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Genetically Modified Organisms(GMO): Developments and Concerns

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  • Recently in India, GM mustard crop was introduced, which was later withdrawn.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?

Insect Resistance

  • 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

Stronger Crops

  • 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

Environment Protection

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.

Economic Benefits

  • 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
Published with inputs from Arun

Any doubts?

  1. Carbapenem

    it is also being said that the farmers will have to buy seeds every time as the crop produce using GM seeds are infertile ie the seed company has altered the potency of the produce.the resultant crop would be it true?

  2. Lokesh Gola

    This debate would go long.

  3. Harsha Premdev

    A tradition that lands tribal youth in jail

    The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POSCO) is an effective deterrent to sexual exploitation and harassment of minors.

    Many tribals, who are ignorant of the stringent provisions in the Act, marry minor girls, in keeping with their traditional practice, and end up in jail on rape charges. Most cases are registered without any formal complaint from the girls or their parents.

    The situation is prevalent in almost all tribal belts of Kerala, the worst affected are the Paniya and Kattunaika community members in Wayanad.

    Child marriage is common among the Paniya and Kattunaikars tribes and this has remained a part of their custom for many years.

    These people are not aware of the existence of a law or even the age of majority status under the Indian law.

    The law needs sensible implementation. There is a blind spot in the law that says it is applicable to all people, irrespective of their customs, practices or their vulnerability.

  4. Harsha Premdev

    200th Birth Anniversary of Tatya Tope !!

    Ramachandra Pandurang Tope was an Indian leader in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and one of its notable generals,Born in a Yeola of Nashik District (Maharashtra)

    when James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie deprived Nana Sahib of his father’s pension, Tatya Tope also became a sworn enemy of the British.

    He progressed with the Gwalior contingent after the British reoccupied Cawnpore and forced General Windham to retreat from the city.
    Later on, he came to the relief of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and with her seized the city of Gwalior.

    However, he was defeated by General Napier’s British Indian troops at Ranod and after a further defeat at Sikarabandoned the campaign.

    He was executed by the British Government at Shivpuri on 18 April 1859.

  5. Harsha Premdev

    Integration of Homoeopathy/Yoga with NPCDCS!!
    The Union Minster of State for AYUSH (Independent Charge) and Health & Family Welfare Shri Shripad Yesso Naik launched the pilot project ‘Integration of Homoeopathy/Yoga with National Programme for Prevention and Control of Cancer, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Diseases & Stroke (NPCDCS).
    5.8 million Indians die from diseases like heart & lung diseases, cancer & diabetes etc. i.e. one out of every four Indians runs the risk of dying from one of these diseases before they reach the age of 70.
    What is National Programme for Prevention and Control of Cancer, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Diseases & Stroke (NPCDCS)?……………………………………………………………………………………. The focus of the programme is on health promotion and prevention, strengthening of infrastructure including human resources, early diagnosis and management and integration with the primary health care system through NCD cells at different levels for optimal operational synergies. National Cancer Control Programme, an on-going programme, has been integrated under NPCDCS.
    Major risk factors for these NCDs are raised blood pressure, cholesterol, tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption, and obesity which are modifiable. Hence a majority of cancers and CVDs can be prevented and treated if diagnosed at an early stage.

  6. Sneha Sodhi

    Both sides cite their studies to prove their point of view, I don’t even know when they are speaking truth, when it’s propaganda. All studies seem like paid studies. What should be the ideal course of action, anyone?

    1. vaibhava srivastava

      The only way out is rigorous scientific tests which need to be transparent and without any elimination of conflict.
      Those who oppose GM say it can have long term harmful effects and sample duration for tests is not enough. Those who support GM say – till now there have been no harmful effects, it has been in US for long, hence it is safe.
      GEAC needs to fix a timeline – Rigorous tests will be conducted for next ‘x’ years and then an objective call based on hard scientific results will be taken. The tests have been ridden with conflicts of interests – being conducted by the very companies who will benefit from their release. The results not being shared in public domain despite CIC and SC orders. This fuels the vicious cycle of skepticism.
      Transparent tests through independent scientific bodies and open reports are the way out.

      Let us not ignore growing our food security needs and balance them with concerns of biosafety. We can not afford to follow precautionary principle in this regard like EU.

