Genetically Modified Crops : No panacea to food security

                          Genetically Modified Crops : No panacea to food security

“Genetically Modified Crops: An alteration of genetic material of an organism by modern biotechnological techniques, whereby new DNA is inserted into the host organism by first isolating and copying the genetic material of interest and then inserting this construct into the host organism. The technology of Genetic Modification is often applied to create organisms that do not normally exist in nature and crossing natural reproductive barriers, cutting across even animal kingdoms.”

The introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) crops have kick started a huge controversy across the world which has never been seen before with any other technologies in agriculture. The introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) crops have kick started a huge controversy across the world which has never been seen before with any other technologies in agriculture. GM foods were first put on the market in the early 1990s. Typically, genetically modified foods are plant products: soybean, corn, canola, and cotton seed oil, but animal products have been proposed.

The first commercially grown genetically modified whole food crop was the tomato puree (called FlavrSavr), which was made more resistant to rotting by Californian company. Currently, there are a number of foods of  which a genetically modified version exists. Due to this growing scientific evidence on the lack of safety of GM crops and reality of corporate monopoly in seeds, majority of countries have shunned this so-called gene revolution path for agricultural development. It has been 19 years since the first GM crop was introduced for commercial cultivation and today 75% of GM crop cultivation happens in just 3 countries; USA, Brazil and Argentina. Even today only less than 4% of the global agriculture land is under GM crops.

GM debate in India:

Having failed to pass the test on safety and on farm performance there is a strong propoganda from the GM crop developers and their promoters to project this risky technology as a necessity if we want to achieve food security. Unfortunately this argument has been taken up by responsible agencies like the Union Ministry of Agriculture as reflected in their affidavit filed in the Supreme Court of India on a PIL filed on the matter of open releases of GM crops. This briefing tries to look at this argument in a logical manner, looking both at what constitutes food security and what is the current situation in our country interms of food production and distribution systems along with other factors that are the essential components of Food security in our context.

Some of the advantages of GM foods:

There is a need to produce inexpensive, safe and nutritious foods to help feed the world’s growing population.

Genetic modification may provide:

  • Pest resistance Crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries. Growing GM foods such as B.t. corn can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market.
  • Herbicide tolerance For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of different herbicides (weed-killer) to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and expensive process, that requires care so that the herbicide doesn’t harm the crop plant or the environment. Crop plants genetically-engineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed.
  • Disease resistanceThere are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases.
  • Cold tolerance Unexpected frost can destroy sensitive seedlings. An antifreeze gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and potato. With this antifreeze gene, these plants are able to tolerate cold temperatures that normally would kill unmodified seedlings.
  • Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance As the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable place.
  • Nutrition Malnutrition is common in third world countries where impoverished peoples rely on a single crop such as rice for the main staple of their diet. However, rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition. If rice could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated.
  • Pharmaceuticals Medicines and vaccines often are costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries. Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. These vaccines will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines.
  • Phytoremediation Not all GM plants are grown as crops. Soil and groundwater pollution continues to be a problem in all parts of the world. Plants such as poplar trees have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil.

Some of the disadvantages of GM foods:

Food regulatory authorities require that GM foods receive individual pre-market safety assessments. Also, the principle of ‘substantial equivalence’ is used. This means that an existing food is compared with its genetically modified counterpart to find any differences between the existing food and the new product. The assessment investigates:

  • Toxicity (using similar methods to those used for conventional foods).
  • Tendency to provoke any allergic reaction.
  • Stability of the inserted gene.
  • Whether there is any nutritional deficit or change in the GM food.
  • Any other unintended effects of the gene insertion.

Human health risks

  • Allergenicity Many children in the US and Europe have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergenor cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals.
  • Unknown effects on human health There is a growing concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health.

On the whole, with the exception of possible allergenicity, scientists believe that GM foods do not present a risk to human health.

Economic concerns:

Bringing a GM food to market is a lengthy and costly process, and of course agri-biotech companies wish to ensure a profitable return on their investment. Many new plant genetic engineering technologies and GM plants have been patented, and patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness. Yet consumer advocates are worried that patenting these new plant varieties will raise the price of seeds so high that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to afford seeds for GM crops, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor.

One way to combat possible patent infringement is to introduce a “suicide gene” into GM plants. These plants would be viable for only one growing season and would produce sterile seeds that do not germinate. Farmers would need to buy a fresh supply of seeds each year. However, this would be financially disastrous for farmers in third world countries who cannot afford to buy seed each year and traditionally set aside a portion of their harvest to plant in the next growing season.

At this juncture it will be useful for us to heed to the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), one of most detailed assessments of the agriculture science and technology ever done in the world. The initiative sponsored by UN and the world bank had across the world analyzing the developments in agricultural science and technology and their impacts in the last 50 years. The IAASTD report to which India is also a signatory calls for a fundamental change in farming practices in order to address soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities and environmental disasters. It acknowledges that genetically engineered crops are highly controversial and will not play a substantial role in addressing the key problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, hunger and poverty. It recommends small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods is the way forward if the current food crisis is to be solved and to meet the needs of local communities, declaring indigenous and local knowledge play as important a role as formal science – a significant departure from the destructive chemical-dependent, one-size-fits-all model of industrial agriculture23. Agro-ecology is a scientific practice and a bottom up approach to sustainable farming has been endorsed by many international reputed bodies as a way forward for food security. Agro ecology minimizes the use of agro-chemical inputs and leverages on interactions between the biological components of the agro-ecosystem. This in-turn produces productivity, crop protection and soil fertility. Most importantly this contributes by creating resilience to unpredictable changes at local levels. Agro ecology will help create sustainable farming systems that will have potential to ensure food, nutrition and wealth to the poorest and low-yield farming communities that are needed according to the UN-FAO to feed the world.

India as a nation is struggling with the big question to achieve food security with a growing population and the already starving millions. It is important that our decision makers do not to get distracted by techno-fixes like GM crops which are promoted by global biotech seed companies as a silver bullet. It is established that a multipronged approach which includes:

(a) The promotion of sustainable food production systems,

(b) Efficient food distribution and

(c) Ensuring livelihood security of citizens is the way forward for our country to be food secure, now and in future.

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