Recently, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) decided to put on hold the government’s decision to commercialise genetically modified (GM) mustard, because of growing outrage by farmer groups against it. Let’s understand its basics in brief!
What is GMO?
- GMOs can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination
- It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non related species
- Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods
- Recently in India, GM mustard crop was introduced, which was later withdrawn. There is a raging debate going on advantages and disadvantages of GMOs
- For a long time, further study was requested by farmers, environmentalist on GMO crops
<Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is a body under the Environment Ministry that regulates the use of genetically modified organisms>
Why are GM foods produced?
- GM foods are developed – and marketed – because there is some perceived advantage either to the producer or consumer of these foods
- This is meant to translate into a product with a lower price, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both
- Initially GM seed developers wanted their products to be accepted by producers and have concentrated on innovations that bring direct benefit to farmers (and food industry generally)
- One of the objectives for developing plants based on GM organisms is to improve crop protection
What really is India’s recently developed GM mustard?
- A team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor Deepak Pental has bred DMH-11, a genetically modified (GM) mustard hybrid
- 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
- What team has done is, that they have created a viable hybridisation system in mustard using GM technology
- The resulting GM mustard hybrid, it is claimed, gives 25-30% more yield than the best varieties such as ‘Varuna’ currently grown in the country
Is there a need, in the first place, for developing a mustard hybrid?
- In 2014-15, India imported 14.5 million tonnes of edible oils valued at $10.5 billion
- With the country’s own annual edible oil production stuck at below 7.5 million tonnes, of which mustard’s share is roughly a quarter
- So, there is need to raise domestic crop yields and cut dependence on imports
- Hybrid technology is a potential technique to boost yields, as has been successfully demonstrated in a host of crops
What are the environmental risks?
- GMOs contaminate forever. GMOs cross pollinate and their seeds can travel far and wide
- It is impossible to fully clean up our contaminated gene pool
- Genetic engineering allows plants to survive high doses of weed killers, resulting in higher herbicide residues in our food
- GMO crops are creating ‘super weeds’ and ‘super bugs,’ which can only be killed with more toxic poisons
Are there any advantages?
- Some GMO foods have been modified to make them more resistant to insects and other pests
- This means the amount of pesticide chemicals used on the plants are reduced, so their exposure to dangerous pesticides are also reduced
- Another benefit that GM technology is believed to bring about is that crops can be engineered to withstand weather extremes and fluctuations,
- This means that there will be good quality and sufficient yields even under a poor or severe weather condition
GM crops often requires less time, tools and chemicals, and may help with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion and environmental pollution
More Nutritious Foods
According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), some GM foods have been engineered to become more nutritious in terms of vitamin or mineral content.
- Larger production leading to increased farm income, reduced poverty, low food prices and thus reduced hunger and malnutrition.
- Besides new food products are also included, diversifying food varieties
Then, Why has there been so much concern about GM foods among some public interest groups, activists and consumers?
- Since the first introduction on the market in the mid-1990s of a major GM food (herbicide-resistant soybeans), there has been concern about such food among activists and consumers, especially in Europe
- In fact, public attention has focused on the risk side of the risk-benefit equation, often without distinguishing between potential environmental impacts and public health effects of GMOs
- Consumers have questioned the validity of risk assessments, both with regard to consumer health and environmental risks, focusing particulary on long-term effects
- Consumer concerns have triggered a discussion on the desirability of labeling GM foods, allowing for an informed choice of consumers
What further developments can be expected in the area of GMOs?
- 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
- For non-food use, they may include plants or animals producing pharmaceutically important proteins such as new vaccines