Genetic Modification of Crops: An Environmental Hazard?

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India is a farming nation. In rural areas, a majority of the population survives on farming. And this has not only enabled us to feed ourselves but in some cases also export food to the world.

According to IBEF, India is among the 15 leading exporters of agricultural products in the world. Moreover, agricultural exports from India reached US$ 38.54 billion in 2019 and US$ 28.93 billion in 2020 (until January 2020).

By the studies of Herbert Boyer in 1969 on couple of restriction enzymes of E. coli bacterium. He discovered the DNA strand cutting in particular fashion, leading to the pasting of DNA pieces together which in turn led to a rich and rewarding experiment done by Stanley Cohen, he discovered the method of removing plasmids from the cell and then reinserting them into the other cells. And by combining the processes enabled by Boyer and Cohen to recombine the desired configuration to DNA and insert it into bacterial cell which then led to the manufacturing of plants of specific protein. Which is major breakthrough in the history of biotechnology known as recombinant DNA technology or Genetic engineering.

To meet the food demands of growing population, after so many critical researches, genetically modified crops were introduced. Which less or more satisfied the eyes of farmers and cultivators but burnt a hole in the pocket as well as led to everlasting devastation to the environment.

Genetically modified crop and its impact

India being the agrarian country, its agrarian communities comprises over 58% of its total population and are engaged primarily in farming. But the major abiotic stress such as salinity, high temperature, drought and biotic components as insects and pests are  persistent problems of sustainable agricultural development which often lead to starvation and other social issues , in year 1972 green revolution on the land of Punjab, Haryana and part of Uttar Pradesh became a landmark victory in order to combat such stresses.

After a passage of time and experiment by crossing many hurdles India got its first GM crop Bt–cotton commercialized in 2002. It was introduced by Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company in collaboration with MONSANTO – world’s biggest seed company; initially on 6 states were allowed to grow GM crops, now the numbers of states are 10.

As per professor Snehlata Singh Parekh a group leader and national officer at ‘International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Delhi  to carry out evolution in GM  crops there group had designed technology to increase the ‘Lycopene’-an potent antioxidant content in GM tomato, to ensure the longevity boost crop production. These mechanisms of genetics are emerging as kind of new green revolution in the world, but in this very aspect India experienced the other side of the coin.

India’s first GM crop Bt- cotton crop besides many promises suffered drastically by the attack of pests. Enormous complaints of crop losses and increased numbers of suicides of farmers in cotton growing areas added a new concern to the very topic, a new chapter was added by the Delhi high court verdict on 11th March 2018 that MONSANTO a company who provide GM crops to India cannot claim patent on its GM cotton seeds as per law of land.

When in 1996 GM crops were approved for commercial purposes it claimed to increase crop yields and bring profits to farmers but the plight of farmers remained unchanged and companies providing GM crops grew richer and prosperous. The main aim of GM crop was to combat the pests that reduce the crop production. Initially it was intended to resist American and Pink bollworm and hence will limit the use of pesticides, claiming to be drought and flood resistant add bonus to the process.  But all the promises and claims vanished into thin air as GM crops got resistance to pests and led to depletion of crop yields. It was confirmed by Central Institute of Cotton Research in 2017 that GM seeds susceptible to pink bollworm. A detailed study by CRCR- Ignorance of farmers towards technology cited as the main cause of development of resistance of pink bollworm.

Under regulatory guidelines:

Farmers who cultivate GM crops as Bt- cotton must plant varieties of cotton plant at least 20 per cent without having Bt gene to curb the pests from developing resistance against Bt -toxins. And seed companies are required to provide mix Bt- cotton seeds with refuge seeds but the present scenario is that about 90 per cent of refuge seeds shows poor cultivation and do not act as same due to having different window periods.

