The debate on whether GM foods are good or bad is three decades old, and it becomes intense when a new trigger arises. In India, the recent approval for GM mustard has put the debate upfront, especially because this is the first genetically modified food crop to be approved in the country.
Since there are many aspects to the genetic modification of food-giving organisms, people (scientists, governments, farmers, consumers, activists) often take rigid positions. Depending on which way you look at the issue, you may find arguments in support or against genetically modified foods immensely genuine or utterly preposterous.
This article seeks to clear some fog from the science that makes it possible to genetically modify organisms, so that we take an informed position in our private and public discussions. For the sake of brevity, the focus of this article after the initial generalities will be the release of genetically modified food crops.
Before taking up the issue per se, let us start with the basics.
What are genetically modified foods/ crops?
It would appear that when the genetic makeup of a living being is artificially modified, that being is called genetically modified. No, that’s not correct.
Since ages, farmers and breeders have been modifying the genetic makeup of plants and animals, using a number of techniques. That is what has given us high-yielding and fast-maturing foodgrain varieties, and cattle breeds that give milk many times of what is produced by normal desi cattle.
What makes an organism genetically modified is when its genetic set-up has been tinkered in an unnatural way by using bio-technological (= genetic engineering) tools. Simplistic though this description is, let us take it as the working definition of what is genetically modified.
When an organism (be it a plant, animal or microorganism) that produces a food consumed by humans is genetically modified, the resultant food is called genetically modified food, though the food itself may not always have a genetic content.
How is the genetic material manipulated?
All genetic material is made up of DNA (or RNA in some viruses). These are complex molecules, and occur like a long chain of smaller molecules: four types of nitrogenous molecular structures called peptides and a sugar, joined together like beads in a necklace. The way the specific peptides are arranged in a piece of DNA gives it a unique function, and such segments are called genes. So, a particular gene in Coronavirus makes it possible for it to attack human cells, a gene in our cells determines our eye colour and another one makes us susceptible to gluten. At a bigger level, our genetic set-up determines whether we are a male, female or else; and at a still bigger level (=all the genetic material combined), our genes make us a human being and not a zebra or a pine tree.
If that was too basic, let us complicate it. Genes give rise to various properties, mostly by producing specific proteins and other biochemical molecules (hormones, etc). Together, these determine the structure as well as function of a cell, an organ and an organism. The best that a cell, organ or organism can do is limited by many factors, and genes are the most important one.
For example, the DNA of a wheat variety growing in nature has certain properties (and limitations): its plant can grow 60 cm in height, mature in about 3 months, yield about 50 gm grain, ward off common diseases, and so on. Using standard breeding methods, a new variety can be evolved from this patent variety, which, after getting ample amount of fertilizers and water at right intervals can grow just 40 cm in height (lower height is better), yield 130 gm grain and mature within 2 months. That is the limit to which we can improve the variety, and it also leads to new problems: by concentrating on producing more grain, the new variety becomes more susceptible to diseases and pests, and less hardy to unfavourable weather. It also becomes too tender to survive against weeds. So, we must irrigate the crop well, and apply fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides and weedicides at appropriate times to get the expected yield.
Here comes genetic engineering. It has the potential to overcome the natural limitations of this crop. It can also make the crop tolerant to particular chemicals, so as to improve effectiveness of such chemicals (for example, the chemical would kill all weeds without harming this crop).
In the above example, what we would need to create a genetically modified crop is to find out the gene in some other organism, which can give the crop the trait we want in it. The gene may be in a bacterium or an insect or other type of organism – don’t worry how unrelated the organism looks, we now have techniques to slice that exact gene and introduce it into the gene of the crop.
If this introduction of animal gene into a plant genetic makeup looks too unnatural (and repulsive?) to you, look at the extent genetic engineering can go: It can modify genes of animals and microorganisms and humans too, for better yields, fighting diseases, harvesting organs, and so on. It can also create completely artificial genes and introduce them into any organism, and also create completely new living beings, zombies included!
