Wednesday, May 12, 2010

GM technology in the context of Food Security in India

GM technology in the context of Food Security in India

Indian population is going to be 1.5 to 1.8 billion by 2050. The land for agriculture, reclaimed from forests is not going to substantially increase in future. With the fast change in the climate scenario due to unplanned human activities, the coming years shall witness reduction in the supply of fresh water, rise in the process of arid land desertification and entry of seawater in larger areas of coastal land used for agriculture .There will be shortage of ground water too fast. The pollution in air and the environment is already on the increase. Under such circumstances, the food adequacy situation shall substantially change. The strong agriculture base of the country is no solace to feed the growing population; the challenge of food security is therefore, going to be severe. Combating such situations would require drawing from the knowledge of diverse sources. New technologies are therefore to be invented and used.

The productivity in agriculture has to substantially go up and therefore, the new technologies must especially address the agricultural productivity increase. Agriculture has to be more sustainable with efficient use of water. The productive loss of crops due to microbial diseases and insects has to be minimized. At the same time, toxins, allergens and anti-nutritional factors must also be reduced in the crops, food, feed and fodder. To do all these, there is no escape from the use of GM technology in agriculture. GM crops are expected to emerge to face adverse situations in agriculture more efficiently if able cultivars are invented that are draught tolerant, salinity resilient and more heat tolerant. Sizable quantities of cultivars would be required, which can utilize sunlight more efficiently under such stress conditions. Research in these directions should be deliberately directed and sharply focused to meet future Indian needs.

GM technology enables the heritable insertion of species-unrelated heritable materials (genes) in to the genome of living entities. A gene is a nucleotide sequence that has at the minimum a promoter sequence, an open reading frame and a terminator sequence, all of which are made up of DNA. A promoter is a DNA sequence that enables the right and tight binding of RNA polymerase, a complex protein that slides over the promoter to reach to the open reading frame. An open reading frame is a DNA sequence that has the template of a protein which is transcribed in the form of a template called RNA, with the help of RNA polymerase and other cellular materials. A terminator sequence is again a DNA sequence that detaches the RNA polymerase from the open reading frame and restarts the transcription process for producing more quantities of RNA. The RNA in turn gets matured into mRNA and is then translated with the assistance of a complex protein known as ribosome and other cellular components. The DNA, RNA and protein production cycle is the central dogma of what life essentially is in all living forms. However, there is severe restriction of entrance of a gene from one species to the other; even if there is a violation due to abnormal natural process, usually the progeny works in a manner that the transgene is aborted. Human innovation has gone into considerable understanding of how transgenes can be inserted into organisms with species barriers. This is what is done in GM technology where a gene coding for a particular protein and therefore having properties linked with the protein can be inserted into organisms where naturally such genes can never have a place. GM technology enables insertion of genes into translife-forms (unrelated species having the gene) in a heritable manner.

In agriculture, absolute yield/productivity contributions are from a) genetic makeup and optimization of gene technology, b) agronomic practices and agricultural technologies and c) biotic and abiotic stress related factors. The productivity is mainly contributed from the genetic makeup and the optimization of gene technology, which factor can contribute up to 60%, other factors being equal. Biotic stress related losses can contribute to another 20%. Thus, about 80% of productivity increase is somewhat connected with improving the genetic makeup.

Improvements have been made in the genetic makeup and the optimization of genes in the genomes of productive plants mostly through the application of breeding technology. However, there are limitations in the transfer of genes among unrelated species and therefore such technologies cannot contribute to improvement beyond a certain point. As mentioned earlier, GM technology crosses the barrier of transfer of genes among unrelated species and therefore holds the potential of improving and optimizing the genetic makeup in the genome of agricultural plants to provide best outputs under different environmental conditions, where there is considerable variations in the biotic and abiotic stress related factors.

There are 3 main issues which are raised again and again on the use of GM crops. Firstly, they may create environmental damage and change in the ecosystem; secondly, the products may have toxic or allergenic or anti-nutritional property enhancement, thereby making the products unattractive as food and feed to human and animals; thirdly, GM technologies may promote the technology-rich multinational companies and thereby transfer the food security responsibility from the hands of the society at large to a handful of technology-skilled companies. All these issues are relevant and therefore a case-by-case analysis is necessary before authorization for commercial cultivation and use of GM crops is allowed by societies.

