In our previous articles, we emphasized our readers to understand the basic phenomenon behind GM technology, its applications, how GMOs are being produced with a case study of Bt technology and its acceptable safety. In this issue, we have made efforts to shed light on to prove logically that the GMOs are no different from the crops developed through other technologies. We hope it will thereby enable the readers and anti-GM proponents towards better understanding of this science.
Overlooking safety – Reason behind GMO fear ?
Initial threat started with the name given for the products of this science as, ‘Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs’. As we suggested in our earlier issues GMO is actually a misnomer, which should actually be called as ‘Genetically Engineered organism (GE)’, as genetic modification is a natural process occurring in all the living organisms over time. The natural DNA modifications such as addition, deletion, swapping mechanisms has caused tremendous changes in the crop plants and given us several advantageous traits which were accepted in the name of conventional plant breeding. One should understand that GM crops are also made by mimicking these natural modifications. Nevertheless, it is the similar natural genetic modifications which had evolved us from a tree climbing primate ancestor to a land-ruling Homo sapiens.
Here, we should learn from nature that the genetic modifications are not always bad, particularly if you believe yourself superior than our ancestral apes. In fact, one should be thankful to those genetic modifications which have made us.
‘Mutation breeding’, a conventional plant breeding approach, which involves exposing radiations (like gamma rays, X-rays) or chemical mutagens (like EMS, DMS) on target seeds to create crop plants with advantages traits (say reduced height, increased yield, disease resistance, etc). Then the radiation or chemical exposed seeds are sown and crops with required traits will be chosen from a mixture of randomly modified traits. Varieties of several crop species developed by this method were being commercialized from 1930’s and reaching our plates without any bio-safety tests or trials. It is the tag ‘Conventionally bred variety’ which relaxes it from bio-safety tests. As both mutation breeding and GM technology creates changes in the DNA. Is it not a bias to treat products of mutation breeding and GMOs differently ? Yes, it is a bias! Considering the high level of randomness in creating genetic modification, it is indeed the GM crops are more trustworthy than seeds from mutation breeding. Furthermore, the present generation genome edited crops are relatively safer than earlier versions of GM crops for the reason that no newer genes are inserted and, only one or few genes are disrupted by targeted deletions.
Several anti-GM activists/scientists claim that we don’t know how the newly inserted gene from a different organism (e.g. microbes) would behave in the newer environment (genome of plant). Although not experimentally proven, they claim that it may poses serious threat to the consumers and environment by producing toxic gene products. Moreover, it may behave differently (than expected) once it gets transferred into its related plants or weeds. Answering all those suspicious questions on GE crops and its products, stringent bio-safety tests are being conducted in laboratory and fields before its commercialization.
It is those bio-safety tests which consumes three fourth of amount has being spend on to commercialize final GM product. For instance if three years were spent for developing GM rice in any institute or private enterprise, it is expected to take additional 7-8 years to complete all the bio-safety and field trials to come up with the final GM product. However it is unreasonable, rather unscientific; when anti-GM groups still questions about the long-term effects and the safety of GM products on consumers after such pain-stacking efforts. If we have to address the query made regarding long-term effect, we need to do bio-safety tests for about hundred years. But will it not be foolish to come out with a product/solution on a year 2130 for the problem aroused during 2030 ?
If safety is the only priority concern, then is it safe to use electricity, vehicles, fuels, gasoline which may harm you at anytime? The recent train accidents in India illustrate that we do have threat in day to day life. Have we stopped using those things? Deliberately no! We still continue using them in spite of drastic tragedies we face. But we learn how to keep them under our control. Then why does one blindly disagree with GMOs which aims to serve us with all the safety data? Public and anti-GM groups should analyze deeply and realize the ultimate purpose of those GM foods which come as a realistic solution to solve our present day crisis.
Recently in an article on newspaper, ‘The Hindu’, Prof. M.S. Swaminathan mentioned, ‘‘Genetic modification has both advantages and disadvantages. One has to measure the risks and benefits before arriving at a conclusion and moreover we need an efficient regulatory mechanism for GM in India’’. India has a much completed system of regulating GM crops and its products in the country. But as mentioned by the agronomist M.S. Swaminathan, we need deliberate and transparent regulatory guidelines for GM crops for making use of this science successful for the welfare of farmers and consumers.
Needed science at needy situations
Is GM technology is the only solution available? Not really. But can’t be avoided though!! Before starting research for a particular problem one should look for the options available in the natural germplasm for desirable traits (disease resistance, pests resistance, drought tolerance etc.) and if available, the scientist can adapt marker assisted breeding (MAB) or conventional crop breeding methods. If no solution can be made through available MAB or conventional techniques, one should go for genetic engineering aimed at developing the crop varieties with desired traits. The best example is the Bt cotton which created a greater impact on bollworm control and increased production while conventional methods failed to give such plausible solution. In addition, it has a wider scope to solve current agrarian crisis such as drought, nutrient deficiency, heat, etc. Apart from agrarian crisis, GMO has a greater potential to fight malnutrition.
Most anti-GM activists claim that malnutrition can be solved by the supplement of available sources such as fruits, vegetables and medicinal supplements (like tablets). Can that be possible and economically feasible at the current population? If so, is it is possible to fulfill the daily requirement of vitamin-A by providing vitaminA rich fruits and leafy vegetables to all sufferers. The answer is ‘no’ at the present condition. As per ICAR report, our country produces only half the quantity of fruits and vegetables than required, although we have achieved self-sufficiency food ‘grain’(cereals) production long back. Hence, even if every Indian citizen is economically sound enough to afford fruits needed to fulfill our daily requirement, only half of the Indian citizens can make through it. In reality, we still depend on imports even to partly satisfy our nutritional need. It must be remembered that imported fruits are costly and so the poor can’t afford it. Also, the subsidized foods provided by the government are mostly cereals which have far less quantity of vitamins.
Golden rice is a cheaper alternative and a feasible way to feed several million children in Asia and Africa suffering from vitamin A deficiency. It is an injustice committed to the malnourished children and their parents, as the anti-GM people protest against its release. If the parents of those sufferers were asked, they will deliberately say ‘yes’ to this product. What are we going to do with generated bio-safety data of golden rice after 50 or 100 years, seeing children suffering in front of our eyes? We need to understand and accept science, rather than believing on unscientific myths. We hope the people would see the ‘‘science with human face’’ to substantially contribute for attaining the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
In the upcoming issue we will discuss on the functioning of GMO regulatory bodies and policies of India and other GM concerns.
– (By Ram Sankar. C, Godwin James, Nandha Kumar. S and Ragavendran Abbai. Biotechnology graduates currently pursuing Post graduate in their field.)