Ge­net­i­cally Mod­i­fied (GM) Foods

Yes or no?

Consumer Voice - - Food & Stuff - – Com­piled by Richa Pande

The re­cent nod by In­dia's Ge­netic En­gi­neer­ing Ap­praisal Com­mit­tee (GEAC) to grow GM mus­tard for com­mer­cial pur­pose in­di­cates that GM foods may soon be avail­able for con­sumers in the coun­try. The world over, re­ac­tions re­gard­ing the ac­cept­abil­ity of GM crops have been mixed and the sub­ject is de­bated with equal ve­he­mence by the pro and anti groups. Some be­lieve that GM crops will help a poor coun­try like In­dia in tack­ling nu­tri­tion and food in­se­cu­rity, while the op­pos­ing group points out that GM food can prove to be harm­ful for hu­man be­ings as well as the en­vi­ron­ment. Who is right? Or is the truth some­where in-be­tween? For all of us, it is im­por­tant to un­der­stand what GM food is and what the as­so­ci­ated pros and cons are.

Ac­cord­ing to World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO), ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods (GM foods) are those food items that are pro­duced by us­ing ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms. Ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms could be plants, an­i­mals or mi­crobes.

So, what ex­actly are ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms (GMOs)?

Ev­ery or­gan­ism is made up of cells. All the cells have nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring ge­netic ma­te­rial (DNA) in them. This ma­te­rial is re­spon­si­ble for the in­trin­sic char­ac­ter­is­tic of the or­gan­ism. Ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms can be de­fined as or­gan­isms (that is, plants, an­i­mals or micro­organ­isms) in which the ge­netic ma­te­rial has been al­tered in a way that does not oc­cur nat­u­rally. Es­sen­tially, with ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion,

sci­en­tists can com­bine ge­netic traits from en­tirely dif­fer­ent plant and animal species, es­sen­tially tak­ing a trait from one or­gan­ism and putting it on an­other. The technology is var­i­ously re­ferred to as ‘mod­ern biotech­nol­ogy’, ‘gene technology’, or ‘ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing’. It al­lows se­lected in­di­vid­ual genes to be trans­ferred from one or­gan­ism into an­other, also be­tween non­re­lated species. Foods pro­duced from or us­ing GM or­gan­isms are of­ten re­ferred to as GM foods.

Why are GM Foods Even Pro­duced?

Pro­duc­tion of GM foods is a te­dious task. A lot of re­search goes into de­vel­op­ing a sin­gle GM food, fol­lowed by sev­eral tests and dis­cus­sions by pol­i­cy­mak­ers be­fore it is made ac­ces­si­ble to the com­mon man. So, the ques­tion comes: why are GM foods pro­duced?

The ar­gu­ment goes that through ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion the nu­tri­tional value of a food prod­uct can be en­hanced, its spoilage de­layed, and its shelf life ex­tended. Al­to­gether, GM foods are said to be help­ful in as­sur­ing a de­gree of food and nu­tri­tion se­cu­rity, lead­ing to re­duced prices of some im­por­tant food items.

Let’s un­der­stand this with the help of an example. Food items like fruits are very sen­si­tive to spoilage. This could be one of the ma­jor rea­sons why they are ex­pen­sive. De­spite this, they are wasted away due to spoilage. A ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied fruit or veg­etable could have high re­sis­tance to­wards spoilage. This will re­duce their wastage due to spoilage and thus in­flu­ence their price.

Are GM Foods Safe for Con­sump­tion?

The GM foods avail­able com­mer­cially un­dergo spe­cific tests be­fore they are made com­mer­cial. Ev­ery coun­try has spe­cific reg­u­la­tions for GM foods. There are spe­cific tests for each GM food – it must pass the tests be­fore it is re­leased in the mar­ket. These tests fo­cus on the fol­low­ing pa­ram­e­ters (as doc­u­mented by WHO in their FAQ sec­tion on GM foods, May 2014): a) Are there any di­rect health ef­fects as­so­ci­ated with

the GM food – that is, will it lead to tox­i­c­ity? b) Can the GM food pro­voke any al­ler­gic re­ac­tion? c) Is the al­tered gene sta­ble? The gene must not cre­ate an ad­verse ef­fect on hu­man be­ings once it is in­gested. d) Will the ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion im­pact the

nu­tri­tion prop­er­ties of the food item? e) Are there any other un­in­tended ef­fects that could

re­sult from the gene mod­i­fi­ca­tion?

GM Foods and the En­vi­ron­ment

There’s an on­go­ing de­bate on the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of GM crops. Con­tro­ver­sies and pub­lic con­cern com­monly fo­cus on hu­man and en­vi­ron­men­tal safety, la­belling and con­sumer choice, ethics, food se­cu­rity, poverty re­duc­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion. For example, what are the risks of tam­per­ing with na­ture? What ef­fects will this have on the en­vi­ron­ment? What are the health con­cerns that con­sumers should be aware of?

