With the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, an Environment Ministry body that evaluates genetically modified crops, approving transgenic mustard for environmental release, a key hurdle remains before farmers can cultivate it: Environment Minister Anil Dave’s approval, under a procedure set down by the UPA government.
(Picture used for representational purpose only)
What is a GM crop?
A GM or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.
For example, a GM crop can contain a gene(s) that has been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring it through pollination. The resulting plant is said to be “genetically modified” although in reality all crops have been “genetically modified” from their original wild state by domestication, selection, and controlled breeding over long periods of time.
Advantages of GM crops:
Higher crop yields.
Reduced farm costs.
Increased farm profit.
Improvement in health and the environment.
The technology of genetic engineering is an evolving one and there is much, especially on its impact on human health and environment that is yet to be understood properly. The scientific community itself seems uncertain about this. While there are many in this community who feel that the benefits outweigh the risks, others point to the irreversibility of this technology and uncontrollability of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) once introduced in the ecosystem.
Many important crops like rice, brinjal, and mustard, among others, originated here, and introducing genetically modified versions of these crops could be a major threat to the vast number of domestic and wild varieties of these crops.
In fact, globally, there is a clear view that GM crops must not be introduced in centers of origin and diversity. India also has mega biodiversity hotspots like the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats which are rich in biodiversity yet ecologically very sensitive. Hence it will only be prudent for us to be careful before we jump on to the bandwagon of any technology.
There is also a potential for pests to evolve resistance to the toxins produced by GM crops and the risk of these toxins affecting non-target organisms. There is also the danger of unintentionally introducing allergens and other anti-nutrition factors in foods.
India’s experience so far
Currently, India has the world’s fourth largest GM crop acreage on the strength of Bt cotton, the only genetically modified crop allowed in the country.
The introduction of Bt cotton has been both highly successful and controversial. Cotton yield more than doubled in the first decade since its introduction in 2002. At the same time it was also shadowed by controversy, with a tangle of pricing and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues followed by government price interventions and litigation.
An agreement to develop Bt brinjal was signed in 2005 between Mahyco—American agricultural biotech giant Monsanto’s Indian Bt cotton partner—and two Indian agricultural universities. Following the study of biosafety data and field trials by two expert committees, Bt brinjal was cleared for commercialization by India’s top biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, in 2009. But nothing came of it, with moratoriums imposed by then government following opposition from civil society groups and brinjal-growing states.
Few evidences show that though GM crops have been gaining acceptance their use still remains highly skewed. Only 29 countries allow commercial cultivation of GM crops while a similar number also allow their import. And most of the 170 million hectares under GM crops are in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, India and China. Moreover 98% of GM cultivation falls under four main crops: soyabean, maize, cotton and canola. Experts also say that GM technologies will continue to focus on these crops for some time.
But, why Bt Mustard should be approved for release?
GM mustard (DMH-11) was developed by a team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental under a government-funded project.
It uses three genes from soil bacterium that makes self-pollinating plants such as mustard amenable to hybridisation. This means local crop developers have the equivalent of a platform technology to more easily develop versions of mustard with custom traits such as higher oil content and pest resistance.
It has also gone through safety and toxicity tests (on mice) prescribed by the regulator, but this is unlikely to convince opponents of GM technology.
What need to be ensured?
Field trials in India, in which the State governments have a say, must ensure that there are sufficient safeguards against such violations.
If GM food is allowed to be sold to consumers, they must have the right to know what they are buying, and labelling should be made mandatory.
India has taken only halting steps towards establishing a strong regulatory system; the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2013, which provided for multi-level scientific assessments and an appellate tribunal, has lapsed. Hence, a strong regulatory authority should be established.
Farmers need technology, new knowledge and governmental support to get the best out of their seeds. Successive governments have failed to move on the draft National Biotechnology Regulatory Bill, 2008 that would enable a biotechnology regulator to take shape. Without such legislation, issues to be decided on the basis of science will be at the mercy of political expediency.