Modern technology with its use of genetic engineering, whereby DNA molecules from different organisms (rDNA) can be combined, is emerging as a potential tool in agriculture. The plant’s varieties that are being developed through this technique are popularly known as genetically engineered (GE), genetically modified (GM) or transgenic crops. Although genetic modification of plants through conventional selection and breeding is an age old practice, the GM crops techniques are more precise and genes can be transferred to microorganisms and plants—a process not possible earlier. Some prefer to use the term ‘transgenic technology’ instead of GM for the same reason.
Given the newer processes of gene transfer, the products generated by GM techniques need to be scanned under the food and environmental safety codes. In India, the manufacture, import, use, research and delivery of GM organism and the products using the rDNA technology are regulated by the rules commonly known as the Rules 1989 of the Environment (protection) Act 1986 administered by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF& CC). The rules cover not only areas of research but also large-scale applications of GM organisms and resultant products.
GM or transgenic technology has been in use for more than 20 years and has undergone many improvements. Earlier transgenics were developed from simpler genes; now more complex genomes have become easier to handle and analyze leading to new generation of transgenics.
Genetically modified crop in India
Cotton is a long duration crop and is attacked by a large number of insect pests throughout its growth and development. American boll worm, pink boll worm, and spotted bollworms are the major pests that cause a serious threat to cotton production resulting in significant yield losses. BT cotton is the only transgenic crop whose gene has been derived from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly referred as Bt that has been approved for cultivation in India.
Bt has been used as an insecticide for control of stored grain pests since 1938 in France and from 1961 as a registered pesticide in the USA and later in many other countries including India as sprays in cotton IPM programs to control insects. Bt toxins thus have several decades of proven selective toxicity to insect pests and with established safety record to non-target animals (Kranthi, 2012)
At the outset, the introduction of Bt cotton seems to have worked, for the area under cotton, which was earlier on decline in India—from an average of 8.7 million hectares in 2001 to 7.8 million hectares in 2002 and 2003 because of frequent boll worm infestation and outbreaks has increased to about 12.2 million hectares in 2011. Thus there was an additional increase of at least 3 million hectares because of the introduction of Bt-cotton (ibid). Likewise, a yield of cotton which was 189 kg lint per ha in 2001 has increased to 504 kg lint per ha in 2015.
In 2009, Btbrinjal was found safe for environmental release by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). However, a moratorium was laid in 2010. A report in December 2010 provided a scientific analysis in view of the national debate on GM crops including Btbrinjal (Giri and Tyagi, 2016). The Report recommended the use of transgenic crops for sustainable agriculture. At the same time, there were other reports asking for a more nuanced analysis of all the concerns which were being voiced against GM crops.
In general, the proponents of this technology recommend the adoption of transgenic technology on the basis of the following:
Better Yields: Transgenic technology leads to low-input/high output cropping pattern. Given the progressively shrinking land and enhanced demands for developmental activities, India needs such a measure.
Resistance to disease: GM crops are pest-resistant. For example, there are no solutions for cotton boll worms or leaf curl viruses found in any cotton form. The breeding option has also been unsuccessful. Under the circumstances, GM technology can be used which transfer desirable traits into popular varieties.
Fewer Inputs: Adopting GM crops help farmers build sustainable agricultural practices i.e., shifting to reduced or no tilling of fields and fewer pesticide applications.
Risk Assessment: A major concern has been regarding the risks GM crops may have on animal and human health and the environment. Gene transfer through pollen/seed dispersal as well as horizontal gene transfer, transfer of foreign gene to micro-organisms or generation of new live viruses by recombination are other potential risks. However, given the prolonged use across many developed countries, the GM crops have undergone strict assessments. It has been found that they do not pose any more risks to people, animal or the environment than any other food.
The debate on GM cropping has once again regained vigor, essentially because genetically-modified mustard (DMH-11) seems to be moving closer to being cleared for commercial cultivation in India. The mustard in question has been developed by a team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental under a government funded project. In essence, it uses a system of genes from a soil bacterium that makes mustard—generally, a self-pollinating plant, better suited to hybridization than current methods. A similar sequence of genes has been used in imported canola oil. This means local crop developers can more easily develop different varieties of hybrid mustard, such as that of GM cotton, and confer traits like pest resistance and potentially improving yield (Koshy, 2016). It has been argued that out of many conventional methods of hybrid seed production, the best results so far has been through the GM method. There are about 85 crop species including rice, brinjal, chickpeas, banana and groundnuts which are under various stages of research and development in India.
GM crops have faced opposition in many countries across the globe. They have been perceived by a section of society to be detrimental to the environment, human health, and socioeconomic parity.
In India, various non-governmental organizations and civil society actors are up against the arms against GM technology. Although some of the crucial features of GM crops such as insect resistance, herbicide, and drought tolerance seem to be helpful for farming in general, Vandana Shiva and other opponents of agricultural biotechnology argue that the higher cost of patented GM seeds as against the conventional sources (produced by giant corporations), seed dissemination and the lack of adequate information prevent poor farmers from sowing them in their fields.
Moreover, there is the risk of pollen from genetically engineered crops drifting into the wild, altering plant ecosystems forever. Many people, however, raise an even more fundamental objection—crossing varieties and growing them in fields is one thing, but using a gene gun to fire a bacterium into seeds seems like a violation of the rules of life (Specter 2014).
Internationally too, there are debates involving the issues surrounding GM crops. In London, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in its Fifth Report of the session 2014-15 provided a detailed report regarding the advanced genetic techniques for crop improvement, its regulation, risk, and precautions. In general, the report highlighted a framework for transgenic research and their release based on ‘product-based’ rather than ‘process-based’ assessment with due consideration to risks as well as benefits. According to the Report:
… there is a need to reframe and widen what has been a debate about ‘GM’, in order to initiate a new, more constructive conversation about what we want from food and agriculture. Only from that can we establish what role we would like advanced crop breeding approaches to playing. We recommend a large scale public dialogue on the future of food and farming and a shift in the government’ own frames of reference regarding these technologies. We also recommend that the government clarify its own thinking about the precautionary principle so that it can act as a better guide to policy making (Giri &Tyagi 2016).
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 the safety of such products. Considering all such views and debates, the action and effect remains to be seen in the larger context.
- Giri J. and A. K. Tyagi. 2016. Genetically engineered crops: India’s path ahead. Available at: http://www.natureasia.com/en/nindia/article/10.1038/nindia.2016.30
- Koshy J. 2016. GM mustard moves closer to approval. The Hindu. August 26.
- Kranthi, K. R. 2012. Bt Cotton: Questions and answers. Available at: http://www.cicr.org.in/pdf/bt_book_kra nthi.pdf
- Specter M. 2014. Seeds of Doubt: An activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt.