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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Genetically Modified Foods: A Boon Or A Failed Invention?

By Likha Veer | INNLIVE

WEEKEND SPECIAL Genetically modified foods are crops, foods or plants that have been scientifically modified with the intention to enhance the nutritional content of the particular crop. It may also be created to develop resistance to bacteria, virus and other components that can damage the plant. Scientists claim that genetic modification is capable of creating crops with the desired output in a short span of time and with perfection, since conventional plant breeding methods consume more time and may also differ than the desired output. Genetically modified foods are being seen as the next big revolution in food technology.
Some of the GM foods available in the market are cotton seed oil, soybean, canola and corn. Advocates of GM foods also claim that these foods are capable of providing better nutritional value with a longer shelf life. It is also widely believed that genetic modification can bring down the cost of foods as many GM crops do not need the application of pesticides as they are resistant to them. There is a lobby that strongly opposes the use of GM foods, they claim that certain GM foods can trigger allergic reactions in humans and may also be of toxic nature.

In his book “Sustainable development and GM foods”, Brian Meadows mentions that creating GM foods is a costly process, so it is obvious that companies producing them shall ensure profitable returns for themselves, hence cost of GM seeds are on the higher side. This may result in small farmers not being able to afford to buy these seeds. The same shall happen in third world countries too.

It was in the year 1946 when scientists first discovered, that the transfer of DNA between organisms was a possible task. In 1983, an antibiotic resistant tobacco plant was produced which is believed to be first ever genetically modified plant. In 1994, the commercial sale of genetically modified foods began when the company Calgene developed Flavr Sar, a tomato with the delayed ripening factor. During the 1990’s a compound called Chymosin was approved for use by many countries. Since then Chymosin has replaced Rennet for cheese making. In 1995, many crops gained marketing approval, some of them being maize, corn, canola, bt potatoes, soybeans and the virus resistant squash. Since then, there has been a steady rise in the production of GM foods. Certain GM crops like the golden rice claim to have increased the nutritional value of the crop.

Today, US heads the list of countries that produce genetically modified foods. 25 genetically crops have got the statutory approval from the US government production and commercial sale; following suit are other countries like Japan, India, Canada, Singapore, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and countries from the European Union. Apart from cash crops, today dairy and meat products are also being genetically modified. They have been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug administration). The US Government claims that the testing of GM foods is done routinely using high-end techniques. These tests are based on the screening of different genetic elements and event specific markers for the genetically modified organisms. They are a combination of different approaches like the plant specific markers, event specific markers and screening elements. The tests are designed to detect any anomaly if present, in the inserted gene and whether it can have any adverse repercussions when consumed by humans and animals.

Around the world there are many controversies surrounding the use of genetically modified foods. The dispute involves scientists, biotechnology companies and Government regulators. The controversy is mainly about the effect of GM foods on the environment, human health and whether GM foods should be labelled or not? There is a rising concern about the impact of GM crops on the economic status of farmers. In many countries it is mandatory to have genetically modified foods duly labeled, but not so in the US. This has raised concerns among organizations like the World wildlife fund and Greenpeece who feel that the risks associated with GM foods is not being satisfactorily weighed. These organizations have questioned the US Government about its imperious attitude towards the issue.

The only GM crop permitted to grow in India is the BT cotton. Till now experts in India do not see any great results emerging from this GM crop. As a matter of fact, the organic cotton exports have been adversely affected by BT contamination, as organic cotton importers reject cotton which has the slightest trace of gene modification. The crop was produced to make the plant resistant to the bollworm, by producing a protein that is toxic for the worm, but certain kinds of worms have developed a resistance and other pests which earlier did not exist. These pests are damaging the crop a great deal. In addition to this, the seeds cost nearly 10 times more than the previous seed price. Estimates say that in India, very few farmers may have been benefitted from BT cotton. In spite of the wide adoption of BT cotton, farmer suicides and indebtedness of the state has not decreased. This is an alarming revelation for advocates of GM crops in India. It was also noted that the crop triggered allergic reactions in cotton pickers.

We need to notice all the hype and attention GM foods have been grabbing, but what is the truth? Though genetic modification is being said to be a major breakthrough in agricultural technology, only 175 million hectares of land have GM crops, this makes for merely three and half percent of the world’s agricultural land which spans through only 6 countries- Brazil, Canada, USA, Argentina, China and India. A majority of countries have rejected GM technology.

Countries are now getting legislations in place to assess the possible dangers that that may be associated with GM foods and the risks they pose to the environment and human health. The European countries follow more stringent norms before approving a genetically modified product. Mexico is one country that has yet not allowed the genetic modification of its crops. India is evaluating the possible risks associated with GM crops. In 2011, India’s Parliamentary Committee comprising  30 members from different political parties conducted a study on GM crops.

They came to a conclusion that the claims that genetic modification will increase the yield of certain crops; is not completely true. They concluded that certain agri-biotech companies may monopolize the seed market; this will compel farmers to buy fresh seeds every year as the patented GM seeds come with a limited life span; and buying seeds every year will burden the farmer financially. The committee demanded complete transparency on the field trials of GM crops and a globally accepted certification for such crops as there are many loopholes in the regulatory procedure. The BJP has made it very clear that if it forms Government, it will not permit the production of GM crops without thorough scientific authentication. It needs to be seen if farmers and consumers of India embrace or discard this technology shift.
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