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Genetically Modified Crop explained – What are the PROS & CONS of GM Crop

Genetically Modified Crop explained – What are the PROS & CONS of GM Crop

Relevance:

  • GS 3 II Science & Technology II Biotechnology II Agriculture & Biotechnology

Why in the news?

Genetically modified (GM) crops have many potential advantages in terms of raising agricultural productivity and reducing the need for (environmentally harmful) pesticides.

Background:

  • First attempts to genetically modify crops were undertaken in the 1980s and were applied to tobacco, not to food plants. The first GM product to be released for human consumption was the Flavr Savr tomato, which was characterized by extended shelf-life (1994). This tomato was not a commercial success, probably due to lack of consumer acceptance, and was eventually withdrawn from the market
  • Plant genetic engineering methods were developed over 30 years ago, and since then, genetically modified (GM) crops have become commercially available and widely adopted. In 2009, GM crops were being grown on 10 percent of the Earth’s arable land
  • In these plants, one or more genes coding for desirable traits have been inserted. The genes may come from the same or another plant species, or from totally unrelated organisms. The traits targeted through genetic engineering are often the same as those pursued by conventional breeding.

Pros of genetically modified crops

  • Benefits both to farmers and consumers: GM crops offer a number of benefits both to farmers and consumers. Because GM crops are able to develop their own toxins to kill pests, they have enabled farmers to use fewer pesticides on their crops.
  • GM crops have prevented the use of 965 million pounds of pesticide. Because fuel is needed for farmers to operate machinery in spraying pesticides, GM crops have also been estimated to save on fuel.
  • Reduced carbon dioxide emissions: In one estimate GM crops were thought to have reduced carbon dioxide emissions to the equivalent of 8.6 million cars. GM crops are also beneficial because they have been modified to target certain types of pests, such as rootworm.
  • Kill a number of insects: Pesticides, on the other hand, tend to kill a number of insects without differentiating which ones are harmful to the crop.
  • Greater crop yields: Finally, GM crops often result in greater crop yields. It has been estimated that corn crop yields are 31 million tons larger worldwide, while soybean crop yields are 14 million tons larger than they would be without the use of GM crops.
  • Increased farmer income: This is estimated to have increased farmer income by $14 billion. This increase in crop yields is especially important as the world’s population grows. Scientists believe that the world will have to grow more food than ever before in Earth’s history.

Cons of genetically modified crops:

  • Safety concern: Despite these many benefits, significant obstacles to GM crops remain. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has studied the impact of GM crop consumption and have determined these crops to be safe, many consumers and world governments are still skeptical.
  • Long-term health effects: Because they are relatively new, critics argue, it is impossible to gauge their long-term health effects. Biodiversity is also an issue since wind and pollinators can transport GM seeds into areas with non-GM plants, potentially leading to the contamination of native vegetation.
  • Insect resistance: Another major problem is insect resistance. The more a pesticide or in this case a GM crop that produces its own toxins is used, the more likely insects are to develop a resistance. Insects that become resistant to these toxins are harder to kill.
  • No guidelines followed by farmers: Rotation of the crops every year to try and keep resistance at bay, many farmers do not follow these guidelines. As a result, certain GM crops are starting to lose their effectiveness, and resistant superbugs are emerging. For example, rootworms have been attacking crops after becoming resistant to a rootworm-targeting gene called Bt.
  • Harm to the environment due to excess use of pesticide: This has been causing some U.S. farmers to once again turn to pesticides. An increase in pesticide use not only exposes farmers and the environment to potential harm but also eliminates one of the biggest benefits of using GM seed

Patents, corporations, consolidation of seed market:

  • When discussing the advantages and disadvantages of GM crops, one must bear in mind that GM seeds are subject to strict patent protection. Question arises whether the biotechnological industry should have the right to patent living organisms.
  • After all they are the outcome of evolution, not a man-made product; they should therefore remain a universal public property.
  • However, the involvement of large funds by agribusiness seems, thus far, to settle the matter: the patent law of USA permits the patenting of genomes, genes, regulatory sequences, and also DNA segments of unknown function and significance. GM plants are thus the property of a few global corporations that produce seeds and manufacture chemicals dedicated to protect crops grown from these seeds (e.g. Roundup).

India on GM crops:

  • Genetically Modified (GM) food crops are a contentious issue in India and the government is contemplating over allowing commercialisation of GM mustard crop.
  • Illegal import of GM food products has emerged as an issue in absence of any governing rules.
  • The biotechnology sector wants the country to adopt GM crops to ensure food security for the country. But environmentalists and activists feel GM crops are overrated, will harm interests of farmers, will impact the environment and yields higher than what is claimed by GM crops is already possible.
  • In February 2010, India imposed a moratorium on commercial cultivation of the genetically modified (GM) Brinjal crop till a consensus on the safety of transgenic crops was achieved.
  • GM mustard was cleared for commercial production in May 2017 by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s regulator for transgenic products. However, it still awaits government clearance. Meanwhile, illegal import of food products containing GM ingredients continues into India given the lack of rules required to tackle the issue.
  • In February 2018, government told the Parliament that the production of cotton in India has doubled since Bt cotton was introduced in 2002.

International experience with GM crops:

  • Genetically modified crops also produce important social benefits. For instance, insect-resistant GM cotton is widely grown by smallholder farmers with land holdings of less than five hectares in Africa and Asia.
  • In India, where over eight million cotton growers have switched to GM varieties, higher yields and profits contributed to the rising incomes of poor farm households. This, in turn, reduced poverty, improved nutrition, and increased food security by 15 to 20 percent.
  • Rural workers benefit from more employment in the cotton sector, which is particularly significant for women from poor, landless households. China, Pakistan, South Africa, and other developing countries have experienced similar benefits from using GM crops.
  • The EU Commission is hesitant to approve new GM crops because of public opposition. Despite scientific evidence of GM crops’ low risks and tested benefits, opposition remains unabated.

Concerns:

  • Health Concerns: Studies have shown the correlation between GM crops and health. It can cause cancer, kidney problems, Alzheimer’s etc.
  • Environmental concerns: They can decrease species diversity thereby affecting the ecosystem.
  • They can lead to the growth of super weeds which can’t be controlled by common methods.
  • Economic Concerns: Introduction of a GM crop to market is a time consuming and costly process.
  • Ethical concerns: There have been oppositions to the mixing of animal genes in plants.

Way Forward:

  • Keeping in mind the adverse effects of GM crops, we should increase the isolated distance between regular and GM crops from 20 m to at least 200 m as directed by Supreme Court.
  • During the field trial of GM crops, one should make sure that all the conditions are complied with.
  • Regulating mechanism in India should be strengthened by providing assistance by foreign researchers and countries which are already involved in this crops.
  • Soil management and conservation agencies should have a regular assessment reports on soil strength and pest controlling resistance by inducted crops this will give a closure look for concluding the nature of crops.

Conclusion:

Overregulation has become a real threat to the development and use of GM crops. Zero regulation is not desirable, either, but the trade-offs associated with regulation particularly the forgone benefits for developing countries should be considered. In the public arena, the risks of GM crops seem to be overrated, while the benefits are underrated.

Mains oriented question:

Some of the variables in India are forcing farmers to abandon Bt cotton, the first genetically modified (GM) crop in India. What factors are these? Discuss the impact on GM firms and farmers.