Issues and Challenges of Sowing Bt Brinjal and (Ht) Bt Cotton

  • Category
    Ecology and Environment
  • Published
    25th Jun, 2019

Issue

Context:

  • The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) has sought a detailed report on the sowing of unapproved genetically modified (GM) cotton and brinjal in Maharashtra.
  • Recently, more than 1,000 farmers have publicly sown unapproved transgenic cotton and brinjal in Akoli Jahangir village of Akot taluka in Akola district.
  • Organized by the farmer’s union Shetkari Sanghtana, the gathering was aimed at demanding introduction of Herbicide Tolerant (Ht) Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, which, farmers said, reduces the cost of production.

About:

What are Genetically Modified (GM) crops?

    • GM is a technology that involves inserting DNA into the genome of an organism.
    • 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.
    • One of the methods used to transfer DNA is to coat the surface of small metal particles with the relevant DNA fragment, and bombard the particles into the plant cells.
    • Another method is to use a bacterium or virus. The viruses and bacteria transfer their DNA into a host cell as a normal part of their life cycle. For GM plants, the bacterium most frequently used is called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. The gene of interest is transferred into the bacterium and the bacterial cells then transfer the new DNA to the genome of the plant cells.

What is Bt Brinjal?

  • Bt Brinjal is a GM crop created by inserting Cry 1Ac gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into Brinjal.
  • The insertion of the gene gives Brinjal plant resistance against lepidopteron insects like the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (Leucinodes orbonalis) and Fruit Borer (Helicoverpa armigera).
  • Upon ingestion of the Bt toxin by the insect, there would be disruption of digestive processes, ultimately resulting in the death of the insect.

What is Bt Cotton?

  • Bt cottonis an insect-resistant transgenic crop designed to combat the bollworm.
  • The first two generations of Bt have seen introduction of ‘Cry1Ab’ and ‘Cry2Bc’ genes from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), into the cotton seed, which make the crop resistant to the attack of pink bollworm.

What is (Ht)Bt cotton?

  • This is the third generation Bt cotton variety where there is an addition of ‘Cp4-Epsps’ gene from another soil bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which produces a modified protein that allows the plant to withstand herbicide glyphosate.
  • Farmers are not able to spray glyphosate on normal cotton because the chemical does not distinguish between the crop and weed, but the herbicide tolerant Bt (HtBt) cotton remains unaffected by glyphosate.

Background:

Important Committees and Recommendations in context of GM Crops:

  1. Task Force under the Chairmanship of Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, 2003: The Task Force recommended the establishment by an Act of Parliament an autonomous, statutory and professionally led National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority.
  2. 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 till there is a strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system in place.The Committee studied the regulatory system in different countries and found that the one in Norway is the best.
    • A thorough probe must be conducted into the permission given for the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal right from the beginning till a moratorium was imposed in 2010.
    • The government should examine 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 light of studies that highlighted inexplicable changes in the organs and tissues of Bt-cotton seed-fed lambs.
    • Mandatory labelling of products from GM crops.
    • Unchecked import of GM products should be stopped
    • Organic farming should be encouraged.
  1. High-powered panel on Doubling Farmers’ Income (DFI):

It made the following observations:

    • Genetic Engineering is ‘powerful’ tool for developing future crop, but for now it should be adopted only for non-food crops.
    • For transgenic food crops, questions on its safety must be addressed and settled first.
  1. Governments task force on biotechnology (2004) recommended:
    • No GM crop be allowed in biodiversity rich areas.
  1. Majority of SC appointed technical expert committee (in the PIL over GM crops), recommended:
    • A ban on genetically modifying those crops for which India is a center of origin or diversity. (Ex: Brinjal)

Analysis

Advantages of GM crops:

  1. Crop Protection:

The initial objective for developing GM plants was to improve crop protection. GM crops have improved resistance to diseases, pest, insects and herbicides. They also have improved tolerance to cold/heat, drought and salinity.

  • 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 through the introduction of a gene from certain viruses which cause disease in plants.
  • Herbicide tolerance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from a bacterium conveying resistance to some herbicides.
  1. Economic benefits:
  • GM crops can increase yield and thus income.
  • Genetically modified foods have a longer shelf life. This improves how long they last and stay fresh during transportation and storage.

    3.Food Security:

  • Given the increased growth of global population and increased urbanisation, GM crops offer one of the promising solutions to meet the world’s food security needs.

Issues with GM crops: 

  1. Human Health Risks:

Potential impact on human health, including allergies and transfer of antibiotic resistance markers.

  1. Environmental concerns:
  • They can reduce species diversity. For example, Insect-resistant plants might harm insects that are not their intended target and thus result in destruction of that particular species.
  • GM technology could also allow the transfer of genes from one crop to another, creating “super weeds”, which will be immune to common control methods.
  • Viral genes added to crops to confer resistance might be transferred to other viral pathogens, which can lead to new and more virulent virus strains.
  1. Economic Concerns:
  • Introduction of a GM crop to market is a lengthy and costly process.
  • It does not result in high yields as promised. For instance, the highest yields in mustard are from the five 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.
  • Critics claim that patent laws give developers of the GM crops a dangerous degree of control over the food supply. The concern is over domination of world food production by a few companies
  1. Ethical Concerns:
  • Violation of natural organisms’ intrinsic values by mixing among species
  • There have also been objections to consuming animal genes in plants

Concerns in related to GM crops in context of INDIA:

  • According to critics, the current safety assessments are inadequate to catch most of the harmful effects from the GM crops. The regulatory regime in India with regard to the GM crops has never been assessed thoroughly with regard to the GM risk assessment in Indian conditions.
  • There is lack of adequate machinery to test the GM crops imported. There is only a Food Lab in Kolkata under the Ministry of Health and which 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 commercialization of GM crops.
  • Concerns over transparency: GEAC’s refusal to publicly release the safety testing data submitted for regulatory approval of BT Brinjal and GM Mustard, until GM opponents filed a Right to Information petition has raised serious questions over transparency. The tendency to operate in secrecy has created a serious distrust on the government and the promoters of GM crops.

Way Forward:

  1. A major challenge today is to develop low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without technology. However, to assure technology does not undermine human and environmental health, there needs to be extensive research.
  2. The Indian government must take decisions on GM technologies on the basis of scientific evidence. It should adopt a participatory approach in order to bring together all stakeholders to develop regulatory protocols. This would ensure trust in the entire process.
  3. Any new technology adopted in the farming sector must be in the interest of the farmers without undermining the rights of consumers.
  4. The most important job lies on the promoters of GM technology to convince consumers, environmental activists and farmers that among various alternatives available for sustainable food production, GM technology is one of the best option to improve crop yields and address India’s food security.
  5. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has rightly pointed out in 2004, “Science cannot declare any technology completely risk free. Genetically engineered crops can reduce some environmental risks associated with conventional agriculture, but will also introduce new challenges that must be addressed”.
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