Friday, December 30, 2011


When the Bt-cotton technology was authorized by the Indian Government for commercial cultivation in March 2002, it was thought that in years to come, newer genetically modified (GM) seeds and plant cultivars shall make profound positive impact in Indian agriculture. It was a strong and positive call for the country from its authoritative level. Immediately thereafter, there was a need for an action-plan from the government for upgrading its basic infrastructure for handling different kinds of GM seeds that were expected to emerge from research within the country or through imports or both. The central and the state governments were to plan and move together in the matter for obtaining and determining a fast success in the country in the use of GM plant technologies to benefit Indian agriculture.

Bt refers to a Gram-positive soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt); Bt produce among others ,a kind of proteins named as ‘Cry’ proteins; these proteins are toxic to a wide range of caterpillars in their crawling stage of life-forms; when ingested, the caterpillars die. Bt-cotton is the man-made cotton plant where specific genetic materials coding for Bt –proteins have been stably integrated in to the genome of cotton plants by a technology, known as the recombinant DNA technology. By doing so, the Bt-cotton plants during their growth and survival produce among other substances, Bt- proteins too. Therefore, caterpillars feeding on any part of such cotton plant would die.

In order to derive benefits from the use of newer GM seeds and plant cultivars in a wide range of settings such as obtaining disease resistant cereals, pulses, fruits and vegetables as also producing nutritionally enriched food ushered newer hopes .Through the use of recombinant DNA technology, the preservation of freshness of fruits and vegetables were also considered as doable possibilities. There was therefore a need to prepare the country for the accomplishments.

The action -plan included plans for actions for increased up- gradation abilities of the central and state-government institutions including those supported by the government as autonomous institutions as also the autonomous public sector facilities like the state and the central agricultural universities and institutions for assessing environmental and ecological safety issues linked with the use of GM seeds and cultivars. The food safety issues were also to be addressed and the national institutions dealing with food and nutritional safety had to be activated. It was amply understood that addressing the environmental, ecological and food safety issues were intimately linked with the societal acceptance of these new products both scientifically and emotionally. It was surmised that well-thought out protocols for large field studies of GM plants, animals, and microorganisms would be prepared ; the effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on flora and fauna would be thoroughly studied in the public sector settings and the data would be published for the benefit of the public; scientifically sound animal models would be developed for assessing the safety of food containing GM traits; a couple of model transgenic microorganisms would be developed for producing the transgenic proteins in large quantities so as to generate monoclonal or polyclonal antibodies in lab animals for easing quantitation of transgenic traits in target GMOs or non-target life forms, where transgenic traits might spill over. Further, national facilities would be set up for insect-rearing and for developing bioassays for quantitation of insect-lethal proteins. Also, analytical methods would be developed and standardized at the national level to trace transgenic traits in the open environment or in traded agricultural commodities or in the food products. Empowerment of the national system would enable the government to handle the rational development of GMOs within the country as well as to decide on importing such materials containing varied trans-genetic traits. Concomitantly, at the decision making level as well at the scientific institutions there was a profound need of having more numbers of scientifically trained people to address the diverse issues and complexities associated with the utilization of GMOs in commercial agriculture.

Every country makes progress with the passage of time. India must have also made considerable progress during the last 10y after the first authorization of GMOs (the lepidopteron insect-resistant cotton, popularly known as the Bt-cotton) in commercial agriculture in the country. Much of the capacity building traits as enumerated above may have been in place though there are no public access to those. The research towards achieving specific products of GM seeds to significantly enhance productivity in agriculture is also not visible yet. By the end of 2011, the Indian people have not heard about any new announcement about the introduction of any new transgenic trait in its open environment in agriculture other than a range of Bt-cotton. It is not clear therefore, to the common people if the use of the GMOs had been considered to be an important positive aspect for improving the productivity of Indian agriculture. There has not been any assertive statement from the authorities of the country if strong emphasis was placed on the use of this technology at least during the future years as one strong option, to address the emerging issues of food security.

None can belittle certain crucial facts that have come to light such as due to intense human activities and factors linked with increase in human population all over the world (demand for more energy for example for diverse reasons leading to increase in greenhouse gasses), there will be rise in the temperature across the world which shall lead to some visible catastrophe. There shall be rise in the sea-level, which would cause penetration of sea-water into many parts of fertile land. Ultra-violet light shall penetrate the ozone layer more in many parts of the world and shall show its deleterious effects in terms of reduced agricultural productivity in certain areas, and increase in certain diseases in human and animals.

On the other end, the world population is no longer natural. Science has provided a world that has contained major childhood diseases by the development and use of more than a dozen of improved vaccines. Improvement in medical science has contributed to increase in longevity which is manifested in far large number of aged, but active people all around. Thus while on one hand, more food has to be produced, on the other hand, salt and temperature-tolerant plant cultivars would have to be developed. There would also be the need for drought-tolerant seeds and plant materials in certain areas while at many other areas water-stress resistant plants would be in great need for utilizing water-logged or flooded lands for agriculture. Moreover, there would be profound need for the long-term preservation of natural food including crops, cereals, fruits and vegetables for longer times, preventing these from spoilage or delaying of ripening.

Seeds and planting materials for deployment in such conditions would not be developed without the use of recombinant DNA technology, where possibilities exist for isolating, reconstructing and integrating genetic traits in to plant cultivars that do not possess them. The resulting GM seeds and planting materials could be used in situations and in lands possessing adverse conditions. It would not be possible to develop seeds and planting materials suitable for such conditions, by any other method including the breeding technology.

