Context: Recently, Shetkari Sanghatana - the farmers’ union founded by the late leader Sharad Joshi - announced fresh plans in its agitation for use of genetically modified seeds.
More on the news:
- In the current kharif season, farmers would undertake mass sowing of GM seeds for maize, soyabean, mustard, brinjal and herbicide tolerant (Ht) cotton, although these are not approved.
- Unauthorised crops are widely used: Industry estimates say that of the 4-4.5 crore packets (each weighing 400 gm) of cotton sold in the country, 50 lakh are of the unapproved Ht Bt cotton.
What is the movement about?
- The Sanghatana has announced that this year they are going to undertake large-scale sowing of unapproved GM crops like maize, Ht Bt cotton, soyabean and brinjal across Maharashtra.
- Farmers who plant such variants will put up boards on their fields proclaiming the GM nature of their crop.
- In a movement led by Shetkari Sanghatana in Akola district of Maharashtra, more than 1,000 farmers defied the government and sowed Ht Bt cotton last year. The Akola district authorities subsequently booked the organisers.
What are genetically modified seeds?
- Conventional plant breeding involves crossing species of the same genus to provide the offspring with the desired traits of both parents.
- Genetic engineering aims to transcend the genus barrier by introducing an alien gene in the seeds to get the desired effects. The alien gene could be from a plant, an animal or even a soil bacterium.
- Bt cotton, the only GM crop that is allowed in India, has two alien genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that allows the crop to develop a protein toxic to the common pest pink bollworm.
- Ht Bt, on the other, cotton is derived with the insertion of an additional gene, from another soil bacterium, which allows the plant to resist the common herbicide glyphosate.
- In Bt brinjal, a gene allows the plant to resist attacks of fruit and shoot borers.
- In DMH-11 mustard, developed by the University of Delhi, genetic modification allows cross-pollination in a crop that self-pollinates in nature.
- Across the world, GM variants of maize, canola and soybean, too, are available.
Legal backing for GM crops:
- In India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is the apex body that allows for commercial release of GM crops.
- In 2002, the GEAC had allowed the commercial release of Bt cotton. More than 95 per cent of the country’s cotton area has since then come under Bt cotton.
- Penal provisions: Use of the unapproved GM variant can attract a jail term of 5 years and fine of Rs 1 lakh under the Environmental Protection Act ,1986.
Why are farmers rooting for GM crops?
- Low cost of production: In the case of cotton, farmers cite the high cost of weeding, which goes down considerably if they grow Ht Bt cotton and use glyphosate against weeds. For example, Brinjal growers in Haryana have rooted for Bt brinjal as it reduces the cost of production by cutting down on the use of pesticides.
- Food supplies become predictable: When crop yields become predictable, then the food supply becomes predictable at the same time ensuring food security.
- Nutritional content can be improved: The nutritional content of the crops can be altered as well, providing a denser nutritional profile than what previous generations were able to enjoy.
- Genetically modified foods can have a longer shelf life: Instead of relying on preservatives to maintain food freshness while it sits on a shelf, genetically modified foods make it possible to extend food life by enhancing the natural qualities of the food itself.
Issues with GM crops:
- Environmentalists argue that the long-lasting effect of GM crops is yet to be studied and thus they should not be released commercially.
- Genetic modification brings about changes that can be harmful to humans in the long run.
- GMO crops may cause antibiotic resistance: Iowa State University research shows that when crops are modified to include antibiotics and other items that kill germs and pests, it reduces the effectiveness of an antibiotic or other medication when it is needed in the traditional sense.
- Some genetically modified foods may present a carcinogen exposure risk.
The advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified foods can spark a bitter debate. There is an advantage in providing the world with better food access, but more food should not come at the expense of personal health.