The bitter experience with genetically modified crops the world over is a wake-up call for the rest to move away from the potential havoc GM technology could wreak across the plantation sector. Dr Devinder Sharma, a renowned food policy analyst, environmental campaigner, writer and columnist, says GM experiments should not be allowed to be taken out of the lab. In the second and concluding part of the interview, he urges researchers to change their mindset and quit promoting the commercial interests of fertiliser and pesticide companies. The first part appeared in the Feb/March issue
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In India, the introduction of genetically-modified rubber is caught in the crossfire of science and politics. While the government of the rubber-growing state of Kerala is opposed to GM, the federal government has given its official body, the Rubber Board the clearance to conduct field trials. Although the federally-funded Board has received the permission, it is yet to conduct field trials. Parliament has been officially informed that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Ministry of Environment has allowed it to take up field trials in 0.5 hectares each in the research farms of Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII) in Kerala and Maharashtra. However, it has not conducted any field trials so far.
It shows that the pressure on the government by environmental activists against GM rubber is working. But they are watching how long the government would put on hold field trials. One of the persons on the forefront opposing the introduction of GM rubber is Dr Devinder Sharma, who himself is a trained scientist. Explaining the flaws in GM research, he told Polymers & Tyre Asia about the falsehoods propagated by interested parties.
He recalled that ‘pharming’ was trumpeted in the initial stages, but researchers themselves had realised its futility and dangers. Several pharma crops had been developed but all of them got entangled in controversy. For example, GM banana with a gene for hepatitis-B was attempted to be pushed in India by none other than John Hopkins University, but it was eventually turned down, Dr Sharma explained.
“Even at that time I had questioned the need for GM banana,” he pointed out. At that time the proponents were trying to market the product, which had still not been approved for biosafety in the US. “They were exploiting public emotions whereas in reality they were treating India as a giant field testing laboratory,” Dr Sharma charged.
“I am of the opinion that any GM pharma rubber possibilities should remain confined to the laboratories and should not be allowed to be taken out of the lab,” he cautioned. “The possibility of a pharma gene escaping (knowing the danger it poses by contaminating our food and feed supplies) into the environment, is very likely, and India cannot afford to add onto its human health and environmental problems. The precautionary principle must be adhered to.”
Rubber researchers have been saying that the GM experiment is not intended to create transgenic tree as it has incorporated the target gene (MnSOD) from rubber itself and not from any other species. But Dr Sharma fiercely says that such statements are untrue. "MnSOD gene is certainly from the rubber plant itself. But it uses virus gene as a promoter and bacteria gene as a marker,” he explained.
Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV 35S) gene is being used as a promoter and npt II Kanamycin resistance and GUS reporter genes from bacteria (E. coli) as markers.
“We need to know that both CaMV 35S and npt II genes are the same genes that have been used in several field crops as well as edible crops. Notwithstanding the denial by the Rubber Board, there is enough scientific evidence that shows that these genes can cause adverse effects on both human beings and animals,” Dr Sharma asserted.
In any case, the use of the virus and bacteria gene constructs for inserting the MnSOD gene into the rubber plants makes the plant transgenic. “It, therefore, has to follow the biosafety norms that are prescribed for any GM plant,” he demanded. Commenting on a point of view that Gene cDNA or MnSOD can trigger human hazards, he explained that scientists have observed low expression of MnSOD enzyme in different cancer tissues.
Studies conducted by the Department of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health has conclusively shown that the MnSOD gene, which works as an antioxidant in human cells to defend against diseases, does modify breast cancer risk among women.
Later, another study in 2008 observed that men with MnSOD gene variant (MnSOD gene is passed from parents to children in three forms) in their body and who also had long-term lycopene (it is not an essential nutrient, but is commonly found in diets rich in tomato) status had more possibility of prostate cancer.
Then what is the alternative strategy that India should adopt to increase rubber output in view of the current deficit of 55,000 tonnes of natural rubber? To increase the rubber output, there should be a change in the mindset of RRII scientists, Dr Sharma has argued. “They have so far backed and promoted the commercial interests of fertiliser and pesticide companies. This is true of agricultural scientists elsewhere too,” he explained.
Considering the rising concerns from global warming, soil destruction and stagnating yields, it is time that RRII scientists go in for a complete overhaul of the package of practices that they promote.
Dr Sharma cited two sensible approaches that can bring a turnaround to the rubber plantation sector. He gave an example of a rubber farmer in Kerala. Chandrasekharan Nair, a small rubber farmer near Thiruvanthapuram in Kerala, has abandoned the cultivation practices that the Rubber Board would come up with, and since 2005 had gone into organic cultivation of rubber. "Today he follows the rubber cultivation practices that RRII scientists would not endorse,” Dr Sharma said.
“But the fact is that Chandrasekharan has a higher productivity than the average yield attained in Kerala,” he said. He suggested that doubters should log on to the rubber farmer’s website http://keralafarmeronline.com to learn about his practices.
Another example that Dr Sharma gave was that of Dr Laxmi Thankamma, who had retired as a mycologist from the RRII.
“It is quite obvious that the RRII may not like to acknowledge her achievements. But with the help of an NGO – Integrated Rural Technology Centre – she has demonstrated that the latex productivity can be enhanced by an average of 75%, with the productive lifespan of the trees also doubling thereby bringing more revenue in the hands of the tappers.”
Her technology, based on simple grafting techniques, has been tried in eight districts in Kerala with excellent results. Significantly, no tree goes into tapping panel dryness (TPD) when farmers follow the approach she advocates.
Dr Sharma vows that if the incidence of TP is brought down drastically, and with the available height of the tree for drawing latex also doubling, there is no need to experiment with risky and hazardous technologies like GM rubber. But he is wondering whether the scientific community is willing to listen to saner voices. He is also asking whether the rubber industry is prepared to look beyond its immediate profits.
These are the questions that need to be answered objectively before considering whether India should go for GM rubber, Dr Sharma said.