Opinion Op Ed 13 May 2017 DC Debate: GM crops ...

DC Debate: GM crops - good or bad?

Published May 13, 2017, 6:23 am IST
Updated May 13, 2017, 7:34 am IST
It will become a reality if the ministry of environment too accepts the recommendation of the biotechnology regulator in India.
(Repersentational image)
 (Repersentational image)

The approval by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) for genetically modified (GM) mustard, developed by Delhi University, for commercial cultivation has rekindled the debate on the advisability of GM food. It will become a reality if the ministry of environment too accepts the recommendation of the biotechnology regulator in India.

Why deny benefits of research to farmers?


Dr K.M. Sreekumar

It is now made out as if genetic modification is a modern invention. Millennia before Gregor Mendel conducted his pea plant experiments in the 1850s, farmers knew that crossbreeding of plants, and animals, could produce certain desirable traits. In fact, genetic modification is a natural process, it is continuously happening in nature. This is why newer varieties, crops and species are evolving. Evolution is a relentless process.

Inter-species hybridisation and inter-generic hybridisation are also happening in nature. The origin and improvement of maize crop is a telling example. Triticale, formerly a grass and now widely grown as a grain, is an example of inter-species hybridization between wheat and rye. From the start of cultivation, humans have been tinkering with the nature and characteristics of crops. Crops like rice and wheat, which were just wild grasses  at the beginning of agriculture had a productivity of only 40 kg per hectare, were transformed into crops yielding 6000-7000 kg a hectare. Hybrid rice yields a whopping 11,000 kg per hectare.


It is not just the yield, many other characteristics such as the shedding of grains have also changed. To begin with, wheat and rice varieties used to shed grains from its panicle, which is a characteristic of a weed. But right at the start of domestication we transformed them into crops more hardy, from which seeds stopped shedding naturally and had to be extracted manually.

In the case of the genetically-modified (GM) mustard, which has now been given approval for commercial production by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the sharpest criticism is that an herbicide-resistant gene has been incorporated. Herbicide resistance is developed all over the world in soyabean, cotton, maize and many other crops. In America and the European Union they cultivate GM crops in over 100 million hectares. Herbicide resistance will enable farmers to raise the crop with minimum tillage, which in turn will save fossil fuel by doing away with the use of tractors or tillers. What’s more, this will also reduce carbon emissions, making farming environment-friendly and sustainable.


New-generation herbicides are found to be environment-friendly, so the question of such a herbicide causing havoc to the environment can be safely ruled out. Here, in the case of GM mustard, herbicide-resistance is not a hidden one. It is used as a marker in the development process of the crop.

The other big threat normally associated with GM crops, the ruthless anti-farmer high-handedness of unscrupulous multinationals, is not valid either. The research on GM mustard was not done by a corporate, but by a public-funded institution with public money.


Another fear was that when a new variety is conjured up it could lead to the genetic erosion of mustard. There need be no fear on this account. National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, with seven centres across the country, has a sizeable collection of crop germplasm stored in liquid nitrogen. At any time it can be revived, and given to the farmers and breeders. This way at least 75-80 percent of our diversity is already preserved and the process is still continuing.

Again, the arrival of GM mustard does not mean all mustard farmers will go after the new variety. It is not just for oil that mustard is cultivated. It is also a leafy vegetable, and its seed is used in cooking. Its oil is not used for cooking alone, it has therapeutic properties, too. The GM variety will increase only the oil productivity, which will not be of any use to a farmer cultivating mustard as a vegetable. Even a farmer cultivating mustard for its medicinal value might not find an increase in productivity attractive as he is looking for a particular odour for the oil. So even if the GM crop is available, it will not result in all mustard farmers suddenly shifting to the transgenic version.


Area under GM crops is increasing very fast, at very good rate. Bt Cotton, the only transgenic crop allowed in the country, has been a success story for last 20 years. There was huge opposition from anti-GM lobby, but upon seeing the benefits, farmers themselves have vigorously spread it. And the crop just caught on like wildfire in the cotton belt, reducing the pesticide use to more than 50 percent. The agriculture ecosystem became healthier.

GM mustard is promising 25 percent higher yield, which is attractive for mustard farmers. Higher yield, leads to higher profit. This in turn will reduce the oil import bill of the country. Why should the farmers be denied of this research benefit? Benefits of research are available in all fields, especially medicine, where we are utilising it readily. It is ironical then that when it comes to agriculture we want to revert to the pre-historic age.


