Genetically modified crops (GM crops) are plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. More than 10% of the world’s croplands are planted with GM crops.
In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant that does not occur naturally in the species like resistance to certain pests, diseases, environmental conditions, herbicides, etc.
Genetic Modification is also done to increase nutritional value, bioremediation, and for other purposes like production of pharmaceutical agents, biofuels, etc.
Genetically Modified Crops
Genetically Modified (GM) crops, also known as genetically engineered (GE) crops or biotech crops, are plants whose genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally through mating or natural recombination. This genetic modification is typically done to confer specific traits or characteristics to the crop, such as resistance to pests, tolerance to herbicides, improved nutritional content, or better shelf life.
- Genetic modification of crops involves the insertion, deletion, or modification of specific genes within the plant’s DNA. This is often done using techniques such as recombinant DNA technology and gene editing (e.g., CRISPR-Cas9).
Types of Traits in GM Crops:
- Pest Resistance: Some GM crops are engineered to produce proteins that are toxic to specific insect pests. For example, Bt cotton produces a protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that kills certain insects.
- Herbicide Tolerance: Certain GM crops can withstand the application of specific herbicides, allowing for more effective weed control while reducing the need for other, potentially more harmful herbicides.
- Disease Resistance: Genetic modification can confer resistance to plant diseases, reducing crop losses.
- Improved Nutritional Content: Some GM crops have been developed to have higher nutritional value, such as “Golden Rice,” which contains higher levels of beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A).
Benefits of GM Crops
- Increased Crop Yields: GM crops can be engineered for improved pest resistance and higher yields, which can help address food security concerns.
- Reduced Use of Pesticides: Pest-resistant GM crops can reduce the need for chemical pesticides, leading to lower environmental impact and potential health benefits for farmers.
- Enhanced Nutritional Content: GM crops can be designed to provide better nutrition, potentially addressing nutrient deficiencies in certain populations.
- Extended Shelf Life: Some GM crops have been modified to resist spoilage, resulting in longer shelf life for products like tomatoes.
Concerns regarding Genetically Modified Crops
Many believe that food on the market derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food. However, opponents have objected to GM crops on several grounds, including environmental concerns, the safety of GM foods, the business interests behind GM crops, intellectual property laws, etc.
Arguments in favor of GM Crops
The proponents argue that GM technologies have been around for about 15 years and they have been in use across the world including in countries such as Brazil and China.
During a visit to India in March 2005, Norman Borlaug – widely regarded as the father of the Green Revolution – supported producing genetically modified (GM) food to eradicate hunger from the world. “It is better to die eating GM food instead of dying of hunger,” said the Nobel laureate, who passed away in 2009.
- Former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, saw biotechnology as key to food security and warned against succumbing to “unscientific prejudices”.
- “The concerns over their (GM crops) perceived risks should be addressed by following internationally accepted procedures for assessing safety parameters. ICAR, which is involved in developing useful products and technologies in this field, must contribute to the public discourse and provide clarity on this sensitive issue,” – President Pranab Mukherjee.
- Indian intelligence agency names anti-GM groups such as Greenpeace India and Gene Campaign as one of the many “anti-national” foreign-funded NGOs hampering India’s economic progress.
- Agriculture scientists from research institutions including IARI, ICAR, and various Universities demanding “field trials” for GM crops, arguing that “confined field trials are essential for the evaluation of productivity performance as well as food and environmental safety assessment”.
- A group of prominent scientists had met under the ‘father of green revolution‘ MS Swaminathan at the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences ( NASA) and issued a 15-point resolution in favor of GM crops.
- “A brinjal crop normally requires up to 30 sprays of insecticides. This goes into human consumption indirectly. If we grow and consume Bt brinjal, we will consume some of the genes that have been built into the seeds to make the crop pest- and herbicide-resistant. Ultimately, we have to see which of the two is less harmful for consumption” – S.S. Gosal, Director of Research, Punjab Agriculture University.
Arguments against Genetically Modified Crops
Organizations such as Greenpeace argue that GM crops don’t yield better results, but push the farmers into debt.
They lose their sovereign right over seeds as they are forced to buy GM seeds and technologies from multinational corporations.
The increasing incidence of suicide by farmers cultivating Bt cotton is cited as an example of the perils of GM crops in a country such as India.
Besides the suspect merits of GM crops, what the opponents also say is that once they are released into the environment, it’s irreversible.
- Environmental Impact: Critics argue that GM crops may have unintended ecological consequences, such as harm to non-target organisms, development of resistant pests, or disruption of local ecosystems.
- Human Health: There are concerns about the safety of consuming GM foods, although the scientific consensus is that approved GM crops are safe for human consumption.
- Economic and Socio-cultural Concerns: Some worry about the economic control of GM crop technologies by a few large corporations and the potential displacement of traditional agricultural practices.