More tests required for GM mustard: regulator


Mains Paper 3: Science & Technology | Awareness in the fields of IT, Space, Computers, robotics, nano-technology, bio-technology and issues relating to intellectual property rights.

From UPSC perspectives, the following things are important

Prelims Level: Particulars of the committee

Mains Level: The main issue


Observation of the the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee

  1. The committee has said that in light of several representations both “for and against” the release of GM mustard, there was a need for more tests
  2. The Centre has also demanded more tests for genetically modified mustard, a year after clearing the crop for “commercial cultivation”

One of the main issue

  1. The GM mustard has never been tested as a herbicide tolerant crop, for its environmental and health ramifications
  2. It is a point that has remained unaddressed by the regulators


  1. Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH -11) had been developed by a team of scientists at Delhi University
  2. It was developed under a government-funded project


Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)

  1. It functions in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). As per Rules, 1989, it is responsible for appraisal of activities involving large scale use of hazardous microorganisms and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle
  2. The committee is also responsible for appraisal of proposals relating to release of genetically engineered (GE) organisms and products into the enviornment including experimental field trials
  3. GEAC is chaired by the Special Secretary/Additional Secretary of MoEF&CC and co-chaired by a representative from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT). Presently, it has 24 members and meets every month to review the applications in the areas indicated above

Govt: GM soybean imports only after regulator’s approval


Mains Paper 3: Agriculture | Major crops cropping patterns in various parts of the country

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: DGFT, GEAC

Mains level: GM crops and issues related to it


Stop imports of GM soybeans

  1. The Union environment ministry has asked the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) to stop imports of genetically modified (GM) soybean for food or feed without the approval of the regulator for transgenic products
  2. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had received a complaint regarding “illegal/unauthorized import of GM soybean into India from countries like the US and Ukraine

Import regulations

  1. GEAC has not authorized or approved GM soybean or any other products derived from GM soybean seeds for import or cultivation in India
  2. GM Cotton is the only transgenic crop which is allowed to be cultivated
  3. The environment ministry is yet to take a final call on allowing the commercial cultivation of GM mustard


Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)

  1. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) functions in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC)
  2. As per Rules, 1989, it is responsible for appraisal of activities involving large scale use of hazardous microorganisms and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle
  3. The committee is also responsible for appraisal of proposals relating to release of genetically engineered (GE) organisms and products into the enviornment including experimental field trials
  4. GEAC is chaired by the Special Secretary/Additional Secretary of MoEF&CC and co-chaired by a representative from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT)
  5. It meets every month to review the applications in the areas indicated above

Many States skip meet on GM crops II

  1. Further steps: GM Mustard needs to be cleared by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the apex regulator
  2. And then also a possible approval by the Environment Minister
  3. Previously: Bt Brinjal was cleared by the GEAC in 2010 only to be vetoed by former Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh
  4. UNEP: The consultation with States was part of a three-year long project funded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
  5. The purpose is to “educate” a variety of stakeholders on biosafety and India’s commitments, under international treaties, to treat GMOs responsibly

Many States skip meet on GM crops I

  1. Event: The Ministry of Environment and Forests held a meeting with states representatives to discuss impediments to research in genetically modified crops
  2. The manner in which field trials ought to be conducted was also discussed
  3. Context: GM mustard has been declared safe for cultivation by a technical committee of India’s apex body that clears GM crop trials
  4. It is the first transgenic crop entirely developed by Indian researchers and with public money,
  5. Problems: This has also prompted States such as Bihar — an important cultivator of mustard — to challenge GM mustard
  6. The SC has begun hearing a petition by anti-GM activist groups
  7. They say that the technical clearance to GM mustard will lead to commercialisation and contaminate India’s mustard gene pool
  8. They also allege that results of tests on GM mustard weren’t fully open to public scrutiny and the clearance violates recommendations of a SC committee

GM mustard may be stalled indefinitely

  1. News: Even though GM mustard may have been declared safe by a government sub-committee, it may yet remain in the can for an indefinite period
  2. Why? Centre’s preliminary clearance to GM mustard, named Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11), contravenes a 2013 report by a Supreme Court-appointed technical expert committee
  3. This committee had said that herbicide-tolerant crops ought not be permitted in India
  4. One of the genes in DMH-11 contains a gene called ‘bar’ that confers herbicide tolerance
  5. This makes plants resistant to a class of weedicide containing the chemical glufosinate
  6. Critics say glufosinate is toxic and makes farmers dependent on certain brands of crop chemicals
  7. If the court sees merit in the argument, then this could indefinitely stall GM mustard

