Genetically Modified Crops
This article deals with ‘Genetically Modified Crops – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘Science and Technology’ which is an important pillar of the GS-3 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.
- GMOs are organisms whose DNA or genetic makeup has been altered using various techniques of genetic engineering.
- In 1982, the first genetically modified crop, i.e. GM Tobacco, was produced. GM foods have been sold in the market since the early 1990s.
- Genetic Modification develops specific traits in crops like:
- Herbicide resistance
- Viral resistance
- Pest resistance
- Fungal and bacterial resistance
- Slow ripening
- Quality improvement – protein and oil
- Value addition – vitamins, micro and macro elements
- GM plants are developed by private companies and public research institutions like International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (public research institution) and Monsanto (an American private company).
Examples of Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs)
Herbicide Resistant Crops
- GM varieties of crops like soybean, maize, canola etc., have been developed, which are resistant to herbicide Glyphosate. Hence, it simplifies the weed control by Glyphosate application. (Note: Glyphosate herbicide is produced by Monsanto (of USA) under the trade name ‘Round up’.)
- Gene has been inserted into DMH-11 (Mustard) which makes it resistant to herbicide named Basta.
Insect Resistant Crops
- GM crops such as Bt Cotton and Bt Brinjal are insect resistant because Bt genes can produce insecticidal toxins to the larvae of moths and butterflies, beetles, cotton bollworms, Lepidopberan insects (damages brinjal) and gadflies.
- It was the first GM crop that was granted permission for human consumption.
- It was produced by an American MNC named Calgene.
- Through genetic modification, the ripening process of the tomato was slowed down, thus preventing it from softening and increasing the shelf life.
- Golden Rice is the Genetically Modified Variety of Rice that can accumulate -carotene in the endosperm. Beta-Carotene is the precursor of Vitamin-A. It can be used in areas with Vitamin-A deficiency (which leads to night blindness).
- GM Rubber was developed at Kerala based Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII) and was planted in the outskirts of Guwahati. It has additional copies of gene MnSOD which is expected to handle severe cold conditions during winter in North-East India.
- CSIR has developed (truly) Blue Rose using the gene from pansy (variety of flowers).
- The University of Texas has produced cotton with edible seeds by reducing its toxicity levels, thus converting cotton into an important food source.
- Tearless Onions have been produced by removing genes that synthesize sulphur compounds which act as tearing agents.
Note: Indian government has allowed the commercialisation of only one GM crop, the Bt cotton with the Cry 1 Ac gene (Bollgard I).
Side Topic: Companies involved in GM Crops
- It is an American MNC working in the field of applying biotechnology to agriculture.
- It is the leading producer of herbicide Glyphosate (Round-Up).
- Monsanto was the first company that create a biotechnology business model revolving around the company’s patent rights.
- MAHYCO = Maharashtra Hybrid Corporation
- It was started in 1964 and is headquartered in Jalna (Maharashtra).
- MAHYCO has developed a large number of high-quality hybrid seeds.
- MAHYCO also collaborates with academia and industry, and its association with Monsanto to produce BT cotton seeds using BT Technology of Monsanto since 1998 is such an example.
Should we allow GM Crops?
Arguments in favour of the introduction of GM Crops
- The world population is increasing. Yet, the amount of farmland is shrinking. GM crops can help to feed the growing population.
- Sustainable Agriculture: Scientists can give crops built-in resistance to pests (e.g., Bt gene), thus reducing the need for harmful pesticides.
- Higher-income for farmers: GM crops cut costs and increase yields, thus raising the income of farmers.
- Fighting Malnutrition: Biofortification helps in increasing the vitamins and micro-nutrients in staple crops. Examples include Golden Rice is biofortified with Vitamin A.
- Face climate change: GM crops with suitable genetic editing can help make crops that can withstand stress like high temperature or drought.
- Other countries are already growing GM Crops: We can’t stop the import of GM foods produced in the world. Hence, there is no point in restricting their cultivation in India and losing ground to foreign competitors. It has to be noted that India annually imports 3 million tonnes of soyabean oil which is predominantly GM.
- Father of the green revolution – Norman Borlaug recommends GM crops for food security too.
Arguments against the introduction of GM Crops
MS Swaminathan has called GM crops a failure due to the unbearable costs of seeds and inputs on poor farmers and stagnated yields of BT cotton at 500 kg/ha (lower than that of China & Egypt).
Along with that, it has to be noted that GM crop isn’t a purely scientific issue. It is situated at a socio-economic & political nexus involving market monopolies in seeds leading to suicides.
- Farmer Suicides: The introduction of GM cotton is the cause for increasing farmer suicides in Karnataka and Vidarbha region. Farmers are using expensive GM seeds in a drought-prone region.
- Threat to indigenous varieties and biodiversity: Due to GM crops, farmers don’t cultivate indigenous varieties. This practice results in biodiversity loss. Vidarbha district in Maharashtra is nearly a 100% BT cotton-producing region. Local varieties of cotton seeds have almost disappeared.
- Threat to Natural Pollinators: Some important pollinators also die due to the consumption of BT crops, thus impacting the overall productivity and biodiversity.
- Terminator Genes in Hybrid Seeds: Hybrid GM seeds are ‘programmed‘ in such a way that they lose their ‘hybrid vigour’, so new seeds must be purchased every planting season.
- Loss of vigour: GMCs gradually lose their vigour, exemplified by the following incidents
- White pest attack on Bt-cotton in Punjab.
- Monsanto also accepted that Bt Cotton is now susceptible to Pink Bollworm.
- Stringent labelling provisions are required when GM crops are cultivated and sold in the market because those consuming GM food have the right to know that. But in India, vegetables are sold loose, and this is not possible.