Cultivation of GM crops in areas where societal acceptance existed have shown increased optimism among farmers as losses due to biotic stresses have indeed been reduced, thereby reducing the production costs of harvests. There has not yet been an instance to show that the GM crops had severe negative environmental impact. In India for examples, use of Bt Cotton technology has been instrumental to increase productivity of cotton per unit use of agricultural land and that the use of this technology has raised the production of cotton lint substantially high raising the position of India to the place of second largest producer of cotton in the world within a couple of years from 2002 onwards. It is anticipated that India will be the largest producer of cotton within a couple of years as the technology gets diffused further into usage.

The use of Bt cotton technology in India has been responsible for the reduction in the use of chemical pesticides, less by Rs. 600-700 crores compared to the earlier usage of about Rs. 1100 crores annually during early 2000s. Moreover, Bt cotton has contributed to economic benefits of more than Rs. 15000 crores to farmers in terms of delivery of better cotton, more lint and less uses of chemical pesticides.

The technology that enables the horizontal transfer of genes (HGT) stably from one organism to another without reproduction but with human intervention is called GM technology as discussed above. HGT also occurs in nature through certain viruses and mobile genetic elements. However, HGT across plants or across animals is extremely rare. HGT has existed in nature for millions of years. At the present stage of knowledge the HGT occurring in nature has not been considered to be an acceptable human threat. Some scientists have viewed that the probability of HGT can get substantially elevated by the use of GM technology in open environment. HGT is also believed to get increased across prokaryotes by extensive use of GM technology. If HGT is really an issue in prokaryotes that harbor in human and animal gut, then some scientists feel that the modified prokaryotes can be a threat to human and animals. However, such complexities have not yet been found to be real nor there exists evidence that HGT across eukaryotes have become a threat due to the extensive use of GM technology in agriculture during the last fifteen years or so.

As regards food and feed safety issues from the use of GM crops to human and animals, the technology has not produced products that are more unsafe than the natural non-transgenic counterparts. Feeding trials undertaking on different kinds of models have not proven greater risk from the use of GM crops.

GM technology was once considered to be the monopoly of only a few multinationals. This situation is fast changing as this technology has been mastered by different countries. The IPR issues are also getting resolved, firstly because many of the important genetic materials are going out of patents. Moreover, the rights of the sovereign states to exercise authority over its natural genetic resources empower relaxed use of the IPR rights on cultivars that have been picked up from open and unprotected environment of states. In addition, it can be stated from Indian experience that while only one company was authorized to commercialize Bt cotton technology in early 2002, the usefulness of the technology enabled the development and induction of four other technologies. Thus, the monopoly was substantially weakened. I anticipate that this is going to happen in the wide spectra GM technology usage. Moreover, sovereign states have authorities through other societal empowerments to make more public use of any protected technology if such situation as transferring the food security rights from public domain to private domain becomes a threat to the state.

There are several countries where GM technologies have penetrated to a considerable extent. There was major resistance from the European countries to accept the technology. However, of late, there has been a flavor of change in the attitude of people towards the acceptance of GM technology after considerable observation has been made on the environmental effect of GM crops and substances during the last one and a half decade. The BASF’s genetically modified (GM) potato; Amflora is designed for the manufacture of purified amylopectin starch in the tubers. This GM potato was approved for commercial cultivation in Germany by the European Commission (EC) very recently. The EC had also approved the use of GM maize of Pioneer, Syngenta and Monsanto in Europe in food and feed products. There are presently at least 3 European countries like Germany, Spain and Portugal where GM crops are commercially cultivated; more countries are showing interest in such crops. These are clear signaling of consent of approval of the European regulatory authorities for the GM crops. Obviously, the approvals are based on perceptions of potential economic gain after the safety issues are reasonably resolved. The positive signaling of Europe on the use of GM crops should be read as strong indications of acceptance by a large part of the informed global community for these products.

