GM crops: India must embrace future, but after allaying fears

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GM crops are often seedless which could make the already-indebted farmers dependent on profiteering corporates.

GM crops in India: The country finds itself deeply divided on the issue of allowing genetically modified crops. The Supreme Court has asked the government whether there was any compelling reason for allowing the proposed usage of GM Mustard. The government had earlier cleared the environmental release of DMH-11 variety of mustard crops to check rising import bills on edible oils.

Genetically modified plants are made by a technology which involves mixing desirable DNA into the cells of the host plant. These cells are then grown in tissue culture where they transform into plants. The seeds produced by these plants have new DNA. The same is done for various reasons which include higher yields, enhanced nutritional value, longer shelf life, and increased resistance to droughts, insects and pests. Moreover, these crops have also borne results in reducing farm costs and increasing profits.

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The scepticism around GM crops emerges from the nature versus man-made debate. Those against the idea of using the GM technology advocate against it on a basic premise that man cannot make anything better than nature and the results of playing with nature can be catastrophic. Concerns abound on environmental contamination due to GM crops and the government has been asked to bring in more safeguards, safety measures, experimentation, and consultation before releasing the crop.

Further, those oppose GM crops are of the view that even if there is a need to genetically modify crops, it should not be done without proper scientific consensus, else the innovation can have adverse impacts on not just humans but also on flora and fauna.

This line of thought has its own critics who believe sole reliance on this thought is merely a hurdle to scientific progress and will only breed inaction. In fact, genetically modified crops have been in cultivation for three decades now around different parts of the world without any catastrophic events witnessed so far.

Moreover, more often than not, GM crops are seedless, which means farmers must buy seed afresh each year rather than collecting and storing their own. Critics are afraid of a monopolisation by multinational corporations of such seeds which may further aggravate the farmers’ plight in India as a result of farmers losing their autonomy and getting into debt. About 300,000 farmers have died from suicide over the past two decades and much of this is blamed on the introduction of GM crops.

Lessons from abroad in adopting GM crops

Several countries have been forced to adopt GM crops due to ill effects of climate change. Kenya, for example, has recently lifted a decade-old ban on the usage of GM crops in the face of a drought. The GM Maize seeds will be planted next year and are drought resistant, a boon for a country which is currently reeling under severe drought. Kenya is currently facing a severe water shortage caused by four failed consecutive rainy seasons.

This is one of the harshest droughts the East African region has seen in four decades. Simply put, crops are not able to grow, which may soon snowball into famine. Food experts believe that the move will reduce the continent’s reliance on huge food imports due to a boost in production.

First introduced in 1996, GM crops were then grown in six countries. However, more than 25 nations currently grow GM crops. This includes developed nations such as the United States and Canada, middle-income countries such as Brazil and South Africa, and even India’s neighbours including Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Bt Cotton, which is the only allowed GM crop in India, has been in cultivation in the country for nearly 20 years now. Some examples of successfully cultivated genetically modified crops around the world include GM corn that are resistant to larval pests, GM soybeans that are resistant to weed-killers like Roundup, genetically modified maize which is being used as animal feed, etc.

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Some forecasts have suggested that the world needs to increase food production to match the population growth. Only the latest technology can come handy if leaders are serious about achieving food security.

Several scientists and researchers advocate the use of GM crops stating that technology must be embraced and must be seen as a part of the solution to the challenges humanity is facing. However, that does not rule out the need for extensive research on possible harms and worst-case scenarios that may play out once GM crops become largely accepted.