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Genetically Modified Crops in India

Context:   The approval of Bt Cotton has been delayed by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).


  • GEAC has asked the developer of Bt cotton to present a fresh dossier about the efficacy of Bt cotton against certain targeted pests and also a new socio-economic analysis of them.
  • This will further delay the commercialization of the updated variant of Bt cotton at a time when illegally grown Bt has been flooding the market.

Genetically Modified (GM) Organisms and GM Foods

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.
    • The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”.
  • Method: It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.
  • GM Food: Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods.
Genetically Modified (GM) Organisms and GM Foods
Genetically Modified (GM) Organisms and GM Foods

Advantages of GM Crops

  • Resistance against Insects: It is achieved by incorporating the gene for toxin production from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
    • GM crops that inherently produce this toxin have been shown to require lower quantities of insecticides in specific situations.
  • Resistance to Plant Viruses: Virus resistance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from certain viruses which cause disease in plants.
  • Tolerance to Herbicides: Herbicide tolerance is achieved through the introduction of a gene from a bacterium conveying resistance to some herbicides.
  • Address Poverty and Hunger: GM crops have made significant contributions to address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
    • While increased yields have contributed to higher household incomes of farmers, which reduce poverty, the increased yields have also enhanced household food security.
  • Low Cost of Production: The cost of production of GM crops is reported to be less than that of the traditional crops due to the natural resistance towards pests and insects.
  • Survive in Harsh Climate: GM crops are a boon in places which experience frequent droughts, or where the soil is incompetent for agriculture.
  • Longer Shelf Life & Better Taste: GM crops have an increased shelf life and hence there is less fear of foods getting spoiled quickly.
  • Better Nutrition: Genetic modification can increase the nutritional value of foods.

Challenges Associated with GM Crops

  • Ecological Concerns: Gene flow due to cross pollination for the traits involving resistance can result in development of tolerant or resistant weeds that are difficult to eradicate.
    • GM crops could lead to erosion of biodiversity and pollute gene pools of endangered plant species.
  • Less Nutrition: Since genetic modification focuses more on increasing crop production, extending their lifespan, and deterring pests, sometimes the nutritional value of crops’ is compromised as well.
  • Economic Concerns: Claims around stress tolerance, nutrition and yields have turned out to be false, including in India with its Bt cotton experience.
  • Use of Chemicals:  Glyphosate, a herbicide, is most frequently used in agriculture to kill weeds in crops that have been genetically engineered. This herbicide has been classified as a probable human carcinogen.
  • Toxicity: It is believed that consumption of these genetically engineered foods can cause the development of diseases which are immune to antibiotics.
  • Concentration of Toxic Metals: Some of the new genes being added to crops can remove heavy metals like mercury from the soil and concentrate them in the plant tissue.
  • Ethical Concerns:
    • Potential harm to human health
    • Potential damage to the environment
    • Negative impact on traditional farming practice
    • Excessive corporate dominance
    • The ‘unnaturalness’ of the technology

GM Crops in India

  • Global Rank: India ranks 5th in global cultivation of GM crops.
  • Promotion of GM crops: India is keen to adopt farming technologies like GM crops to ensure food security.
    •  GM crops shall also reduce reliance on imports, as India tries to boost the output of items like edible oils.
    • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also disrupted imports and raised prices, before supplies improved.
    • India’s growing population and shrinking cultivable land mean it needs to adopt more efficient ways of farming.
  • Regulation: The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), is responsible for the assessment of proposals related to the release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment, including experimental field trials.

Bt Cotton:

  • In this variety, the Bt gene obtained from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is introduced into the cotton crop.
  • The Bt cotton is resistant to bollworm, a pest that can destroy cotton plants.

GM Mustard:

  • Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH -11) was developed by research team at Delhi University led by former vice-chancellor and genetics professor Deepak Pental under a government-funded project.
  • The process uses a system of genes from soil bacterium that makes mustard better suited to hybridization than current methods.
  • The developers of DMH-11 have claimed a yield increase of 25-30% over non-hybrids.
  • Acts and Rules that Regulate GM Crops in India include:
    • Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA)
    • Biological Diversity Act, 2002
    • Plant Quarantine Order, 2003
    • GM policy under Foreign Trade Policy
    • Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006
    • Drugs and Cosmetics Rule (8th Amendment), 1988
  • Broadly, the Rules Cover:
    • All activities related to research and development of GMOs
    • Field and clinical trials of GMOs
    • Deliberate or unintentional release of GMOs
    • Import, export, and manufacture of GMOs

GM Crop Cultivation in India

  • Cotton: The pest-resistant, genetically modified version of cotton, called Bt Cotton, was the first GM crop to be grown commercially in India during 2002-2003.
    • By 2014, about 96% of the area under cotton cultivation in India was Bt cotton, making India the fourth-largest cultivator of GM crops by area and the second largest producer of cotton.
  • Mustard: The GEAC has recently approved environmental release of two varieties of genetically engineered mustard for developing new parental lines and hybrids.
  • Brinjal: GEAC had approved transgenic eggplant, also called Bt brinjal, for evaluation But the move was halted following a strong public backlash.
  • Illegal Cultivation of GM Crops:  Few incidences of suspected open cultivation of Bt Brinjal and HT cotton were reported in Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.
  • Ongoing Research: Indian institutions are engaged in the development of genetically modified seeds for 13 crops, including rice, wheat, sugarcane, potato, pigeon pea lentils, chickpeas and banana.

Way Forward

  • With advances in biotechnology, there is an urgent need for stringent regulation in the sector to ensure cultivation and sale of environmentally safe agro products.
  • Ecological risk assessment of GM crops, issue of gene flow, and development of secondary pest resistance should be addressed before release of any GM crop for open field trials and commercialization.
  • Requirement of No Objection Certificates from State Governments to conduct field trials of GM crops must be made mandatory in India.
  • To regulate GM crops in India, there needs to be a single window system and online portal for assessment, control, regulations and approval of GM crops.
  • There is an urgent need for India to carry on its GM crop research program to sustain its food and nutrition security targets.
  • Bio-safety issues should be addressed at all the stages of development and release of GM crops on a case-to-case basis.

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