9.1. WHAT IS GM FOOD?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), genetically modified (GM) foods are foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.
Currently available GM foods stem mostly from plants, but in the future foods derived from GM microorganisms or GM animals are likely to be introduced on the market.
Most existing genetically modified crops have been developed to improve yield, through the introduction of resistance to plant diseases or of increased tolerance of herbicides.
9.2. TECHNOLOGY BEHIND GM CROPS
The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”.
It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between nonrelated species.
The resulting organism is said to be genetically modified, genetically engineered, or transgenic.
Resistance against insects is achieved by incorporating into the food plant the gene for toxin production from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This toxin is currently used as a conventional insecticide in agriculture and is safe for human consumption. GM crops that inherently produce this toxin have been shown to require lower quantities of insecticides in specific situations, e.g. where pest pressure is high.
Virus resistance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from certain viruses which cause disease in plants. Virus resistance makes plants less susceptible to diseases caused by such viruses, resulting in higher crop yields.
Herbicide tolerance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from a bacterium conveying resistance to some herbicides. In situations where weed pressure is high, the use of such crops has resulted in a reduction in the quantity of the herbicides used.
9.3. ISSUES OF CONCERN
The capability of the GMO to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations.
The persistence of the gene after the GMO has been harvested.
The susceptibility of non-target organisms (e.g. insects which are not pests) to the gene product.
The reduction in the spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity.
The environmental safety aspects of GM crops vary considerably according to local conditions.
The food may cause harm to other organisms.
Genetically modified crops could inadvertently crossbreed with other crops.
Insects might become resistant to the toxins produced by genetically modified crops.
The food could make disease-causing bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
Are GM Foods safe?
o Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways.
o This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.
Potential developments in future
o Future GM organisms are likely to include plants with improved resistance against plant disease or drought, crops with increased nutrient levels, fish species with enhanced growth characteristics.
o For non-food use, they may include plants or animals producing pharmaceutically important proteins such as new vaccines.
Arguments in support of GM crops
o In the wake of rising population, many scientists believe that GM crops can assist significantly in ensuring food security.
o GM food crops have been altered to have shorter growing cycles, stronger resistance to both insects and disease, and produce higher yields.
o In addition, some say these foods are also more nutritious and have a longer shelf life.
Arguments against GM crops
o Bt cotton has failed in rain fed areas which represent two-thirds of cotton growing areas; it has succeeded only in irrigated areas.
o Concurrently with the consumption of GM food, there has been increase in the incidence of gastrointestinal tract disorders and cases of allergy in US. This, of course, does not establish a cause and effect relationship between consumption of GM food and health problems mentioned above, but it certainly makes it possible.
o We produce more food today without the use of GM technology than is required to feed the world population, and we do not need GM technology to take care of future food requirements. In India, as much as 40 per cent of food we produce is wasted.
o We have virtually no testing of GM crops for safety. In the US, they are approved on the basis of just “substantial equivalence” with the non-GM material.
o Tests carried out so far have not been done by an independent body; they have been done by the company intending to market the product.
o In our country, in no case has field trials of GM crops been adequately and appropriately supervised.
Difference between GM crops and traditional breeding
o Traditional breeding involves crossing two organisms usually within the same species to combine desirable characteristics.
o On the other hand in modern biotechnology, desired genes can be inserted into a non-related individual, so the DNA is recombined.
o The two-tier regulatory framework for GM crops includes a Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) under Department of Biotechnology and the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the MoEF.
o The GEAC considers proposals for trial only after approval from the RCGM, a body comprising scientists well versed with the technology.
o GEAC is the apex body in India that is authorized to approve the use of genetically modified crops or organisms in the country.
o GEAC is a statutory body required to meet at least once each month; however, the body has only met eight times in the last three years and had not considered any agri-biotechnology applications since August 2014.
9.4. INTERNATIONAL CONVENTIONS
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was adopted by the CBD and came into force in 2003. In the case of genetically modified plants, it particularly regulates trans-boundary movement. The Protocol details specific requirements for the handling, labelling, packaging, and transportation of genetically modified plants. It also requires registration of all relevant information with the Biosafety Clearing House, an international mechanism established under the Protocol.
International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) has identified potential pest risks that may need to be considered regarding GMO’s, including new genetic characteristics that may cause invasiveness, gene flow, and effects on non-target organisms (beneficial insects or birds).
9.5. GM MUSTARD
Mustard DMH-11 (Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11), a genetically modified (GM) mustard hybrid is a transgenic crop developed by Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University. The team was led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental.