Consider the following techniques/ phenomena: [Prelims 2014]

1- Budding and grafting in fruit plants
2- Cytoplasmic male sterility
3- Gene silencing

Which of the above is/are used to create transgenic crops?

a) 1 only
b) 2 and 3
c) 1 and 3
d) None

Activists objections to herbicide resistant plants

  1. In 2002, India’s biotech regulators had refused to clear a herbicide tolerant plant developed by Bayer Crop Science
  2. Activist organisations from Greenpeace to the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture have protested over decades that using herbicide tolerant genes in plants locks farmers into using select brands of agrochemicals.
  3. However, such an argument is termed bizarre by geneticists
  4. Example: Germany uses four times more herbicide than India, there is no agriculture without herbicide in Western countries- even in countries that swear by organic farming

GM mustard is tolerant of herbicides, says geneticist

  1. One of the DMH-11 genes, called the bar gene, made the plant resistant to a herbicide (or weed killer) brand-named Basta
  2. It is a product sold by multinational company Bayer Cropscience
  3. If cleared by GEAC, it will be the first time a herbicide tolerant crop would be cleared for commercial use in India

Delhi varsity scientist develops GM cotton after success with mustard

  1. An Indian scientists’ team has developed a genetically modified (GM) mustard variety that is inching towards a possible commercial launch
  2. The team could soon hand to a state agency a GM cotton variety that can rival Monsanto’s seeds
  3. It worked on GM mustard for around a decade
  4. A Govt committee said that it found the seeds to be safe for food/ feed and environment
  5. It could be the country’s first GM food crop

GM mustard moves closer to approval

  1. News: GM Mustard has moved closer to being cleared for commercial cultivation in India
  2. A key committee is learnt to have given a favourable assessment on the tests done so far on GM mustard
  3. However there are multiple approvals still required for any likely clearance
  4. Committee: Was tasked with assessing all the available evidence so far on the plant’s suitability for Indian soil and risks posed to health and ecology

GM mustard trials: CIC asks govt to reveal bio-safety data

  1. News: Central Information Commission (CIC) has directed the environment ministry to reveal safety data regarding trials of genetically modified (GM) mustard without further delay
  2. CIC: Any attempt to postpone or delay the disclosure will block the public discussion on the controversial issue
  3. Background: In April, CIC had pulled up the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) over its lack of transparency on trials of GM crops
  4. Also, directed it to make public all information, including bio-safety data, related to the field trials of the GM mustard crop before 30 April
  5. The CIC also directed the ministry to put in the public domain bio-safety data pertaining to all other GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the pipeline
  6. Context: The CIC’s directions came on an application by an environment activist who sought information regarding field trials of GM mustard from the MoEFCC, but was denied

Bt cotton has always been controversial. What’s new?

  1. Agriculture Ministry’s new policy on GM crop changes the way seed companies and seed-technology companies such as the MMB share royalty, technology
  2. Aim: India should not be dependent on foreign technology and untimely price fluctuations
  3. Challenge: While India has a healthy repository of GM technologies, translating genes into commercial products is a huge challenge!

Centre plans alternative to Bt cotton

  1. Purpose: To develop genes that can be integrated into traditional varieties for larger outputs
  2. This project would be led by CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) and DBT (Department of Biotechnology)
  3. Cotton is the only genetically-modified seed that’s legally allowed in India
  4. GM food crops such as Brinjal and Mustard still face opposition by anti-GM activist groups

Govt. is against the monopolies over seed technologies

  1. Context: Genetically modified seeds are only permitted in cotton and one company seems to be having the monopoly in deciding the prices
  2. Govt may consult with seed firms and farmers before introducing a new policy for technology for GM crops
  3. Aim: To ensure that the final licensing guidelines do not contradict the National IPR Policy, released on May

Make GM mustard data public: CIC

  1. Context: CIC has asked the Environment Ministry to make public all the data pertaining to the safety of GM mustard
  2. Safeguard: Data can be made public sans proprietary intellectual property data
  3. The first: GM mustard is likely to be the first transgenic seed, to be available in farmer fields
  4. Currently: GM cotton is the only transgenic crop commercially available in farmer fields

