Efficacy of GM crops in India
20th Dec, 2018
- Recently, leading agriculture scientist of India - M.S. Swaminathan has described Bt cotton as a ‘failure’.
- The findings were published in paper ‘Modern Technologies for Sustainable Food and Nutrition Security’, co-authored by M.S. Swaminathan.
- The paper is a review of crop development in India and transgenic crops - particularly Bt cotton, the stalled Bt brinjal as well as DMH-11, a transgenic mustard hybrid.
- The introduction of semi-dwarfing, high-yielding and nutrients-responsive crop varieties in the 1960s and 1970s alleviated the suffering of low crop yield, food shortages and epidemics of famine in India and other parts of the Asian continent.
- Two semi-dwarfing genes, Rht in wheat and Sd-1 in rice heralded the green revolution for which Dr. Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
- In contrast, the revolutionary new genetics of crop improvement shamble over formidable obstacles of regulatory delays, political interferences and public misconceptions.
- India benefited immensely from the green revolution and is now grappling to deal with the nuances of GM crops. The development of GM mustard discontinued prematurely in 2001 and insect-resistant Bt cotton varieties were successfully approved for commercial cultivation in 2002 in an evolving nature of regulatory system.
- A GM or transgenic crop is a plant that has a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.
- For example, a GM crop can contain a gene(s) that has been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring it through pollination. The resulting plant is said to be “genetically modified” although in reality all crops have been “genetically modified” from their original wild state by domestication, selection, and controlled breeding over long periods of time.
- GM crops are usually developed through the insertion or deletion of genes from plant cells. To produce a GM plant, new DNA is transferred into plant cells. Usually, the cells are then grown in tissue culture where they develop into plants. The seeds produced by these plants will inherit the new DNA.
- Bt technology is a type of genetic modification in crops. It was introduced in India with Bt cotton.
Arguments ‘For’ GM Crops
- Food Security: By 2050, the world’s population is expected to expand from 7 billion to 9 billion. Accordingly, the global food production will have to double over the next 32 years. Yet the amount of farm land is shrinking. Biotechnology is the only way to feed that growing population, by increasing yields to get more food from less land. It has helped farmers grow 311.8 million tonnes more food in the last 15 years. GMOs mean cheaper, more plentiful food to fight hunger in a country like India.
- Resistance to pests and protecting the environment: Through genetic modification, scientists can give crops built-in resistance to pests. That means less need for pesticides that are potentially harmful to the environment. By reducing the need to spray, GMOs also cut farmers’ fuel emissions, helping to fight global warming. They can be engineered to withstand weather fluctuations and extremes.
- Improved taste and longer shelf life: Foods can be genetically modified to improve flavour and texture. Genetic modification can also give food a longer shelf-life – meaning consumers get fresher taste and the environment benefits from less waste.
- Improvement in health and nutritional values of food: Biotech can make food healthier, giving lettuce a greater concentration of nutrients, reducing starch in potatoes or lowering the saturated-fat content of cooking oils. Studies suggest genes introduced into GMO tomatoes can increase their natural production of antioxidants that might help prevent cancer or heart disease.
- Reducing dependence on imports: Just as the adoption of Bt cotton ensured that India transitioned into a cotton-exporting country, switching to high-yield oilseeds engineered specially for India’s semi-arid zones can help India reduce its dependence on imports. At $10 billion annually, edible oil is India’s third-biggest import item after crude oil and gold.
- Higher income for farmers: GM crops cut costs for consumers and raise livelihoods for farmers.
Arguments ‘Against’ GM crops
- Risk to the environment: GMOs are a serious risk to the environment. Their seeds travel well beyond fields where they are grown. Cross-pollination creates herbicide-resistant “super weeds” that threaten other crops and wild plants. Tampering with crops’ genetic make-up impacts down the food chain.
- GMOs might pose an array of health concerns: GMOs increase resistance to antibiotics, making medicines less effective. Fears have been raised over possible links to cancer, reproductive malfunction, digestive disorders etc. GM crops can cause long term consequences on human health.
- Monopoly of companies that own the patents on GMO seeds: Farmers remain at the mercy of companies that own the patents on seeds and set the prices. So-called “terminator technologies” could prevent growers using last year’s seeds to plant new crops, forcing them to keep buying from the GMO companies. It makes the farmers susceptible to the practices of these MNCs and can raise the cost of cultivation and put them in debt trap.
- Effect on Environment: There are plenty of evidence to counter claims that GMO will increase world food yields and show non-GMO crops can perform even better. GMO production favours big business over small farmers and encourages the trend toward industrial-scale “monoculture” growing that’s bad for the environment, farmers and consumers. GMOs are self-replicating organisms and causes genetic contamination of the environment which cannot be reversed.
- Crop loss due to resistance developed by pests: GM technology has been known to cause crop loss due to resistance developed by pests and destruction of local crop varieties, impacting biodiversity.
India’s experience with GM crops
- Currently, India has the world’s fourth largest GM crop acreage on the strength of Bt cotton, the only genetically modified crop allowed in the country. The introduction of Bt cotton has been both highly successful and controversial.
- However, the recent reports suggest that, Bt cotton is not a complete failure in India. The yields hovering around 300 kg/ha at the time of introduction of Bt cotton (2002) have increased to an average of over 500 kg/ha, converting India from a cotton-importing country to the largest exporter of raw cotton, according to the Economic Survey 2011-12. But it was also shadowed by controversy, with a tangle of pricing and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues followed by government price interventions and litigation.
- The moratorium on Bt brinjal is the most unfortunate step taken by the government in 2010 and has crippled the entire field of research and development with transgenic crops. Bangladesh has used India’s data to successfully cultivate Bt brinjal, despite all the negative propaganda. Reports indicate that as many as 6,000 Bangladeshi farmers cultivated Bt brinjal in 2017.
- A major challenge today is to develop low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without technology. The government must take decision on GM technologies on the basis of scientific evidence.
- India has one of the strongest regulatory protocols for field trials of GM crops. GM technology needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
- There is a need to start cultivating an environment of openness and transparency to allay genuine fears. Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) needs to be a transparent body. It should put it in the public domain that on what grounds it has approved certain GM crops like, GM mustard.
- The development of resistance can be tackled through practices like Integrated Pest Management and by stacking Bt genes to fight secondary pests.
- The government should adopt a participatory approach to bring together all stakeholders to develop regulatory protocols that restore trust in the process. Agriculture is a state subject therefore, it is important for the centre gover to take into consideration the views of State Governments as well.
- However, it is also true that dependence on GM crops is a risky proposition. Hence, India needs to tap the potential of other technologies. As pointed out by a parliamentary committee, India has better options for increasing productivity, like molecular breeding and integrated pest management that can serve it in good stead for the time being.
- Swaminathan has also advocated for ‘sustainable agriculture’ and said the government should only use genetic engineering as a last resort. This technology is supplementary and must be need based (only in rare circumstance less than 1%).
Leading agriculture scientist, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan has recently described Bt cotton as a ‘failure’. In this light, critically analyse the efficacy of GM crops in India.