Perils of mutant food

With no risk assessment protocol to precede release of GMOs into the environment, the human race could well be faced with unknown dangers

By P M Bhargava
Published: Monday 15 April 2002

-- It is believed that, as of 2001, genetically engineered crops are grown on over 50,000,000 hectares of farmland. The fact that genetically engineered seeds offer substantial short-term economic advantages makes these seeds considerably more attractive than conventional seeds. Added to this is the lack of any definitive, transparent and firm evidence in the public domain that these seeds might have adverse impacts as well.

Till date, no country has a satisfactory system of assessing the risks associated with the release of genetically modified (gm) plants, microorganisms, animals and marine organisms into the environment. The might of the gm crops lobby makes the situation even more worrisome.

In an agriculture-based economy like India, marketing of gm crops by multinational corporations (mncs) might spell even greater doom. Where one per cent of all us citizens, and two to three per cent of Europeans, are engaged in agriculture or related activities, 70 per cent of Indians depend on agriculture for their livelihood. It is also an unrefutable fact that our farmers are, by and large, unaware of the nuances of new technologies. Seeds are bought on trust in this country. There are no laboratories where seeds can be quickly and cheaply tested. And testing there must be, for mncs are not the most ethical of organisations!

The Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton experiment is a case in point. Monsanto/Mahyco (in which Monsanto has a 26 per cent stake), in its trials of Bt cotton, permitted by the department of biotechnology (dbt), has not always obtained the informed consent of farmers.

Farmers were never told, for example, that after the first or second plantation, there could be a need to put in as much as 40 per cent of 'refuge plantation', which involves planting conventional seeds in the same field as Bt cotton. This ensures that insects also eat non-Bt cotton, and do not develop resistance to Bt cotton. In India's small land holdings, this is almost unthinkable. The fact that Monsanto started its first trials of Bt cotton in 1998, even before it obtained dbt's formal written permission, makes for even more suspicious behaviour.

According to documented reports from farmers, Bt cotton did not give the desired results in many cases. As of today, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac) of the department of environment has not cleared Bt cotton for commercial release. The period of trial has been extended. In spite of this, Bt seeds have been marketed throughout India.

Over 4,000 hectares in Gujarat, and 190 hectares in just one district of Andhra Pradesh, Karimnagar, are under Bt cotton production. There are reports that the Karimnagar plantation is intended for seed production, which will be used for plantation in some 80,000 hectares next year in the kharif season. It is important to understand that India would, de facto, cease to be a free country if our agriculture -- the seed and agrochemical businesses -- is controlled by mncs.

Before a discussion on the regulation of genetically modified organisms (gmo) is possible, it is necessary to attempt an understanding of the potential dangers of releasing them in the environment without appropriate risk assessment. These dangers are:

Introduction or creation of a new or known toxin orallergen.

Gene flow that could have adverse effects. For example, marker genes conferring resistance to antibiotics could be transferred to pathogenic microorganisms, thus making them resistant to antibiotics.

Experimental errors, such as Monsanto's cloning of the wrong gene in canola.

gmo might compete with desirable strains on account of growth or other advantages.

Interference with a desirable symbiotic relationship, such as destruction of useful insects along with pests harmful to the crop.

Changes in surface properties that may affect normal interaction between species in a viable and useful ecosystem.

Interference with reproduction.

A second site change, where the insertion of a desired gene also takes place at an undesirable place in the host genome.

Increased selective transcription and translation (processes that lead to the transmission of genetic information to proteins), leading to an undesirable imbalance in the cell.

Development of resistance to the trait that is introduced.

Unexpected or undesirable changes in the ecology of a region.

Crossing of country or region boundaries is another risk involved in the release of gmos. The following factors might, in such cases, put the 'recipient' country at risk:

an underveloped capacity to assess the ecological and economic concerns;

a climatic pattern, soil composition and social structure that is different from the country of origin;

the presence of a variety of crops that are not extensively different from the wild types (the vigour of the wild crops might be artificially increased);

interference with numerous pools of genetic reserves that are critical to the development of new strains for meeting the challenges of new pests, diseases and changing climatic conditions;

lack of adequate scientific know-how and personnel to verify the claims made by 'donor' country.

The human race, therefore, is faced with a very difficult situation: On the one hand, there are the considerable risks of releasing a gmo in the environment; on the other, there are the tremendous potential advantages, specially for the developing world. The answer, possibly, lies in setting up an appropriate protocol for risk assessment (see box: Risk assessment of gmos) in respect of a gmo that is to be released in the environment. There would, of course, be need for a trade-off policy, which would balance the residual risks that would always remain, no matter how stringent the risk assessment procedure is, with the potential decisive advantages.

Claims regarding benefits of the gmo also need to be assessed by technical experts, working in coordination with sociologists, economists and policy makers. The socio-politico-economic implications of releasing the gmo in question should also be adequately assessed. Once the gmo is released, it is necessary to continuously monitor its performance. In India today, clearance of a gmo goes through two committees: Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (rcgm) of the dbt, and the geac of the ministry of environment. These committees have largely been professionally incompetent, inexperienced and lack knowledge about the international scenario.

A regulatory system, therefore, is central to harnessing the benefits that gmos could potentially present. In the existing scenario, the wisest course of action might be to put a moratorium on the release of any gmo in the environment for aperiod of five years or so. This period could be utilised to set our house in order in respect of the required regulatoryprocedures.

P M Bhargava is former director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology

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