The global population presents a massive challenge to agriculture. The era of scientific crop improvement dates back to around 1900 when the impact of Gregor Mendel’s studies on trait inheritance in peas became widely recognized. Since then, a broad range of techniques has been developed to improve crop yields, quality, and resistance to disease and insects. Most of the plant breeding programs rely on manual cross-pollination between genetically distinct plants to create new combinations of a gene. This topic is important to UPSC civil service exam in the perspective of Mains GS-3. Before getting into the detailed information on this topic, the aspirants should know the definition of GM crops.
Subject wise current affairs insight for UPSC civil service exam (Prelims and Mains)
Prelims and Mains – GS3 – Science and Technology
What are GM crops?
Genetically modified crops are agrarian plants whose DNA has been modified by using genetic engineering techniques. It includes insertion into a plant’s genome, one of several genes from another species of plants or even from a bacterium, virus, or animal. This is to inject desired traits such as resistance to certain pests, diseases, environmental conditions, herbicides, etc. GM technology enables plant breeders to bring together useful genes in a single plant from a wide range of living sources, not just from within the crop species or from closely related plants.
Other terms used for GM plants or foods derived from them are genetically modified organisms (GMO), genetically engineered (GE), bio-engineered and transgenics, etc. The area of plant biotechnology can be divided into four broad subjects as follows:
- Plant genetic engineering (gene isolation and transgenic crops)
- Molecular breeding (marker aided selection)
- Genomics (genomics, metabolomics, and bioinformatics)
- Genome editing
The success story of America in GM crop:
The first GM plant was produced in 1982, using an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. The first field trials of genetically engineered plants took place in France and the US in 1986. In 1994 the first GM crop, the Flavr-Savr, tomato with a longer shelf life, was approved for sale in the US. In 1995, Bt potato was approved as safe by the environmental protection agency in the US. In 2000, with the production of golden rice, scientists genetically modified the food to increase its nutrient value for the first time. The global value of biotech seed was $13.2 billion in 2011. The largest share of GM crops globally is from the seed created by American firm Monsanto. The United States had the largest area of genetically modified crops worldwide in 2018, at 75 million hectares, followed by Brazil with a little over 51.3 million hectares.
Agriculture in India
India appointed the National Commission on Agriculture in 1970 to review the progress of agriculture in the country and to make recommendations for its improvement and modernization. This Commission released its final report in 1976. It refers to agriculture as a comprehensive term, which includes crop production together with land and water management, animal husbandry, fishery, and forestry. The role of agriculture in the country is economic development and the principle of growth with social justice. After an impressive increase in agricultural production in the first two Five Year Plans, a period of stagnancy set in and the country suffered a food crisis in the mid-1960s. The report in fifteen parts suggested ample focus on the increased application of science and technology to enhance production.
Green revolution in India
Genetic improvement of crop plants through conventional plant breeding has made impressive contributions to the breakthrough in global agricultural production. India too has benefitted from the progress in Science and Technology. It has provided the platform for the Green Revolution and laid the foundation for social and economic gain over the last 50 years. So far, the nation has hardly used 1- 5 % of genetic resources available in the country. Simultaneously, the increase in global food production has kept pace with the increase in population from 1960 to 2015. In this period, world cereal production doubled and per capita, food production increased by 37%. The most advanced techniques involved in breeding new and improved crop varieties include mutagenesis, genetic modification, and marker aided selection (MAS).
Reasons for GM crops in India
Agriculture occupies a shrinking share of India’s national economy but achieving rapid growth in agriculture remains a major policy concern nationwide. The contribution of agriculture to India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell from 40% in 1980/81 to 21% in 2004/05. However, 72% of India’s population lives in rural areas, and three-fourth of the people making up this rural population to depend on agriculture and allied activities for their livelihoods.
Furthermore, the agricultural sector is the main source of employment in India, comprising 57% of the country’s labor force in 1999/2000. Most importantly, agricultural growth decelerated to 2.1% between 1996/97 and 2002/03, largely due to a decline in the food grain segment that grew at merely 0.6%. Given the high dependence of the poor on agriculture, the stagnation in this sector is currently threatening to stall poverty reduction in India.
Under such a scenario, the fundamental question is how agricultural growth can be accelerated? The potential to increase growth through staples appears limited, mainly because the demand for staples has stagnated. The consumption patterns have diversified towards high-value agricultural commodities (HVA) such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, poultry, fish, and processed food.
GM crops in India
Despite having just one GM crop (BT cotton), India is the fourth-largest producer, behind the USA, Brazil, and Argentina, of GM crops. In India GEAC, under the Ministry of Environment and Forest is the primary body which is responsible for granting permission to conduct experimental and large-scale open field trials and also approves commercial release of biotech crops. India, which alone accounts for 20 per cent of total acreage, introduced Bt Cotton as the first transgenic crop.
BT Cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis Cotton) has already been produced in several places with more than 10 million hectares under cultivation. It has produced mixed results since 2002. The idea of BT Brinjal was dropped in 2010, following the large-scale protest. For GM mustard commercial cropping was ordered to start in August 2016. If the trials of GM mustard variety named as Dhara Mustard Hybrid -11 or DMH-11 are successful, mustard will become the first food item for which GM seeds will be allowed. GM cotton is the only GM crop officially permitted in India as of today.
Genetically Modified Crops and Regulatory System in India
- Indian Acts, Rules, and Regulations, as well as procedures for handling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and rDNA (Recombinant DNA) products, have been formulated under the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA), 1986 and Rules 1989.
