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What is Biotechnology?

Broadly speaking, biotechnology is any technique that uses living organisms or substances from these organisms to make or modify a product for a practical purpose. Biotechnology can be applied to all classes of organism – from viruses and bacteria to plants and animals – and it is becoming a major feature of modern medicine, agriculture and industry. Modern agricultural biotechnology includes a range of tools that scientists employ to understand and manipulate the genetic make-up of organisms for use in the production or processing of agricultural products.

Biotechnology is being used to address problems in all areas of agricultural production and processing. This includes plant breeding to raise and stabilize yields; to improve resistance to pests, diseases and abiotic stresses such as drought and cold; and to enhance the nutritional content of foods.

Biotechnology is being used to fortify existing strains of crops with traits that include increased disease and/or pest tolerance, help increase yields, enhance tolerance to drought or poor soil conditions and other improvements across a range of crops including cotton, maize, wheat, rice, brinjal, tomatoes, pulses, fruits and many others. Biotechnology is creating new tools for the diagnosis and treatment of plant and animal diseases and for the measurement and conservation of genetic resources. Biotechnology is being used to speed up breeding programmes for plants, livestock and fish and to extend the range of traits that can be addressed. Animal feeds and feeding practices are being changed by biotechnology to improve animal nutrition and to reduce environmental waste. Biotechnology is used in disease diagnostics and for the production of vaccines against animal diseases.

How can Biotechnology be classified?

Generally Biotechnology may be classified as classical biotechnology and modern biotechnology. Some applications of biotechnology, such as fermentation and brewing, have been used for millennia. Other example may include the conversion of milk to curd, as well as the making of cheese, bread and vinegar.

In the above, biological agents are involved in the making of that product. Mankind has been practicing these technologies from the time immemorial where it simply relied on the innate capability of organisms or microbes for making a product.

Other more modern applications are newer but also well established. For example, micro-organisms have been used for decades as living factories for the production of life-saving antibiotics including penicillin, from the fungus Penicillium, and streptomycin from the bacterium Streptomyces. Modern detergents rely on enzymes produced via biotechnology, hard cheese production largely relies on rennet produced by biotech yeast and human insulin for diabetics is now produced using biotechnology.

Similarly in the agricultural domain, plants like cotton and brinjal for example have been made resistant to pests through the genetic inclusion of the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene from a bacterium commonly found in the soil into the plant. Similarly the Flavr savr tomato is the first commercialised GM crop that has an enhanced shelf¬ life. Golden rice (Rice rich with Vitamin A) developed by rDNA technology is being propagated as a low cost technology to benefits millions of poor malnourished children in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa who due to Vitamin A deficiency run the risk of going blind.

What are the Biotechnology applications in Agriculture?

Biotechnology has both GM and Non-GM applications in agriculture. It has made the plant breeding process more precise and quick.

The non-GM applications involve tools such as GM applications include insect control, weed management, water use efficiency, nitrogen use efficiency, salinity tolerance etc which help us to grow our crops with less pesticides and under difficult abiotic stress conditions (natural, environmental stresses like flood, drought, extreme temperatures, etc). It is being used in world agriculture since 1996. There are other applications like edible oil crops with modified fatty acid profile, maize with modified nutrition content for the animal feed industry, rice with beta carotine (Vitamin A) content, etc which help in providing better quality food and feed for the humanity. GM technology can help in conserving soil and environment through reduced tilling and pesticide use.

Here are some specific examples of GM applications used in agriculture.

Marker Assisted Selection – Marker assisted selection (MAS) is an indirect selection process where a trait of interest is selected, not based on the trait itself, but on a marker linked to it. For example, if MAS is being used to select individuals with disease resistance, the level of disease resistance is not quantified but rather a marker allele that is linked with disease resistance is used.

Tissue Culture – is the regeneration of plants in the laboratory from disease-free plant parts. This technique allows for the reproduction of disease-free planting material for crops. Examples of crops produced using tissue culture include citrus, pineapples, avocados, mangoes, bananas, coffee and papaya.

Variation breeding – is the process of exposing seeds to chemicals or radiation in order to generate mutants with desirable traits to be bred with other cultivars. Plants created using mutagenesis are sometimes called mutagenic plants or mutagenic seeds.

