Genes are located in chromosomes, usually called as units of inheritance and that are passed from one generation to the next and provide instructions for growth and development of the organism. A gene is a sequence of DNA that contains information that governs a particular characteristic/trait. Crops that are developed through genetic modification are referred to as genetically modified (GM) crops, transgenic crops or genetically engineered (GE) crops. Genetic modification is a biological technique that effects modifications in the genetic mechanism of all kinds of living organisms by adding some useful genes thereby eluding the mating process. In the food industry, GMO (Genetically Modified Organims) crops have had external genes added to them for various reasons, such as improving their growth, nutritional content, sustainability, pest resistance, and ease of farming.
In plants, desirable traits can be transferred through conventional breeding but this process takes many generations. Also, breeders may toil to determine which genetic change has led to a new trait.
Genetic modification remarkably hastens this process by using scientific techniques that gives the plant the specific desired trait.
For example, one of the most common GMO crops is Bt cotton, which is genetically modified to produce the insecticide Bt toxin. By making this toxin, the cotton plant is able to resist pests, reducing the need for pesticides.
Do We REALLY Need Genetic Modified Foods?
There are three major challenges we are facing that motivate our resort to the new technology for help.
Expansion of Population
The estimated global population will be 8.5 billion in 2030, and 9.7 billion in 2050. The expansion of population is one of the major contributors to undernourishment around the world. Therefore while policy-making, eradication of hunger should be a priority. GM crops can be good alternative to produce more food in less time with increased nutrient value.
Decrease in Arable Land
FAO predicted that the limited amount of arable land available for food production per person will decrease from the current 0.242 ha to 0.18 ha by 2050.
This problem baffles those of population growth and malnutrition. More so because our ability to bring additional acreage under cultivation seems limited. The alternative is more yield per acre, which in turn must come from greater agriculture inputs, such as fertilizer, water, pest and weed control – and/or genetic improvement.
Bottleneck of Conventional and Modern Plant Breeding
Prerequisite to breeding strategies is the existence of genetic variation that is, existence of an available gene-pool manifesting the desired traits, and sexual compatibility of organisms with those traits. Conventional plant breeding relies on sexual crossing of one parental line with another parental line, in hopes of expressing some desired property (e.g. disease resistance, early maturity). The process usually takes several years (depending on generational time, e.g. 8-12 years) before actual expression of the desired trait that can be assessed, and further expanded to commercially useful numbers by the conventional breeding methods.
Modern methodologies can increase this space by utilizing chemicals or radiation to introduce new mutational variation. Taking these facts into account, the surfacing of biological technologies and the development of GM foods promise to reduce dramatically production timelines to new strains, and to provide us with optional approaches to achieve sustainable global food security.
Safety and Concerns Related To Genetically Modified Foods
Although current research suggests that GMO foods are safe, yet there is some concern around their long-term safety and environmental impact.
Here are some of the key concerns around GMO consumption:
May Trigger Allergic Reactions
There is some concern that since GMO foods contain foreign genes they may trigger an allergic reaction so some people worry that consuming such type of foods may prompt an allergic reaction. Although allergy concerns are valid, there have been no reports of allergic reactions to GMO foods currently on the market.
According to the GMO monitoring agencies like FDA (USA) and GEAC (India) researchers who develop GMO foods run tests to ensure that allergens aren’t transferred from one food to another. In addition, research has shown that GMO foods are not supposed to trigger allergies than their non-GMO counterparts. For example, if you have a soy allergy, both GMO and non-GMO soy products will prompt an allergic reaction.
May Aid Development of Cancer
Similarly, there’s a common concern that GMO foods may aid the development of cancers because cancers are caused by DNA mutations, some people fear that eating foods with added genes may affect your DNA.
Dr. Kevin Folta, a professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville, who said that there is no reliable evidence that consumption of foods derived from GM crops could cause the same changes in a living organism.
Currently, no human research ties GMO intake to cancers.
Other Environmental and Health Concerns
Although GMO crops are convenient for farmers, there are a few environmental concerns.
Most GMO crops are resistant to herbicides, such as Roundup. This means that farmers can use Roundup without fear of it harming their own crops. However, a large number of weeds have developed resistance to this herbicide over time. Herbicides like Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate are subject to controversy because animal and in-vitro studies have linked them to various diseases. GMO crops also allow for fewer pesticide applications, which is an affirmation for the environment.
GMO in Indian Scenario
Bt. cotton is the only GM crop approved in 2002 by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for commercial cultivation. All other unapproved GM crops are banned in India.
There have been few incidences of open cultivation of Bt. Brinjal and HT cotton were reported in Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. Centre has issued advisories to states to take appropriate action to curb and control the spread of Bt. Brinjal and HT Cotton. State Governments have given the directions to all District Administration to take necessary legal steps to curb the production and selling of illegal GM crops.
Future of GMOs
The main concerns around GMOs involve allergies, cancer, and environmental issues — all of which may affect the consumer. While current research suggests few risks, more long-term research is needed. Although current research suggests that GMO foods are safe for consumption, some people are concerned about their potential health effects.
GMO foods are easier and less costly for farmers to grow, which makes them cheaper for the consumer. GMO techniques may also enhance foods’ nutrients, flavor, and appearance. That being said, more intensive human research is necessary in this regard.