Genetically Modified Food: Reality and Misconceptions

The Centre for Public Policy Delhi organized a round table discussion on genetic modified food in Delhi on December 28, 2010. The topic for discussion was “Genetically Modified Food: Reality and Misconceptions”. The speakers on this discussions were Dr. Swapan Kumar Dutta- Deputy Director General (Crop Science), Indian Council of Agricultural Research , Dr. K.V. Prabhu, Head, Genetics, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Dr. Kailash Chandra Bansal, Professor, National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Dr. Devinder Sharma, Chairman, Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security, New Delhi. The session was chaired by Dr Dutta.

Opening the session Dr Dutta , Deputy Director General (Crop Science), Indian Council of Agricultural Research, expressed regret about the prevalent misconception about the GM food in India and said that this was because the subject matter (read GM research) went faster than the public perception or knowledge. He also said that science must be seen as explaining new things, and expressed confidence that this misconception about GM food would not last too long.

Dr Dutta went on to explain that with the help of science (read genetic engineering) we can prepare crop which can be cultivated in any adverse climate conditions (read climate change) and help maintain our biodiversity. He asked society to decide how it wants to maximize the benefits of science and provide opportunities for the development of it. He said, “GM technology is improving the variety of crop, and there is an economic incentive for our farmers to grow such crops.”

Emphasizing that genetic modification is no different than conventional breeding, Dr. K.V. Prabhu, Head, Genetics, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), explained that GM crops are developed through the process of genetic engineering by incorporating a gene or genes foreign to the crop species through procedures different from natural pollination or sexual reproduction. Whereas conventionally bred crops, he explains, are developed through the process of genetic modification not involving genetically engineered recombinant DNA but a natural process of sexual reproduction.

However, both results in modified genome (gene sequence of a plant species) of the selected final product which is precise in the case of GM and not-so precise, or random in the case of traditional breeding, elaborated Dr Prabhu.

While explaining the steps involved in the journey of GM plants from the lab to the field (which includes among others an ecological and bio-safety analysis, and the monitoring of efficacy and safety), Dr Prabhu maintained that there have been no bio-safety or environmental safety concerns related to GM food ever since the start of the research (Since early 1920s when Stadle won Nobel Prize for showing mutability in maize). He stated that a GM variety was nothing but a mutant with mutation only in one or may be two or very few regions on the genome.

Picking up from where Mr Prabhu left, Dr. Kailash Chandra Bansal, Professor, National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, emphasized how abiotic stress ( read drought, salt, high temperature, etc.) tolerant crop can be developed which would have more nutritional value apart from having a longer shelf life.

Dr Bansal said that the production of GM food would reduce nitrogen deficiency which alone is responsible for 17% of green house effect. He expounded on this by presenting a study conducted by scientists from the University of Reading in the UK where it has been shown how growing a genetically modified nitrogen use-efficient (GMNUE) canola will benefit the environment. The study, according to him, says that planting GMNUE canola can reduce the impacts of climate change, freshwater eco-toxicity, acidification and eutrophication (increase in nutrient content leading to oxygen scarcity).

However, the last speaker in this session Mr Devinder Sharma, Chairman, Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security, New Delhi, expressed serious some doubts over the efficacy and safety of GM crop. He spoke about the connection between food, pharmaceuticals and insurance. He asked, “If there was a system which was efficient (read yield, pest resistance, etc) and did not involve GM food, should we not accept this?”

Mr Sharma exhorted Indian scientists to invest their time and resources to develop a system which is independent of GM crop, a monopoly of big multinational corporations such as Monsanto, Crop Design, Arcadia Bioscience, etc. He cited an example in Andhra Pradesh in India where 20 lakh hectare of land being cultivated under non-pesticide management is giving good yield besides reducing the health care expenditure of the farmers by 40%. He said that our belief in our own system was flawed. He cited the example of Brazil exporting Indian breed of cows to all parts of the world including India whereas we have been importing for long the jersey cows for more milk. “Isn’t this ironical”, he asks.


The Centre for Public Policy Delhi

The Centre for Public Policy is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to the goals of a better informed public and responsive government. The Centre functions under the aegis of Rai Foundation and believes in the importance of citizen’s involvement in public life and is committed to sustained improvement in public policy through a dialogue among citizens, the media and policy makers to improve the way the government serves its people. Dr. Abid Hussain is the Chairman of the Governing Board.

Genetically modified (GM) Food

Genetically modified (GM) food is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using molecular biology techniques. These are plants that have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to pest, herbicides, diseases, cold tolerance and draught tolerance. It also includes plants that will absorb metal pollutants and also those that have all nutritional supplements so that single grain consumers will get balanced food. But opinion on GM food is divided on whether genetic engineering and genetically modified (GM) crops offer a solution to hunger in the developing countries like India. Critics argue that ‘If hunger could be addressed by technology, green revolution would have done it long ago’. The other argument is that, GM food diverts precious financial resources to an irrelevant research, comes with stronger intellectual property rights, and is aimed at strengthening corporate control over agriculture. The fear is that GM crop experiments may lead the country to an unforeseen era of biological pollution, which will be more unsustainable and also destructive to human health and environment.

The most interesting part of this entire debate was the floor interaction, or question-answer session which took place after the panelists had made their presentations. There were farmers present in the audience who expressed doubts over the much touted yield given by GM crops. They said that the production even with the help of normal crop in the country today was enough to feed the entire country and the shortages only happened when the farmers did not get enough support prices. A member of a farmers union narrated about an incident when they had to take the matter related to a minimum support price of a particular crop to the Prime Minister Manmohan Sigh who intervened and increased the MSP. The government had put an MSP which was less than what farmers had incurred on producing them. It was only due to this intervention by PM that the farmers got the right price and India averted the import of that food item .

However, one listener wanted to know from Mr Sharma why we should object if the scientists wanted to provide an alternative which would take less water (or no water) and less sun light for the crop to grow. Mr Sharma, whose NGO, Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security, New Delhi, espouses anti-GM farmers’ cause , returned the same question to him, “What objections would you have if I present to you a system which does not require GM crop?” He again highlighted the example of Andhra Pradesh where around 40 districts are under cultivation without the use of pesticide giving excellent yield and have resulted in the reduction of the cost of production and a better and healthier living condition to the farmers.

The questions related to health implication were raised by the audience to which the panelists except Mr Sharma rejected in all accord. They said no research had been produced till date which showed that GM crops were harmful. However, the common perception is contrary to what they were saying, as it was obvious in the debate.

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