compared to conventional plant varieties.

UN WHO, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Royal Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, French Academy of Medicine, British Medical Association, 25 Nobel laureates (including Norman Borlaug) all concluded that Bt crops are as safe as conventional crops. Billions of meals from or derived from agri-biotech products have been consumed globally. GM food has also been safely cultivated and consumed across the world, including tomato (China), papaya (USA, China), corn (16 countries), and squash and zucchini (USA).

In 2008, biotech corn was cultivated in 16 countries (i.e. two-thirds of the 25-biotech cultivating countries) and approved as safe for import and food-use in over 10 countries. Farmers are cultivating biotech corn in Spain, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Honduras, Philippines, South Africa and Uruguay (ISAAA Report 2008). In addition, biotech corn is approved as safe for import and food-use in the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Russia, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, China, and Mexico.

Farmers around the world have benefited from improved corn technologies. In the Philippines, at least 200,000 small farmers gained from biotech corn in 2008. A socioeconomic impact study using data from 2004-05 crop years, reported that for small farmers, Bt corn could provide an overall income advantage up to 48 per cent (ISAAA Report 2008).

Before any biotech crop is commercialised, it undergoes rigorous government-mandated safety testing and regulatory assessment, spanning multiple years and systematic testing. The safety of these products is reviewed by independent regulatory agencies according to internationally agreed-upon assessment guidelines. 

Q: You're thinking about introducing Bollgard II variety of Bt cotton in India after Bollgard I failed, even in your admission. Accepting that the Indian agriculture is labour surplus and the Indian farmer has a small plot of land to till (on an average), won't the insects develop resistance against Bollgard II as well, since all Bt and non-Bt crops are bound to get mixed up in absence of refugia management? Also, every time you introduce a new Bt crop in India, we are left with 'super-pests' that are resistant to it and then we need more pesticide to kill them! What could be a long term solution in the Indian context?

A: Experts in the field of insect resistance have developed sophisticated models that demonstrate a significantly reduced risk of resistance development to a two protein product with different modes of action relative to a single genewith a single mode of action. Across the majority of cotton acres in India, the use of Bollgard II reduces resistance risk by offering two modes of action.

Resistance is expected and could evolve naturally to all pest control products. Insect resistance management strategies - such as the combination of refuges with dual modes of action as present in Bollgard II - when effectively employed, will substantially delay the onset of resistance. The use of effective Insect Resistance Management (IRM) practices (i.e. planting the proper non-Bt refuge) has proven to increase the sustainability of technology for a considerable time.

Bollgard cotton has revolutionised cotton yields in India, reduced insecticide use, and advanced integrated pest management. With these advancements, the worries about super-resistant bollworms have been greatly reduced. Indeed, in the limited geography affected by Cry1Ac resistant pink bollworm, the solution for management of this resistance is already in place in the form of two-protein Bollgard II.

Q: Have you done any tests on soil-health after monocultures of genetically modified crops are grown on large tracts of land for years in the US? Is soil- health important for you?
A: Plant biotechnology products are studied much more extensively than any other plant product, providing equal or greater assurance of safety of these products compared to conventional plant varieties. Rigorous scientific studies are regularly conducted in India and abroad to demonstrate that these technologies are safe for the environment, human beings, animals and agriculture.

Globally, Monsanto conducts over hundreds of studies on our technologies including studies on field performance, weeds, soil degradation, biosafety, toxicity and allergenicity tests; pollen flow study; susceptibility study of American bollworm; socio-economic impacts of Bt cotton, feed studies on chickens, cows, buffaloes, goats, rats, fish; among other studies.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2010