Genetically Modified Crops (GM Crops): Benefits & Controversies

Genetically Modified Organism (Transgenic Organism)

  • In GMO, genetic material (DNA) is altered or artificially introduced using genetic engineering techniques.
  • Genetic modification involves the mutation, insertion, or deletion of genes.
  • Inserted genes usually come from a different organism (e.g. In Bt cotton, Bt genes from bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis are induced).
  • Genetic modification is done to induce a desirable new trait which does not occur naturally in the species.
GM techniques are used in:
  • Biological and medical research,
  • Production of pharmaceutical drugs,
  • Experimental medicine (e.g. gene therapy),
  • Agriculture (e.g. golden rice, Bt cotton etc.),
  • Genetically modified bacteria to produce the protein insulin,
  • To produce biofuels from some GM bacteria, etc.

Genetically modified crops (GM Crops or Biotech Crops)

  • They are the plants used in agriculture, whose DNA has been modified to induce a desired new trait.
  • A New trait might help in
  • Controlling certain pests, diseases, or environmental conditions,
  • reduction of spoilage,
  • inducing resistance to chemical treatments (e.g. resistance to an herbicide),
  • improving the nutrient profile of the crop,
  • atmospheric nitrogen fixation by cereal crops,
  • inducing tolerance to high salt soils and to flooding in crops,
  • inducing drought resistance in crops,
  • prolonging shelf life and commercial value of fruits and vegetables.

Biotechnology – Genetically Modified Crops

Major GM Crops

Bt Cotton

  • Bt cotton is insect-resistant cotton variety.
  • Strains of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis produce different Bt toxins.
  • Bt toxins are insecticidal to the larvae of moths, bollworms, etc. but are harmless to other forms of life.
  • In 2002, a joint venture between Monsanto and Mahyco introduced Bt cotton to India.
Advantages
  • Increases yield of cotton due to effective control of three types of bollworms.
  • Reduction in insecticide use in the cultivation of Bt cotton in which bollworms are major pests.
  • Potential reduction in the cost of cultivation (depending on seed cost versus insecticide costs).
Problems with Bt Cotton
  • High cost of Bt cotton seeds as compared to non Bt cotton seeds.
  • Ineffective against sucking pests like whitefly.
  • Whitefly attack has become rampant in Punjab, Haryana and elsewhere.
  • The costs of Bt seed and insecticide increase the risk of farmer bankruptcy in low-yield rain-fed settings.

Bt Brinjal

  • Brinjal is India’s second most consumed vegetable after potatoes.
  • Bt brinjal is created by inserting a crystal protein gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.
  • The Bt brinjal has been developed to give resistance to the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB).
  • Mahyco has developed the Bt brinjal variety.
  • Insecticide requirement for Bt brinjal is far less than its non-Bt counterpart for the control of FSB.
  • The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) cleared Bt brinjal for commercialization in 2009.
  • Following concerns raised by some scientists and anti-GMO activists, the GOI has imposed a moratorium on its commercial use (not a permanent ban).
  • Mahyco’s Bt brinjal is commercially grown in Bangladesh.

Golden rice

  • Golden rice is a variety of rice (Oryza sativa) produced to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, in the edible parts of rice.
  • It is mostly consumed in areas with a shortage of dietary vitamin A.

Benefits of GMO

Crops
  • Enhanced taste and quality.
  • Reduced maturation time.
  • Increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance.
  • Improved resistance to disease, pests, and herbicides.
  • New products and growing techniques.
Animals
  • Increased resistance, productivity, hardness, and feed efficiency.
  • Better yields of meat, eggs, and milk.
  • Improved animal health and diagnostic methods.
Environment
  • “Friendly” bioherbicides and bioinsecticides.
  • Conservation of soil, water and energy.
  • Bioprocessing for forestry products.
  • Better natural waste management.
Society
  • Increased food security for growing population.

Issues Surrounding GMO

Genetically Modified Crops

Safety
  • The adverse impacts of genetically modified food are not evident immediately.
  • Potential human health impact: allergens, transfer of antibiotic resistance markers, unknown effects.
  • Potential environmental impact: unintended transfer of transgenes through crosspollination, unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes) and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity.
  • Criticism against Anti-GM lobby: Instead of evaluating the risks, costs and benefits of hybrids on a case-by-case basis, they propose a blanket ban on genetic modification.
Access and intellectual property
  • Domination of world food production by a few companies.
  • Increasing dependence on industrialized nations by developing countries.
  • Biopiracy — foreign exploitation of natural resources.
Ethics
  • Violation of natural organisms’ intrinsic values.
  • Tampering with nature by mixing genes among species.
  • Objections to transferring animal genes in plants and vice versa.
Labelling
  • Not mandatory in some countries (e.g. United States).
  • Mixing GM crops with non-GM confounds labelling attempts.
Research
  • The objectivity and authenticity of scientific research and publication.
Effectiveness
  • The ineffectiveness of BT cotton against whitefly attack in Punjab and Haryana has raised more questions.
Issues with banning GM crops
  • The ban on GM crops is also promoting an illegal market to flourish in India.
  • Bangladesh is reaping the benefits of Bt Brinjal while its cultivation is banned in India.
GMO have already entered the food chain
  • Cotton seed oil extracted from Bt cotton plants is being consumed in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
  • Soybean oil is extracted from imported seeds, which are produced from GM crops abroad.
Illegal cultivation (Farmer’s rights vs. Government Regulation)
  • A farmers’ group in Maharashtra, marked its protest against the government ban on genetically modified (GM) crops by planting Bt brinjal and HT cotton.
  • There is a grave danger of illegal genetically modified brinjal cultivation proliferating.
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