Scientists have already been conducting a mind-boggling range of experiments in which genes of all types of living beings are re-combined, and a lot of this research is secret. In fact, one branch of scientists strongly feel that the Covid-19 virus (= SARS-CoV-2) was a creation (even if by chance, and without a wrong intention) in a Chinese lab.
So, if you look at the two extremes of what genetic engineering can do, you are either led to a golden path that promises enormous human good, or to a scary nightmare.
The reality is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
The enormity of dimensions
Without much value judgement, let us briefly explore the main issues that come up in a debate on genetically modified food crops.
1. Human health
Food chains and suitability of a particular food for a living being have evolved over a long time. In the case of humans, there are just a few types of plant products that are safe for human consumption. Out of them, only a few can be digested by our bodies. Most humans consume only 2-3 dozen plants in their entire life.
"GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved": WHO
GM foods, when they are produced by transgenic genetic engineering (=in which genes of highly unrelated organisms are engineered), can give rise to new types of biochemicals. The human body might sometimes fail to deal with such chemicals, resulting in metabolic disorders, immunological reactions and other diseases that include organ failures and cancers. The microbes living in human gut have a significant role in human health, and they can also be seriously impacted by new types of chemicals. (If you are interested in exploring how important gut microbes are for human health, please visit the link.)
Gm crops are targeted against one or more weaknesses in the original crop. The most common target is a disease. The new gene introduced by genetic engineering usually creates a chemical that repels or kills the disease-causing organism. This chemical acts not only on that particular pathogen but also on microbes that might be good for crops and soil. The chemical might be present in the nectar produced in flowers; if so, it will be eaten by useful pollinators and will also directly reach honey consumed by humans. Cattle eating the plant will be affected, and they will also transfer the chemical to humans through milk.
There are numerous other ways in which the chemical becomes a part of the entire ecosystem. How much harm the chemical would do at local and wider levels depends upon its role in altering natural chemical and biochemical reactions.
Production of a chemical is just one possibility. There can be many more. For example, the particular crop might be part of a biological system that determines the health of other crops in the same or subsequent seasons. Then, the new gene or new chemicals produced due to it might contaminate (by pollen, nectar, pests, etc) other crops that were not intended to be disturbed.
In many crops genetically modified so far, a bacterium’s gene is used for introducing a new trait. Do you know why the genetically modified cotton available in India is called Bt cotton? It is because it has a genetic sequence from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The chemical produced by this gene acts as an insecticide, which kills pests but is safe for humans. In the GM mustard variety approved now in India (called DMH-11), three bacterial genes have been put inside mustard genome.
In many crops, the introduced gene makes the plant herbicide-tolerant. So, you can spray a related herbicide on the crop to remove weeds while not hurting the crop. This saves labour and makes the job of weeding instant and efficient.
Environmental activists feel that such targeted production of chemicals, and targeted use of chemicals, can have unseen and long-term consequences for the health of environment. For example, many so called weeds have a symbiotic (=mutually beneficial) relationship with crops and soil organisms, many of them are medicinal plants, many might invisibly be helping pollinators and other useful insects.
There is a big possibility of overuse of some chemicals for which the genetically modified variety is tolerant, which would result in creation of superbugs – organisms and pests that become tolerant/ resistant to commonly available chemicals.
Though the chemicals produced by the introduced gene may have tested safe for the environment, there may be many yet-undiscovered ways these could become harmful.
It is also argued that introduction of genetically modified crops leads to their adoption on a large scale, thus leading to decline of genetic diversity. (At the given link, you can visit a detailed discussion on this website, on declining genetic diversity among local animal breeds.)
3. Farmers’ income
Progressive and rich farmers are greatly benefited, economically, by the introduction of genetically modified crops. In most cases, crop yields go up while the expenditure on plant-protection chemicals and human labour goes down. In India, cotton production has gone up four-fold after the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002.
