News / Science & Technology

India Halts Growth of Genetically-Modified Eggplants

Skeptics urge more thorough testing

Multimedia

Audio
TEXT SIZE - +

Indian officials have announced they will ban commercial planting of genetically modified eggplants until more tests demonstrate its safety. The decision follows heated public debate over the risks and benefits of the crop, which was designed to reduce the amount of insecticides applied to the vegetable.

Researchers worldwide are developing GM crops to tackle some of the world's biggest challenges in agriculture, from drought in Africa to floods in Asia. But as the ruling in India demonstrates, public concerns about GM crops remain strong even after more than a decade on the market.

Supporters say the GM eggplant would improve yields and reduce the use of harmful pesticides. Opponents say they are a threat to human health and environmental safety. These are the same battle lines that were drawn even before the first GM crops were introduced in the 1990s. And they haven't changed much since then.

Same story

The debate persists despite the fact that, for the past 13 years, GM crops have been grown and consumed without any evidence of a major health or environmental problem. An estimated 100 million hectares of GM crops were grown in 25 countries in 2008. That should put the opposition to rest, says Nina Fedoroff, a plant geneticist and a U.S. State Department advisor. But it hasn't.

"The only way that I can stay patient," she says, "is to recognize that this is not unique to GM foods, and it is not new."

Fedoroff says one reason that hostility to GM foods persists is because scientific advances often move faster than public acceptance. In the 19th century, opposition to a new smallpox vaccine continued after scientists were convinced it was safe and effective. In the 1960s and 1970s, she says, the Green Revolution's high-yielding crop varieties, which fed millions in South Asia, had their detractors, too.

"They were reputed to cause impotence, and all the things that people say GM plants cause today," she says. "And it just took work and dedication on the part of scientists who knew and believed that this was important for people to have. And now we look back and say, 'Oh, gee, that was great.'"

Urgent need to "get beyond" anti-GM bias

Fedoroff and a group of scientists from U.S. universities, international institutes and seed companies write in this week's issue of the journal Science, "There is a critical need to get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology." The article notes that there will be 3 billion more mouths to feed by mid-century while climate change threatens food supplies. GM, they say, is one of the technologies that can help meet the challenges.

"But, you know, we are losing time," adds P. A. Kumar, director of India's National Research Center for Plant Biotechnology. He's been working on developing the controversial eggplant and other GM crops for the better part of two decades. He says the needs in India are urgent.

"The food and nutritional security of this country is really under threat. On top of that, the environmental degradation, the quality of water, the quality of soil, the quality of [the] environment, are being compromised by the heavy use of pesticides in our agriculture," Kumar says.

Not so fast

The urgent call from supporters to move GM technology forward is matched by the intensity of opponents who say, "slow down."

Mira Shiva, with the Indian group Doctors for Food and Biosafety, is one of them. She says, look at the experience with some pharmaceuticals.

"Numerous drugs that were said to be very safe, over time they were found not to be safe," she says. "It happens. But they could be withdrawn. You cannot withdraw genetically modified [crops] at all. You cannot withdraw [them]. So, God forbid [that] tomorrow there are problems."

Unanswered questions

Doug Gurion-Sherman used to look for problems with GM crops as a regulator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He's now with the Union of Concerned Scientists. And he says one reason the doubts about GM crops persist is because even after more than a decade of use, some questions have gone unanswered.

"I don't think there's any definitive data that shows that these plants cause harm," he says. "What [the data] point to is a general inadequacy of the data requirements."

Gurion-Sherman says the data requirements for toxicity, for example, only call for 90-day tests, and they are not sensitive enough to detect problems if they do arise. Though more tests would cost the companies developing the plants more money, he says resistance to more rigorous testing is short-sighted.

Question of trust

"Until the proponents of the crop, who have adamantly resisted strengthening regulations, understand that public confidence is going to depend on regulatory agencies that can be counted on, that huge public mistrust is going to remain," he adds.

The question of trust could surface again. New GM crops are being developed that promise to cope with some of the world's biggest challenges in food production including tolerance to drought and salty soils and more efficient use of fertilizer. But, as India's moratorium on GM eggplant shows, these innovations will likely remain on the shelf unless the public trusts the regulators who say these crops are safe.

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid