Genetically Modified Crops/Organisms (GMO) In India: Prospects, Challenges and Solutions.

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Context: Genetic modification of crops has been a controversial issue since the first commercial production of a genetically modified crop. India has banned the cultivation of Bt brinjal in 2010, but GM crops still find its way into the fields through the illegal supply of seeds specifically in the region of Haryana, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh where farmers are indulged in unapproved sowing and cultivation of Bt brinjal owing to its advantages of being pest resistant, lower cost, and higher yield.

Relevance:
Prelims: Prelims: Current events of national and international importance.
Mains: GS III-

  • Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment.
  • Awareness in the fields of IT, Space, Computers, robotics, nano-technology, bio-technology and issues relating to intellectual property rights.
What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?
  • Genetically Modified Organisms are the ones in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way to achieve the desired quality/trait.
  • This technology is often referred to as ‘gene technology’, or ‘recombinant DNA technology’ or ‘genetic engineering’ and the resulting organism is called as ‘genetically modified’, ‘genetically engineered’ or ‘transgenic’.

How it is Done?
  • 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.
What are the advantages of GM crops?
  • Crops & Environmental benefits:
    • GM crops have high resistance to diseases, pests, insects, and herbicides.
    • 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 by means of the introduction of a gene from certain viruses that cause disease in plants.
    • Herbicide tolerance is achieved via the introduction of a gene from a bacterium having resistance to some herbicides.
    • They also have a high tolerance to cold/heat, drought, and salinity which is helpful in the context of global warming and climate change.
  • Food security:
    • Considering the huge growth of the global population and urbanization, GM crops provide one of the promising solutions to meet the world’s food security needs.
  • Economic benefits:
    • GM crops improve yield, thus increasing farmers income.
    • GM crops have longer shelf life = improves how long they last and stay fresh during transportation and storage.
    • GM crops can help reduce the dependence on imports especially oilseeds.
Major companies interested in Genetically Modified crops in India include Monsanto India, Mahyco and BASF. The industry body — Association of Biotech Led Enterprises- Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) wants a progressive push to the march of GM technology in India.

 

What are the concerns with GM crops?
  • Health concerns:
    • The potential impact on human health including allergens (any substance that can cause an allergy) and transfer of antibiotic resistance markers.
    • Studies have shown a strong correlation between GM crops and Birth defects, cancers, kidney injury, diabetes, autism, and Alzheimer’s.
  • Environmental concerns:
    • They can decrease species diversity. For example, insect-resistant plants might harm insects that are not their intended target = destruction of that particular insect species.
    • GM technology could also result in the transfer of genes from one crop to another, creating “superweeds”, which will be immune to common control methods.
    • Viral genes added to crops for the purpose of viral resistance could be transferred to other viral pathogens, which can result in new and more virulent virus strains.
  • Economic Concerns:
    • Introduction of a GM crop to market is a time-consuming and costly process.
    • It does not provide high yields as promised.
    • For instance, the highest yields in mustard are from the 5 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.
    • Furthermore, the patent provides GM crops developers a dangerous degree of control over the food supply = concern of the domination of world food production by a few companies.
  • Ethical Concerns:
    • GM crop is the violation of natural organisms’ intrinsic values by mixing among species.
    • There have also been oppositions to mixing animal genes in plants.
Scenarios across the world and examples of GM crops:
  • GMO crops are grown around the world by approximately 18 million farmers, most of them in developing countries.
  • In total, more than 75 countries import, grow and/or research GMOs, and in 2016, 26 countries (seven industrial and 19 developing) planted biotech crops. 
  • As of 2016, the top five countries growing GMOs in terms of crop areas are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India.
  • Cultivating GMO crops has provided significant benefits to farmers globally, including increased yield and lower production costs.
  • Importantly, GMOs also help to alleviate poverty for the millions of resource-poor farmers and farm families around the world (equaling approximately 65 million people total).

 

Following are some of the list of the countries that grow GM crops:

GM Crops in India:
  • BT Cotton:
    • In order to tackle the bollworm attack that had devastated cotton crops in the past, Bt cotton was introduced which was jointly developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) and the US seed company Monsanto.
    • In 2002, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had approved Bt Cotton for commercial cultivation in 6 states such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. It has to be noted that, Bt cotton is the first and only transgenic crop approved by the GEAC.
    • 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:
    • Mahyco jointly developed Bt Brinjal with Dharwad University of Agricultural Sciences and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
    • Even though GEAC in 2007 had 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 a genetically modified variant of Herbicide Tolerant (HT) mustard.
    • It was developed with barnase/barstar technology to modify/add genes from soil bacterium in order to make mustard self-pollinating plant.
    • In 2017, the GEAC recommended the commercial approval of the HT Mustard crop. However, the Supreme Court stayed its release and asked the central government to seek public opinion.

Golden Rice:
  • Golden rice is the collective name of rice varieties that are genetically modified to counter vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.
  • Golden rice is a variety of rice (Oryza sativa) produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, in the edible parts of rice.
  • European scientists developed the first strain of Golden Rice towards the end of the 1990s. Golden rice differs from standard rice in that it contains extra genes.
  • These were added through genetic modification and ensure the production of provitamin A in the rice grains.
  • Provitamin A colors the grains yellow-orange, hence the name ‘Golden Rice’. Once absorbed into the body, provitamin A is converted into vitamin A.

 

Controversies and Moratoriums associated with GM Crops in IndiaTimeline
  • 2002 :
    •  Bt cotton introduced in India.
  • 2006 :
    • Activists filed a PIL against GM crops in the Supreme Court.
  • 2010:
    • The then environmental minister Jairam Ramesh blocked the release of Bt Brinjal until further notice owing to a lack of consensus among scientists and opposition from brinjal-growing states.
    • No objection certificates from states were made mandatory for field trials.
  • 2012:
    • Parliamentary standing committee on agriculture, in its 37th report, asked for an end to all GM field trials in the country.
  • 2013 July:
    • New crop trials have been effectively on hold since late 2012, after a supreme court-appointed expert panel recommended suspension for 10 years until regulatory and monitoring systems could be strengthened.
    • Though the SC panel suggested moratorium on GM trails, there was no official verdict from the Supreme Court on this issue.
  • 2013 July :
    • Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan put on hold all trials following SC panel suggestions.
  • 2014 :
    • Her successor, Veerappa Moili cleared the way for trails. (NB: Two of Manmohan Singh’s own environment ministers had stalled GM trials earlier, but Veerappa Moily took an opposite stand and the process of approving the one-acre field trials restarted.)
  • 2014 March :
    • GEAC (UPA government) approved field trials for 11 crops, including maize, rice, sorghum, wheat, groundnut and cotton.
  • 2014 July :
    • 21 new varieties of genetically modified (GM) crops such as rice, wheat, maize, and cotton have been approved for field trials by the NDA government in July 2014.
    • The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — consisting mostly of biotechnology supporters — rejected just one out of the 28 proposals up for consideration. Six proposals were rejected for want of more information.
  • 2016:
    • GEAC gave green signal to GM Mustard for field trial, but SC stayed the order and sought public opinion on the same.
    • There are as many as 20 GM crops already undergoing trials at various stages.
How GM Crops are regulated in India?
  • 1989 rules:
    • 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, notified under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
  • Environment (Protection) Act, 1986:
    • Ministry of Environment & Forests notified it under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
    • Encompasses both research as well as the large scale applications of the GM crops.
    • Also, define the competent authorities and composition of such authorities for the handling of different aspects of the rules.
    • The Competent Authorities are as follows:
      • Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RDAC) under the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology
        • The functions are of an advisory nature and involve review of developments in biotechnology at national and international levels
      • Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBSC) under the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Technology.
        • Oversee in GMO research + Help RCGM
      • Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) under the Department of Biotechnology.
        • Monitor safety-related aspects
      • Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under Environment Ministry for regulating the manufacturing, use, import, export and storage of hazardous micro-organisms or genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) and cells in the country.
        • [Apex Body] For approval of activities involving large scale use of hazardous microorganisms and recom­binants in research and industrial production from the environ­mental angle.
        • Also responsible for the ap­proval of proposals relating to the release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment including experimen­tal field trials.
      • State Biotechnology Coordination Committee (SBCC)
      • District Level Committee (DLC)
  • National Biological Diversity Act 2002:
    • National Biological Diversity Act 2002 has provisions to deal with the possible risks associated with the application of modern biotechnology.
    • The apex body constituted under this act is the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).
    • The NBA is Autonomous body and that performs facilitative, regulatory and advisory function for Government of India on issue of Conservation, sustainable use of biological
  • Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill,2013 has been drafted to create an independent authority, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), to regulate organisms and products of modern biotechnology.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

