GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS – A DOUBTFUL BONANZA

The debate on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) continues even as the market is flooded with foodstuff containing GMOs. The common man has no way of knowing whether a product has GMOs or not and even if he did, there is little chance of him being able to avoid it: for somewhere in the wide variety of foods he consumes, he is bound to eat them. Why were GMOs introduced and what do they do to us?

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Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or transgenic organisms are living organisms that are produced through “genetic engineering”, where a gene from one species is transplanted into another organism to get a desirable characteristic or trait. GMOs may be plants, animals or micro-organisms produced through recombinant DNA techniques. These techniques are basically used to enhance the quality of the recipient organism.

Multinational companies (MNCs) like Monsanto, Novartis, Dupont and Avantis have applied these techniques to increase the agricultural yield of soya, corn, cotton and potato. Over three million acres of land in the U.S.A have been cultivated with genetically engineered crops. Disease-resistant or herbicide-resistant traits are being produced to get a higher yield and better quality. A traditional breeding technique allows the exchange of genes between similar species only. But, genetic engineering allows the exchange of genes between different, unrelated groups of organisms. For example, genes from fish are introduced into tomatoes to retain longevity and prevent early ripening.

Similarly, insect-resistant potatoes have been produced by inserting a bacterial gene, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into them. Bt produces a toxin that kills the insects that attack potatoes. Since the genetically engineered plant has insect – resistance as an inherent character, there is no need for the farmers to apply insecticides/pesticides. Genes of viruses are also inserted into the crops to make them virus resistant. Other than crops, many genetically engineered food products like cheese, fruit juices, sugar, baking powder, chocolates and soft drinks have also been approved for production in some countries. Genetic engineering techniques are also used in producing insulin, human growth hormones and many commonly used drugs.

The debate of the day is whether these genetically engineered foods / GMOs are safe for consumption. Two schools of thought prevail on this issue. Scientists and researchers argue that farmers are pleased with the performance of genetically modified organisms. The low level of farm input and enhanced production and quality of output are the remarkable achievements of GMOs. GMOs have already been well established in developed countries and have slowly found their way into developing countries. In the third world countries where there is a steady increase in population and decrease in per capita resource availability, this technique of genetic engineering enables an increase in the output with limited resources. The crops increase farm yield and reduce the input of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc.

Nutritionally fortified crop varieties with increased nutritional values will prove to be highly beneficial in developing countries where there is a higher rate of malnutrition among pregnant women and children. Experimentation is underway to examine the nutritional value of fodder crops. Vaccines for some diseases could also be engineered into some crops so as to render good health and disease resistance.

Environmentalists, consumer groups and some scientists argue that genetic tinkering may lead to unpredictable changes in the genetic makeup and physiology of the recipient organisms.

The pesticide-resistant crops are engineered to resist only certain pesticides. So, when the farmers buy these genetically modified crops they are forced to buy the pesticide, which the crops are designed to resist.

Environmentalists warn that crops that are genetically engineered to resist pesticides and herbicides may pass these traits to weeds, resulting in pesticide tolerant “super-weeds”. These weeds will require greater usage of pesticides and herbicides that will have a disastrous effect on the environment.

GMOs with their inherent toxic character may affect biological diversity by eradicating the beneficial insects that help in the pollination and dissemination of seeds. Large-scale use of Bt toxins may help the target pests to gain resistance as in the case with pesticides.

Non-GM crops of adjacent fields are affected by cross-pollination with GM plants and the natural variety is in danger of being lost.

GMOs are also proven to pose a risk to human health by causing serious effects to consumers with allergies and specific nutritional requirements. The ethical and religious belief system of the people is also crippled. For example, people who don’t consume shrimps develop allergies when they consume strawberries with shrimp genes that are used to enhance the colour of the fruit. Vegetarians develop an aversion to consuming plant foods that are transplanted with animal genes.

India is one among the few countries that has been working in biotechnology for more than a decade and has some bio-safety laws. Indian laboratories and government agencies have been working on introducing Bt gene into rice, cotton, mustard, tobacco, potato, tomato, brinjal, cauliflower and cabbage. Some of these have been field-tested and cultivated in India. The main drawback with this technology is that the seeds are made sterile and the farmers cannot save or replant them. Monsanto is believed to have conducted trials without prior permission with Bt cotton “Bollgard” in 40 locations in India. India needs to have strong and stringent “Bio-safety regulations” that would prevent illegal trials and the introduction of GMOs. On the surface, the food with GMO may not seem to be different from other common food varieties and may prove to be beneficial but, the impression it leaves may be permanent.

In short, scientists are not able to predict the effects and impacts of GMOs on the environment. What has to be remembered before any gene tampering is resorted to is that there is no clean-up for gene pollution and any mistake during the process of tampering will be passed onto all future generations, posing a serious threat to life.

Reference

  • Richard Wolfson, Biotech food: What’s On Our Shelves?
  • Byron P. Rigby, Genetic engineering: a violation of natural law in, Living Now (Jan-Feb 1997 Issue No. 7).
  • Food safety: U.S. position on labeling of GMOs, contact Theresa Thomas, U.S. Codex Committee on Food Labeling, Food and Drug Administration, at (202) 205-4210.
  • Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm, and Resource Issues, published by the American Agricultural Economics Association.
  • H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, Questions about Genetically Modified Organisms in The Daily Mail, 1st June, 1999.

Kavitha
C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre

Source: Eco News, Vol.7, No.3 (October – December), 2001.

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