- Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering.
- This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.
- Conventional plant breeding involves crossing species of the same genus to provide the offspring with the desired traits of both parents.
- Genetic engineering aims to transcend the genus barrier by introducing an alien gene in the seeds to get the desired effects.
- The alien gene could be from a plant, an animal or even a soil bacterium.
Bt cotton, the only GM crop that is allowed in India, has two alien genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that allows the crop to develop a protein toxic to the common pest pink bollworm. Ht Bt, on the other, cotton is derived with the insertion of an additional gene, from another soil bacterium, which allows the plant to resist the common herbicide glyphosate.
Potential negative effects on the environment
- Genes can end up in unexpected places:Through "gene escape" they can pass on to other members of the same species and perhaps other species. Problems could result if, for example, herbicide-resistance genes got into weeds.
- Genes can mutate with harmful effect:It is not yet known whether artificial insertion of genes could destabilize an organism, encouraging mutations, or whether the inserted gene itself will keep stable in the plant over generations.
- "Sleeper" genes could be accidentally switched on and active genes could become "silent":Organisms contain genes that are activated under certain conditions -- for example, under attack from pathogens or severe weather. When a new gene is inserted, a "promoter" gene is also inserted to switch it on. This could activate a "sleeper" gene in inappropriate circumstances. This is especially relevant in long-lived organisms - such as trees. Sometimes the expression of genes is even "silenced" as a result of unknown interactions with the inserted gene.
- Interaction with wild and native populations:GMOs could compete or breed with wild species. Farmed fish, in particular, may do this. GM crops could pose a threat to crop biodiversity, especially if grown in areas that are centres of origin of that crop. In addition, GM crops could compete with and substitute traditional farmers' varieties and wild relatives that have been bred, or evolved, to cope with local stresses.
- For example, local varieties in Latin America permitted the recovery from the catastrophic potato blight in Ireland in the 1840s. Today such plants often help improve climate tolerance and disease resistance. If genetically modified crop varieties substitute them, they could be lost.
- Impact on birds, insects and soil biota: Nobody quite knows the impact of horizontal flow of GM pollen to bees' gut or of novel gene sequences in plants to fungi and soil and rumen bacteria. Besides, it is feared that widespread use of GM crops could lead to the development of resistance in insect populations exposed to the GM crops.
Potential negative effects on human health
- Transfer of allergenic genes:These could be accidentally transferred to other species, causing dangerous reactions in people with allergies. For example, an allergenic Brazil-nut gene was transferred into a transgenic soybean variety. Its presence was discovered during the testing phase, however, and the soybean was not released.
- Mixing of GM products in the food chain: Unauthorized GM products have appeared in the food chain. For example, the GM maize variety Starlink, intended only for animal feed, was accidentally used in products for human consumption. Although there was no evidence that Starlink maize was dangerous to humans, strict processing controls may be required to avoid such future.
- Transfer of antibiotic resistance:Genes that confer antibiotic resistance are inserted into GMOs as "markers" to indicate that the process of gene transfer has succeeded. Concerns have been expressed about the possibility that these "marker genes" could confer resistance to antibiotics. This approach is now being replaced with the use of marker genes that avoid medical or environmental hazards.
Potential socio-economic effects
- Loss of farmers' access to plant material:Biotechnology research is carried out predominantly by the private sector and there are concerns about market dominance in the agricultural sector by a few powerful companies. This could have a negative impact on small-scale farmers all over the world.
- Intellectual property rights could slow research:The proprietary nature of biotechnology products and processes may prevent their access for public-sector research. This might have a stronger negative impact in developing countries where no private research initiatives are in place.
- Impact of "terminator" technologies:Although these are still under development and have not yet been commercialized. However, if applied they would, prevent a crop from being grown the following year from its own seed. This means that farmers could not save seeds for planting the next season. Some believe that this technology, also known as the Technology Protection System, could have the advantage of preventing out-crossing of GM seeds.
GM crops have bred super weeds
- Since the late 1990s, US farmers had widely adopted GM cotton engineered to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate.
- In 2004, herbicide-resistant amaranth was found in one county in Georgia; by 2011, it had spread to 76 countries.
Monarch Butterflies (Cornell University Study)
- Bt corn is a genetically modified maize that incorporates an insecticide producing gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis
- This insecticide is lethal to certain types of larvae, particularly the European corn borer which would otherwise eat the crop.
- However, concerns have been raised that the spread of Bt corn may also be impacting the survival rates of monarch butterflies.