  • The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a legally binding treaty to conserve biodiversity has been in force since 1993. It has 3 main objectives:
    • The conservation of biological diversity.
    • The sustainable use of the components of biological diversity.
    • The fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.
  • On 29 January 2000, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP5) adopted a supplementary agreement to the Convention known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. It came into force on 11 September 2003.
    • The Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.
  • India enacted the Biological Diversity Act in 2002 for giving effect to the provisions of the CBD.
  • The National Biodiversity Authority is a statutory body, which was established by the Central Government in 2003 to implement India’s Biological Diversity Act (2002).

 

Supreme Court Guidelines:

  • Isolation distance between the GM-planted fields and regular fields to be increased from 20 meters to at least 200 meters.
  • During the field trials of GM crops, a designated scientist should make sure that all the conditions were complied with.

Labeling GM crops:

  • Most GM foods in the study did not disclose GM on their labels and 15% made false claims saying they were GM-free.
  • Retailing being largely an unorganized sector, enforcing truthful labeling is not pragmatic.
  • Two of the eight infant food samples, imported from the US and the Netherlands, were GM positive, but the labels did not disclose this.
  • Under Section 22 of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, GM foods are not allowed to be manufactured, imported or sold in India unless approved under the Act.

 

What is the mechanism to allow cultivation of GM crops in India?
  • Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is an apex authority under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change for regulating the manufacturing, use, import, export and storage of hazardous microorganisms or genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) and cells in India.
  • GEAC is also responsible for providing technical approval of proposals with respect to the release of GMOs and products including experimental field trials.
  • But Environment Minister gives final approval for GMOs.
  • The safety features of GM crops are assessed by – the Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBSCs), Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) and Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) established under Rules 1989 of Environment Protection Act (EPA) 1986, with respect to Biosafety Guidelines and the Standard Operating Procedures.
  • Approval of transgenic crops is based on a policy of case-by-case basis.
  • According to the guidelines framed by the ICMR, safety assessment is designed to identify the presence of any hazard, nutritional or other safety concern.
Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC):
  • A statutory body under the Environment Protection Act 1986.
  • The committee works under the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF). 
  • It was earlier known as Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. 
  • GEAC is responsible for granting permits to conduct experimental and large-scale open field trials and also grant approval for commercial release of biotech crops.

 

