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  07 Jul 2023  Genetically Modified (GM) Crops: The need of the hour

Genetically Modified (GM) Crops: The need of the hour

Published : Jul 8, 2023, 12:17 am IST
Updated : Jul 20, 2023, 7:50 pm IST

The opposition to the GM crops mainly centres around the “adverse” effects of GM crops on human health and the environment.

-Dr P. Ananda Kumar- Former Director, National Institute of Plant Biotechnology, New Delhi. (Photo by arrangement)
 -Dr P. Ananda Kumar- Former Director, National Institute of Plant Biotechnology, New Delhi. (Photo by arrangement)

The goals set by the Humankind for the current century are mitigation of the adverse effects of climate change, protection of the environment and biodiversity and practice of eco-friendly and safe agriculture. One of the most powerful strategies to practise eco-friendly and sustainable agriculture is to develop and cultivate genetically modified (GM) crops. Progress in the areas of molecular biology and biotechnology in the past six decades led to the introduction and commercialization of GM crops in 1994. This development has brought about a paradigm shift in the way we cultivate crops. The social, economic and environmental benefits of GM crop cultivation have been well documented. For instance, GM crops have reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68% (As per Klumper and Qaim, 2014). GM crops have also reduced Carbon dioxide emissions (mostly through no-till farming practices) by 24.5 million kg per annum (As per the study by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, 2020). The long and safe track record of GM crop cultivation and consumption of foods derived from them over the past 28 years (1994 to 2022) attest the safety of GM foods to Humankind (FAO study, 2022). As of now, GM crops are cultivated in 29 countries in an area of 190 million hectares (ISAAA, Brief 55:2019). Forty three countries import foods, oils and feed derived from GM crops. Nine non-food GM crops and twenty-two GM food and feed crops are cultivated and consumed globally.  European countries (Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia) also cultivate GM crops. Several developing countries such as Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Philippines, Uruguay, Colombia, Brazil, Sudan etc have approved and introduced GM crops  like brinjal, cowpea, maize, wheat, cotton etc. for the benefit of their farmers and consumers. India commercialized insect pest-resistant Bt-cotton in 2002 that brought about a significantly positive change in cotton production, export and textile industry. Farmers cultivating Bt-cotton have been immensely benefited. Subsequently, introduction of fruit borer-resistant Bt-brinjal, high yielding GM mustard and herbicide tolerant Bt-cotton has encountered  opposition that is unscientific,  illogical and is devoid of any rationale. Moratorium imposed in 2010 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (Government of India) on the environmental release of Bt-brinjal has adversely affected research, development, testing and release of several GM crops by research institutions in public and private sectors. The cascading effects of such a situation are highly detrimental to the interests of science, research and agriculture. A rapidly developing country like India with a burgeoning population cannot afford to ignore sustainable technologies like GM crops for drought tolerance, nutrient use efficiency, especially that of nitrogen, and thermotolerance.  Countries like USA and Indonesia are already cultivating drought tolerant GM wheat and sugarcane. Nitrogen use efficient GM rice awaits approval for testing in India.

The opposition to the GM crops mainly centres around the “adverse” effects of GM crops on human health and the environment. This is in total contradiction of the global acceptance and consumption of the foods derived from GM crops. Enormous number of studies pertaining to the bio-safety, environmental safety and safety towards biodiversity spanning over five decades in Western countries as well as in India are ignored by those opposing the GM crop cultivation. The misconceptions about the development of antibiotic resistance, horizontal gene transfer, “terminator gene”, adverse effects on health etc., have been dispelled convincingly by various global scientific committees and experts.  The GMO regulatory System in India formulated well-defined protocols and procedures to subject a GM organism to a plethora of tests that often takes several years. Several expert committees critically analyze the bio-safety data before recommending approval of a GM crop event.  Essentially similar rigorous assessment of GM crops is carried out in 29 countries that cultivate GM crops and in 43 countries that import GM foods, oils and feed. The biochemistry, physiology and metabolism of all Human beings are essentially similar. In this context, it is not illogical to say that hundreds and thousands of Indians (including government officials, policy makers, members of  NGOs that oppose GM crops etc) travel abroad every year to countries like USA where they inevitably consume foods and oils derived from GM-maize, soybean, canola and other crops, either at home or in restaurants and come back to their motherland safe and sound. Bangladesh citizens have been consuming Bt-brinjal since 2014 and it would be interesting to know if any person fell sick of eating Bt-brinjal in the past nine years in Bangladesh. Incidentally, the GM event present in brinjal varieties of Bangladesh has been developed in India and rigorously tested over a period of eight years. Currently, the vegetable farmers and consumers in Bangladesh enjoy the benefits of Bt-brinjal technology developed by India. The above considerations should be taken into account while opposing the cultivation of GM crops in India. Similarly, if there are any instances of Humans being adversely affected by consuming the oil extracted from the Bt-cotton seeds in the past 19 years should be brought to the attention of the regulatory authorities with proper scientific evidence. Tarnishing the reputation or maligning the scientific expertise of the scientists and experts involved in various committees of the GMO Regulatory System should be avoided. Science based decisions vis-a-vis GM crop approvals should be respected and honoured. It is time that India enthusiastically adopt the GM technology in food crops thereby safeguarding human health, environment and biodiversity. As the saying goes “better late than never”.

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Tags: genetically modified crops, gmo, spotlight stories