- Monoculture: There is desperation among farmers as the introduction of Bt cotton has ended the market of traditional varieties of cotton. Hence, all the farmers have started to grow the same crop to ensure that their produce finds a buyer. This has led to monoculture.
- Parliamentary committee says that GM crops benefit only wealthy farmers & companies like Monsanto are filled with monopolistic characteristics.
- GM crops require more water, fertilizers unlike what they are advertised.
- GM Crops can unintentionally introduce allergens and other anti-nutrition factors in the foods.
While billion-dollar companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, and Syngenta have scientists lobbies who conduct research and publish research in high numbers in favour of GM crops and try to push it in India, there is nothing wrong with GM crops. Still, we should remember that Dow chemical was behind Bhopal Gas Tragedy and Bayer was Endosulphan supplier. Such billion-dollar companies often hide the harmful effects of GM in the long term.
- Legal measure: The presence of a liability clause, like present in the US, if GM tech affects traditional crops will ensure that seed companies take proper precautions in fear of penalty.
- Government should effectively implement the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Biological Diversity Act of 2002.
- There is a need for formulating the National Policy on GM Crops.
- Parliament should pass the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Act and replace GEAC with BRAI.
Mandatory labelling of GM Food
- In 2018, FSSAI released Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, making it mandatory to clearly state on the label if the packaged food contains GM ingredients.
- Any food will be considered GM food if it contains 5% or more GM ingredients.
Side Topic: Terminator Gene
- Terminator Gene is the genetic code inserted in the DNA of the seed that makes the seeds harvested in the yield sterile. Hence, the farmer can’t use the harvested crop as seed and can buy new seeds every season.
- CoP-8 of the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) has prohibited the use of terminator genes. Consequently, India has passed a law banning this technology.
Term: Traitor Genes
In genetic engineering, the use of an external chemical to switch a plant’s genetic traits on or off. Seed companies use it to force farmers to use a particular pesticide or insecticide to get a large output.
Hybrid Seeds / Hybridisation
- Hybridisation is the technique or method involving cross-pollination among two different varieties to bring their desired characters together into one progeny called hybrid.
- Hybridisation is the common method of creating a genetic variation to get improved varieties. Humanity has used this technique since pre-history.
Examples of Hybrid Crops
- Seeds produced during the Green Revolution like Sonalika and Kalyan Sona (Dwarf varieties of wheat) and IR-8 (dwarf variety of rice) were hybrids.
- Case of Hybrid Sugarcane for North India:
Other hybrid seeds include
|Insect-resistant||Pusa Sawani: Hybrid Ladyfinger, which is resistant to shoot and fruit borer.|
|Disease-resistant||Himgiri: Rust resistant variety of Wheat.|
|Biofortified||– Protina, Shakti and Rathna: Protein-rich maize hybrids. |
– Atlas 66: Protein-rich wheat variety.
BT Cotton Issue
What is BT (Bacillus Thuringeinsis) ?
- Bt refers to Bacillus Thuringenesis. It is a gram-positive soil-dwelling bacterium. This bacteria produces more than 200 toxins that have insecticidal properties wrt the larvae of moths and butterflies, beetles, cotton bollworms and gadflies but are harmless to other life forms.
- When specific genes from Bacillus Thuringenesis are introduced into the native cotton and brinjal varieties, it starts to produce toxins that destroy the digestive system of bollworm and stem borers.
Analysis: Bt Cotton in India
The government approved to grow Bt Cotton in 2002 & as a result, India witnessed a great revolution in the cotton sector, not seen for another crop.
- The yield of cotton increased due to the effective control of bollworms. After the introduction of Bt Cotton, India saw a rise in cotton production by 178%. India has emerged as the most significant global cotton player and is presently the largest cotton producer (surpassing China).
- A significant reduction was witnessed in the use of insecticide in the cultivation of Bt cotton.
- The cost of cultivation was also reduced as artificial insecticides were not required.
- The issue is increasing farmer suicides in Karnataka and Vidarbha region. Farmers are using expensive GM seeds in drought-prone areas.
- There are other problems too –
- High input cost of seeds,
- Genetic erosion of local varieties,
- Farmer’s dependence on private seed companies whose sole aim is profit maximization.
- Recently, cotton plantations in various parts of the country have been hit due to the infestation of Pink Bollworm (PBW). Following reasons are responsible for this :
- Absence of crop rotation.
- Not growing 20-30% regular cotton along with BT Cotton.
Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11)
- DMH-11 Mustard is produced by the Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants.
- DMH-11 is a GM Mustard Hybrid.
- In 2017, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee had cleared GM mustard for environmental release and use in farmers’ fields. However, the approval is contingent on a final nod from Environment Minister.
Justifications for allowing DMH-11
- In an ordinary situation, hybrids can be obtained by cross-pollination of two varieties of the same species. But the case of Mustard is different as natural hybridization isn’t possible in Mustard because its flowers contain both female (pistil) and male (stamen) reproductive organs. Hence Genetic Modification is the only way to make High Yielding Variety (HYV).
- Moreover, India is importing 15 million tonnes of edible oils. Hence, there is a need to raise domestic crop yields.
- Cotton-seed oil from Bt cotton is already used in India and is perfectly safe. Cotton-seed oil is the second largest produced edible oil in the country (1.4 million tonnes) after Mustard (2 million tonnes).
- India is already importing GM oil: India imports 3 million tonnes of soyabean oil annually, predominantly Genetically Modified.
- The developer is a government-funded institution (Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University), as opposed to BT cotton, which is the intellectual property of multinational, namely Monsanto.
- Another gene has been inserted into DMH-11 which makes it resistant to herbicide named Basta. It will compel farmers to use specific herbicides and be dependent on one company (i.e. Bayer) having a monopoly over pesticides.