Is biotechnology in agriculture a new concept?

Perhaps the first thing to know about the “new” field of biotechnology is that it isn’t all that new. In fact, it’s been around for thousands of years.

If this sounds shocking, it’s probably because when most of us hear the word “technology”, we think of machines. But “technology” is really just a different way of talking about tools. And for thousands of years, humans have used biological organisms as tools for solving problems.

One of the earliest examples of biotechnology is the use of yeast to produce beer and bread. And early in the 20th century, researchers discovered a mold that was used to create penicillin—one of the most widely used antibiotics in the world.

The first food product of biotechnology (an enzyme used in cheese production and a yeast used for baking) appeared on the market in 1990. Since 1995, farmers have been growing GE crops. In 2003, 7 million farmers in 18 countries— more than 85 percent of them resource-poor farmers in the developing world—were planting biotech crops. Almost one third of the global biotech crop area was grown in developing countries.

In the past several decades, science has allowed us to decipher much of the genetic “code” of plants and animals. Instead of cross-breeding corn plants to determine which traits cause them to, for example, grow taller or require less water, we can pinpoint those traits in the corn plant’s genetic map. Then we can isolate the right gene and transfer it into another plant to produce a new generation of plants that have the beneficial characteristics we want.

Throughout human history, traditional breeding was largely a matter of trial and error. Plant breeders tried hundreds or thousands of combinations in order to make educated guesses about which traits to promote. For understandable reasons, this was a time-consuming process.

With biotechnology, our plant scientists can pinpoint desired traits and skip potentially thousands of generations of plant breeding. This means better seeds are available to farmers faster, and better food is available to all of us.

How can Agriculture Biotechnology address the needs of a developing country?

The global population size is increasing by roughly 80 million annually and almost all population growth is in developing countries. Since the amount of agricultural land available is limited, the increases in food production needed to feed the world’s growing population must come from increasing the amount of food produced per hectare. Biotechnology includes a range of scientific tools that can be applied to different aspects of agriculture, food production and nutrition and may play a role in this challenge.

Biotechnology applications in agriculture should be a part of the package of solutions, to address the economic and social needs of a growing population. As per the ISAAA (www.isaaa.org) brief 49,more than 18 million farmers in 28 countries planted biotech crops in 181 million hectares in 2014 , reflecting a 6.3 million or three to four percent increase in global biotech crop hectarage. Around the world, global biotech crop plantings mark 19 years of continued growth, which justifies the continuous deployment of Genetic Modification (GM) to Indian Agriculture.

China and India are the most advanced and dominant GM crop producers in Asia. Of global total area of 148 million hectares planted in 2010, China (3.5 million hectares) and India (9.4 million hectares) planted a combined total area of 12.9 million hectares. In Asia, China and India represent 45% (34.3 million hectares) and 49% (37.3 million hectares) respectively of total area of 76.4 million hectares of GM crops (mostly Bt cotton) planted in 15 years of commercialization.

What is GM technology in agriculture?

A GM plant is one that contains a gene or genes of a different species that have been artificially introduced into its genome, under controlled conditions, and expresses a unique trait(s) or characteristic(s) that enhances the overall value of the plant or plant products. Genes could come from other plants or from microorganisms as in the case of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Transgenic plants are also referred as biotech or GM crops.

How is GM technology different from traditional crop improvement methods, which farmers have practiced for centuries?

Traditional crop improvements done by farmers or breeders lack precision while transferring a particular character or trait. Most of the time, the un-wanted character(s) gets transferred along with the desired character because, genes move in batches from one generation to the other. Eliminating the non-desired character would take a considerable amount of time from breeders and many a time, elimination might not be possible. After spending substantial time developing the plant, breeders or farmers’ may not get the desired characters and often they have to compromise.

GM technology enables plant breeders to bring together in one plant useful genes from a wide range of living sources, not just from within the crop species or from closely related plants. This powerful tool allows plant breeders to do faster what they have been doing for years – generate superior plant varieties – although it expands the possibilities beyond the limits imposed by conventional plant breeding.

How can GM technology be useful for Indian farmers?

