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GM Mustard row: Experts weigh in on both sides of the genetically modified foods debate

The decades-old debate over Genetically Modified (GM) foods is back in the spotlight in India, after the centre's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) sanctioned the production and cultivation of GM mustard in May 2017.

On 19 May, the Kerala Assembly passed a resolution demanding that the centre withdraw its decision to grant permission for the production and cultivation of GM Mustard seed for commercial purposes.

With vehement opposition to as well as support for the move, we need to understand what really are GM foods.

What is the row over GM mustard all about? Image via Firstpost Hindi

What is the row over GM mustard all about? Image via Firstpost Hindi

Dr Shreya Wani, a food and environmental microbiologist at Ozo Innovations Ltd., Oxford, explains that plants’ and animals’ DNA are altered through genetic engineering (to produce GM foods), with a goal to improve their qualities. Genetic engineering involves direct manipulation of DNA by taking well-characterised genes from a different species (for example, bacteria) and transferring them directly into a crop or animal to attain certain desired traits.

Among the first few GM foods across the globe was the tomato, and the modification delayed the ripening time of the fruit, says Wani.

Tomatoes hence could reach far flung places and (be) consumed by many more people.

Wani, who is pro-GM food, believes that modified crops are more resistant to adverse climatic conditions and infestations, providing more people regular meals. “GM foods are more nutritious — it can put in more vitamins and minerals into the food chain, resulting in a healthier diet. Furthermore, GM foods are modified to have a longer shelf life and (this) reduces overall food wastage,” says Wani.

This is a time-saving approach for producing larger, high-quality food with less effort and expense — but it is not without its cons. The safety issues with GM foods that have not been addressed or aren't yet known, are a concern, says Wani. “One may be eating animal protein items while eating vegetables because of genetic modification, which may be against (a person's) religious preferences, their eating preferences or susceptibility to unknown food allergy." Many genetic modifications are also patented, making it less cost effective to feed the hungry.

'It's unnatural'

Those against GM foods are against the unnatural process of alteration in the food chain, which they say could have severe implications on nature, people’s health, farmers’ livelihood and the environment.

GM crops and the foods made from them are called 'novel food'. Their way of production doesn’t make sense ecologically, says Sridhar Radhakrishnan, convener of the GM-Free India Coalition. To cross breed plants and animals is completely impossible in the natural world.

Parallels with hybridisation 

Across the globe, farmers have been selectively breeding crops for many years to achieve certain desired traits. For example, corn is bred to grow bigger, yield more kernels on a ear and sustain in different weather conditions. This process has certainly altered corn’s genes. Similarly, genetic engineering tries to accomplish the same goals as traditional breeding — producing crops and animals with required characteristics. But gene modification is even more fine-tuned and faster in comparison to tradition food breeding, says Wani.

Radhakrishnan disagrees. “In Genetic Modification you create a new organism. You insert something into the genetic system. It’s not hybridisation.”

Once you introduce something in a crop, as it multiplies — you can’t stop or control it. There is no way to pull it back from the environment, causing a huge possibility of biological contamination, says Radhakrishnan.

GM Crops and India 

Currently only BT Cotton is used in India. Corn, soya, wheat, brinjal, okra, potatoes and sorghum are at different stages of testing.

Wani thinks that India, a developing nation, must adopt GM Foods to end hunger issues. “This technology supports the growth of needed crops and provides our country with the opportunity to feed the citizens while bolstering its economy,” says Wani.

On the other hand, the anti-GM Foods rally cites several reasons to avoid GM Foods. These include drastic reduction of India’s bio diversity, corporatisation of farming and the resultant social and political consequences.

A case in point is BT Cotton, introduced in India 20 years ago. It wiped out our indigenous cotton seed varieties, estimated at 4,000 to 5,000, leading to massive rejections in organic cotton export. In 2008, two certification agencies had their accreditation suspended with Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) for failing to detect BT Cotton contamination in organic cotton as genetic engineering isn’t allowed in organic cultivation, says Shamika Mone of the Organic Farming Association of India.

“An agrarian country like India depends on its biodiversity. If one fails, another works. But (a) GM crop wipes out the biodiversity,” says Radhakrishnan. In 2016, an uncontrollable pest outburst worsened the agrarian situation in the cotton-growing belt, even leading to farmer suicides, he adds.

Corporatisation 

GM seeds are produced by MNCs and big corporates. Farmers who traditionally conserved their own seeds and did so for free, will be forced to buy seeds from corporates at higher royalty prices and indirectly the entire nation will be at the mercy of the corporates to meet its food demands, Radhakrishnan points out.

Lack of scientific study and research

Those in favour of GM foods say that no study or research has found any safety hazards (posed by GM food) while those who oppose it, say the lack of adequate research on its safety, is a concern.

“There’s no good evidence that the GM foods in the market are any less safe than regular foods. At this point, billions of people across the globe have been eating GM foods for years without any visible ill effects. When it comes to food safety, several research studies have concluded that the GM foods currently available in market pose no more of a health risk than conventional foods,” says Wani.

Radhakrishnan counters this with: “Hardly any tests prove that GM foods are absolutely safe both in the short and the long run. Basically there are lots of doubts and concerns over it, and it shouldn’t be adopted."

It’s been noted that several tests required to assess the risks and impacts of GM Mustard have not been implemented. The test results seem to indicate something else while the conclusion drawn is different. “In some cases, the data presented is unbelievable from an ecological viewpoint. The little analysis possible by independent experts, based on limited access to information, clearly shows that testing of GM mustard has been deliberately misleading, unscientific, inadequate and unreliable,” says Mone.

GM Food in other countries 

Among the biggest adopters of GM foods is the US; food labels do not indicate whether a food is GM or non-GM.

Menwhile, 38 countries have banned GM foods — including Russia, Germany, Scotland, Netherlands, Bhutan, Italy, Norway and Switzerland, among others.

Says Wani, “The anti-GM foods (view) is a puzzle, given the absence of any documented new risks from the technology, and a plenty of evidence that it reduces chemical inputs.”


Published Date: May 27, 2017 10:33 AM | Updated Date: May 27, 2017 10:33 AM

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