CURRENT AFFAIRS


GM Crops

By Aspire IAS

18 June 2019 12:00:00

The CRUX:

GM crop – Bt Brinjal grown in Haryana illegally. Bt Brinjal is an insect resistant crop.

Facts:

No evidence from Ministry of Agriculture that Bt Brinjal will benefit farmers.

A report by National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy, anticipates that if Bt brinjal performs as Mahyco proposes, brinjal output will increase and retail prices will fall, benefiting consumers far more than farmers but ignores the scenario that companies might charge premium prices for Bt brinjal seeds, in which case farmers may not benefit at all.

 

Opinions:

Deepak Pental (Professor, Delhi University) – In favour of release of Bt Brinjal.

Madhav Gadgil (ecologist) – Warned of contamination of India’s diverse brinjal varieties.

Government’s task force on Biotechnology (2004) – No GM crop should be allowed in biodiversity-rich areas.

Experts appointed by SC (after PIL over GM crops) – Recommended a ban on genetic modification of the crops that have India as their centre of origin or diversity, including Bt Brinjal.

Other Issues:

  • Many health researchers have argued that Bt Brinjal pose risk to human health.
  • Even M.S. Swaminathan called for long-term (chronic) toxicity studies independent of Mahyco, before taking any decision on Bt Brinjal
  • In states, Kerala and Uttarakhand have asked for a ban on GM crops.
  • Even states with substantial brinjal cultivation, like Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal opposed it suggesting rigorous, extensive testing.
  • In 2017, Committee on Agriculture appointed to assess GM controversy - it was so alarmed by the irregularities in the assessment of Bt brinjal, that it recommended a thorough probe by a team of eminent independent scientists and environmentalists”. It also recommended labelling GM foods to protect consumer’s right to know. 

Conclusion

Therefore, there is no scientific consensus on safety and efficacy of Bt Brinjal.

Bt Brinjal does not seem to be a sustainable option because it is pest resistant and it has been found from earlier experience that a GM-based strategy for pest control is unsustainable because the pest tends to become resistant as is seen in the case of Bt cotton crop. To prevent such cases, farmers need to grow refuge crop, but due to paucity of land, they are not able to do so.

{Vocabulary check – paucity - a falling short of an essential or desirable amount or number}

Now, alternative strategies such as organic and zero budget natural farming, which do not need GM seeds is gaining ground.

Solutions:

Government must: 

  • Detail the steps it has taken since 2010 to address the scientific lacunae
  • Clarify precisely how Bt Brinjal will benefit farmers
  • Put the labelling infrastructure into place
  • Demonstrate how Bt brinjal can fit with sustainable farming and biodiversity conservation

Topic: GM Crops

What are GM crops?

According to WHO, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as 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.

GM crops are produced by “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between nonrelated species. Foods that are produced using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods.

Possible benefits of GM crops

Pest Resistance

GM crops provide resistance to insect/pest attack. Crops can be made resistant to a particular insect or a group of pests. Bt Cotton is one of the GM crops that provide resistance to pests, thus reducing the demand of pesticides.

Disease resistance

Crops can also be modified genetically to become resistant to bacterial, fungal or viral infestation.

Environment-resilient Crops

Crops can be made environment resilient. Genes that confer protection against environmental stresses can be introduced in crops. Thus, they can be made to withstand environmental stresses. This benefit outshines others in the current scenario of climate change.

Herbicide tolerance

Herbicides are the chemicals used to kill weed (unwanted plants) in the field. As herbicides are extensively used in large fields, herbicide tolerance gives an added advantage to the main crop. GM soyabean is modified to become herbicide tolerant

Biopharmaceuticals

Crops can be genetically modified to produce vaccines and other medicines. Plant-based vaccine against dengue and rabies viruses have been reported to be produced in Lactuca sativa (Lettuce) and Zea Mays.

Improved nutritional value

Crops can be genetically modified to contain additional nutrients that need to be added in diet. Golden rice is a modified form of rice that contains enhanced levels of b-carotene, to prevent deficiency of Vitamin A.

Biodiesel Production

Plants that are used to produce biodiesel can be modified to increase their production, so as to increase the output enormously from limited land area. 

Associated Problems

  • There is a lack of data on the potential threats of GM crops on the environment and human health.
  • There are chances of cross-pollination between GM and non-GM crops, it can also have unknown effects on other organisms like micro-organisms.
  • It can lead to a loss of flora and fauna biodiversity.
  • There is a domination of a few companies in GM crop production
  • It makes the developing countries more dependent on the developed countries. It may also widen the gap between rich and poor countries.
  • It may lead to biopiracy

Some of the ethical issues being highlighted in the context of GM Crops include interference with nature, by transferring genes from one species to another and ignoring the intrinsic value of organisms and trying to alter them.

Note: International Trade in GM Crops is guided by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which regulates trans-boundary movements of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs). GM foods are within the scope of the Protocol only if they contain LMOs that are capable of transferring or replicating genetic material. 

Conclusion

Instead of fast-tracking steps in the direction of GM crops, India should focus on adopting sustainable approach. Government should focus on research in the direction and revive traditional methods of agriculture to boost agricultural production and productivity.