Baba’s Explainer – GM Crops and their regulation

  • IASbaba
  • November 1, 2022
  • 0
Environment & Ecology
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  • GS-3: Issues of food security; Technology missions 
  • GS-3: Science & Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life. 
  • GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors

Context: On October 18, the Environment Ministry’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) cleared the proposal for the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) mustard.

  • The GEAC had previously cleared the proposal in 2017, but it was vetoed by the ministry and the committee was told to conduct more studies on the GM crop.
  • The recent GEAC’s recommendation will again go to the Environment Ministry for approval.
    • The latest GEAC approval allows for the environmental release of two varieties of genetically engineered mustard for developing new parental lines and hybrids under the supervision of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR).
What is GEAC?
  • The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), is responsible for the assessment of proposals related to the release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment, including experimental field trials.
  • GEAC or people authorised by it have the power to take punitive actions under the Environment Protection Act.
  • GEAC is chaired by the Special Secretary/Additional Secretary of MoEF&CC and co-chaired by a representative from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT).
  • Presently, it has 24 members and meets every month to review the applications in the areas indicated above.
    • The members include experts from other ministries as well as institutions such as the ICAR, ICMR, CCMB, etc.

Other functions of the GEAC are as follows:

  • It is responsible for the appraisal of activities that involve the large scale use of hazardous microbes and recombinants in research and industrial production from the point of view of the environment.
  • The body also looks into proposals regarding the use of living modified organism that comes in the risk category III and above in the import/manufacture of recombinant pharma products, or where the end-product of the recombinant pharma product is a modified living organism.
  • The approval of the GEAC is mandatory before genetically modified organisms and products derived from them can be used commercially.
What are genetically modified crops?
  • A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any living organism whose genetic material has been modified to include certain desirable techniques.
  • Genetic modification has previously been used for the large-scale production of insulin, vaccines, and more.
  • In crops, genetic modification involves the manipulation of DNA instead of using controlled pollination— the conventional method to improve crops— to alter certain characteristics of the crop.
  • Soyabean, maize, cotton, and canola with herbicide tolerance and insect resistance are the most widely grown GM crops around the world.
  • Other common genetically modified characteristics include virus resistance, drought resistance, and fruit and tuber quality.
  • To genetically modify a crop, the gene of interest is identified and isolated from the host organism. It is then incorporated into the DNA of the crop to be grown. The performance of the GM crop is tested under strict laboratory and field conditions.
What are the benefits of GM Products?
  • Increased crop yields.
  • Reduced costs for food or drug production.
  • Reduced need for pesticides.
  • Enhanced nutrient composition.
  • Resistance to pests and disease.
  • Greater food security and medical benefits to the world’s growing population.
  • Increase the yield of animals for milk and meat production.
  • Decrease susceptibility to disease in animals.
  • Allowing plants to grow in conditions where they might not otherwise flourish.
  • Increased shelf life and hence there is less fear of foods getting spoiled quickly.
What are some of the concerns of GM Crops?
  • Health: They can have harmful effects on the human body. It is believed that consumption of these genetically engineered foods can cause the development of diseases which are immune to antibiotics.
  • Ecological Balance: The capability of the GMO to escape and potentially introduce the engineered genes into wild populations thus disturbing the fragile ecological balance. The reduction in the spectrum of other plants including loss of biodiversity
  • Environment: This GM method can cause damage to other organisms that thrive in the environment and can create ecological imbalances. There is associated risks of “tampering with Mother Nature”.
  • Danger of Permanence: Genetic changes will become permanent and irreversible with times, and undesirable and uncontrolled mutations can occur.
  • Sustainability: The evolution of resistant pests and weeds termed superbugs and superweeds is another problem. Resistance can evolve whenever selective pressure is strong enough. This can cause the evolution of resistant insects in a few years and nullify the effects of the transgenic.
  • Geopolitics: With the increase of GM Products, developing countries would start depending more on industrial countries because it is likely that food production would be controlled by developed countries in the time to come.
  • Religious: Many religious and cultural communities are against such foods because they see it as an unnatural way of producing foods. Many people are also not comfortable with the idea of transferring animal genes into plants and vice versa.
  • Awareness and Labeling: Manufacturers do not mention on the label that foods are developed by genetic manipulation because they think that this would affect their business, which is not a good practice.
What are GM crops in India?
  • Indian farmers started cultivating Bt cotton, a pest-resistant, genetically modified version of cotton, in 2002-03.
  • Bt modification is a type of genetic modification where the Bt gene obtained from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is introduced into the target crop – in this case, cotton.
  • Bt cotton is resistant to bollworm, a pest that destroys cotton plants.
  • By 2014, around 96% of the area under cotton cultivation in India was Bt cotton, making India the fourth-largest cultivator of GM crops by acreage and the second largest producer of cotton.
  • BT Brinjal:
    • Mahyco jointly developed Bt Brinjal with the Dharwad University of Agricultural Sciences and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
    • Even though GEAC 2007 had recommended the commercial release of Bt Brinjal, the initiative was blocked in 2010.

