Insights into Editorial: Genetically modified crops: the way forward
08 February 2016
The promise and performance of genetically modified crops in agriculture is once again under the spotlight, with the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee recently putting on hold the discussion on commercial use of genetically modified mustard.
- GM mustard is the first food crop to have applied for commercialisation after the indefinite ban on the GM brinjal by the Jairam Ramesh-led environment ministry in 2010.
Implications of this decision:
This move might discourage R&D in Agriculture. India, given its large population, cannot afford to shut out technological innovations in agriculture. Indian agricultural technology will remain in a rut unless it gets high level political backing.
India’s experiences so far:
Currently, India has the world’s fourth largest GM crop acreage on the strength of Bt cotton, the only genetically modified crop allowed in the country.
- The introduction of Bt cotton has been both highly successful and controversial. Cotton yield more than doubled in the first decade since its introduction in 2002. At the same time it was also shadowed by controversy, with a tangle of pricing and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues followed by government price interventions and litigation.
- An agreement to develop Bt brinjal was signed in 2005 between Mahyco—American agricultural biotech giant Monsanto’s Indian Bt cotton partner—and two Indian agricultural universities. Following the study of biosafety data and field trials by two expert committees, Bt brinjal was cleared for commercialization by India’s top biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, in 2009. But nothing came of it, with moratoriums imposed by then government following opposition from civil society groups and brinjal-growing states.
What is a GM crop?
A GM or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.
- For example, a GM crop can contain a gene(s) that has been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring it through pollination.
- The resulting plant is said to be “genetically modified” although in reality all crops have been “genetically modified” from their original wild state by domestication, selection, and controlled breeding over long periods of time.
Do we need GM crops?
Yes and why?
- Higher crop yields.
- Reduced farm costs.
- Increased farm profit.
- Improvement in health and the environment.
No and why?
- It is clear that the technology of genetic engineering is an evolving one and there is much, especially on its impact on human health and environment, that is yet to be understood properly. The scientific community itself seems uncertain about this. While there are many in this community who feel that the benefits outweigh the risks, others point to the irreversibility of this technology and uncontrollability of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) once introduced in the ecosystem. Hence, they advocate a precautionary approach towards any open release of GMOs.
- One of the concerns raised strongly by those opposing GM crops in India is that many important crops like rice, brinjal, and mustard, among others, originated here, and introducing genetically modified versions of these crops could be a major threat to the vast number of domestic and wild varieties of these crops. In fact, globally, there is a clear view that GM crops must not be introduced in centres of origin and diversity. India also has mega biodiversity hotspots like the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats which are rich in biodiversity yet ecologically very sensitive. Hence it will only be prudent for us to be careful before we jump on to the bandwagon of any technology.
- There is also a potential for pests to evolve resistance to the toxins produced by GM crops and the risk of these toxins affecting nontarget organisms.
- There is also the danger of unintentionally introducing allergens and other anti-nutrition factors in foods.
Few evidences show that though GM crops have been gaining acceptance their use still remains highly skewed. Only 29 countries allow commercial cultivation of GM crops while a similar number also allow their import. And most of the 170 million hectares under GM crops are in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, India and China. Moreover 98% of GM cultivation falls under four main crops: soyabean, maize, cotton and canola. Experts also say that GM technologies will continue to focus on these crops for some time.
Things to be considered:
- Field trials in India, in which the State governments have a say, must ensure that there are sufficient safeguards against such violations.
- If GM food is allowed to be sold to consumers, they must have the right to know what they are buying, and labelling should be made mandatory.
- India has taken only halting steps towards establishing a strong regulatory system; the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2013, which provided for multi-level scientific assessments and an appellate tribunal, has lapsed. Hence, a strong regulatory authority should be established.
Introduction of genetically modified cotton in India enhanced both output and yield. But this initial experience has not been followed by the introduction of GM food crops on account of alarmist protests.
- GM crops are subject to intense regulatory scrutiny and are not introduced unless they pass through multiple filters.
- With over two decades of experience across the world, fears have proven unfounded. Unless India is open to the introduction of cutting edge agricultural technology, inadequate farm yields will be hard to improve.
- It is also true that dependence on GM crops is a risky proposition. Hence, India needs to tap the potential of other technologies. As pointed out by a parliamentary committee India has better options for increasing productivity, like molecular breeding and integrated pest management, that can serve it in good stead for the time being.
Clearly, there can be no credible argument against scientific experiments in agriculture that advance the goal of developing plant varieties that can withstand drought, resist pests and raise yields to feed the growing world population. But this should be done through a transparent regulatory process that is free of ethical conflicts. All this underscores the need for a cautious approach — one that fosters scientific inquiry, allows for scrutiny and is underpinned by regulation. Enacting a comprehensive law that covers all aspects of GM crops should be a priority.