Genetically Modified Organisms – Comprehensive Notes

  • Genetically Modified Organisms are the ones in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way as to get the required quality.
  • The technology is often called ‘gene technology’, or ‘recombinant DNA technology’ or ‘genetic engineering’ and the resulting organism is said to be ‘genetically modified’, ‘genetically engineered’ or ‘transgenic’.

The process of Genetic Engineering:

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Advantages of GM crops:

1. Crop Protection:

  • The initial objective for developing GM plants was to improve crop protection. GM crops have improved resistance to diseases, pest, insects and herbicides. They also have improved tolerance to cold/heat, drought and salinity.
  • Insect resistance is achieved by incorporating into the food plant the gene for toxin production from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
  • Virus resistance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from certain viruses which cause disease in plants.
  • Herbicide tolerance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from a bacterium conveying resistance to some herbicides.

2. Economic benefits:

  • GM crops can increase yield and thus income.
  • Genetically modified foods have a longer shelf life. This improves how long they last and stay fresh during transportation and storage.

3. Food Security:

  • Given the increased growth of global population and increased urbanisation, GM crops offer one of the promising solutions to meet the world’s food security needs. 

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Issues with GM crops:

1. Human Health Risks:

  • Potential impact on human health including allergens and transfer of antibiotic resistance markers.

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2. Environmental concerns:

  • They can reduce species diversity. For example, Insect-resistant plants might harm insects that are not their intended target and thus result in destruction of that particular species.
  • GM technology could also allow the transfer of genes from one crop to another, creating “super weeds”, which will be immune to common control methods.
  • Viral genes added to crops to confer resistance might be transferred to other viral pathogens, which can lead to new and more virulent virus strains.

3. Economic Concerns:

  • Introduction of a GM crop to market is a lengthy and costly process.
  • It does not result in high yields as promised. For instance, the highest yields in mustard are from the five countries which do not grow GM mustard — U.K., France, Poland, Germany and Czech Republic — and not from the GM-growing U.S. or Canada.
  • Critics claim that patent laws give developers of the GM crops a dangerous degree of control over the food supply. The concern is over domination of world food production by a few companies

4. Ethical Concerns:

  • Violation of natural organisms’ intrinsic values by mixing among species
  • There have also been objections to consuming animal genes in plants

GM Crops in India

BT Cotton

  • The Maharashtra Hybrids Seed Company (Mahyco) jointly with the US seed company Monsanto developed the genetically modified Bt Cotton to tackle the bollworm problem that had devastated cotton crops in the past.
  • In 2002, Bt Cotton became the first and only transgenic crop approved by the GEAC for commercial cultivation in six States namely, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu.

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BT Brinjal:

  • It was developed by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company) in collaboration with the Dharward University of Agricultural Sciences and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
  • The GEAC in 2007, recommended the commercial release of Bt Brinjal. The initiative was blocked in 2010.

HT Mustard:

  • Dhara Mustard Hybrid(DMH-11) is an indigenously developed transgenic mustard. It is genetically modified variety of Herbicide Tolerant (HT) mustard. It was created by using “barnase/barstar” technology for genetic modification by adding genes from soil bacterium that makes mustard self-pollinating plant.
  • In 2017, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee recommended the commercial approval of the HT Mustard crop.

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Legislation:

  • Under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has notified the Rules for the Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Micro Organisms/ Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells, 1989, or in short, the Rules, 1989.
  • These rules and regulations cover the areas of research as well as large scale applications of the GM crops.
  • These rules also define the competent authorities and composition of such authorities for handling of various aspects of the rules.

The Competent Authorities are:

  • Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RDAC) under the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology
  • Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBSC) 4 under the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology
  • Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) under the Department of Biotechnology
  • Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment and Forests. It looks into approval for large scale releases and commercialization of the GMOs
  • State Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC)
  • District Level Committee (DLC)
  • Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill,2013 has been drafted to set up an independent authority, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), to regulate organisms and products of modern biotechnology.

Mechanism to allow cultivation of GM crops in India:

  • Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is apex body under Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change for regulating manufacturing, use, import, export and storage of hazardous microorganisms or genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) and cells in the country.
  • GEAC is also responsible for giving technical approval of proposals relating to release of GMOs and products including experimental field trials. However, Environment Minister gives final approval for GMOs.
  • The safety aspects of genetically modified crops are assessed by the Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBSCs), Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) constituted under Rules 1989 of Environment Protection Act (EPA) – 1986 based on Biosafety Guidelines and the Standard Operating Procedures
  • The Government of India follows a policy of case-by-case approval of transgenic crops.
  • As per the guidelines framed by the ICMR, safety assessment is designed to identify whether a hazard, nutritional or other safety concern is present

Important Committees and Recommendations:

Task Force under the Chairmanship of Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, 2003

The Task Force recommended the establishment by an Act of Parliament an autonomous, statutory and professionally led National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority.

Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture, in its new report, “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops — Prospects and Effects made the following major recommendations:

  • The government must not allow field trials of GM crops till there is a strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system in place.The Committee studied the regulatory system in different countries and found that the one in Norway is the best.
  • A thorough probe must be conducted into the permission given for the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal right from the beginning till a moratorium was imposed in 2010.
  • The government should examine the research reports and assessment by independent scientists of Bt Brinjal by any agency other than the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which gave approval on its own assessment, to avoid conflict of interest.
  • Re-evaluation of all research findings in Bt cotton seeds in the light of studies that highlighted inexplicable changes in the organs and tissues of Bt-cotton seed-fed lambs.
  • Mandatory labelling of products from GM crops.
  • Unchecked import of GM products should be stopped
  • Organic farming should be encouraged.

High-powered panel on Doubling Farmers’ Income (DFI): It made the following observations:

  • Genetic Engineering is ‘powerful’ tool for developing future crop, but for now it should be adopted only for non-food crops.
  • For transgenic food crops, questions on its safety must be addressed and settled first.

Leading agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, in a research paper, has described Bt Cottonas a ‘failure’.

The findings were published in paper ‘Modern Technologies for Sustainable Food and Nutrition Security’. It is a review of crop development in India and transgenic crops — particularly Bt cotton, the stalled Bt brinjal as well as DMH-11, a transgenic mustard hybrid.

Key observations made:

  • The paper notes that GE (genetically engineered) Bt cotton has failed in India. It has failed as a sustainable agriculture technology and has, therefore, also failed to provide livelihood security for cotton farmers who are mainly resource-poor, small and marginal farmers.
  • Besides, the precautionary principle (PP) has been done away with and no science-based and rigorous biosafety protocols and evaluation of GM crops are in place.
  • The paper also raises questions on the genetic engineering technology itself on the grounds that it raises the cost of sowing. Also, the insertion of foreign genes (in the plant) could lead to “molecular and cellular events not precisely understood.”

Concerns in India:

  1. According to critics, the current safety assessments are inadequate to catch most of the harmful effects from the GM crops. The regulatory regime in India with regard to the GM crops has never been assessed thoroughly with regard to the GM risk assessment in Indian conditions.
  2. There is lack of adequate machinery to test the GM crops imported. There is only a Food Lab in Kolkata under the Ministry of Health and which is not well-equipped.
  3. Conflict of interest: All the safety tests for regulatory approvals in India are conducted by the same party that applies for commercialisation of GM crops.
  4. Concerns over transparency: GEAC’s refusal to publicly release the safety testing data submitted for regulatory approval of BT Brinjal and GM Mustard, until GM opponents filed a Right to Information petition has raised serious questions over transparency.The tendency to operate in secrecy has created a serious distrust on the government and the promoters of GM crops.
  5. Organic needs certificate, GM gets away
  • One has approach a third party certification agency, and wait for one to three years to obtain an organic certificate.
  • Those who cannot afford to pay for the third-party certification, will have to form a group under the Union government’s Participatory Guarantee System of organic certification, which has huge implementation gaps.
  • On the contrary, the proposed regulations for genetically modified food are so lax that authorities will have to depend on the self-declaration by the industry.

Way Forward:

  1. A major challenge today is to develop low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without technology. However, to assure technology does not undermine human and environmental health, there needs to be extensive research.
  2. The Indian government must take decisions on GM technologies on the basis of scientific evidence. It should adopt a participatory approach in order to bring together all stakeholders to develop regulatory protocols. This would ensure trust in the entire process.
  3. Any new technology adopted in the farming sector must be in the interest of the farmers without undermining the rights of consumers.
  4. The most important job lies on the promoters of GM technology to convince consumers, environmental activists and farmers that among various alternatives available for sustainable food production, GM technology is one of the best option to improve crop yields and address India’s food security.
  5. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has rightly pointed out in 2004, “Science cannot declare any technology completely risk free. Genetically engineered crops can reduce some environmental risks associated with conventional agriculture, but will also introduce new challenges that must be addressed”.
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