TODAY -

GMOs, is it a Yes or No?

Depiya Thoudam *



In June 2021, the European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) flagged 500 tonnes of white broken rice converted to flour by a French company named Westhove for GM content. In this regard, France issued a notification claiming India as the place of origin of the rice consignment with GM content and further alerting various countries which were possible destinations of products made with that rice flour.

Even there were instances in relation to this where many big companies recalled their various food products because of the fear of GM content. This particular incident came to limelight in India only recently when Coalition for GM-Free India, a civil society group wrote a letter to the Union Ministries of Agriculture, Commerce and Environment alleging that the GM rice varieties at various stages of confined field trials in India might have led to the “contamination or leaks”.

This incident can pose a heavy blow to India’s Rice export business. As of 2020-21, India had the highest export volume of rice worldwide (15.5 million metric tons). It accounts for 20% of global rice production.

In reply to the letter, the Commerce ministry said, “Since, there is no commercial variety of GM in India, proper testing was also done before shipment of the rice consignment. The possibility of GMO contamination due to white rice exported by India is not possible”. Further stating” India is exporting strictly non-GM rice”.

GMO stands for genetically modified organism referring to any organism whose DNA has been modified with genetic modification techniques which the scientific community commonly referred to as ‘genetic engineering’. Through the selective breeding process, it is possible to give desirable traits to crops.

This process will take many generations and the breeders may also struggle to determine which genetic change has led to a new trait. But this process can be accelerated through genetic engineering. In 1994, GM crops were first introduced in the USA with the “FlavrSavr tomato”, which has been genetically modified to increase its shelf life. Now, farmers in various countries have widely adopted GM Technology.

India is also one of them. But, Bt Cotton is the only GM crop that is approved for cultivation in India. Bt cotton contains genes from the soil dwelling bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. These genes cause cotton plant cells to produce crystal insecticidal proteins (Cry-Proteins) which are effective in killing some of the caterpillar pests of cotton such as bollworms. India has become the world’s largest producer of cotton partly due to Bt cotton, which accounts for over 90% of the total acreage in the country.

The GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) is the apex panel handling GM matters in India. No GM food crop has ever been approved for commercial use in India. However for at least 20 GM crops, confined field trials are going on including Btbrinjal, GM mustard etc. Btbrinjal has been a huge success in our neighbouring country Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is also all set ready to introduce Vitamin A enriched Golden Rice following the path of the Philippines. Golden rice has been developed under the Healthier Rice Program in the Philippines and Bangladesh.

In India, GM Crops have been controversial from the get-go. GM Crops have had genes incorporated to them for achieving various desirable traits such as improved growth, higher nutritional content, pest resistance, sustainability and ease of farming. Although current research data suggests that GMO foods are safe, some people wish to avoid them citing long term safety and environmental impact concerns.

There is concern that consumption of GMO foods may trigger allergic reactions as they contain foreign genes.

This concern sounds valid but there have been no reports of allergic reactions because of GMO foods currently available in the market. There is also concern that GMO foods consumption may cause cancers or aid in the progression of cancers as cancers are caused by DNA mutations. Some people are scared that the added genes in the GMO crops may affect their DNA paving way for cancers.

But no scientifically accepted evidence is there to link cancers with GMO food intake with cancers. There are also environmental concerns hovering around GMO crops citing increased herbicide usage in cultivation of GM herbicide tolerant Crops have led to evolution and spread of “superweeds”; evolution of “superpests”, insects that have developed resistance to the toxins in GM insect resistant crops; genetic contamination due to gene flow from GM crops to wild and non GM crops; loss of biodiversity; impact on non-target organisms and on soil and water ecosystems.

Despite scientists and experts claiming GMO food crops are safe. Voices that are concerned about the negative impacts of GMO crops to health and environment are pretty loud. Quite a lot of people fear GMOs. To reap the intended benefits out of GMOs in a sustainable and environment friendly manner, more research and analysis should be done.

So far, no long term human studies exist taking into consideration the concerns that people have with GMOs. More long term human research with regard to this is expected from the scientific community to give meaning to the debate of GMOs. Science is an ever-advancing field, so we will get more insights and new developments in the years to come which will help us to make the best choice.


* Depiya Thoudam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The author is an alumna of Miranda house, Delhi University, Master of Science
This article was webcasted on November 15 2021.



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