The GMO technology is not free of controversy. The technology demands rigorous control and meticulous scientific methods
In January of 2014, the Supreme Court issued an interim order to the government to prohibit imports of genetically modified (GM) seeds including those supplied by Monsanto, a US-based chemical and agricultural biotech company. The newfangled seeds can be used for growing crops only once, and cannot be reproduced unlike regular seeds, ruled Judge Baidya Nath Upadhyay in response to a petition filed by Advocate Arjun Aryal.
The ban remained in effect until January 16. The court was to decide earlier this year whether the stay order should be continued.
Referencing the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control (DFTQC), one of the national dailies in July this year published a news report about the likelihood of GMO again entering Nepal. But what are these genetically modified foods in the first place?
Foods that have been genetically modified using biotechnology are known as GMO foods. The technology in which genetic material is altered using non-traditional, laboratory-based methods is known as genetic engineering. Genetic engineering techniques allow the transfer of functional genes from one organism to another, including from one species to another. Foods and food ingredients containing genetically modified organisms are called Genetically Modified foods or GMO foods. Bacteria, fungi, viruses, plants, insects, fish and mammals are some examples of such organisms.
Humans have been altering food crops and animals through selective breeding for many centuries using traditional methods. Traditional breeding can achieve similar effects, but works over a much longer time span and is not seen as GM. In addition, traditional breeding cannot transfer genes from unrelated species, as is possible with GMO foods. For example, the gene from a fish that lives in very cold seas could be inserted in a strawberry, allowing the fruit to be frost-tolerant.
The GMO technology is not free of controversy. The technology demands rigorous control and meticulous use of scientific methods for obtaining new breeds. Even a slight mistake in the experiment might result in nightmarish accidents.
The concerns about GMO foods in developing countries relate to possible environmental hazards, human health risks and economic concerns.
The major environmental concern of GMOs is reduced effectiveness of pesticides and unintended harm to other organisms. Also, genetically engineered crops can cross-pollinate with certain forms of weeds resulting in “super weeds” that are herbicide-resistant; over time, certain species of insects will also become resistant to pesticides. The potential cross-pollination of GM seeds with non-GM crops is also a concern to farmers, particularly those farmers that certify their crops as non-GM or organic crops.
The farmers of many developing countries like Nepal have the practice of saving seeds between harvests, rather than buying new seeds each year.
It is suggested that the introduction of GM crops will force farmers to buy seed. Some people feel that the effects of GM crops on human health are not yet properly understood. According to the book Genetics and Genetically Modified Organisms, different allergenic symptoms have been observed on consumption of GMO foods. Since genes make proteins and proteins are potential allergens, one cannot exclude the possibility that genetic engineering may introduce proteins into foods resulting in sensitivities and allergic reactions in some people.
But in the developing countries there is also an ethical obligation to explore the potential of GM crops responsibly. The impact of human action on nonhuman animals is controversial as some people deny animals can be harmed at all.
The use of transgenic plants offers great promise for integration of improved varieties into traditional cropping systems as improved plant lines can be generated quickly and with relative precision once suitable genes for transfer have been identified. Today, the majority of GM crops is grown in developed countries and addresses the needs of commercial farmers. However, farmers in developing countries are increasingly beginning to adopt GM crops. Crop losses from insects, pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries.
The use of pesticides in food causes various harmful health effects. GMO foods promise to meet the needs of the developing countries in a number of ways. GM crops could address these problems, where other breeding techniques have failed. Pest resistance, disease resistance and cold, drought, herbicide, salinity tolerance of the GM crops could be a magic wand that can achieve sustainable agriculture and free the developing world from poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Similarly, plants could be genetically modified to produce vaccines or other medicines.
Potatoes have been modified to produce edible vaccines against E. coli bacteria which cause diarrhea. This would allow cheap and easy distribution of the vaccine. Not all GM plants are grown as crops. Plants such as poplar trees have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy-metal pollution from contaminated soil. Scientists can now mix a gene of plant with the gene of animal. It will not be surprising if scientists tomorrow develop elephant-sized chickens or pumpkin sized tomatoes. Cow milk has a lot of nutrients but it lacks antibiotic elements found in human milk. The scientists are now developing a new breed of cows whose milk contains the antibiotic element in the human milk.
Malnutrition is common in third world, where impoverished peoples rely on a single crop such as rice. However, rice does not contain all nutrients.
If rice could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins and minerals, micronutrient deficiencies could be alleviated. Inexpensive, safe and nutritious foods are needed to feed the world’s growing population. And so developing carrots with more antioxidants or tomatoes that taste better and last longer makes sense. Similarly, GM golden rice is a white rice crop modified by the insertion of Vitamin A gene from a daffodil plant. This changes the color and the vitamin level of the rice and is of benefit in countries where vitamin A deficiency is prevalent.
Yields of almost all crops are significantly lower in developing countries and such is also the case in Nepal. Many people believe that GMO foods will eliminate the need for political, social or economic change, or that they will simply ‘feed the developing world’. While some others argue that genetic modification is ‘unnatural’ and the use of organic farming methods, integrated pest management and mixed cropping would be a more appropriate solution than the use of GM technology.
GM foods have the potential to solve the hunger and malnutrition problems, and to protect and preserve the environment by increasing yield and reducing reliance on chemical pesticides and herbicides. The technology may be more appropriate for farmers who have difficulty spraying pesticides and herbicides in farm areas that are inaccessible to tractors or water bodies, or where winds are high.
Conversely, acceptance of this technology without paying attention to the legal conditions may distress the poor farmers in developing countries.
Importing seeds from foreign firms results in a huge outflow of money. According to experts, GM seeds are good for one-time use and cannot be reproduced; so large multinational companies could come to monopolize the seed market. Technically, GM organisms could also be patented so that life itself could become commercial property.
To solve this, there needs to be strict guidelines on the kind of allowable GMO experiments. International and regional conventions and protocols should also be drafted to regulate the production of GMO foods and seeds. Only then can the GMO bring about the kind of revolution its champions have always promised.
The author is a food technologist and a Livelihood Officer at Friends Service Council Nepal, an NGO.