Regulatory Mechanisms in India
The top biotech regulator in India is the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). The committee functions as a statutory body under the Environment Protection Act 1986 of the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF).
- It was earlier known as the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. Under the EPA 1986 “Rules for Manufacture, Use, Import, Export, and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms/Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells 1989”, GEAC is responsible for granting permits to conduct experimental and large-scale open field trials and also approving commercial release of biotech crops.
- The Rules of 1989 also define five competent authorities i.e. the Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBSC), Review Committee of Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), State Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC), and District Level Committee (DLC) for handling of various aspects of the rules.
PS: A Biotechnology Regulatory Authority was proposed, but the bill lapsed due to the dissolution of 15th Loksabha.
Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)
- The Committee shall function as a Statutory Body under the Ministry of Environment & Forests for approval of activities involving large-scale use of hazardous living microorganisms and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle as per the provisions of rules 1989.
- The Committee shall also be responsible for approval of proposals relating to the release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment including experimental field trials as per the provisions of Rules, 1989.
- The Committee shall be responsible for approval of proposals involving the use of living-modified organisms falling in the risk category Ill and above in the manufacture/import of recombinant Pharma products or where the end product of the recombinant Pharma products per se is a living modified organism.
- The Committee may co-opt other members/experts to the GEAC by the provisions of Section 4, para 3 of the Rules, 1989 as necessary.
- The Committee may also appoint subgroups/sub-committees/expert committees to undertake specific activities related to compliance with biosafety.
- One-third of the members of the GEAC will constitute the quorum for convening the meeting.
- The members of the GEAC will be required to sign a ‘Statement of Declaration of Independence’ and ‘Statement of Confidentiality’ (as per the enclosed proforma).
- The Committee shall function for three years from the date of issue of this notification.
- With the approval of the Chairman GEAC, if required, representatives of other Ministries and other experts may be invited as ‘Special Invitees’ to participate in the meeting of the GEAC depending on the issues to be discussed.
Major companies interested in Genetically Modified crops in India include Monsanto India, Mahyco, and BASF. The industry body — Association of Biotech Led Enterprises- Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) wants a progressive push to the march of GM technology in India.
Also read: Biosafety in India
Genetically Modified Crops in India
The country has yet to approve commercial cultivation of a GM food crop. The only genetically modified cash crop under commercial cultivation in India is cotton.
For the time being, the only genetically modified crop that is under cultivation in India is Bt cotton which is grown over 10.8 million hectares. Bt cotton was first used in India in 2002.
The GEAC in 2007, recommended the commercial release of Bt Brinjal, which was developed by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company) in collaboration with the Dharward University of Agricultural Sciences and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. However, the initiative was blocked in 2010.
Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 or DMH-11 is a genetically modified variety of mustard developed by the Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants. The researchers at Delhi University have created a hybridized mustard DMH-11 using “barnase/barnstar” technology for genetic modification. It is a Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crop. If approved by the Centre, this will be the second GM crop, after Bt Cotton and the first transgenic food crop to be allowed for cultivation in the country.
Controversies and Moratoriums associated with GM Crops in India – Timeline
- 2002 – Bt cotton was introduced in India.
- 2006 – Activists filed a PIL against GM crops in the Supreme Court.
- 2010 – The then environmental minister Jairam Ramesh blocked the release of Bt Brinjal until further notice owing to a lack of consensus among scientists and opposition from brinjal-growing states. No objection certificates from states were made mandatory for field trials.
- 2012 – The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, in its 37th report, asked for an end to all GM field trials in the country.
- 2013 July – New crop trials have been effectively on hold since late 2012 after a Supreme Court-appointed expert panel recommended suspension for 10 years until regulatory and monitoring systems could be strengthened. Though the SC panel suggested a moratorium on GM trails, there was no official verdict from the Supreme Court on this issue.
- 2013 July – Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan put on hold all trials following SC panel suggestions.
- 2014 – Her successor, Veerappa Moili cleared the way for trials. (NB: Two of Manmohan Singh’s environment ministers had stalled GM trials earlier, but Veerappa Moily took an opposite stand and the process of approving the one-acre field trials restarted.)
- 2014 March – GEAC (UPA government) approved field trials for 11 crops, including maize, rice, sorghum, wheat, groundnut, and cotton.
- 2014 July – 21 New varieties of genetically modified (GM) crops such as rice, wheat, maize, and cotton have been approved for field trials by the NDA government in July 2014. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — consisting mostly of biotechnology supporters — rejected just one out of the 28 proposals up for consideration. Six proposals were rejected for want of more information.
- 2016: GEAC gave a green signal to GM Mustard for a field trial, but SC stayed the order and sought public opinion on the same.
There is an array of crops — brinjal, tomato, maize, chickpea — in various stages of trials that employ transgenic technology. However, cotton remains the only transgenic crop that is being commercially cultivated in India.
Also read: Biofortification