Pest resistant or disease-tolerant or herbicide resistant plants have been the low-pick developmental needs of recombinant DNA technology, where success is already in place and GM plants are used in commercial agriculture in several parts of the world. The brighter sides of the deployment of GM plants thus far have been their contributions to reducing the use of chemical pesticides, reduction in the deployment of human labor (for herbicide resistant plants) thereby reducing agricultural production costs, and concomitant increase in agricultural productivities, often due to longer periods of sound plant health, especially during their productive periods. GM plants have also been used for producing better qualities of carbohydrates and triglycerides and some other traits. While some of these achievements have been downplayed by local public, the use of GMOs could not be stopped because of overall economic benefits, which accrued to the farmers and to the society.

The main objections from the vocal public against the use of GM seeds and planting materials have been that (1) these substances enhance the spread of different kinds of nucleic acids and genetic materials across a wide range of genera and species that do not naturally possess them , such spread in ‘unnatural’ and therefore, such happenings could be catastrophic and must be avoided; (2) some of these trans-genetic materials code for toxic proteins that, when ingested by other living forms can create catastrophes by manifestation of toxicity or allergenicity; in smaller life forms , toxicities could kill or adversely affect population and thus could disturb the ecology of the environment; in higher life forms like in animals toxicities could limit the food chain; (3) food , feed and fodder toxicity or allergenicity could adversely affect the human and animal food chain; (4) the long-term effect of trans-genes opens up the possibilities of transfer of unwanted traits across the natural boundaries of species barriers; (5) since the technologies are held presently by a hand-full of private companies, the food security issues will have to be transferred to the whims of a few technology-rich private companies. Transfer genetic materials across the species barriers takes place naturally, even though the spread is very slow. ‘Unnatural’ transfers across the barriers have to have the capacity to survive; in most of the times, ‘unnatural’ genetic transfers are aborted, or the generated ‘new substance’ self-destroys it. Only a few trans-genetic constructs, the fittest ones, created by human kind survive. Such created clones are to be continuously multiplied and propagated to keep the genetic traits ‘alive’. In natural settings, most often the trans-genetic traits get aborted. Even in situations where such traits have escaped to the environment, these have not manifested with any situation that cannot be handled by human kind. The stories of ‘super weed’ formation or ‘genetic contamination resulting in catastrophe’ are exaggerated. All trans-genetic substances are tested for safety on a precautionary principle before these are released by any country for commercial use; unsafe substances are never released. All risks are assessed rigorously by scientifically deployed methods. Unfortunately, the present day science cannot find answers to certain questions of safety such as the long term use of GMOs. However for this uncertainty, a close watch is kept on the use of each GMO; any substantial adversity shall call for its withdrawal. Some people think that it would not be possible to withdraw substances, once these are set out to the open environment. This fear is untenable as GMOs that are linked with irreversible damage ( such as growth hormone gene containing fish that have high feed conversion ratio but are known to have lower longevity than the natural counterpart)) are not allowed by the governments to be propagated in the open environment. Unintended release is expected to be contained by nature as the law of survival for the fittest would eventually prevail; humankind might not have precise clues for such happenings though. Use of GMOs more extensively shall enable the development of newer technologies that will diffuse the presently surmised monopolistic situation. Introduction of Bt-otton in India resulted in the development and introduction of more than one alternate technology, which were different from Monsanto’s Bollgard cotton. Necessities drove the development of alternatives! There is a strong case therefore, for the faster use of the GMO technology across the world and in poor countries like India. Introduction of any new technology carries with it several kinds of risks; people using those technologies would learn to live with the risks. People would also learn to contain them.

People from the developing world spend a large sum of their income on food. In extremely poor settings, such expenses can go even up to 70% of their income. This situation cannot be adequately appreciated by people from the developed world where expenses on food are minor part of their earnings. Choice of better food materials that are grown without the use of pesticides, or which are natural, or which are grown organically are options no doubt. But these options are more suiting to the needs of the rich and the rich nations. Any reduction in the price of safe food resulting from the deployment of better technologies is a much needed option of the poor nations. Use of genetically modified seeds or planting materials, resulting in higher productivities directly or indirectly, is therefore an option for reducing the cost of food. Countries are free to make their individual food choices. But such choices should not be influenced by emotional reasoning or pre-emptive threats of risks that have neither been proven nor detected.

We do not and cannot live in a ‘natural world’ anymore! The food that is produced is primarily from our agriculture. Our agriculture utilizes seeds and planting materials that have been developed over many years of research, utilizing different kinds of technologies. Our seeds and planting materials cannot even survive in pure natural settings; those that would survive would not yield productivities without the inputs of fertilizer, water, pesticides and many more. For that matter, even we are not natural anymore. Food, shelter, medicines, hygiene, clothing, education and social environment have radically changed with the deployment of different kinds of technologies the world-over. In such a setting, we cannot ignore the potentials of GM seeds and plant cultivars merely on the basis of voices that do not find comforts from their deployment.

In such a setting, what has been done within the country for intensively utilizing the GMOs in Indian agriculture? A visit at web page at provides a glimpse of the status of Indian development in GM plant applications in agriculture including those in the developmental stage. The scenario depicts a weak standing of preparedness at the national level. This also portrays substantial weakness in the scientific and technological developments of GMOs in the public sector settings in the country. Moreover, the preparedness of the country to exhaustively examine the benefits or the short-comings including risks are not adequately elaborated. Should we therefore, redesign our strategy?