A major challenge today is to develop low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without technology. Can GM crops help in this regard? Critically discuss. (200 W/ 12½ M)

Mentor’s Comment:

Introduction should explain in general about the issues faced by agriculture in present context. Like use of inadequate manure, use of unimproved seeds, primitive method of cultivation, regional disparities in crop production, small landholdings etc.

Further, mention how can GM Crop help in this regard and associated potential risks with GM crops.

Next, mention what needs to be done to improve farm productivity. We can also mention about the lesions which we can learn from China and Japan. And bring conclusion.

 

Model Answer:

Issues with Agriculture –Present Context:

  • Inadequate use of manures like cow-dung or vegetable refuge and chemical fertilisers makes Indian agriculture much less productive than Japanese or Chinese agriculture.
  • In India, not much use has been made of improved varieties of seeds. The main cereals (rice, millets and pulses) are still grown chiefly with unimproved seeds.
  • The method of cultivation in most areas of India is still primitive. Most farmers continue to use native plough and other accessories.
  • Indian agricultural productivity is very less compared to world standards due to use of obsolete farming technology. Coupled with this, lack of understanding of the need for sustainability in the poor farming community has made things worse.

How can GM crops help in this regard?

  • A major challenge today is to develop low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without technology Crop plants, like any other biological species, have threats from many pests and pathogens. In evolutionary biology this constant battle between hosts, pests and pathogens is called an arms race. Every crop has a few major and minor pests and pathogens. The latter, however, can always turn into a major threat due to large-scale cultivation of the crop and climate change.
  • The two important ways of protecting crops involve dispensing agrochemicals, or breeding species for resistance. The latter is environmentally more benign as it reduces the use of agrochemicals and the preferred source is tapping the germ-plasm within the crop species.
  • Resistance-conferring genes can also be sourced from wild relatives of crops, a process that may take up to 15 years. In many cases, no source is available even within the wild relatives.
  • The technique of genetic engineering, in common lexicon called GM technology, allows the introduction of a resistance-conferring gene from any biological source.
  • But cotton is a very fine example of using a resistance-conferring gene from a bacterial species to tackle bollworms, a common cotton pest. The alternative to But would be pesticides and further, these have to be new molecules, as those in use before the introduction of But cotton are no longer effective. However, we must understand that no resistance lasts forever.
  • Therefore, one has to discover and use new sources of resistance — or stack genes together — that work through different mechanisms to confer longer resistance.
  • The development of GM technologies is a major achievement of the recombinant-DNA era that started in the 1970s. This has been followed by remarkable developments in genome sequencing. Today genomes of all the major crops have been sequenced and the information is available freely.

Potential risks:

  • The danger of unintentionally introducing allergens and other anti-nutrition factors in foods.
  • There is no clarity about impact of GM crops on human health and environment. The scientific community itself seems uncertain about this. It is also argued that once GM crops are introduced risks outweigh benefits. Also, the technology is irreversible and uncontrollable.
  • The likelihood of trans-genes escaping from cultivated crops into wild relatives.
  • The potential for pests to evolve resistance to the toxins produced by GM crops.
  • The risk of these toxins affecting non-target organisms.
  • Seed makers charging high prices for instance Monsanto (maker of BT cotton seed) demands 30% royalty. It withdrew its plan to introduce advanced version of Bt-Cotton when government put a cap on seed prices.

What needs to be done?

  • A precautionary approach towards any open release of GMOs is necessary.
  • India has mega biodiversity hotspots like the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats which are rich in biodiversity yet ecologically very sensitive. Hence it is necessary to be careful before introducing GM crops in these sensitive areas.
  • 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 labeling should be made mandatory.
  • One possible solution for the Indian government is to form an autonomous regulator. The GEAC is a part of the ministry of environment and forests, and isn’t “entirely independent,”

Lessons from China:

  • India could look at China as an example. Both countries face similar food security challenges with exponential population growth.
  • China, though, has been using GM crops for the last two decades Today, with just 7% of the global arable land, China feeds 22% of the world’s population.

Conclusion:

  • Genetically modified foods can potentially solve many hunger and malnutrition problems in the world, as well as help protect and preserve the environment by increasing yields and reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides and herbicides.
  • However, it is important to proceed with caution to avoid unfavourable consequences for the surroundings and our health, considering that genetic engineering technology is very powerful.
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