Genetically modified (GM) foods are derived through genetic engineering wherein the genes from other plants or animals are inserted into the genetic structure of another organism. The first GM plant was a type of tobacco that was resistant to antibiotics. Many believe that it is the only means through which we can meet growing demand for food given that human population has increased three folds since 1950. However, its pros and cons have been seriously deliberated since its breakthrough in the early 1980s.
Genetically modified foods are produced because of some advantages they offer like pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, disease resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance, nutrition, pharmaceuticals and phytoremediation (treatment of environmental problems through the use of plants). Its supporters argue that it will reduce cost of production and hence the cost to the final consumer. Many consumers feel that GM foods are unsafe to consume, however, this is only speculation and so far no cases of illness in humans have surfaced. Also, GM foods are tested for allergens before they go into the market.
There have been a lot of accusations from some scientists, environmentalists and the general public on the debasement of the side effects of GM foods. Governments have also been accused for not responding to the wide spread use of GM foods with appropriate legislations. Its opponents believe that GM foods could cause three forms of hazards; environmental, health related and economic. Environmental hazards include unintended harm to other organisms, reduced efficiency of pesticides and gene transfer to unintended species. Health concerns include allergic reactions and unidentified effects on human health. Economically the problem faced is that of intellectual property. Infringement of patents is a huge concern, since a large variety of GM foods are being developed and keeping tab might prove tedious. A consumer concern is that patenting these new plant varieties will raise the price of seeds so that small farmers and developing economies will not be able to meet the expenses of seeds for GM crops. This would only further the disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. The opponents counter argue reduction in costs by laying down the fact that in India 350 million people go to bed hungry every night and two years before India had a food surplus 65 million tonnes. The fact that government was unable to dispense these 65 million tonnes to those 350 millions shows that the problem lies with equitable distribution and not with production.
Given these advantages and concerns, much debate is still in progress. There is no clear answer. As of now there is no international authoritarian in place. Nonetheless, several international organizations are engaged in developing regulations for GM foods. The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex), a joint FAO/WHO body, is on such body responsible for devising standards and principles for production and trade of GM foods.
The Indian government, as of now, has no policy on GM foods because no GM crops are produced in India and no yield is yet available in markets. Though, India is perceived to be supportive of transgenic plant research, Indian agriculture will need to implement some radical measures to offset the country’s widespread poverty and hunger. Much research is still headway and only the years to come will give us a conclusive verdict on probably one of the most important scientific discovery in the past three decades. One thing is for sure, if proven not-guilty, GM foods can help solve the problem of food shortages and malnutrition that have been plaguing humanity every now and then.