In India Genetically modified crops are regulated by Ministry of Environment and Forest. But the safety aspect is looked by statutory bodies of three committees. Namely:

1. Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GMAC)

It is constituted under the rule of the manufacture use, export/import and storage of hazardous microorganisms or cells, 1989, notified under the Environment (protection) Act, 1986.  It was initially formed as Genetic Engineering Approval committee and was renamed as its current name in 2010. Its main work is appraisal of activities that consist of large scale use of hazardous microbes and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle. It also assesses the proposals regarding the release of genetically engineered products and organisms on mass scale into the environment, and it includes experimental fields.

The Committee also looks into the matter regarding the use of living modified organism that comes in the risk category III and above, in the import/manufacture of recombinant pharma products, or where the end-product of the recombinant pharma product is modified living organisms. The committee also enjoys the power to take punitive actions against people or body under Environment protection Act.

The GEAC provides mandatory approval before genetically modified organisms and products derived from them can be commercially accessible.

GMAC is headed by the Special Secretary or Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, GOI. And a next to him is headed by the representative of the Department of Biotechnology. Every month meetings are held by many members to review the applications in the Committee’s domain. They are experts from other ministries as well as institutions such as the ICAR, ICMR, CCMB, etc.

2. Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee

3. Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM)

4. Institutional Bio Safety Committee (IBSC)  

These committees provide permission for release and cultivation after having assured of environment and food safety assignment, but since 2011 it became mandatory to take state‘s permission to conduct large scale experiments in open fields. The trials of many GM crops were accepted by UPA government. Around 10 GM crops such as wheat, paddy, Jawar, bajra, and maize were approved but in 2010 the then environment minister Jai Ram Ramesh banned the trials. And for the very first time the standing committee on agriculture did a deep investigation in 2013- 2014. The committee held 27 meetings and discussed with the experts of the concerned topic and drew a conclusion that besides possessing risk to human and animal health it also poses threats to other crops. 

The plant geneticist and World Food Prize winner M.S. Swaminathan is known as the "father of the Green Revolution in India", since he helped introduce into the country a new US-influenced agricultural movement focusing on modern high-yield varieties of wheat and rice – and their accompanying pesticides and fertilizers.

Since 1988 he has headed his own M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, India. In the early 2000s the Foundation saw GM crops and biotechnology in general, not only as having immense potential but as "the only way we can face the challenges of the future". Given Dr Swaminathan's role in the first Green Revolution in India, his promotion of GM crops was inevitably promoted as an ushering-in of a second Green Revolution.

And in 2009 Dr Swaminathan published an article in which he said that no scientific evidence had emerged from the ten years of commercialisation of GM crops to show any of the concerns about them were justified. He also said that all GM crops were subjected to stringent regulatory scrutiny and that India would soon "have in place a very effective, independent, credible, regulatory authority to ensure the safe release of GM products”.

But Swaminathan's promotion of GM crops has also been increasingly marked at times by important caveats, reflecting a concern for sustainability, biosafety, and the impact of agricultural innovations on the rural poor. And those concerns would seem to underpin a remarkable newly published peer-reviewed paper that he co-authored with his colleague P.C. Kesavan, in which he condemns GM crops as unsustainable and says they should be banned in India. He is also severely critical of the performance of India's regulators.

Taking references from P.C. Kesavan and M.S. Swaminathan (2018) and modern technologies for sustainable food and nutrition security;

The uncompromising nature of his new publication marks his clearest departure yet from his previous broad endorsement of GM crops, and looks set to place him in the substantial line of scientific former-GMO-supporters-turned-critics, such as Dr Caius Rommens, Dr Belinda Martineau, and Dr Arpad Pusztai.

On GM Bt insecticidal cotton in India, Drs Swaminathan and Kesavan write:

"There is no doubt that GE Bt-cotton has failed in India: it has failed as a sustainable agriculture technology and has therefore also failed to provide livelihood security of cotton farmers who are mainly resource-poor, small and marginal farmers.

"That a plea has recently been made to Bt-cotton farmers to adopt the time-honoured traditional integrated pest management (IPM) system to sustain Bollgard II cotton points to the relative effectiveness of a traditional vis-à-vis modern technology. It is unethical to ask farmers to first adopt the highly expensive technology of Bt-cotton and when it subsequently failed, to then introduce an inexpensive traditional technology to protect Bollgard II cotton. Both Bt - and herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops are now proven to be unsustainable agricultural technologies. They have not decreased the need for toxic chemical pesticides, which was the reason for them in the first place."