The pro-GM crops be­lieve these crops are su­pe­rior as they are re­sis­tant to pests and dis­eases—im­ply­ing lower us­age of pes­ti­cides. Con­se­quently, they can gen­er­ate bet­ter yields and are more en­vi­ron­ment­friendly (a lot of green­house gases are re­leased dur­ing pro­duc­tion of pes­ti­cides). The in­creased yields of GMO crops, they say, are es­sen­tial to feed­ing the world’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Crit­ics, how­ever, say the claims of those ben­e­fits are overblown. They con­tend that farm­ers grow­ing GMO crops have ac­tu­ally in­creased their use of her­bi­cides. Not just that, wide­spread use of the crops have also led to an in­crease in her­bi­cide- and pes­ti­cide-re­sis­tant weeds and in­sects. Last but not the least, they point out that there is still no sci­en­tific con­sen­sus on the long-term safety of these foods. But per­haps the big­gest threat in­volves the pos­si­bil­ity of cross-pol­li­na­tion in the wild, lead­ing to ge­netic pol­lu­tion. If the al­tered gene in the GM crop ac­ci­den­tally gets trans­ferred to wild rel­a­tives, the re­sult­ing wild plants would play a dif­fer­ent role in their re­spec­tive ecosys­tems and po­ten­tially out­com­pete other species for re­sources such as light or wa­ter, de­pend­ing on the traits in­her­ited.

GM foods could also be a threat to non-tar­get or­gan­isms (for example, in­sects that are not pests), pos­ing a threat to bio­di­ver­sity. The en­vi­ron­men­tal safety as­pects of GM crops would vary con­sid­er­ably ac­cord­ing to lo­cal con­di­tions.

Reg­u­la­tions for GM Foods in In­dia

The Ge­netic En­gi­neer­ing Ap­praisal Com­mit­tee (GEAC) is In­dia’s apex body that reg­u­lates ac­tiv­i­ties in­volv­ing large-scale use of haz­ardous micro­organ­isms or ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered or­gan­isms in the coun­try. It func­tions as a statu­tory body un­der the En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Act, 1986, of the min­istry of en­vi­ron­ment & forests (MoEF). GEAC is re­spon­si­ble for grant­ing per­mits to con­duct biotech­nol­ogy-based ex­per­i­ments and large-scale field tri­als. The com­mit­tee also grants ap­proval for com­mer­cial re­lease of biotech crops in In­dia. Other au­thor­i­ties that have sim­i­lar roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are: In­sti­tu­tional Biosafety Com­mit­tees (IBSC), Re­view Com­mit­tee on Ge­netic Ma­nip­u­la­tion (RCGM), State Biotech­nol­ogy Co­or­di­na­tion Com­mit­tee (SBCC) and district-level com­mit­tees (DLC).

La­belling of GM Foods in In­dia

As per No­ti­fi­ca­tion No. GSR 427(E) dated 05.06.2012, by min­istry of con­sumer af­fairs, w.e.f. 01.01.2013 (for Le­gal Metrol­ogy [Pack­aged Com­modi­ties] Rules, 2011): Ev­ery pack­age con­tain­ing the ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied food shall bear at the top of its prin­ci­pal dis­play panel the words GM.

Con­sid­er­ing that GM foods shall soon be avail­able com­mer­cially in In­dia and that a lot of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods are be­ing used in var­i­ous foods, the Food Safety and Stan­dards Au­thor­ity of In­dia (FSSAI) is fram­ing the fi­nal guide­lines on the la­belling of GM foods. The FSSAI’s role will be to reg­u­late the GM foods used in pro­cessed foods in In­dia, but these GM foods must firstly be ap­proved by the Ge­netic En­gi­neer­ing Ap­proval Com­mit­tee (GEAC). The fi­nal de­ci­sion re­gard­ing com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of GM mus­tard in In­dia will be taken by Septem­ber 2017. In re­sponse to a pe­ti­tion filed by an ac­tivist, the gov­ern­ment has as­sured the Supreme Court that there will be no com­mer­cial re­lease of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods till pub­lic opin­ion is col­lected and placed be­fore the ap­praisal com­mit­tee.

Com­mer­cial­is­ing GM Mus­tard in In­dia: Pros and Cons

As GM mus­tard is the first food crop that is likely to be scaled up com­mer­cially in In­dia, it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand the pros and cons thereof. Pros It will be ben­e­fi­cial for farm­ers as it will en­sure pest re­sis­tance and high yield. In­dia im­ports ed­i­ble oil from other coun­tries. A higher yield will en­sure price reg­u­la­tion of ed­i­ble oil. GM mus­tard is a self-pol­li­nat­ing plant and is bet­ter suited to hy­bridi­s­a­tion com­pared to other meth­ods. Cons The im­pact of grow­ing GM mus­tard on the health of the pop­u­la­tion, the en­vi­ron­ment (the soil on which it is grown), the food chain, the ground­wa­ter, etc., is still un­known. Weeds are the wild plants that soak up nu­tri­ents from the soil and do not al­low crops to ab­sorb the nu­tri­ents. GM mus­tard is tol­er­ant of her­bi­cides and may make the weeds re­sis­tant to weed­i­cides. The pro­duc­tion of GM mus­tard will have a di­rect im­pact on the pes­ti­cide in­dus­try in In­dia. In­dia has signed the Carta­gena Pro­to­col, an in­ter­na­tional agree­ment on biosafety. It al­lows de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to deny the im­port of GM foods that lack sig­nif­i­cant ev­i­dence that the prod­uct is safe. As per the pro­to­col, pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion is very im­por­tant be­fore GM mus­tard is cul­ti­vated for com­mer­cial use and is in the mar­ket for con­sumers.

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