Environment Ministry draws flak over GM mustard data

  1. Context: GEAC, under the Environment Min, had rejected earlier requests for the bio-safety data on GM crops
  2. Why? They said that doing so would “breach commercial confidence” of the crop developer
  3. Now: CIC ordered that ‘data on safety issues which is matter of overriding public interest cannot be considered as confidential information’
  4. People should know how and why GM mustard is being permitted or denied

GEAC defers decision on importing GM animal feed

  1. Context: The environment ministry has received several requests from companies seeking permission to import genetically modified feed for animals
  2. However, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has deferred a decision on these requests
  3. Why? Absence of an expert view and lack of detailed studies on the matter

Centre cuts fee & prices for Bt cotton

  1. Context: Centre has lowered the ‘trait’ (licence) fee for genetically modfied (Bt) cotton by 70 per cent for 2016-17
  2. Panel: The decision is in line with the recommendations of a panel constituted to determine a uniform national price of Bt cotton
  3. It was formed in line with the Cotton Price Control Order of December 2015
  4. The order empowered the Centre to fix a uniform national price of cotton hybrids

No nod for GM mustard now

  1. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) decided to put on hold any decision on GM mustard
  2. Background – Growing outrage by farmer groups and green activists against commercialisation of GM mustard
  3. The Environment ministry ensured that it will hold a consultative meeting with all the stakeholders before giving approval
  4. It might take couple of months before the trial and safety data could become ready to be publicly available

Centre sets up committee to fix Bt Cotton seed prices

The government constituted a committee to execute its cotton price control order that will decide the price farmers pay to seed companies.

  1. 9-member committee has a deadline of 31 March to decide on the MSP of genetically modified Bt cotton seeds.
  2. The committee is slated to meet within a week or two to decide the maximum sale price (MSP) of cotton seeds, including royalty fees and dealers’ margins.
  3. The agriculture ministry on 7 December issued a price control order to bring uniformity in Bt cotton seed prices.
  4. As several states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have brought in price control orders.
  5. At least six million farmers grow cotton in India, over 95% of which is grown using the transgenic Bt technology.
  6. The committee will be headed by the joint secretary (seeds) in the ministry, and will have the agriculture secretaries of Telangana and Gujarat as members.

It is failure of Bt technology, opines expert panel

Expert panel opined that the Bt cotton, despite been cultivated as per the instructions and guidelines of seed producers and Agricultural Universities, was destroyed by pink bollworm pest.

  1. An independent fact-finding team of cotton experts that examined Bt cotton fields destroyed by pink bollworm in Raichur district.
  2. It strongly held that the crop destruction was not due to adulteration of seeds, but due to the failure of Bt technology itself.
  3. The outbreaks of white fly menace in North Karnataka and Andhra 1996, mirid bugs in Haveri in 2013.
  4. The pink bollworm now in Raichur have clearly refuted the claims Bt cotton seed producers claims on pest-resistance.
  5. Experts strongly demanded to amend Seed Act 1966 so as to incorporate provisions that would deal with genetic purity of genetically modified seeds.

GM cotton: whitefly attack raises anxiety among farmers

Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) is now recommending farmers to sow traditional non-Bt varieties of American and indigenous cotton

  1. The ineffectiveness of genetically modified (GM) cotton against the recent whitefly attack in Punjab and Haryana.
  2. It is time for India to actively promote and involve public-private partnership (PPP) model in GM crop technology
  3. Focus on developing new technologies to fight pest infestation on cotton and other crops.
  4. The whitefly attack in Punjab that damaged over 75 per cent crop across the cotton belt had led to widespread protests in the past few days.
  5. Bt cotton is around 14 years old technology and is effective against specific type of bollworms, but not insects such as whitefly.

Eminent scientists praise genetically-modified crops

  1. They emphasised that the state govt’s prior approval for conducting confined field trials should be removed.
  2. Such permission is needed, under the national seeds Act, only for allowing commercial cultivation of new seeds, not for their field testing.
  3. There is no evidence of any adverse impact of the GM products either on human health or on environment.

Discuss: These scientists have written letters to Modi. Now is a good time to revise what are the cons of GM crops

:( We are working on most probable questions. Do check back this section.

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