Genetically modified Crops and Food Security


Genetically modified Crops and Food SecurityBy- Dr Ratul Ch Rajkhowa & Anindita Deka

The Government of India is celebrating, every year, National Science Day (NSD) on 28th February to honour Nobel Laureate, Sir C.V. Raman, for his splendid invention of ‘Raman Effect’. The following article is written in the light of the focal theme of NSD, 2013 which is “Genetically modified crops and food security.”

The biotechnologically manipulated gene combination, occurring in genetically modified crops owns the potential to overcome several threats of food insecurity, by uprooting the drawbacks of traditional agriculture practices. Economic solutions aside, GM crops with higher yields, better resistance to pests and weeds, shorter maturation periods, tolerance to drastic climatic challenges and possibly added nutrition are without doubt the call of future.

Food Security ensures a healthy mind and body, a prerequisite for a future sustainable development. As delineated by World Food Summit of 1996 (FAO) “Food Security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” It attains highest attention in the current execrable circumstances following irresistible population explosion accompanying inexorable food shortages. Thus, emphasis is laid on food production, food access and food use – the three pillars of food security.

In ancient time, quality food was easily available at the expense of natural and traditional methods. But gradually, geometrically increasing population could not be sufficed with arithmetical food growth, resurrecting the Malthusian theory. With green revolution coming into picture, the extensive use of powerful fertilizers, pesticides and massive irrigation boosted the land yields. But, after the oil crisis in 1970’s and famine in South Africa in 1980’s, it ‘lost it’s edge’ and food insecurity was resurfaced again.

The cause of food insecurity is a complex interplay of economic, political, social and technical issues along with poverty. Food insecurity and malnutrition leads to underdevelop intellectuality and poor skill development that reduce their productivity. In past four years, the rising food prices and the global economic downturn increased the rank of world food insecure from 848 million to 925 million by September, 2010 (WFP & FAO, 2010).

In developing countries 800 million people are undernourished of which a significant proportion live on less than US $1 per day, despite a more than 50% decline in world food prices over past 20 years. Regions like Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia are painting the gloomiest picture with consistent increase in malnourished children. The world population is expected to surge as high as 10.5 billion from the present 7.5 billion. Feeding and housing an additional 3 billion people will cause considerable pressure on land, water, energy and other natural resources. The worldwide per capita availability of food is expected to increase by approximately 70% i.e. 2900 cal/person/day (World Bank, 2003). But, the real picture doesn’t seem to support the facts.

The Global Hunger Index released by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) positioned India at 67th rank, far below Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and China. The undernourished population is 22%, underweight (below 5 yrs) is 43.5% and children mortality (below 5 yrs) is 6.9%. According to FAO, 20% of world’s unnourished live in India. In August, 2012, Committee on Agriculture, chaired by Basudev Acharia, threw light on the present growth of agriculture as 2% per year which is lower than 3% growth required to combat food insecurity.

Thus, the potential contribution of GM crops gained fresh impetus, worldwide, to rule out the spectre of food security. US in early 1990’s declared GM food as indifferent from their natural counterparts. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has labelled them as generally recognised as safe or GRAS which empowers a GM food to be commercialized without prior testing. The GM industry started to bloom, the first commercial item being the FlavrSavr tomato, released in 1994, engineered for slow ripening character. Other crops include rice, corn, soya bean, cotton, brinjal, papaya, canola, sugar beet, squash, potato and many more. Consistent and substantial economic, environmental and welfare benefits of GM crops, resulted in 14 million farmers, including small and resource poor, plantation of 134 million hectares of GM crops with share of developing countries at 46%. USA, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay and S. Africa are countries each growing more than 1 million hectare of GM crops. India grows Bt. cotton in 8.4 million hectares. It seemed that the whole global scenario of food insecurity was mitigated by the introduction of GM crops and billions of dollars were poured into such technological crop design. But, now question arises – will such crops solve the problem of providing healthy, nutritious food to the masses along with sustainable food security? Is consumption of artificial manipulated food safe and ensure a disease- free future? Is it right for ecological exposure of such crops?

The lenient approach towards the adoption of GM crops, fuelled by multinational lobbies, without prior risk assessment, faced severe repercussion from various Departments and scientists that spelled unintended effects from GM crops listings allergens, toxins, nutritional effects and other unpredictable, hard to detect side effects and completely nullified the high expectation of the so-called miracle crops.

There are concerns that GM crops will become agricultural weeds and therefore add to the already large agriculture weed management burden of farmers. Extinction of the wild taxa is another big issue. The farmers of Yavatmal in Vidarbha, India are still growing Bt. cotton despite high input costs and low profits because they had no other option as alternate wild seeds were no longer available. This has heightened the monopoly of the seed providing companies. GM crops have unnatural DNA length that do not degrade as such and is easily available for uptake by microorganisms and leading to consequences such as drug resistance, antibiotic resistance, etc. Secondary ecological effects of GM crops include death of non-target species such as monarch butterfly, honey bee, ladybird etc when fed on Bt. Crops. Reports showcased death of cattle population when fed on leaves of Bt. cotton. Emergence of superpests has added misery, as cost of control now exceeds the conventional pest control budgets. Even GM crops lead to disturbance of soil ecosystem. Long term physiological effects of GM crops include toxic reactions in digestive tract, liver damage, higher death rates and organ damage, reproductive failures and infant mortality, immune reaction and allergies.

Rice exporters of India supported a ban on GM rice for the fear of losing their highest non GM export market to Europe. They believe in nature, segregation of GM crops from non GM crops is infeasible. Consumer acceptance is a critical factor for the success of application of GM technology. Moreover unlabelled GM crops have deprived consumers to know their source of consumed foods.

In the present scenario, implementation of GM crops demands thorough risk analysis. The government must not allow field trials of GM crops till there is a strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system in place. There should be mandatory labelling of products from GM crops, unchecked import of GM products should be stopped and alternate organic farming should be encouraged. According to WHO recommendation, risk analysis of GMOs must be carried out to account for environmental and genetic variability; recognition of extensive research and significant increase of funding on bio-safety related research; technological innovation could be designed to include the criteria of enhancing inherent safety; post release monitoring broad enough to capture unexpected consequences; study of non-target effects as they relate to agronomic practices and biodiversity issue.

The Technical Expert Committee of India on GM crop recommended to the centre to implement a 10 years moratorium on trials of Bt. transgenic of any food crops. Having noticed several shortcomings in the functioning, composition, powers and mandate of Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) in their regulatory role, recommendations were forwarded to the sister committees on Science and Technology and Environment and Forests to do a comprehensive examination and report to Parliament whenever there is any issue. In 2007 the Government of India established the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India that would act as an “independent, autonomous and professionally led body to provide a single window mechanism for biosafety clearance of genetically modified products and processes.”

Thus, we need novel methods and concepts to probe into the compositional, nutritional or toxicological and metabolic differences between GM and conventional crops and dwell into the safety of the genetic techniques deployed in developing GM crops, if we desire to instrument this scientific technology for our betterment and allay the fears of the general public for its humble acceptance.

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