A determined battle by environmentalists in the Supreme Court of India against Genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant (HT) mustard is all that stands between GM food and Indian farmers and consumers.
Rather than engaging with constitutional issues involving public health, environmental protection and agricultural livelihoods, the government is disregarding facts and logic before the Supreme Court.
What are GM crops?
GM food involves the editing of genes of a crop in such a way that it incorporates beneficial traits from another crop or organism.
This could mean changing the way the plant grows, or making it resistant to a particular disease.
Food produced using the edited crop is called GM food. This is done using the tools of genetic engineering.
DMH-11 is indigenously developed transgenic mustard. It is a genetically modified variant of Herbicide Tolerant (HT) mustard.
DMH-11 is a result of a cross between Indian mustard variety ‘Varuna’ and East European ‘Early Heera-2’
It contains two alien genes (‘barnase’ and ‘barstar’) isolated from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens that enable breeding of high-yielding commercial mustard hybrids.
India and GM Crops:
India allows the import of GM soybean and canola oil.
The only crops approved for cultivation are (bt) cotton.
India had an effective ban on other GM seeds for a considerable time.
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) earlier this year cleared a proposal for commercial cultivation of GM mustard, and it was also approved by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
Note:In India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is the apex body that allows for commercial release of GM crops.
The Debate around GM Mustard:
Reduced input burden: Since genetically modified crops require minimal pesticides, fertilizers or insecticides the cost of input is greatly reduced.
Disease resistant and Sustainability: Through genetic modifications the genetically modified crops are made resistant to diseases. This enhances their sustainability and yield.
Environmental Protection: According to an Oklahoma State University report, the increase of GM animals and crops often requires less time, tools and chemicals, and may help with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion and environmental pollution.
Longer Shelf life: Genetically modified foods have a longer shelf life. This enhances the ease of transportation and storage.
Affordability: Due to reduced burden of inputs and longer shelf life hence reduced wastages, the prices of the output will be low. This increases the affordability.
Fortification: According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, some GM foods have been engineered to become more nutritious in terms of vitamin or mineral content.
This not only helps people get the nutrients they need, but also plays a significant role in fighting against malnutrition in third-world countries.
Decreased Use of Pesticides: It has been proven that genetically modified crops do not need pesticides to become stronger against various types of insects or pests that may destroy them.
Gene Transfer: A constant risk of genetically modified foods is that an organism’s modified genes may escape into the wild.
Experts warn that genes from commercial crops that are resistant to herbicides may cross into the wild weed population, thus creating super-weeds that have become impossible to kill.
Genetically modified crops have inbuilt antibiotic properties due to their inbuilt mechanisms for disease control.
This can result in superbugs which can disrupt the health care sector.
Carcinogen exposure risk:
There are researches which show that crops tolerant to commercial pesticides greatly increase the risk of cancer development in rats.
Genetically modified crops can also pose serious threats to human health.
Lower Level of Biodiversity:
When we remove a certain pest that is harmful to crops, we could also be removing a food source for a certain species.
In addition, genetically modified crops could prove toxic to some organisms, which can lead to their reduced numbers or even extinction.