What are the concerns in India?
  • Assessment:
    • According to critics, the present safety assessments are insufficient to catch most of the harmful effects of GM crops. Because the regulatory regime in India has never assessed the GM crops thoroughly with respect to the Indian conditions.
  • Imported GM crops:
    • There is a lack of sufficient machinery to test the imported GM crops. There is only one Food Lab in Kolkata under the Ministry of Health and is not well-equipped.
  • 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 as well.
  • Transparency concerns:
    • GEAC’s refusal to publicly release the safety testing data submitted for regulatory approval of BT Brinjal and GM Mustard, until GM opponents submitted a Right to Information petition has raised serious concerns over transparency.
    • The tendency to operate in secrecy has created a serious distrust on the government and the promoters of GM crops.
  • 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.
  • GMO have already entered the food chain:
    • Cottonseed 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.
  • 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.
  • Environmental impact:
    • Sowing of Bt brinjal or GM foods can give rise to serious environmental concerns like:
      • Cross-pollination in GM crops paves the way for herbicide-resistant superweeds that can further threaten the sustenance of other crops and pests because of its uncontrolled growth.
      • Pest-resistant Bt crops can lead to the extinction of a few species that in turn can affect the food chain also.
      • Implications for consumers and farmers: National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research’s anticipation that Bt brinjal’s high yield and increased shelf life will benefit consumers and farmers owing to cut in retail price of brinjals ignores the scenario that companies might charge premium prices for Bt brinjal seeds, in which case farmers may not benefit at all.
      • Critics claim that patent laws give developers of the GM crops a dangerous degree of control/ dominance over the food supply that results in the over domination of world food production by a few companies.
  • Biosafety Issues:
    • Crops like rice, brinjal, and mustard, among others, have their origin in India and introducing genetically modified versions of these crops could be a major threat to the vast number of domestic and wild varieties of these crops (GM crops because of their pest resistance characteristics could eliminate important species of pests that are responsible for sustaining domestic varieties and can pose serious threats to biodiversity).
    • Biodiversity is critical for nutrition and sustainability, and the government’s task force on biotechnology (2004) had recommended that no GM crop be allowed in biodiversity-rich areas.
  • Nutrition issues:
    • Bt brinjal poses risks to human health as their resistance to antibiotics can turn medicines ineffective and may result in the formation of new toxins and allergens.
    • Toxins produced by GM crops can not only affect non-target organisms but also pose the danger of unintentionally introducing allergens and other anti-nutrition factors in foods.
    • Indian agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan (who had described Bt cotton as a ‘failure’) had asked for independent (instead of relying exclusively on Mahyco for data) long-term (chronic) toxicity studies, of Bt brinjal before going for commercialization and cultivation of Bt brinjal.
  • Inefficient Regulatory system:
    • Seeing the lapses in the regulatory system and irregularities in the assessment of Bt brinjal (in terms of labeling and unapproved and illegal sowing of GM crops) Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on Science & Technology, Environment and Forests recommended:
      • A thorough probe by a team of eminent independent scientists and environmentalists for commercialization of GM crops.
      • Endorsed labeling GM foods to protect a consumer’s right to know.
What are the Recommendations of committees?
  • Task Force under the Chairmanship of Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, 2003:
    • It suggested 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 until there is a strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system in place.
    • The Committee studied the regulatory system in several countries and found that the one in Norway is the best.
    • A thorough investigation must be conducted into the permission provided for the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal right from the beginning till a moratorium was imposed in 2010.
    • The government should assess 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 context of studies that highlighted unexplainable changes in the organs and tissues of Bt-cotton seed-fed lambs.
    • Mandatory labeling of products from GM crops.
    • Unchecked import of GM products should be stopped.
    • Encourage organic farming.
  • High-powered panel on Doubling Farmers’ Income (DFI):
    • Made the following observations:
      • Genetic Engineering is a ‘powerful’ tool for growing future crop, but for now, it should be adopted only for non-food crops.
      • For transgenic food crops, questions on its safety must be resolved and settled first.
What needs to be done?
  • Research:
    • A primary challenge today is to develop low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without technology.
    • However, there needs to be extensive research to ensure that technology does not undermine human and environmental health.
  • Participatory approach:
    • The Indian government should take decisions on GM technologies according to scientific evidence. It should adopt a participatory approach for bringing together all stakeholders to develop regulatory protocols. This would create trust in the whole process.
  • Farmer's interest:
    • Any new technology adopted in the farming sector should be in the interest of the farmers without affecting the rights of consumers.
  • Convince all stakeholders:
    • The most important job for the promoters of GM technology is to convince consumers, environmental activists, and farmers, that among several alternatives exist for sustainable food production, GM technology is one of the best options to improve crop yields and resolve India’s food security concerns.

Conclusion:

  • The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has rightly declared in 2004 that, “Science cannot declare any technology completely risk free.
  • Genetically engineered crops can decrease some environmental risks associated with conventional agriculture, however, it will also introduce new challenges that should be effectively addressed”.



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