According to the World Health Organisation, 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 or natural recombination.
Genetically modified crops (GMCs, GM crops or biotech crops) are plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering methods. In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species, for example food crops which are resistant to certain pests, diseases or environmental conditions, reduction of spoilage or resistance to chemical treatments or the crops with improved nutrient profile.
A GM crop involves techniques that are more precise and hence can bring desired results to a better extent. Biotechnologists have been able to engineer creations like potatoes with bacteria genes, fish with cattle growth and tomatoes with flounder genes and many such animals, plants and insects are genetically modified. GM has also put forward as a solution to food scarcity resulting from the increasing population and thus demand of food. Food crops that are genetically engineered include beetroot, cotton, soyabean and many more processed foods which land up in supermarkets contain GE products.
In India, Bt-Cotton was the first crop which was approved for commercial cultivation. ‘Bt’ in Bt-Cotton stands for Bacillus thurigiensis. It is a bacterium which occurs inside caterpillars, various types of moth and butterfly. This is inserted in plant genes to make it pest resistant. Plant Genetic Systems was the first company to develop in 1987 genetically modified tobacco using Bt genes that produced insecticidal proteins. The Bt Cotton was first approved for commercial cultivation in 1995 in USA. 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, but was put under indefinite moratorium later, citing its adverse implications. Similarly, genetically modified Mustard which was developed in laboratories of Delhi University was banned by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. Amidst all these issues in 2016, Monsanto, an 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 advantages while on the other there are various health and environmental concerns associated with GM crops.
A proposed benefit of GM foods is that they can potentially produce higher crop yields, which could help by feeding more people in developing countries. Almost 800 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. They are also cited as more economical, despite the initial higher cost of the seeds. The rationale is that they reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides. Improved food quality is another benefit associated with genetically modified foods. Tomato, for instance, can be engineered to stay fresher for longer, thereby extending its shelf life in the supermarket. Genetically modified foods can be engineered to have a high content of a specific nutrient that is lacking in the diet of a local population group.
But genetic modification of crops and food stuffs is one of the major controversial debates in the world. There have been doubts on the safety of genetically modified foods especially in the areas of human health and environmental degradation. Many people have fears that their health could experience unforeseeable effects by altering the genetic content of a plant. A worrisome issue in GM foods is the ability of a food to trigger an allergy in humans. Some of the genes used in GM technology might be taken from a food that causes allergies in some people. Inserting that gene into another organism could cause the host organism to express that allergen as a trait. Alternately, a new allergen could be produced when genes are mixed across different species.
Another potential downside to GM technology is that other organisms in the ecosystem could be harmed, which would lead to a lower level of biodiversity. By removing one pest that harms the crop, you could be removing a food source for an animal. Also, GM crops could prove toxic to an organism in the environment, leading to reduced numbers or extinction of that organism.
Given that some GM foods are modified using bacteria and viruses, there is a fear that we will see the emergence of new diseases. The threat to human health is a worrisome aspect of GM technology and one that has received a great deal of debate.
As the world’s demand for food continues to increase, plant breeders work to breed better yielding crop varieties. Genetic modification is one of these methods and it allows plant breeders to produce a crop variety that could not be bred using conventional breeding. Genetically modified crops are plants used in agriculture which the DNA has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species. An example of this would be through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.
Genetic engineers use viruses, bacteria and a device called a “gene gun” to randomly move genes from one organism into another. From this the organism’s genetic characteristics will alter by the insertion of a modified gene or a gene from another organism.
Genetically modified foods/crops may be the potential solution to many of global malnutrition and hunger problems and to aid in preserving and protecting the environment by minimising dependence upon chemical herbicides and pesticides and increasing crop yield. Nevertheless, there are several challenges ahead for farmers and national governments particularly in the areas of international policy, regulation, safety testing and GM food labelling. Needless to say, genetic modification is the inevitable future wave and that the society may not afford to ignore this technology though it has several dangers. The debate on the usage of GM crops is going on. All the stakeholders should be brought on board 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.