What is the regulatory framework in India?

Strict regulations are in place to control threats to animal health, human safety, and biodiversity at large during the processes of development, cultivation and transboundary movement of GM crops.

Acts and rules that regulate GM crops in India include:

  • Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA)
  • Biological Diversity Act, 2002
  • Plant Quarantine Order, 2003
  • GM policy under Foreign Trade Policy
  • Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006
  • Drugs and Cosmetics Rule (8th Amendment), 1988

Broadly, the rules cover:

  • All activities related to research and development of GMOs
  • Field and clinical trials of GMOs
  • Deliberate or unintentional release of GMOs
  • Import, export, and manufacture of GMOs
What is GM mustard?
  • Mustard is one of India’s most important winter crops which is sown between mid-October and late November.
  • The Indian mustard (B. juncea) is a member of the Brassicaceae family.
  • Mustard is cultivated by around 6 million farmers in around 6.5-7 million hectares of land across the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh.
  • A hybrid crop is produced by the cross-breeding of two genetically different varieties that can be even from the same species. The first-generation (F1) offspring produced with this technique usually have higher yields than existing varieties.
  • This hybridisation is difficult in mustard as its flowers have both female (pistil) and male (stamen) reproductive organs, which makes the plant self-pollinating. Thus developing hybrids for mustard has its limits.
  • However, Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH -11) was developed by a team of scientists at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor and genetics professor Deepak Pental under a government-funded project.
  • Scientists crossed a popular Indian mustard variety ‘Varuna’ (the barnase line) with an East European ‘Early Heera-2’ mutant (barstar) to develop DMH-11.
  • The new hybrid mustard DMH-11 has been developed that contains two alien genes isolated from a soil bacterium called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens
  • The first gene (‘barnase’) codes for a protein that impairs pollen production and renders the plant into which it is incorporated male-sterile.
  • This plant is then crossed with a fertile parental line containing, in turn, the second ‘barstar’ gene that blocks the action of the barnase gene.
  • The resultant F1 progeny is both high-yielding and also capable of producing seed/ grain, thanks to the barstar gene in the second fertile line.
  • DMH-11 is claimed to have shown an average 28% yield increase in contained field trials carried out by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
What were the concerns that delayed GEAC’s approval?
  1. Third Gene and implication on labour
  • The first is the presence of a third ‘bar’ gene, which makes GM mustard plants tolerant to the spraying of glufosinate ammonium, a chemical used for killing weeds. This is alleges to cause displacement of manual labour engaged in weeding by promoting use of chemical herbicides.

Counter argument:

  • The DMH-11 developers, however, say that bar is only a marker gene. It is used to identify those plants that have been genetically modified — the non-GM ones cannot withstand application of the herbicide — and necessary for large-scale seed production.
  1. Implication on honeybees population
  • The second concern is over GM mustard threatening or undermining the population of honey bees.
  • Mustard flowers are a source of nectar for honey bees and many other pollinator insects.

Counter argument:

  • However, the GEAC has cited the report of an expert committee which stated that it seems unlikely that the bar, barnase and barstar system will pose an adverse impact on honey bees and other pollinators”.
  • GEAC has recommended field demonstration studies with respect to the effect of GM mustard on honey bees and other pollinators” post the environmental release, “to generate scientific evidence in Indian agro-climatic situation and as a precautionary mechanism”.
What are the new recommendations of GEAC?
  • In this case, it has recommended the environmental release of DMH-11 “for its seed production and testing…prior to commercial release”.
  • In other words, it has given the green signal for commercial cultivation by farmers, with production of seed material being the first step.
  • GEAC has also recommended the environmental release of DMH-11’s parental lines (carrying the barnase and barstar genes) for them to be used to develop new hybrids. Such hybrids could give even higher yields than DHM-11.
  • The approval is limited to a period of four years, renewable for two years at a time based on a compliance report.
  • The compelling motive here could be India’s spiraling edible oil import bill. The country produces only 8.5-9 million tonnes (mt) of edible oil annually, while importing 14-14.5 mt costing nearly $19 billion.
  • However, it remains to be seen if the central government will accept the GEAC’s recommendations.

Main Practice Question:  Do you think the recent recommendation by genetic engineering appraisal committee regarding genetically modified mustard is fraught with risks? Critically comment.

Note: Write answer his question in the comment section.

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