There is nothing like eating a cool watermelon slice on a hot summer day or a delicious warm serving of homemade ‘gajar ka halwa’, but did you know these fruits and veggies are man-made? Because naturally, watermelons contained more seed then pulp and carrots were thin, tough and white or purple in colour! The ones we consume today are the result of selective breeding and genetic modification.
“Genetically modified crops (GMC) or transgenic plants crops are developed by introducing favourable genes from another organism or species to obtain certain desirable characteristics.”
These modified crops offer a myriad of advantages over conventional crops such as better yield, higher nutrient content, pest resistance, herbicide resistance as well as viral and fungal resistance. In India, Bt cotton is the only GMC approved by the government. This enhanced cotton plant contains a Bt toxin gene taken from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, allowing the plant to gain natural resistance against the pink bollworm. Plasmid vectors and restriction enzymes are used to carry out the gene transfer from one plant to another. This greatly reduces the need to use artificial insecticides on the plants and helps in increasing the yield.
Golden rice is another such crop developed to combat vitamin A deficiency. Rice is a staple food in many developing Asian countries and consumed regularly by the masses, hence adding a micronutrient precursor to it can benefit the masses. Other GMC’s in development include biofortified corn, banana and soybeans.
So, if genetically modified crops have such great benefits, why then are we so reluctant to embrace them?
Well like all new technologies, there are certain risks that come along with the benefits. Genetic modification is a relatively recent technology and hence it is still early to elucidate its long term environmental, biological and economic effects. The main concern expressed by scientists is the risk of gene flow in the native plant species due to cross-pollination. Introducing the transgenic plant in an open environment will have a tangible effect on the local wildlife and may permanently disturb the biodiversity of the area.
Additionally, plants carrying anti-biotic resistant genes run a risk of the gene transfer to the native soil micro-biome, giving rise to antibiotic-resistant superbugs. There is also the fact that these enhanced crops may act as a foreign allergen to the consumer and cause severe health issue.
Are we then supposed to completely abandon these crops and a potential cure for world hunger?
Certainly not! There is no denying the fact that these new biotechnological tools hold great power can possibly solve countless global issues, but it is important to remember that these are another side to the coin and we need to use this technology with gratitude and respect. If successful, these modified crops could help developing nations to overcome poverty and uplift the farmers by helping them gain more profit with less effort.
Stricter laws need to be reinforced and criteria need to be better defined when it comes to development, production and cultivation of such genetically enhanced crops. The crops need to be tested rigorously in laboratories and controlled environment first before they are available for commercial production. It is extremely crucial to preserve the natural ecological balance of the system which may be otherwise disturbed due to introduction of a rogue genetically modified crop. The Food safety and standard authority of India (FSSAI) recently announced a list of 24 foods that need a compulsory ‘No-GM’ certificate when being imported to India as a safety measure to prevent any ill effects on the environment.
Lastly, we need to consider the role media plays in the way these crops are portrayed. Often considering gene manipulation as ‘bad’ or ‘unnatural’ it automatically promotes these crops as harmful and unfit for consumption. The practice of selective breeding and crop manipulation to obtain the desired product has been done by farmers decades before modern technological methods were invented, and therefore the fruits and veggies we eat today have been subjected to some form of genetic modification over the years.
So the next time you bite into a slice of a yummy watermelon or wolf down that sweet ‘gajar ka halwa’ ask yourself, are GMC’s really all that bad?
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