Indian people would certainly embrace GM technology to supplement its food, feed and fodder needs. Unfortunately, Indian mind set in accepting or rejecting new technological changes is inherited substantially from the British culture. Now, as the EU has signaled the acceptance of GM technology in agriculture it is anticipated that the British acceptance of this technology shall also be on the increase. The Indian societal acceptance scenario for the technology shall then change. Time is changing fast. Let us keep a watch!

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (Govt. of India) decided to approve Bt brinjal, a product of modern agricultural biotechnology, on October 14th, 2009. However, the Indian Government did not uphold this decision; it decided to review the protocol of environmental safety tests and those for reassessing the public health questions. It has not been elaborated about what new information is to be generated further. The environmental safety tests as well as the food safety issues emanating from the use of GM technology are based on good scientific principles. Such principles have been elaborated on the basis of precautionary principles. The application of precautionary principles is not to find ultimate answers to hypothetical elements of risks; nor there exist any such science that can fully address and resolve all the quests of mind in a set time frame. Experiments have been conducted to address environmental safety issues in different ways. These experiments have demonstrated adequate safety to the environment as well as to animal health from the use of Bt technology. The Bt Cry1Ac gene contained in transgenic Bt cotton is already authorized for commercial cultivation in the country. The persistence of very small quantities of Bt proteins in soil, which is used for cultivating Bt crops demonstrated in experiments carried out elsewhere has not been for more than 60 days; such persistence has not caused irreversible change to the micro-flora of the soil. Bt proteins have not been able to stay in tact in artificial intestinal fluid for more than a couple of minutes. Bt toxins have no binding capacity to human intestinal receptors at the pH of the environment. These are therefore, destined to be degraded by the intestinal micro flora and intestinal enzymes. Therefore, Bt products living or dead are anticipated to pose minimum risks to the environment and to human and animals.

Bt toxins per se and Bt incorporated GM technologies of diverse kinds are in applications in several parts of the world. There is no authentic scientifically verified report to show that use of such technologies has created large-scale untoward adverse effects to the environment or to the human and animal health. On the contrary, use of such technologies has been responsible to the reduction of chemical pesticides in agriculture.
Bt incorporated GM technology is only a small part of the full gamut of GM technologies. Many of these technologies address different questions of human needs. While a part of these address development of cultivars that are resistant to insect pests, others are for imparting microbial disease tolerance, herbicide resistance, draught and salinity tolerance and the like. Production of improved composition of oil or starch or proteins is other sets of GM crops. Increased tolerance to drought or salinity or cold or heat is some other sides of the spectra of GM crops.

As with any new technology, there will be unintended risks and many such technologies would become less effective with time because of aggressive rebounds from nature to resist permanent habitation of such man-made substances. Nature works in a different way and we do not yet know in which direction it would move. Nature has millions of years in its store but man has a limited time. Within its time, the mankind and the society everywhere should grow and sustain its healthy habits with comforts and peace. Therefore, with the limited tools available with the mankind all the technologies, old or new must be reasonably assessed with the available tools and best judgment must be exercised, which is generally acceptable. Making standards of safety that cannot be measured with the existing scientific tools and gadgets is certainly not the intention to evaluate a technology. Best scientific knowledge available to mankind should be utilized when the available tools can generate quantifiable scientific data for deriving conclusions. In certain areas of concern where scientific data cannot be generated at the present moment (because of inadequate current global scientific development), there is no escape from adopting a “wait and watch” policy and periodically review the impacts after the GM technologies have been put to commercial use. This will enable reduction of application time. In case of noticed adversities, the GM crops can be withdrawn. In some situations, the world community may have to live with the transgenes dispersed into the wild. Such situation is already real for certain genes and it has not yet been noticed that such events have created any major setback to the environment or to the human community. With this philosophy, advantages and disadvantages from GM technologies must be assessed on a precautionary principle on a case-by-case basis; but once satisfied, they must be put to commercial use without waste of time. Food inadequacy syndrome is approaching very fast. Our precious time should not run out.