Genetically Modified (GM) Foods
Yes or no?
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.