Genetically Modified Crops

Genetically modified crops (GM crops) are crops which have had their DNA altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Individual genes which promote durability or nutritional value are transferred from one organism to another to create biologically robust plants.

Author Anna Rees, 08.14.12

Initially developed in response to growing concern about protecting crops from insects, unusual weather patterns and harmful pesticides, GM crops are becoming more and more mainstream, dividing public opinion about the health and environmental impacts of producing and consuming crops produced in a lab.

The argument surrounding GM crops in India has run hot since the introduction of genetically modified cotton seed in 2002. At first heated, discussions about its merits died off somewhat when Bt Brinjal (a variety of modified eggplant) was placed under moratorium. Initially cleared for use in 2009, Bt Brinjal was put on the backburner in early 2010 after NGOs and environmentalists protested about its health impacts. The government has since been accused of collusion and of overlooking key aspects such as risks posed to environment and health by Bt Brinjal in order to hasten its introduction. Currently, up to 71 varieties of GM crops are at various trial stages in India, including rice and vegetable crops.

The case for

The general argument in the case for GM crops hinges on two key areas: economics and global hunger. The ability to grow and reap an abundance of crops that are sturdy and durable in nature is one of the key proponents of the GM crop argument while a lack of dependency on weather and external factors for the assurance of a bumper crop is argued to be one solution to famine brought on by deficits in crop yields.

A recent study by German university Georg-August-University found that, in some instances, GM crops can yield positive economic results for farmers in India. Conducted over the course of six years, the study found that farmers using the genetically enhanced Bt cotton increased crop yields by 24 percent, while profits soared by 50 percent.

Organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have injected millions of dollars into research and development of crops which are drought-resistant, flood-resistant and are not reliant upon fertiliser. With global weather patterns in a state of flux, and rainfall becoming harder to predict in India, there are many who argue that GM crops provide a means for farmers to maintain their livelihood in the face of changing climate conditions.

The case against

According to a paper submitted to parliament in August 2012 titled “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects”, the debate over GM crops divides government right down the middle with various ministries and departments sitting on either side of the argument. A number of state governments including Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Kerala have banned the use of GM crops and won’t allow field trials to be carried out in these states.

Longstanding arguments against GM crops state that GM crops and the food they produce can adversely harm human health (in the form of allergic reactions and transferal of antibiotic-resistant genes from GM foods to the human body), while environmental impacts of GM crops can encompass issues such as negative impact on a non-target organism, possible loss of other conventional plants, ability of any GM organism to introduce engineered genes to native fauna and an increase in the use of chemicals in agriculture. 

Malpractice among companies who make or supply GM crops is also a topic of hot debate. On August 8 2012, the Maharashtra state government announced it would ban Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (a joint seed venture between Maharashtra-based Mahyco and US-based GM company Monsanto) from trading cotton within state boundaries. The ruling came at the request of farmers who had filed complaints against Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, stating the company provided poor-quality seeds, deliberately created seed shortages and was involved in black market trade.

Two sides of the coin

There is often more to the story than a simple yes or no when referring to whether or not GM crops are a welcome development in agriculture. Maharashtra’s agricultural ministry has stated it is not directly opposed to GM cotton seeds but that it does want to see improvement in seed varieties that do not compromise safety and health standards.

Talking heads from both sides of the argument use climate change to back up their respective conclusions, with proponents for stating that ignoring technological developments in agriculture would be detrimental given the threats farmers face as a result of climate change. Opponents of the issue state that development and implementation GM crops only serve to further exacerbate climate concerns, with bacteria-resistant crops and fertiliser compromising a region’s biodiversity.

A more grassroots approach

Some agriculturalists and environmentalists have taken matters into their own hands, setting up coops that collect and maintain seeds for vital crops. Community seed banks (collections of seeds developed and maintained by communities) help ensure that crop security is managed at a local level and uses the know-how of people familiar with the region. They also help to promote farmer access to seeds and conserve agricultural biodiversity while still taking into consideration the risks to farming imposed by climate change.

Navdanya is one such organization that supports local farmers while simultaneously implementing measures to conserve and even rescue key crops. One of their core functions is education, teaching farmers about the hazards and short-sightedness of genetically engineered crops while their crop conservation efforts have successfully protected 5000 crop varieties including rice, wheat and several vegetable and medicinal plants.

Organizations such as Deccan Development Society also work towards ensuring governance over seeds and crops remains in farmer’s hands. Working for almost three decades to restore degraded agricultural land and use it for farming, DDS provides education to some of the poorest villages in India and has been instrumental in restoring over ten thousand acres of degraded land, which in turn produces three million kilos of grain per year.

The need for regulation

The parliamentary paper mentioned above was submitted as a means of highlighting the shortfalls and the gaps in the regulation of the system, as well as stimulating greater public debate. India faces a slight catch 22 situation where unreliable rainfalls and increasingly extreme weather patterns are leading farmers to rely more and more on GM crops to ensure a solid and consistent yield. Yet concern about possible environmental and health hazards relating to GM crops coupled with the at-times unsavory business practices of companies in charge and the lack of government intervention to properly handle the system places a huge question mark on the viability and, importantly, sustainability of GM crops in India.

The current monitoring body, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, acts as both a promoter and regulator of the industry, a position that draws justifiable scorn from opponents of GM crops. If it is to continue forging ahead with GM crops, the federal government must implement strict regulatory policies to monitor industry practices as well as provide safeguards to farmers and consumers. 

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