Area of genetically modified (GM) crops worldwide in 2019, by country (in million hectares)
Merits of GM Crops in a nutshell
- Increased crop yields
- Reduced costs for food or drug production
- Reduced need for pesticides
- Enhanced nutrient composition
- Resistance to pests, diseases and herbicides
- Allowing plants to grow in conditions where they might not otherwise flourish
- Increased shelf life and hence there is less fear of foods getting spoiled quickly
- Increased stress tolerance
- Reduced maturation time
- New Products and growing techniques
- Increased resistance, productivity, hardiness and feed efficiency
- Better yield of meat, eggs and milk
- Decrease susceptibility to disease in animals
- Environment friendly bio-herbicides and bio-insecticides
- Conservation of soil, water and energy
- Bio-processing of forestry products
- Greater food security and medical benefits to the world’s growing population
The annual total national farm income benefit from HT soybean has dramatically risen from $5 million in 1996, to approximately $159.8 million in 2016.
HT canola has boosted the total canola production in Canada by almost 11% in 2016.
The additional increase in farm income by HT maize farmers in 2016 was $23.7 million.
Canada is estimated to have enhanced farm income from biotech crops by $8.03 billion in the period 1996 to 2016.
Bt maize adoption in Spain in 2016 resulted in yield increases of 6.3% on average.
Farmers also experienced savings on pesticide use by $7.09/ha.
For 2016, Australian farmers planting IR cotton have significant cost savings of about $223.05/ha despite the high cost of technology.
CASE OF INDIA
Studies on the impact of BT cotton were conducted from 1998 to 2013. The results showed that yield increased by about 31% and insecticide spraying reduced by 39%, which translates to 88% increase in profitability.
Also, Cotton yield more than doubled in the first decade since its introduction in 2002, according to the Economic Survey 2011-12—by which point it accounted for 90% of cotton acreage.
Qaim and Khouser (2013) conducted a study from 2002 to 2008 to investigate the effect of Bt cotton on farmers’ family income and food security. According to the findings, the adoption of BT cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, leading to increased family income. The technology reduced food insecurity by 15-20% among cotton-producing households.
GM technology increased crop yields by 22%, reduced chemical pesticides by 37% and increased farmer profits by 68%, with better results in developing countries than in developed ones - University of Gottingen, Germany study.
Millions of farmers growing BT cotton are experiencing reduced incidences of pesticide poisoning,
Legal position on genetically modified crops in India
- In India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is the apex body that allows for commercial release of GM crops.
- In 2002, the GEAC had allowed the commercial release of Bt cotton.
- More than 95 per cent of the country’s cotton area has since then come under Bt cotton.
- Use of the unapproved GM variant can attract a jail term of 5 years and fine of Rs 1 lakh under the Environmental Protection Act , 1989.
- The task of regulating GMO levels in imported consumables was initially with Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the Union environment ministry.
- Its role in this was diluted with the enactment of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and FSSAI was asked to take over approvals of imported goods.
- In 2018, after years of confusion and contradictory government orders around which body was capable of taking up the task, the FSSAI rolled out the procedure of framing regulations for imported foods.
- The recent FSSAI order of 1% was an addition to this developing regulatory framework.
Farmers’ rooting for GM crops
- In the case of cotton, farmers cite the high cost of weeding, which goes down considerably if they grow Ht BT cotton and use glyphosate against weeds.
- Brinjal growers in Haryana have rooted for Bt brinjal as it reduces the cost of production by cutting down on the use of pesticides.
- Unauthorised crops are widely used. Haryana has reported farmers growing Bt brinjal in pockets which had caused a major agitation there.
- In June 2019, in a movement led by Shetkari Sanghatana in Akola district of Maharashtra, more than 1,000 farmers defied the government and sowed Ht Bt cotton.
- The Sanghatana in 2020 announced that will undertake large-scale sowing of unapproved GM crops like maize, Ht BT cotton, soyabean and brinjal across Maharashtra.
- Long-lasting effect of GM crops is yet to be studied and before commercialization.
- There is a large scale public dialogue on the future of food and farming and a shift in the Government’s own frames of reference regarding these technologies.
- Government needs to clarify its own thinking about the precautionary principle, so that it can act as a better guide to policy making.
- There is a clear need to communicate the potential benefits, risks and practices of genetically engineered crops to all stakeholders of society.
- Additionally, efforts need to be made to provide a framework to arrive at appropriate science based conclusions regarding safety of such products.
- Taking the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill further will help adequately address many issues concerned with GE crops.