A wealth of research shows that GM crops make for good science and good economics and India needs to embrace both? Discuss. (200 Words)

Mentors Comment:

  • Issue of GM crop is quite old and have been in the current affairs domain since last couple of years because of the various stands taken by governments and litigation in SC. 
  • Discuss GM crops, its features and its present scope in India in the intro. Then discuss the concerns that are raised against the GM crops by experts, government bodies and its challenges in India.
  • While discussing the positives of GM crops, divide the arguments in two subheadings: Scientific arguments and economic arguments, as the statement of the question is based on these two aspects of GM crops.
  • Because the question is asking to discuss the question, it expects your advice or viewpoints on the issue. Therefore before ending the answer, give your suggestions on what needs to be done. Passing Biotech Regulatory Authority Bill 2013 will be an important suggestion as well as a need for proper regulatory and safety mechanisms. 

Answer:

Genetically modified crops (GM crops) are plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. The aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species like resistance to certain pests, diseases, environmental conditions, herbicides, etc. Genetic Modification is also done to increase nutritional value. India has yet to approve the commercial cultivation of a GM food crop. The only genetically modified cash crop under commercial cultivation in India is cotton.

Concerns regarding GM crops:

  • The effects of GM crops on human health can be unpredictable. They might have a tendency to provoke any allergic reaction.
  • They can reduce species diversity. 
  • For example, Insect-resistant plants might harm insects that are not their intended target and thus result in the destruction of that particular species.
  • GM technology could also allow the transfer of herbicide-tolerant genes from GM crop to weeds, creating “superweeds”, which will be immune to common control methods.
  • Pollen from GM crop blows into organic farming site and cause seed pollution.
  • The introduction of a GM crop to market is a lengthy and costly process.
  • Patenting of GM plants is a great concern. Patenting these seeds increases the price of these seeds and small farmers cannot afford to buy GM seeds every year.
  • Seed makers charging high prices; for instance maker of BT cotton seed demands 30% royalty. 
  • This result to be financially disastrous for poor farmers and further increasing the inequality in the distribution of income.
  • GEAC under Dept. of Biotechnology is the regulator and the Dept of Biotechnology itself is a promoter. 
  • So the question of legitimate regulation of the GM crops and conflict of interest arises in the current bureaucratic setup.
  • The parliamentary standing committee, has advised the government to go slow because it believes that there isn’t enough evidence to decide either way.

Arguments in the favour of GM crops through scientific research:

  • Research done by at least six different institutes under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has found GM crops to be safe for animal health.
  • The Central Avian Research Institute gave genetically modified cottonseed meal to chickens and found no adverse effects on them.
  • The Central Sheep and Wool Research Institute did similar tests on lambs and found no disadvantageous impact. 
  • Experts came up with similar results for goats, cows, and fish.
  • The National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad conducted tests for toxicity and allergenicity and found no adverse effects.

Economic arguments in favor of GM crops:

  • Around the world, GM technology helped increase crop yields by 22%, reduced the use of chemical pesticides by 37%, and increased farmer profits by 68%
  • About nearly 68% of the world’s population is already consuming GM products.
  • India too has been importing GM products, specifically, GM soybean oil and GM canola oil for nearly two decades now. 
  • GM mustard can be cultivated domestically to reduce the import bill significantly.
  • The success of BT cotton in India should be looked upon.
  • While BT cotton was developed by a foreign company, thus fuelling concerns about vested interests and corporate control among environmental activists, GM mustard has been developed at the publicly funded Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants after extensive research.

Way Forward:

  • In India, a strong regulatory framework is needed for the commercialization of GM crops. Otherwise, years of researches on GM crops will go in vain.
  • The government should come forward to pass the Biotech Regulatory Authority Bill 2013. 
  • It will provide for an independent biotechnology regulatory authority that will replace the multiple committees – at least six – that are part of the current regulatory structure.
  • Reports about GM crops prepared by various committee and government should be kept in public domain. This will evolve an informed debate.
  • It is necessary to be careful before introducing GM crops in the sensitive mega biodiversity hotspots like western ghats.
  • Field trials in India, in which the State governments have a say, must ensure that there are sufficient safeguards against 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.

The positives need to be weighed with negatives and a balanced approach is needed when introducing these into the mainstream. The scientific community is divided over the issue of GM crops. Therefore, proper Biosafety and scientific studies must be done on a case by case basis. The apprehension can be worked out through an independent audit of security.

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