- The Rules (1989) generally cover manufacture, use/import/export, and storage of hazardous micro-organisms, genetically engineered organisms, or cells, and have come into force from 1993.
- The Rules (1989) empowered regulatory decision making for the development of genetically engineered (GE) organisms including crops from the research stage to large-scale commercial use through a three-tier system.
- The Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBSC) operates on research-level approvals, and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) reviews all approved ongoing research projects involving the high-risk category and confined field experiments.
- The Ministry of Science and Technology provides recognition to IBSC and also services RCGM for regulating research and biosafety research-level field experiments.
- Finally, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) functioning as an apex body in the Ministry of Environment, Ecology, and Forests (MoEF) and the Government of India is responsible for the approval of activities involving large-scale use of hazardous micro-organisms, as well as recombinant products in research and industrial production from the environmental angle or commercial use.
Will GM crops increase agricultural productivity?
Two groups of GM crops are widely grown. The first one is altered or engineered. They will be not affected by the herbicide glyphosate, which means that farmers can eliminate weeds without harming their crops. Glyphosate-resistant crops can increase farming efficiency but, while helping to get rid of weeds, herbicide resistance has no direct effect on the quantity of food produced. So their contribution to food security is likely to be limited.
The second type produces a natural insecticide inside the parts of the plant that pests eat. This protects the crops against insect infestation, which is arguably more eco friendly than using sprays that could be toxic to other organisms. Crops of this type are likely to be useful, but we should increase the number of insecticide genes that we employ to prevent the evolution of resistant pests. By these points, it can be concluded that employing good quality of genes in crops helps to increase agricultural productivity.
Foreign GM food crops in India
- GM food is not permitted to be sold in India because these products do not have approval under the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006. But GM soyabean oil has been imported for the past decade and canola for at least three years.
- Imports of GM food need to be approved under two separate laws. Clearance is needed from the Union Environment, Forest and Climate change Ministry under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 and clearance from the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry under the Food Safety and Standards Act.
- Giving permissions for imported GM foods under the Food Safety and Standards Act should require a testing and labelling process. Many countries, including European Union nations, Australia and China, have strict regulations requiring GM foods to be clearly labelled so that consumers can make informed choices whether to eat them.
Advantages of GM technology
This technology has helped the world agriculture to achieve major improvements in crops. In India, the advantages of transgenic technology have been harvested in the improvement of major traits. Some of these are discussed below.
One of the priority areas in crop improvement programs is to incorporate resistance against insect pests. However, the availability of resistance sources within sexually compatible germplasms becomes a limiting factor in transferring resistance to elite crop cultivators.
Virus and fungal disease resistance
Incorporation of resistance against plant viruses is another important area in crop improvement, for which dependence on biotechnological intervention is high. Expression of viral genes encoding coat protein, non-structural proteins (replicase and movement protein), use of antisense technology are some of the strategies that have been effectively used in plants to confer resistance against viral diseases.
Resistance to fungal disease
The plant produces an assorted set of PR proteins as a defense response to fungal pathogens. Several reports of bioassay at the laboratory level indicate that overexpression of PR proteins leads to enhanced resistance with reduced severity of symptoms in transgenic plants.
Tolerance to abiotic stress
Crop productivity suffers due to a variety of environmental stresses viz. drought, salinity, high/low temperature, etc. Tolerance to these environmental stresses is known to be under polygenic control. Genes leading to the biosynthesis of osmolytes, which can retain intra-cellular water viz, glycine betaine, trehalose, proline etc., have been extensively used in developing transgenic lines tolerant to salinity, drought and cold. The genes encoding these transcription factors are potential target genes for genetic engineering in crop cultivars towards improved stress tolerance.
HT crops are known as Roundup Ready as they are tolerant to glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide). Glyphosate inactivates a key enzyme involved in amino acid synthesis in all green plants, and thereby, acting as a broad-spectrum herbicide against nearly all weeds. Roundup Ready crops have been engineered to produce a resistant form of the enzyme and they remain healthy even after being sprayed with glyphosate.
Disadvantages of GM technology
- Allergic reaction: In humans, the most common side effect of consuming GM food is an allergic reaction. This allergic reaction happens when a certain protein or allergen present in the GM crops enter the body and stimulates an immune response.
- It can be dangerous to other insects that are important to our ecosystem: GMOs are believed to be dangerous to some insects because new crop genes can be deadly to them. This is worth noting when it comes to certain insects, such as Butterflies, that are not actually dangerous to crops.
- It can damage the environment: Genetically modified crops can cause a threat to the environment because they are not a natural way to plant and cultivate plants.
- It causes unwanted residual effects: A genetically modified plant can leave unwanted residue substances that can remain in the soil for an extended period of time. Agricultural regulators were baffled by research that strains from GM crops would remain in the soil for a long time.
- It threatens crop diversity: There is an opposition to introduce GM genes on genetic diversity because these genes can spread to other organic farm crops and threaten crop diversity in agriculture. And if crop diversity decreases, it will have a direct impact on our entire ecosystem and would affect the population dynamics of other organisms.
Despite the current uncertainty over GM crops, one thing remains clear. This technology, with its potential to create economically important crop varieties, is simply too valuable to ignore. However, there are some valid concerns. If these issues are to be resolved, decisions must be based on credible, scientific information. On the whole, the policies regarding GM crops will have to be based on an open and honest debate involving wide stakeholders of society.