Health concerns

In their paper, Drs Swaminathan and Kesavan recall that the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court of India in a case brought by environmental campaigner Aruna Rodrigues recommended a total ban on GM herbicide-tolerant crops. Dr Swaminathan and Dr Kesavan, who was one of the experts appointed to the TEC, also draw attention to the "rising health concerns associated with Bt-crops", as well as evidence pointing to the conclusion that "Bt toxins are toxic to all the organisms, including mammals". Due to these factors, they demand that the recommended indefinite moratorium of the TEC in its final report on Bt crops must "translate into a ban" on Bt crops as well.

Although Drs Swaminathan and Kesavan exempt Bt cotton from this demand for a ban, they state that the Indian government was right to place a moratorium on Bt brinjal (eggplant). They note that when the biosafety dossiers on Bt brinjal were forced into the public domain by the Supreme Court, the court-appointed TEC "found several deficiencies in design, collection of data and their interpretations, and also noted that the important studies were not done".

The authors note some examples from history of unintended health effects from genetic engineering. These include Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato, which was found to cause stomach lesions in experimental rats, and the L-tryptophan scandal, in which a food supplement manufactured using GM bacteria, killed 37 Americans and sickened 1500 more.

Herbicide dangers

Drs Swaminathan and Kesavan cite scientific evidence that the glyphosate-based herbicides, used on most GM crops, and their active ingredient glyphosate have been found to be genotoxic, teratogenic (causing birth defects), and carcinogenic. They also mention the recent court case in the US in which a jury awarded groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson USD 289 million in damages (subsequently reduced to USD 78 million by the judge) against Monsanto after finding that the company's glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup could have caused his cancer and that the company had covered up the risks.

They state that the GM mustard tolerant to glufosinate herbicide that has been submitted to Indian regulators for commercialisation "must be banned", since "genotoxic glufosinate is at least as hazardous as glyphosate".

They also reference a study showing that the yield of GM crops in general has been shown to be no better than that of non-GM crops, adding that India has several varieties of mustard that out-yield the GM variety.

Regulators slammed

Drs Swaminathan and Kesavan have nothing but criticism for India's GMO regulators, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM). They write, "The functioning of the GEAC and RCGM has rightly come under severe criticism due to endemic conflicts of interest, lack of expertise in GMO risk assessment protocols, including food safety assessment, the assessment of their environmental impacts, the lack of ‘need’ for expensive transgenic technology, and which must include a socio-economic assessment of their farming impacts on resource-poor small and marginal farmers, etc. which is also absent."

They add that these bodies have been heavily criticised by three official government reports. They demand "independent, rigorous oversight of GE crops, without the least hint of any conflict of interest". What is lacking in India, they say, are "persons of proven competence in genetic toxicology and safety analyses" and "able economists who are familiar with and will prioritize rural livelihoods, and the interests of resource-poor small and marginal farmers rather than serve corporate interests and their profits".

They conclude, "We strongly believe that scientific integrity and social responsibility are not negotiable. No technology may be exempt from these values."

Nature has evolved a specific kind of evolutionary balance. But with the forceful injection of bacterial DNA or any foreign component is completely unnatural and is injustice to environment. This aggressive bombardment of gene to the plants lead the plants to react and can produce toxins which may be harmful or allergic.

According to WHO, DNA in GMO is changed in such a way that now there is no natural occurring of reproduction process. Environmentalist are very much concerned about the  safety of the country’s ecological diversity  due to trans-boundary  movement in Bangladesh  so they wrote to the ministry urging to explore all the options of “Cartagena Protocol”

Bt cotton seeds are 200 times more expensive than normal one, added to that- it is risky. It only benefits the companies and not the farmers or the consumers. Adding more to the disability part the impact of genetically modified crops on Environment is unrepairable, and the whole ecological structure of the world would be under threat.

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