(Dr K.M. Sreekumar is Professor with Kerala Agricultural University. He can be contacted at sreekumar.km@kau.in)

A threat to sustainable farming, food safety

Sridhar R

These are times when all of us are seriously worried about the safety of our food. We are as much concerned about the disaster facing the agrarian sector, with soils losing its fertility, water contaminated, pesticides and chemicals in the food and farms, increasing cost of cultivation, failing markets, and worse, farmer debts and suicides.

The world is facing a risk of climate change, wrought by nothing else but a complete mis-deployment of our technology to such extents that nature and its integrity is harmed sometime irreversibly. It is in this context that we need to evaluate and take a call on one of the most intrusive of technologies – Genetic Modification (GM) – which actually is breaking all barriers of natural evolutionary processes, including the reproductive barrier that keeps humans as humans and dogs as dogs. Its clearly violating the principles that we understand as ecology, and is creating organisms, so foreign to the environment that there is absolutely no understanding of its possible impact.


The countries where GM crops like GM Corn or GM Soya has been widely adopted, such as US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina, have some of the most toxic farms. And worse, they are all on the tip of an ecological disaster. Falling bee colonies, increasing incidence of super weeds, increased pesticide use, massive contamination of non-GM varieties with the alien gene, so on and so forth. “Genetic Roullette” a book documenting the health hazards of GM crops remain unchallenged. Even in India, the GM-Free India Coalition brought out a compilation of 400 peer reviewed studies of health, environmental, political and social fallouts of adopting GM crops. All this has been brought to the notice of the very agencies that has so mindlessly cleared a toxic GM Mustard in India for consumption.


For the layman, GM is simply understood as making a new organism ( animal, plant, fungus, bacteria etc) from two different species of organisms, which would naturally not cross with each other, but can be technologically done so, by extracting out genes from one and inserting it forcibly into the other. The outcome is usually what the scientists say – a new trait of one organism expressed in the other. This can be seen as a wonderful achievement of human ingenuity, and is seen as a path breaking modern technology. But the ill side is that it can trigger of a completely unexpected set of outcomes, that in most cases scientists dont even bother to hypothesis and hence not measure. So, allerginicity to cancers have been found in long term biosafety studies with GM crops. Gene contamination to crop failures and super weeds have impacted farmers seriously.


The products that are presently in controversy – Bt Cotton, Bt Brinjal and the latest GM Mustard – are all such developed crops, and have had their ill fate in various forms. The Bt Cotton which was sneaked in through, when there was no regulation in 2004, did its run in 12 years, and by 2016, its three generations has totally taken over the cotton seed market in India, but failed the farmers miserably. It was supposed to give pest resistance to a type of Boll Worm, but last year farmers saw the boll worm literally gorge the plant across most cotton states, creating an unprecedented agrarian crisis and distress in the cotton belt of India. Bt Brinjal was similarily cleared in 2009 by the Genetical Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), but the permission to cultivate was turned down by an extremely sensitive Minister for Environment and Forests, then Mr Jairam Ramesh, who  declared a moratorium on its release saying it was “responsible to science and responsive to society...”.


Seven years have passed and the developers have never come back to prove the safety of Bt Brinjal. Now, instead of a typical multi national company coming up with a product, a proxy has been introduced in the name of GM Mustard, developed by the Delhi University, with a lot of hidden patents and a much more dangerous technology of introducing three genes, all intruding into the fertility aspects of the plant. This is what has been approved for release by GEAC, and is now on the table of the present Minister for Environment and Forests Mr Anil Madhav Dave to take a final decision of release.


So, its only a matter of time. On one side all states that cultivate Mustard has clearly said they will not allow it, majority farmers organisations, civil society, consumer groups, and even scientists have rejected it on various grounds, including scientific grounds. And on the other side are the biotechnology promoters and a few scientists for whom ecology, food safety, food sovereignty, farmer welfare, and even nations food security simply does not seem to matter.

For the ordinary mother in our homes, ultimately what matters is a simple question – Is it fully safe to consume and feed my family ? The answer is simply NO, and thats because till date we have no such comprehensive study that clearly demonstrates the safety of this inherently risky food crop, while there are hundreds that show its adverse impacts.


(The writer is Programme Director, Thanal. He can be contacted at sridharthanal@gmail.com)