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May 27, 2018

Essay - Genetically Modified Crops Boon or Bane ?

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Genetically Modified Crops Boon or Bane?

  • What is genetic modification ?
  • Bt-Cotton, the first genetically modified crop and its commercialisation. 
  • Bt-Brinjal and Bt-Mustard were banned. 
  • Commercialisation of genetically modified crops in different countries. 
  • Lack of evidence against any negative effects does not rule out the risks involved in GM crops. 
  • Is there any allergic reaction for GH crops ?
  • Environmental issues involved in GM crops.
  • Some important features of GM crops.
  • Advantages of GM crops.
Genetic modification is a process which involves altering the DNA of an organism. DNA is a factor which defines the characteristics of an organism. Insertion of a foreign gene in a plant's own original gene can change its characteristics by making it resistant to disease e.g. Genetic engineering provides a quicker and more precise way to achieve some desirable traits, what farmer over years have tried through hit and trial method by breeding crops. The technology is often referred to as 'genetic engineering' or 'recombinant DNA technology' or `modern biotechnology'. Crops which are produced from this technology are often called as GM crops.

In India Bt-Cotton was the first crop which was approved for commercial cultivation in India. 'Be in Bt-Cotton stands for Bacillus thurigiensis. It is a bacterium which occurs inside catterpillars, vtrious types of moth and butterfly. This is inserted in plant genes to make it pest resistant. Bayer Crop Science was the first company in 1985 to develop genetically modified tobacco. The crop was never commercialised. But it was used to test genetic modification as it was not a part of food supply. India's tryst with Bt-Cotton started in 2002.

This GM crop variety developed by Monsanto, provided immunity against pink bollworm. The introduction of Bt Cotton revolutionised the cotton growing areas. As the acreage for cotton crop grew by almost 65% between 2002-03 and 2014-15. Bt-Cotton now claims over 95% of cotton acreage. Genetic Engineering Approval Committee gave the nod for commercialisation of GM crops in India. Till date Bt-Cotton is the only crop which has been commercialised.

Bt-Brinjal which was given green light for commercialisation in 2009, was put under indefinite moratorium, citing its adverse implications. Similarly, Bt-Mustard which was developed in laboratories of Delhi University was banned by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. Amidst all these issues, in 2016 Monsanto a MNC specialist in agrochemical technology threatens to leave India.

In late 2015, government had expressed intention to cap the prices of Bt-Cotton seeds. In a litigation in Delhi High Court, challenging government's decision, the court refused to put a stay order on the same. The issue got stretched further citing failure of Bt-Cotton. Bt-Crops has two genetic strands, BG-1 and BG-11 (BG-Bollgard). They provide resistance from pests and herbicides. But a recent study showed that BG-11 gene was unable to prevent pest attack and therefore, its commercial production be revoked.

Genetically modified crops were first commercialised in 1996 in countries like USA, Argentina, China, Mexico etc. On one side it has various advantage while on the other there are various health and environmental concerns associated with GM crops. Studies done at Environmental Protection Agency, USA has suggested that after toxicology study done there was no side effects of Bt-Crops on mammal. Bt-Toxins were used in laboratory mouse to observe any ill effects but the conclusion resulted in negative reports, suggesting no harmful effects.

The same reports were also verified by World Health Organisation and International Council for Science. However, lack of evidence against any negative effects does not mean that GM crops are without any risks. Scientists are of the view that the food safety assessment should be done on case by case basis.

Another concern related to human health was the allergenicity studies. Genetic engineering in foods may lead to allergic reactions in certain individuals. Tests done by Food and Agriculture Organisations and World Health Organisation concluded that on the basis of bioinformatics, there was no concern regarding allergenicity. Also, studies done on its digestibility has suggested that gastric juice were able to digest the Bt-toxins. As most allergenics resists digestion therefore, a negative test result on Bt-Crops suggested that they were easily digestible and had no allergic reactions.

Environmental concern is the greatest of all concerns related to GM-Foods. The prime concern is the phenomenon of Outcrossing'. Cross-pollination of genes of GM crops with conventional crops may have adverse effect on stability and safety.

According to World Health Organisation, other environmental issues includes: persistence of gene in the ecology even after the crop has been harvested. Also, the susceptibility of non-target organisms e.g. insects, which are not pests, to get exposed to GM crop's, gene. Also in the process, the stability of the gene may get hampered after engineering. It may also lead to loss of diversity in gene pool which occurs due to natural cross-pollination.

An artificial intervention may confine the gene pool. Also, some study has shown that with time, they also become resistant to pesticides thereby requiring more chemical pesticides, fertilizers etc for its effectiveness.

Some other concerns vis a vis GM crops are the following
  • The seeds of GM crops requires permission for breeding and are costly for small farmers to procure. Therefore, legal and economic issues are involved. 
  • GM crops have shown unusual taste and do not taste natural as compared to other conventional food. 
  • MNC's involved in genetic modification have monopolistic tendencies and can affect economic policy of government by lobbying.
GM crops, on the other hand have various related advantages. The greatest advantage as pointed out by its ardent supporters is that they are disease and pest resistant. It therefore, makes the task of farmer relatively easier. Also, it has been shown that as a result of its pest resistance properties, less use of chemicals takes place thereby making it more environment friendly.

Other benefit of GM crops is conspicuous by its increasing acreage. The production of crops per unit area is more as compared to traditional crops. This makes GM crops more attractive proposition for farmers. Also, it has been suggested that with modifications, they can also be made more nutritious.

Moreover, they can also be made to thrive in poor or adverse climatic conditions. Their shelf life can be increased by prolonging its ripening time. Also there can be option to change the flavour of crops. As they can be grown on marginal lands, they can also be a drivers to ensure food security in food starved regions, like Africa.

The debate on the usage of GM crops is currently unfolding itself. Till that time, the best option with us is to restrict its applications for human consumption. All the stakeholders should be brought onboard before any concrete step is taken in this direction. GM crops have many advantages but these alone should not be the driving factor for approving it in food supply sector.

Difficult Words with Meanings :
  • Bollworm a larva that feeds on seeds of the bolls of cotton
  • Acreage extent or area in acres
  • Moratorium a suspension of activity or a time when particular activity is not allowed
  • Agrochemical any chemical used in agricultural production
  • Allergenicity causing allergic sensitisation
  • Bioinformatics the retrival and analysis of biochemical and biological data using mathematics and computer science
  • Outcrossing to cross (animals or plants) by breeding or individuals of different strains but, usually of the same breed
  • Pollination the transfer of pollen from the anther to the stigm
  • Monopolistic an advocate of monopoly
  • Conspicous easily seen or noticed
shared by Nisheeta Mirchandani
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