Therefore, many farmers’ bodies lobby with governments for quick approval of genetically modified crops. The approval to genetically modified mustard has been welcomed by progressive farmers. Some people criticise the Indian government for not introducing genetically modified brinjal and other crops while the neighbouring Bangladesh has been benefitting for nearly a decade by allowing BT brinjal production.
Though farmers might love high-yielding varieties, there is a risk of seed producers taking farmers to ransom as has happened in the case of high-yielding hybrids in some crops. Unlike in the case of locally grown crops, seeds (not talking of grains, but seeds for sowing) of hybrids and genetically modified crops cannot be produced by farmers themselves. That makes farmers fully dependent on seed producers, and vulnerable to price manipulations. Activists have highlighted that in India farmer suicides occur mostly due to high input costs involved in growing high-yielding crop varieties.
4. Generation of economic disparity
While bringing riches to some farmers, the release of genetically modified crops is seen creating a ‘genetic divide’ among farmers. It is documented that genetically modified crops hurt poor farmers in many ways. Poor farmers cannot afford to grow genetically modified crops (because of costly seed, mandated quantity of irrigation, fertilizers, etc) and are left behind in reaping the benefits of genetically modified crops. At the same time, with lower yields, they also become prone to market manipulation by farmers growing genetically modified crops.
Genetic divide hurts not only individual farmers, but also poor nations.
5. Ethical and social aspects
There is a line of thinking that strongly denounces highly unnatural human actions such as production of transgenic crops, calling it unacceptable.
Concerns have also been raised on social ground. In India, crops are not used for specific purposes as in the grossly commercial farming in the west. For example, in the west, corn is used mostly for fodder and feed or production of ethanol; in India, the same corn is used as staple, eaten as cob, and even be used in offerings to deities. In case of many crops, small farmers often save the best grains for sowing in the next season; when genetically modified crops are grown, that is not possible.
Unlike in the west, in India, majority of farmers are small and marginal. Their plots are small and mixed, so they cannot isolate their crops from neighbours’ fields growing genetically modified crops.
Corruption seems to play a big role globally in the business of agricultural inputs. Research is often manipulated for under-reporting/ hiding risks from new agrochemicals and exaggerating benefits of new technology. In India, deeply ingrained corruption makes testing, certification, monitoring- almost all aspects of regulation – suspect. Farmer’s lack of proper education and market manipulations add to such practices.
The extent of corruption in seed business is such that some genetically modified varieties are reported to be illegally brought into the country and grown. Even seeds of varieties under development and those given for testing are reported getting leaked to farmers.
6. Consumer gains and concerns
At present, there seems to be a concern about GM foods being harmful in some unknown way, as is the case with 5G radiation, food additives and other modern interventions in human lives.
That overweighs any gains that consumers might see in such crops. However, in the days to come, genetic engineering will produce food that is enriched with nutrients and specific medicinal chemicals, and such food would be welcome by consumers. If resistance to pests or diseases is inbuilt in a particular food, it will have a better shelf-life, and so will be more in demand. Produce with new tastes, odours/ aromas and better looks, plants with animal proteins… genetic modification will result in products that will find a new market.
Perhaps, GM foods of a new kind will have a positive bias in future unless some experiment in genetic modification misfires.
7. Food security and other gains to humanity
Finally come the likely large-scale gains from genetic modification of crops. Some potentials of genetic engineering have been discussed above in different sections. Let us now look at the appeal of GM mustard for Indian scientists and policy makers.
A section of scientists feel that India is already years behind other countries in the cutting-edge technology of genetic engineering due to a strong democratic push against it. The arguments of activists, they feel, are far-fetched and mostly the result of unfounded fears. Stopping research in India while it goes on elsewhere puts Indian science in a very disadvantageous position and these might prove critical in future for the country’s competitiveness.
