Genetically Modified (GM) or Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops is a topic that hits the newspaper occasionally and dies out. It is yet another movement that is backed strongly by the big bad corporate companies; supported by the flaws in the policies of the government and is paid for by those at the lowest rungs of the social ladder.
GM crops are those in which the DNA of the crop has been specifically modified by genetic engineering and bio technology for several purposes which include faster growth resistance to pathogens, production of extra nutrients etc. Propagators also claimed lower pesticide usage and higher yields.
InIndia, food has always been and probably always will be a major concern. After the Green Revolution in the 1970s, a new solution was needed. In 2001, B.T. Cotton, the only commercialized genetically modified crop till date, was tested and was approved the next year. While the industry and the government have hailed this as a great success, it would do them well to open their eyes and see that B.T. Cotton has not offered any socio-economic benefits to the farmers. In fact, their investments increased many folds exposing them to risks of being in debt to money lenders.
Not only has B.T. Cotton led to the unavailability of all forms of traditional cotton seeds, but the trials were shown to have never been conducted according to scientific norms. On a positive note however, B.T. Brinjal which was being campaigned for excessively by multinational companies, has had a moratorium imposed on it in 2010 by the then environmental minister, Jairam Ramesh.
The major disadvantages of BT Crops are the possibilities of emergence of new allergence, pesticide resistance, cross contamination, herbicide tolerance, and many others which are just as worrying. Several tests showed that some varieties of a B.T. Corn caused high mortality rates in Monarch Caterpillars. Cross breeding from GM crops and normal crops may result in “super weeds”. Transfer of genes of these super weeds could cross over into non targeted species.
But it is the unknown health risks to man which causes the most anxiety. One particular study which fed rats with GM potatoes found that the rats had developed weaker immune systems, damage to vital organs. This included an enlarged stomach wall and a shrunken brain.
While B.T. Brinjal has been stalled for now and the parliament is wary about it, 56 other GM Crops are waiting for approval on the side-lines. These crops include staple food like wheat, rice and maize which are essential to the Indian diet.
Whether the Government will cave into pressures from industries, we do not know but we must understand that GM crops will never assure food security and will, in all probability, add to the existing problems.
Without touching upon the economic and social problems which are indeed numerous, let us look at GM crops from a sustainability point of view.
Our country, which is a developing one with numerous food related problems is facing the after effects of the Green Revolution. While India is an agrarian country, services have overtaken its prime position in contribution towards the Gross Domestic Product. Global Warming has led to an increase in droughts disrupting the monsoons on which most of the farmers are primarily dependant.
We must remember that even small genetic changes result in large ecological alterations. While bio technology could hold the key to the answers of food security, genetically modified and genetically engineered crops are not them.