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Genetically mortified organisms...

...That is what we become when thinking about the debate around Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Are they the monster spawn of greedy corporations? Or, are they the only viable solution to world hunger? And how much do we, in India, need to worry about them?

imageGreetings Man of Mouth, I am LabTomXY. As you can see, I’m not the common son of a hedge. I am developed using advanced genetic engineering techniques to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides. This means that my DNA has been altered to make me damage proof. So you can spray me with pesticides and chemical treatments and plant me in areas susceptible to floods and droughts, but it won’t affect me much.

The scientists who developed me mostly work for multi-national corporations, so my traits and seed varieties are protected by Intellectual Property Rights and patent laws. I come from a long line of GMOs. The first anti-biotic resistant GM tobacco plant was produced in 1982. In 1986, France and the United States carried out the first field trials of GM plants. In 1994, father tomato, Flavr Savr tomato, became the first GM crop to be approved for commercial release in the US. We haven’t looked back since. In 2011, the global biotech seed industry was valued at USD 13.2 billion.

So far in India, only genetically modified cotton, by American multinational Monsanto, has been cultivated commercially. We are in the process of developing laws and rules for the biotech industry in India. The much debated Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, 2013 is about creating a way for makers of other genetically modified crops to take their produce to the market. It was introduced in the last session of the Parliament of India by Union minister for science and technology, Jaipal Reddy. But both its intent and content came under fire from all sides – pro and anti-GMO – and it was sent to a Parliamentary Standing Committee to be reviewed.

In 2003, a task force headed by father of the Green Revolution in India, MS Swaminathan, first floated the idea of an independent authority for biotechnology regulation called National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA). Five years later, the Ministry of Science and Technology drafted the NBRA Bill, which was bashed up for not protecting the consumer. So, in 2009, the NBRA bill became the BRAI Bill.

Biting into the unknown

Hello, I’m Tomatina. I’m a humble tomato, fruit of plant and fed on manure. I’m about nothing but good old tomato-ey goodness – Vitamin C and A, iron and calcium. I don’t like to spread rumours, but there is something wrong with TomXY. Why, you ask? Well, let me start with some apprehensions I have about the way he is made. Genetic modification does not mean that genetic material or DNA is moved between two tomatoes only. What can happen is that you move genetic material from two unrelated organisms around, which means that you may move an allergen into other foods that never had any. So the consumer could get an allergic reaction from tomatoes! And another thing, the corporations that produce GMO seed varieties only test them against a database of human allergies already known to man. There are three basic tests conducted by seed developing corporations to ensure that a GMO is safe for consumption:

In vitro: You drop the DNA (it is all protein) into a test tube containing serum from people with allergies. If the antibodies in the serum act up, the DNA you are trying to move around causes allergies.

In silico: You compare the new protein with known proteins that cause human allergies on a computer.

Digestion test: Scientists stimulate the conditions of the stomach complete with heat, acid and stomach enzymes and see if the new protein can take it without causing allergies.

The digestion test is not considered very accurate or robust. So what if there is a strain of allergies that GMOs can cause that we don’t know of yet?

Oh and also, in case farmers violate the patent and try to replant the patented seed without paying the seed-developing corporation, they are liable to be taken to court over it. Since 1997, Monsanto has filed 145 court cases in the US against farmers! There is something wrong about a big, wealthy corporation suing humble farmers for money, no?

Coming to Indian law around GMOs, the BRAI Bill, says the anti-GM lobby in our country, reduces the power of the states to regulate the entry of modern biotechnology. States are reduced to mere advisors, though agriculture is a state subject. At present, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) allows states to say yes or no to GMO. So far, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Kerala, have said no to GM crops.

“The Bill is a travesty of transparency and democratic decision-making on a matter that will affect every citizen as it intends to promote use of modern biotechnology in agriculture,” said Aruna Roy, member of policy watchdog, National Advisory Council (NAC). To stir the pot further, Supriya Sule, daughter of Sharad Pawar, our very pro-GMO agriculture minister was appointed to the panel to review the Bill.

Right now, the Parliamentary Standing Committee examining it has extended the deadline for people to present their views and reservations on it. Let us wait and watch what happens...

Vegetables are found in every kitchen around the world. Though the size and colour of the GMO veggie might be bigger and better, but is that why we eat vegetables in the first place? Isn’t it because they are nutritious and healthy? A fact that GM vegetables cannot guarantee. When organic farming and hybrid seeds can ensure safe and healthy farmed foods, why must we resort to these drastic , unhealthy modifications?

Regulating man who likes to play god:

Governments around the world are making laws to govern the entry and exit of GMOs within their jurisdiction to assess and manage the associated risks. As the debate rages, the laws differ from country to country. Regulation is chiefly governed by the intended use of GMOs.

imageINDIA : In India, the fate of GMO food crops remains uncertain. The Supreme Court appointed a 5-member Technical Expert Committee to advise it regarding regulations for GMO crops. While the majority wanted an indefinite ban on GMO food crops, one member called for commercial release following a clearance from Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. The biotech industry was up in arms against the report terming it a “regressive, biased and troubled treatise” that is “anti-science and anti-research and anti-farmer”.


imageJAPAN : Has banned cultivation of GMO crops, but allows import of GM products.


NEW ZEALANDNEW ZEALAND : Does not allow GMO cultivation. Some counties in Auckland and Wellington have declared themselves GMO free.


USUS : Barring a few counties in California, the United States is a pro-GMO country. It grows GM corn, canola and soy. Hawaii is a major GM agriculture hub, grows GM papaya.


GERMANYGERMANY : Banned Bt maize. Grows GM potatoes. Mulling a complete GMO ban.


CHINACHINA : One of the largest producers of GM crops, after USA.


EUROPEAN UNIONEUROPEAN UNION : Though the administration has allowed GMO crop cultivation, individual countries are free to opt out. The anti-GMO sentiment in the EU is very strong. The situation is similar in the UK.



CANADACANADA : Grows and exports GM canola and other crops.



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Genetically mortified organisms...