Crop losses due to climatic conditions, insects, pests, diseases and declining soil fertility, would also have to be factored in while applying genetic modification of crops. In India, according to a recent study by ASSOCHAM (Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry), crop losses due to pests and diseases amount to a whopping Rs. 50,000 crores (US$8.6 billion). GM technologies can help Indian farmers in saving his crop from biotic stresses like insects and weeds, soil degradation, respectively. Abiotic stresses like water deficiency and salinity of the soil can also be combated through xxx technologies. For instance, with about 100m ha of rainfed agriculture in India, the drought tolerant gene could make a big difference to the lives of the farmers.

Is Crop Biotechnology safe?

Biotechnology is safe, effective and widely used by more than 18 million farmers around the world. Biotechnology is a proven tool that has successfully improved crop productivity for growers around the world since 1995, resulting in an abundant and affordable food supply. Various studies have shown the safety of the technology to human beings, animals and the environment. Some of the leading Institutions like FAO have endorsed the safety of GM crops. Europe has analysed the results of over 130 research project conducted over a 25 year period involving more than 500 independent research groups and concluded that GMOs are not more risky than conventional plant breeding techniques.

Does GM crop development need extensive research?

Research in GM crops involves developing the gene/construct which gets transferred into the seeds of a crop (known as an Event).Developing a particular GM crop is expensive and takes 10-15 years of rigorous testing in labs, and green houses, conducting cattle feed studies, and open trials in actual field conditions across various parts of the country. Since India has a multi-agro climatic zone, the bio-efficacy and bio-safety of the crop has to be tested prior to commercialization. Many global corporations, medium sized biotech companies and public institutions conduct this research in many parts of the world.

Do Indian public sector companies spend on agri-biotech R&D or is this something that only MNC seed companies are involved in?

The agriculture sector in India is beset with a number of challenges. At the macro level the growth in urbanisation is leading to high rural to urban migration especially by marginal farmers with little to no land of their own. A resultant shortage of farm labour makes hiring labour more expensive for the Indian farmer who bears the burden of feeding a hungry nation. On his farm, the same farmer is also having to deal with higher incidence of pest attacks of his crops as well as reduced soil nutrition and depleting water resources (or lack of irrigation infrastructure) resulting in reduced yields and loss of income. Cognizant of these challenges public sector companies are spending thousands of crores of rupees every year on agri-biotech solutions specific to addressing some of the problems. These institutions are developing genetically modified seeds of popular cash and food crops that have specific traits included to address issues such as increased soil salinity, pest tolerance, enhance yields etc. Overall, trait development through genetic modification is at various stages of research in public institutions. Out of the total regulatory pipeline of about 9 crops and more than 50 events, more than 50% are from public institutions. If we want to encourage Indian public sector in this field, as is done in China, we should provide them with the right support to deregulate their products and bring them into the market.

It is important to know that Indian public researchers have been deploying investments in genetic engineering of crops over the last 15 years. Beyond countries in Americas and Northern Europe, Indian public research has largest number of scientists, well trained in crop improvement, their safety assessment and deployment in farmer fields. The Indian private sector has demonstrated that these crop improvement efforts can be affordable, scientific and regulatory compliant in accordance with the best regulatory protocols adopted across the world.

How strong is the Indian biosafety protocols and tests, do they conform to international standards?

India has a robust, multi-tiered regulatory system for evaluating biotech crops and very stringent rules and regulations governing the use of plant biotechnology. The regulatory authorities have developed guidelines and protocols for evaluating the biosafety, toxicity, allergenicity, food and feed safety, and large-scale use of biotech crops. As per the procedure there are three committees. The Institutional Bio-safety Committee (IBSC), reviews the facilities (laboratory, green houses & net houses) and the ability to undertake research like recombinant DNA research work, project objectives and capabilities of scientists and adherence of bio-safety guidelines, RCGM (Review Committee on Genetic Modification) under the Ministry of Science and Technology reviews Bio-safety data generated. GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) under the Ministry of Environment & Forests carries out extensive assessment of the biosafety and environmental safety of the technology before approving open field trials to develop the product line for further commercial cultivation. These committees comprise of renowned scientists, experts and policy makers from multiple Ministries including the Ministry of Health. Recommendations of IBSC are important and necessary for getting any approvals from RCGM or GEAC.