The resulting GM mustard hybrid, it is claimed, gives 25-30 per cent more yield than the best varieties such as ‘Varuna’ currently grown in the country.
Hybrids are normally obtained by crossing two genetically diverse plants from the same species. The first-generation offspring resulting from it has higher yields than what either of the parents is individually capable of giving.
But there is no natural hybridisation system in mustard, unlike in, say, cotton, maize or tomato. This is because its flowers contain both the female (pistil) and male (stamen) reproductive organs, making the plant naturally self-pollinating.
Therefore, it has been created using GM technology.
9.5.1. ARGUMENTS IN SUPPORT OF GM MUSTARD
In 2014-15, India imported 14.5 million tonnes of edible oils valued at $10.5 billion. Therefore, the need to raise domestic crop yields and cut dependence on imports cannot be doubted.
Hybrid technology is a potential technique to boost yields, as has been successfully demonstrated in a host of crops.
Country’s cotton production has gone up more than 2½ times since Bt hybrids were first planted in 2002. Nor has any evidence emerged really of Bt cotton causing any adverse human or animal health effects.
India annually imports 3 million tonnes of soyabean oil and another 0.4 million tonnes of rapeseed oil, which are predominantly GM.
Delhi University’s CGMCP has pledged to distribute the GM mustard for free.
9.5.2. TECHNOLOGY BEHIND GM MUSTARD
It has been created using GM technology, involving incorporation of “Barnase” gene isolated from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens.
It codes for a protein that impairs pollen production and renders the plant into which it has been introduced male-sterile.
This male-sterile plant is crossed with a fertile parental line, containing, in turn, another gene, “Barstar”, from the same bacterium that blocks the action of the “Barnase” gene.
The resultant progeny, having both the foreign genes, is a hybrid mustard plant that is not only high-yielding, but also fertile and capable of producing seed/grain.
9.5.3. ARGUMENTS AGAINST GM MUSTARD
Much-touted GM cotton had failed to deliver despite claims to the contrary.
Opting for GM food without proper verification may impact the safety of the consumers.
Livelihood of millions of farmers in the country may also get affected.
If the GM food crops were to be introduced, the MNCs could monopolise the food market affecting food and nutrition security of the country.
9.5.4. REGULATORY ENVIRONMENT NEEDS REFORM
There is lack of transparency as well as conflict of interest in the system.
There are multiple committees — at least six — that are part of the current regulatory structure.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which is responsible for approving large-scale releases and commercialisation of GMOs, functions under the Ministry of Environment and Forests and is not entirely independent.
The case of the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation that supervises and clears research activities and also small-scale field trials is even starker. It is part of the Department of Biotechnology, whose primary task is to promote biotechnology. DBT therefore is the promoter as well as the regulator.
On several occasions, developers of transgenic crops have also been members of regulatory committees.
9.5.5. RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
Activists and protesters, under the banner ‘Sanson Satyagraha’ held a symbolic protest outside the Environment Ministry and demanded the government not to proceed with the process of the environmental release application of GM mustard.
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex body to accord approval for large-scale use and commercial release of genetically modified organisms in India, discussed safety issues of GM mustard’s application, but refrained from taking a final decision.
The GEAC is constituted by the Environment Ministry.
Besides suggesting eight additional bio-informatic tests for inclusion in the seed’s biosafety dossier, the GEAC asked the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) to prepare a Risk Assessment and Risk Management (RARM) document.
9.5.6. SUPREME COURT
The Supreme Court has sought an explanation from the central government on its proposed move to introduce herbicide resistant mustard, cotton and corn in the face of a court-imposed ban on their introduction.
The top court had in a series of orders passed in February 2007, April 2008 and August 2008 sought to restrain both small-scale and large-scale field trials in any food crops as well as their commercial introduction in the country.
Petitioner in the court, Aruna Rodrigues said the government wilfully and deliberately not only conducted small-scale field trials but also large-scale field trials for commercial introduction of herbicide tolerant crops of mustard, cotton and corn in India for the first time.
The risk of contamination from GM mustard and corn is of an unprecedentedly high order and proven in other cases involving Canada, Japan and Mexico (corn) and US (rice), the petition said.
There is need of an independent biotechnology regulatory authority, a single organisation that will replace the multiple committees. This authority should deal with the use of all GMOs in agriculture, pharmaceutical and biodiversity sector.
While research and scientific development should continue, GM mustard should be allowed in the public domain only after proper verification that it will not cause any irreversible damage to the environment and public at large.