On the cusp of cultivation

As the first GM food crop is just a step away from commercial cultivation in India, here’s sieving the facts

By Author   |   Dr Jasmine M Shah   |   Published: 28th May 2017   12:06 am Updated: 29th May 2017   6:04 pm

On May 11, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the regulator for transgenic products in India, gave its nod for commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) mustard.

The sowing of these seeds can now begin as soon as India’s Environment Minister green-lights it. If it clears this final step, GM mustard will become the first GM food crop and second GM crop to be cultivated in the country.

The cultivation of Bt cotton, the first GM crop, was approved in 2002. In 2010, the GEAC cleared GM brinjal but it failed at the Environment Ministry following protests. In fact, GM crops have always been mired in controversies and the approval for GM mustard puts GM crops back in the spotlight.

Myths over truth
Recently, during a training programme for teachers at a reputed university, a professor of economics took upon himself to teach the “harmful biological effects” of GM or transgenic crops. Carelessly deploying adjectives such as ‘dangerous’, ‘harmful’, he rambled on until he alerted teachers with this gem: “GM crops have seed terminators and imagine if we consume what will happen to us, our seeds, our fertility!”

Of late, unflattering articles on GM mustard have flooded the media. Relatives, friends, and social media discussions reference such articles while talking of GM crops. Scientists are to be partially blamed for allowing such reports go unchallenged.

Being a researcher who has generated GM rice, I see through the misconceptions. Like any scientific tool, GM too can be put to good and bad effects. That is why I would argue that instead of calling for a blanket ban on GM crops, activists should stay informed and oppose when GM can do more harm than good. So, let’s get the facts right and go by facts.

What happens in nature
A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity that determines some characteristics of the offspring. Genes are made up of DNA. When a gene is ‘introduced’ into another crop because of its particular quality, what we get is a transgenic or genetically modified crop.
This is the reason why one charge against GM crops that they affect other ‘conventional’ plants stands true. But for ages, we have been living amid genetically modified crops and animals, and nature was the scientist.

Hybrids vs GM
Hybrids, which find little resistance from pressure groups, are in cultivation for over a century. Hybrids are made by crossing parents of different genetic backgrounds, similar to a mule, a male donkey and a female horse.

Hence, not one or two, but half of the genes are from different sources. ‘Polluting’ a crop with one or a few genes is any day better than changing 50% of its genetic identity.

Destruction of indigenous varieties
An allegation against GM crops is that cultivation of GM crops will lead to the depletion of wild varieties of native crops.

The currently grown hybrids have already influenced the indigenous population. Many wild varieties are either lost, or are preserved in germ plasm banks by various research centres.

Pollens of GM plants will spread
Yes, pollens are disseminated via wind, water, insects and birds. Hence, in countries like the US, the design of farm is such that it is mandatory to grow a safe zone (or buffering area) of non-GM plants completely surrounding the GM crops.
The width of this zone is decided based on the crop and the nature of pollination. Such practices are strictly followed and monitored in developed countries; failing which heavy fine is imposed.

Is GM unhealthy?
Another allegation against GM crops is that they are harmful to health. True, only if a ‘bad’ gene is used. Before releasing into the fields, GM crops undergo extensive testing and are permitted for human consumption only if they are safe.

Medicines also have to undergo extensive testing before they are prescribed for treatment. In fact, food preservatives, colours, food-grade plastic containers are all tested as per their respective regulations and certified before being released into the market.

So, the question one should ask is what gene is used to make the GM crop and what characteristics does the gene have? Based on the purpose, the gene would differ. There should be complete transparency.

Antibiotic-resistant genes
Many charge that GM crops transfer antibiotic-resistant genes from GM foods to the human body or to other bacteria. Antibiotic-resistant genes provide resistance against antibiotics such as hygromycin and kanamycin. These antibiotics are important and prescribed by medical practitioners to kill harmful bacteria. Therefore, if a bacterium gets a gene that provides resistance to kanamycin, for example, this bacterium cannot be killed using the antibiotic, kanamycin.

These genes again are not from alien sources, but from a common soil bacteria called Streptomyces. Even the bacteria in our body such as the E. coli have many antibiotic resistance genes. In nature, such genes are transferred from one bacteria to other through conjugation and this process is a part of evolution. However, when it comes to GM crops, most of these genes are used only in labs for experimental purposes, and are supposed to be taken out before releasing the crop into the fields.

GM and chemicals
GM crops are accused of helping increase the use of chemicals in farming. But the main aim of GM crops is to achieve high yield with existing level or reduced use of chemical pesticides.
For example, Bt corn that was commercially introduced in the US in 1995 and subsequently in around 15 countries has the insecticidal gene (Bt) from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. Surveys in these countries revealed that Bt corn was a better choice because, one, it was not favoured by the insect pests and so yield loss was less; two, input cost fell because it did not require much insecticide application; three, it survived better in adverse weather such as the rains because the insecticides sprayed on non-GM crops were washed away but the Bt corn was inherently immune to the insect attack; four, the insecticides were harmful to biodiversity and evidently affected human health and Bt corn did not carry any such ill-effects.

Organic farming is better?
Organic farming involves cultivation without using artificial fertilizers and artificial pesticides. This practice is in no way connected to GM crops.

In fact, there are genes (like Bt) that provide better resistance to pests, thereby reducing the usage of pesticides. Contrary to the allegation, if such GM crops are organically cultivated, it will lead to better yield.

Seed terminators?
There is a misconception that the GM crops are by default seed terminators, primarily owing to one of its applications — the seed-terminator technology. As the name indicates, seed-terminator technology genetically modifies the crops such that their seeds cannot be used for subsequent generations. This has negative and positive impacts.

The negative aspect is that the farmers will have to depend on seed-making companies every season, exposing them to possible exploitation, such as companies exorbitantly raising seed prices. This problem can be tackled if the government puts in safeguards or introduces benchmark for seed prices.

The positive aspect is that such crops will be limited only to the cultivated area and for the cultivated period. The escape of transgenes will be prevented and the genetic modification will not spread to the neighbouring biodiversity.
The professor also need not fear for GM crops will not terminate human seeds.

(The author is Assistant Professor – Department of Plant Science, Central University of Kerala; jasmine@cukerala.ac.in)