Despite a current ban on genetically modified crops in agriculture in Switzerland, taxpayer money is being used to develop transgenic crops in India. Some outputs of this research have even been licensed to a private company with links to Monsanto.
The humble chickpea - or chana as it is commonly known in India - is a tasty legume that is rich in protein. It is used in a wide range of curries, street food and even served to devotees visiting Hindu temples. But not all the delicious chickpeas grown in the fields reach the plates –or banana leaves – of millions of its Indian fans. Almost a fifth of the crop is destroyed by a caterpillar called the pod borer.
This is where the Swiss have come to the rescue. However, the solutions proposed might not be to everyone’s taste and seem hypocritical in the face of Switzerland’s own domestic ban on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture.
Swiss GMO moratorium
In 2005, the Swiss people voted for a five-year ban on GMOs, which was then extended by the parliament in 2010 until 2013 and once again in 2012 until 2017. In June, the Swiss cabinet proposed extending this to 2021 but also recommended an amendment to the law to demarcate specific GMO zones in the country in the future.
Currently the government only allows genetically modified crop field trials on a case-by-case basis under strict conditions.
According to the Swiss and Indian government-funded Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology (ISCB) programme, the answer to the chickpea pest problem is creating transgenic plants. ISCB research - that is co-funded by the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) - involves the use of the same genetic engineering technology that American firm Monsanto used to create its controversial but commercially successful genetically modified Bt cotton. Early results from the lab show that these transgenic chickpeas provide almost complete protection from the pod borer caterpillar but yield much less.
The link to Monsanto doesn’t just end with the use of similar technology. The Swiss-funded research on developing transgenic chickpeas has been licensed to Indian seed company Mahyco which has close ties to Monsanto. According to Corporate Watch, Monsanto owns 26% of Mahyco and has also created the 50:50 joint venture Mahyco Monsanto Biotech to license Bt cotton technology to Indian firms.
The transgenic pod borer resistant chickpea is only one of several genetic engineering projects with Swiss financial support. Other such projects include creating drought resistant chickpeas, transgenic chickpeas with genes from garlic to repel sucking insects, and elite transgenic cassava plants that are immune to a certain virus. Many more are ongoing in the fourth phase (2013-16) of the ISCB that has a Swiss budget of CHF4.8 million ($4.86 million).
“One out of four research approaches on finding improved pigeon pea varieties and three out of five approaches for finding improved cassava varieties involve genetically modified organisms,” Tilman Renz, spokesperson for the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, told swissinfo.ch.
Is it ethical for Switzerland, where a ban of GMO use in agriculture is in place, to export GMO crop technology to a developing country under the guise of development aid? Should a controversial multinational corporation like Monsanto benefit from this transfer of technology funded by the Swiss taxpayer?
The Swiss government’s rationale for funding such research collaborations on GMOs is to “improve food security in India”, according to Renz. Food security is a part of the SDC’s mandate and it sees “green biotechnology” as a legitimate tool to achieve this.
“Research involving transgenic crops is not excluded in the moratorium on GMOs in Switzerland,” says Renz.
According to him, such research has the approval of the government as field trials with prior permission on certain protected sites has been allowed in Switzerland since 2014.
But not all agree with the SDC’s position on exporting GMO technology.
“If Switzerland is using public money to finance the development of GM-food, this is neither coherent with its national policy, nor is it backed by any proof, that GM seeds are a valid solution to fight hunger and malnutrition,” says Tina Goethe, head of right to food and climate change at Swiss NGO Bread for All.
She feels that Switzerland can contribute in other ways to improve the food security in developing countries.
“Evidence shows, that diverse agro-ecological system and organic farming are the best options for small farmers, for the protection of the environment, human health and climate resilient food production. Here, Switzerland would have a lot of knowledge and experience to offer,” she says.
Some Swiss NGOs that are funded by the SDC, are already helping in this kind of know-how transfer. One such non-profit is Swissaid and they don’t agree with the SDC’s support for transgenic crops in India.
“Organic farming and agroecology are better and more sustainable solutions for small farmers. We’ve had good results with our organic farming projects in India and find they are better suited to the country and also more resilient to climate change,” says Caroline Morel, Swissaid executive director.
Until fairly recently, GMOs in Indian agriculture, especially food crops, were a taboo. Only Monsanto’s Bt cotton managed to win commercial approval amidst much controversy. In 2010, after protests from farmers and activists, the Indian government slapped an indefinite moratorium on the commercialisation of a genetically modified aubergine variety called Bt brinjal developed by Mahyco. Indian states were also allowed to have a veto on field trials of GMO crops.
The climate changed when the new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into power. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has approved field trials for a variety of GMO food crops like rice, maize, sugarcane, aubergine, potatoes and mustard. None of them have been commercialised yet and it remains to be seen if they will meet the same fate as Bt brinjal in 2010. It is clear that the Swiss are funneling funds into what are seen as “growth sectors” by the Indian government and scientific establishment.
“I personally believe that chickpea ASAL [garlic gene] is a successful project as it is highly promising one,” project leader Sampa Das, of the Bose Institute in Calcutta, told swissinfo.ch.
But in projects expressly meant to improve the plight of small farmers, have the supposed beneficiaries of Swiss money been consulted on the GMO pathway to crop productivity?
Yes, but only after research priorities were already drawn up.
"Upon identification of areas of importance (crops and research areas) several multi-stakeholder workshops were conducted,” says Lilian Gilgen, ISCB programme manager.
In the multi-stakeholder workshops, farmers counted for only two out of around 20 participants, which included up to seven experts.
A socio-economic component was also belatedly introduced into ISCB projects from 2014 onwards. Even this move met with protests from researchers who complained that they would not be able to attract PhD students as it was not pure science research.
However, it would be unfair to label the ISCB as a vehicle solely for promoting genetically modified crops in India. It includes several non-GMO project such as the use of biofertilisers and bioinsecticides as well as promoting research on neglected crops like millets. Gilgen also told swissinfo.ch that the transgenic crops developed under the ISCB programme are a decade away from being ready for commercialisation.