Policy makers are lured – especially in the case of GM cotton – due to the high production that would be achieved, going by the experience of the west and also India’s own experience with GM cotton.
India is the biggest importer of edible oils, and mustard yield in India is much lower than that in the west. GM mustard has the potential to raise India’s mustard production up to 30 percent and save quite a good sum of foreign exchange.
How are genetically modified crop varieties released in the market
Realising the possible health hazards that can arise from genetically modified foods and environmental issues from releasing genetically modified living beings, a number of safety standards have been devised by experts.
While food products are tested for a long time for health considerations before they are commercially produced and sold, the release of crops (as in the case of GM mustard in India) is done after a large number of field trials.
At the international level, WHO and FAO monitor research on genetic engineering and related activities. They coordinate oversight mechanisms, keep issuing guidelines and standards, hold international consultations, and advise governments so that genetic engineering does not lead to undesirable consequences.
In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is responsible for regulation of GM food products. The Department of Biotechnology has a Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) for monitoring safety-related aspects of any genetic engineering project. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), an agency of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, gives approval for release of GM organisms.
GM crops in India
In India, Bt cotton was introduced in 2002, following which a number of advocacy bodies and individuals raised protest and filed court cases.
The opposition to genetically modified crops intensified as western GM crop producing companies applied for sale of such food and feed crops in India.
Hearing the cases, the Supreme Court set up a technical expert committee (TEC) on the subject. TEC, in its interim report, recommended a 10-year moratorium on release of genetically modified crops. The Supreme Court accepted the recommendation and the 10-year moratorium came into force in 2012.
TEC gave its final report a year later and generally went against genetically modified crops as in its interim report, calling them unsuitable and unnecessary in India. It observed that globally, the crops in which genetically modified varieties had been released were not those for direct consumption by humans, while many genetically modified crops under testing in India were food crops. (The status has changed since then; now many GM food crops are in commercial production in many countries.) TEC found the Indian regulatory system unsatisfactory and wanted an indefinite stop to genetically modified crops in India until a robust safety and regulatory mechanism was in force.
For the release of genetically modified mustard, GEAC allowed field trials in 2017, and gave the approval in October 2022 after the genetically modified variety passed the required tests in field trials held in a number of states. Regarding norms followed in giving the approval, the government says, it was given after ‘a long a long and exhaustive review process’.
As of now, the approval to the genetically modified mustard variety has been challenged in the Supreme Court, citing TEC recommendations and reiterating the likely deleterious health and environmental effects of such crops.
The genetically modified mustard approved in India will have to further undergo a large number of field trials. The central government has assured the Supreme Court that further trials would strictly follow ‘ICAR guidelines and other extant rules and regulations before commercial release’. If the approval is not struck down by the Supreme Court, it will take two to three years before the first batch of seeds of genetically modified mustard are available to farmers.
Thus, in India, only two genetically modified crops have been approved, and out of them one is being commercially grown. In comparison, more than a hundred genetically modified crop varieties have been approved by the US administration and commercially released.
A sensible approach is the middle path
This article is for information, not taking a stand on this highly sensitive subject. However, I am tempted to end with one view (and this is just one out of dozens of views on this sensitive subject).
It would be regressive as well as impractical to completely disregard the use of modern technological tools in crop sciences. However, at global level, there must be a mechanism to ensure that the experiments and commercial interests do not go beyond permissible limits. National governments must put in place sound mechanisms for oversight of the entire process of creation and release of genetically modified crops. Agronomic practices must ensure least admixing of such crops with others. The impact of such crops and their produce must be studied for many years even after commercial release of each such crop.
This puts a lot of responsibility on global and national authorities, but the experience tells us that such responsibility is hard to come by. So, the debate must go on.
- ‘Approval of GM mustard may threaten food security, increase pesticide tolerance’
- Food, Genetically Modified
- India gives environmental clearance for genetically modified mustard
- Opposition to GM crops based on unfounded fears: Centre tells Supreme Court
Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.