After being satisfied that the introduced trait is safe, RCGM recommends conducting contained field trials. At this stage the safety of the product is fairly established. Minimum of three years of BRL trials are required for approval of an event by GEAC. These trials are limited to no more than one acre per trial site location with a cumulative of 20 acres. During field trials along with agronomy data that is generated, effect on soil and environment, effect on non-target organisms, beneficial organisms & other organisms are generated and submitted to the regulatory bodies before the GM crop is approved for cultivation.

Why have some states allowed and others disallowed GM crop trials?

Post the moratorium on the commercialization of bt-brinjal in 2010, the MOEF had suggested in June 2011 that a No Objection Certificate (NOC) should be obtained by applicants from the state agricultural department to conduct the GM field trials in the respective state agricultural universities, even after the RCGM & GEAC, the highest regulatory authority in the country, provide a go ahead. Ironically, when applicants visit the state agricultural department for an NOC, they set aside the applications since there is no designated official who has been trained to deal with the subject, even though GEAC & RCGM (the highest regulatory authority) have given approvals. While there are a few progressive states that have allowed GM crop trails, there are others that have not. There is no scientific rationale for saying no to regulated GM crop trials.

How is the safety of the GM crop established?

The safety of GM crops to humans is established by acute feeding studies of pure protein; sub-chronic feeding studies of the plant materials, compositional analysis; allergenicity tests and animal feeding studies. Only after data compiled from all these studies has indicated that the product is completely safe for humans and the wider environment, is it approved for commercial cultivation. Hence GM crops approved so far are safe to humans, animals and the environment. At the final stage, the Genetic Engineering Approval (Appraisal) Committee reviews the entire information on the trait and takes a decision. In RCGM & GEAC scientific experts deliberate on the efficacy and validity of the data to take appropriate decisions. India has adopted a high level of safeguards in bio-safety and food safety regulations already built into the existing system. Only after thorough testing at different stages and with great care and regulatory oversight, GM crops are authorized for commercial cultivation.

Are there any food crops approved for cultivation across the globe?

Some of the several food crops approved and being cultivated across the globe are cotton, corn, soybean, canola, sugar beet, potato, and alfalfa. Countries across the world are regularly approving new strains of agri-biotech or GM crops and more information on this can be sought through www.isaaa.org, GMO answers.com and other such platforms. As of date there are approximately 29 food crops including cereals, pulses, vegetables and fruits that have been approved for commercial plantation or are undergoing field trials across approximately 40 countries.

Can conventional farming practises or organic farming methods enhance farm productivity and therefore do away with GM technology?

No single approach like conventional crop improvements or organic farming alone can hope to double crop production by 2050. Blending traditional plant breeding techniques with GM techniques will improve crop yields where traditional agricultural practices may not have solutions or would take too long to arrive for farm benefits. However it is also important to note that agri-biotechnology and GM technologies are meant to co-exists with other farming methodologies – whether conventional, organic or others. It is not an exclusive technology.

Critics say that farmers are capable of addressing agricultural hazards like pests, insects with existing farming practices. How would you respond?

According to a survey conducted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), 93% of Indian farmers use chemicals to control insect pests and crops receive between 1-15 pesticide sprays prior to harvest. In cotton alone, it is typical for growers to spray 15-20 times during the growing season to combat the dreaded cotton bollworm, a pest that is known to destroy entire cotton crops and cause huge losses to farmers. Despite the heavy use of pesticides farmers still lose 11-40% of their crop due to pest damage. A study released by industry body Assocham has recently said that pest and disease infestation resulted in crop losses worth Rs 50,000 crore annually in India.

Crop protection includes a variety of strategies used to decrease crop damage due to pests and diseases. These methods include the use of pesticides, cultural practices, biological control organisms, integrated pest management (IPM), genetically modified plants (GMO) and insect pest and disease resistant crop varieties and cultivars.

The above problem needs to be looked at in the light that due to a growing population and shrinking farmland there is a growing shortage of food worldwide. Despite advances in agriculture, 2 billion people of the 7 billion global still go hungry. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion. The amount of food that will need to be produced between 2014 and 2050 will equal the amount grown in the last 2,013 years.

