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Green Blues: The Hue and Cry over GM Foods

Dr Sreedevi Yadavalli

Genetic Modification (GM) uses Genetic Engineering (GE), which is a form of biotechnology. It creates new strains of organisms by using genes from other unrelated organisms, like for instance, putting genes from fish that can survive in very cold water into strawberries to make them frost resistant.

Genetic engineering of this kind differs from other traditional gene technologies such as cloning and gene therapy that deal with breeding within the same species, in the sense that genes are now moved across species. We are talking of manipulation of cow genes inserted into soy beans, moth genes into apples or even human genes into rice. Very sci-fi, don’t you think? Well, there is the good, the bad and the ugly side to this new science.

Why GM? What are the advantages?
GM crops are meant to resist pests and give better yields as well as nutrition. Currently, GM is mainly meant to produce two types of crops:

  • Herbicide-tolerant crops: These resist the herbicide that farmers spray on the crop to kill weeds, and represent 80 % of GE crops.
  • Bt crops: These produce their own pesticide to kill certain pests that plague the crop, and represent 20 % of GE crops.

So what are the downsides to GM?

  • We may face gene disruption or instability leading to new toxins being produced. Or, a new protein produced by the foreign gene, may cause allergies, cancers or toxicity illness.
  • There is no scientific consensus regarding the safety of GM food for human consumption. The belief is that GM food is being brought into the market too soon without adequate long-term safety tests.
  • There is growing scientific evidence of GE crops being harmful to the environment.
  • In the US, herbicide-tolerant GE crops also resulted in higher incidence of herbicide-resistant weeds and herbicide use.
  • In the UK, GE canola crop had 24 % fewer butterflies because there were fewer weed flowers, so less nectar to feed on.
  • Also, there were fewer seeds for birds; GE soy adversely affected soil health, with reduced amounts of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil.
What about farmers and consumers? Do they gain or lose?
GE crops radically change the nature of farming, vesting the ownership and control of seeds with agrochemical companies, under patent law. This enables them to set conditions such as farmers having to pay royalties, or demand that farmers purchase new seeds each season rather than use the seeds saved from previous harvests. In Canada and the US, where GE crops are in use for over a decade now, farmers and agro companies are embroiled in enforceable agreements and cases of patent infringement.



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