GM Crops in India: Issues and challenges – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

A United Nations report issued in 2019 predicted that the global population would peak at 11 billion in 2100. A new forecast published in Lancet in 2020 pegs global population at around 9.7 billion in 2064. Even with the more comforting Lancet prediction, there will be additional 2 billion people on the planet compared to the present population of 7.9 billion.

The population of India under the best scenario will peak at 1.6 billion in 2048, a number very close to the global population of 1.65 billion in 1900.

In this light, one major challenge will be of feeding the world population by enhancing agricultural productivity while minimizing its environmental impacts.

One of the many alternatives to this problem is afforded by Genetically Modified Crops. While some experts agree to this proposition, yet there are others who vehemently argue against it.

It must be noted that transgenic crops are already an integral part of the Indian government’s plans (Technology Vision 2035) to boost farm productivity and for pushing investment and growth in the biotechnology sector.

Let’s try and understand the issues, challenges, advantages and concerns associated with GM Crops.

What are GMOs?

As per the World Health Organization (WHO),

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.

The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”. It is sometimes referred to as “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”.

It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species. Foods/Crops produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods/crops.

Unlike what plant breeders did traditionally in cross breeding by combining genes from same or closely related plant species, GM technology does not restrict trait selection. Genes from any living organism, be it plants, or animals, is used to arrive at the desired traits.

What is the rationale behind introduction of GM Crops?

The current challenge in agriculture is to increase productivity, to fight against hunger and malnutrition, while lowering environmental footprint, like reduction in the usage of groundwater and assuring long-term sustainability of agricultural operations.

Low input-High output agriculture is the way forward and GM Crops can help achieve that goal.

What the benefits/advantages of GM Crops?

GM crops can save farmers’ income, reduce pesticide load on the environment and provide pesticide- and insect-free crops to consumers while also boosting the soil conservation efforts.

For instance: In the case of cotton, farmers cite the high cost of weeding, which goes down considerably if they grow HT Bt cotton (Herbicide Tolerant) 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.

The GM technology is also being used to develop drought tolerant and nutrient efficient varieties. Moreover, it can help produce foods with better shelf life, taste and texture.

Crops can even be engineered to be more nutritious, providing critical vitamins to populations that struggle to get specific nutrients needed for healthy living.

What is the situation wrt GM crops in India?

India was an early adopter of GM crops when the regulatory body, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), cleared the cultivation of Bt cotton in 2002.

Bt cotton remains the only GM crop approved for cultivation in India till date. This implies that the cultivation of GM versions of other crops is banned in the country. In spite of the ban, incidences of suspected open cultivation of Bt. Brinjal has been reported in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, and Punjab.

Also, the area under Bt. Cotton cultivation has increased from less than 1% in 2002-03 to almost 94% in 2019-20.

What is the legal framework wrt GM crops in India?

Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has been set up in India under the Ministry for Environment, Forest, and Climate Change. According to the 1989 rules on genetically engineered organisms, the main function of the statutory body is to regulate the use, manufacture, storage, import, and export of hazardous organisms, genetically engineered organisms and cells in India.

In 2002, the GEAC allowed the commercial release of Bt cotton. Almost 94 per cent of the country’s cotton area has since then come under Bt cotton.

Use of an unapproved GM variant can attract a jail term of 5 years and fine of Rs 1 lakh under the Environmental Protection Act ,1986.

What are the challenges/issues/concerns wrt GM crops?

i). Environmental concerns:

Since a GMO is artificially created, its breeding with the other crops in the natural ecosystem can result in genetic contamination.

Another argument from ecologists is that the Bt. crops can harm non-target insects thereby affecting species diversity. In the case of Bt. Corn, Monarch butterflies feeding on wild milkweed that grows near cornfields may be harmed.

GM technology could also allow the transfer of genes from one crop to another, creating “super weeds”, which might be immune to common control methods.

ii). Economic concerns:

Various claims around stress tolerance, nutrition and yields have turned out to be false, including in India with its Bt cotton experience. Cotton yield has stagnated around 460 kgs per hectare in the recent past, despite most cotton being GM. The most impressive yield growth was achieved between 2000 and 2006 (from 278 kg to 521 kg/ ha) when GM cotton adoption was marginal. There has been no such yield increase thereafter.

– Increased use of chemicals: On the other hand, increased illegal use of glyphosate is bringing its own problems. Though GM Cotton was supposed to be more resistant to pests, chemical usage (including pesticides) in India’s cotton cultivation has actually increased. This season, cotton farmers in North India have been protesting over pink bollworm infestation. Before that there was a white fly attack. It is noteworthy that 24 countries that are ahead of India in terms of cotton yields do not grow GM cotton.

– Corporate control over farming is facilitated by GM technology (with accompanying Intellectual Property Rights), giving them control over the food supply. From an economic standpoint, this poses a risk to the long-term food security by creating dependence on a single or limited number of suppliers. If the supplier company failed, then the crop it provides would not be available to the people who depend on that crop.

iii). GM crops are modified to include antibiotics to kill germs and pests. And when they are consumed, these antibiotic markers will persist in the body rendering the actual antibiotic medications less effective over a period of time, leading to superbug threats. This means illnesses will become more difficult to cure.

iv). Ethical concerns: Five sets of ethical concerns have been raised about GM crops:

potential harm to human health

potential damage to the environment

negative impact on traditional farming practice

excessive corporate dominance

unnaturalness of the technology

v). People in general are wary of GM crops as they are engineered in a lab and do not occur in nature.

What is the way forward?

Creating awareness: If there are unjustified risks in adopting a particular technology, there can be substantial losses in rejecting it based on imaginary fears. Here, academia should come forward and help in guiding public perception and building confidence in the appropriate processes and products of GM technology.

Govt should again take up the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill to ensure a sturdy regulatory architecture in India. This encourages entry of competitors that could check monopolistic conditions in the GMO market.

Measured, tested introduction of GM crops: Any decision on introduction of GM technologies must be taken on the basis of scientific evidence. A participatory approach should be adopted in order to bring together all stakeholders to develop regulatory protocols. This would ensure trust in the entire process.

Conclusion

By resisting genetic engineering technologies, India risks falling behind the rest of the world where scientists are deploying gene editing tools to improve yields, disease resistance and shelf life of crops.

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