To obtain this enormous quantity of food, agricultural production as we know it today will not be enough. More arable land and water will be needed, climate changes will continue to have an enormous impact on agriculture and increased life expectancy as well as improved diets of people will put an even greater pressure on farmers.
Genetically modified crops are capable of being an important answer to meeting this increased food requirement.

Can seeds with biotech traits increase food production?

India has a multi-agro climatic zone. Selecting the most suitable varieties and hybrid crops for commercial cultivation in different the states like rice, cotton, sorghum, wheat, corn, mustard, soybeans, vegetables, pulses etc. to incorporate the genetic trait would address farmer challenges. Seeds with biotech traits can protect crops from weeds, insects and diseases, that reduce crop yields and farmer income It helps increase farmers’ productivity on existing farmland, without putting fragile or forested lands into food production.

Why is it that Europe does not support GM crops and GM food?

It is a myth that Europe does not support GM technology. A visit to the website of European Food Safety Commission will show that GM foods carrying about 50 different GM events are approved for import and consumption in Europe.

As of September 2014, 49 GMOs, consisting of eight GM cottons, 28 GM maizes, three GM oilseed rapes, seven GM soybeans, one GM sugar beet, one GM bacterial biomass, and one GM yeast biomass have been authorised.

A trillion meals from or derived from GM crops have been consumed globally including Europe demonstrating their safety to humans.

Spain is the largest producer of GM crops in Europe with 137,000 hectares (340,000 acres) of GM maize planted in 2013 (20% of Spain’s maize production).Smaller amounts were produced in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Portugal, Romania and Poland. Even Germany has approved Amflora a potato modified with higher levels of starch for industrial purposes.

What are the GM crops approved for commercial cultivation in India?

In India an example of insect resistant trait developed by GM technology is bt cotton, which is commercially produced now. Currently more than 600 Bt cotton hybrids are approved from more than 30 seed companies from five different sources. Since its commercial introduction in 2002, the acreage under cotton has gone up from 9 million hectares to around 12 million hectares while the cotton production has gone up from 13 million bales to 34 million bales, thus an increase of 165 per cent. India’s cotton yield which was 200 kg per ha in 2000, rose to 362 kg per ha in 2005-06 and 510 kg per ha in 2010. From being an importer of cotton in 2002, today India is the second largest exporter of cotton. 60 lakh cotton farmers of India would not use a technology if it has not delivered results.

More importantly, India has approved several crops for field trails including chickpea, transgenic rice, maize (corn), GM mustard and Bt brinjal. Transgenic field trails have taken place across eight states over the past year, basis data shared by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).

Does India consume GM foods now?

India has been importing GM oils of Canola and Soybean since 2007. Bt Cotton seed oil is being consumed in India since 2002.

Are Bt cotton seeds highly priced and farmers are losing money?

Bt cotton cost per acre is less than 5% of the value of the output from one acre. This is not such a significant cost. Through a reduction in pesticide cost and increase in yield the farmers have made additional profits of more than Rs.8000 per acre. Cumulatively since 2002 the Indian cotton farmers have generated more than Rs. 50,000cr of profits.

Though bt cotton is approved for commercial cultivation, other GM crops are openly cultivated in the country without regulatory approvals?

It is not a fact that any GM crops are cultivated in India without regulatory approval. R&D activities of both the public and private sectors have been put on hold since 2010, causing enormous delay in making these technologies available to farmers. Since 2010 there is a wide gap between the policy and the implementation which has caused uncertainty in technology deployment, investments and further scientific work in jeopardy.

Is Bt brinjal commercialized for production in India?

Brinjal one of the most widely consumed vegetables in India is pending commercial approval since 2010. West Bengal and Odisha account for 50% of brinjal production in India. Bt Brinjal the very first transgenic food crop sought to be sold in the market, the earlier transgenic being Bt cotton.

To ward off pests like the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) insect, the Brinjal plant needs high amount of pesticide sprays with a national average of 20-25 sprays per season and up to 75 sprays in West Bengal. The introduction of the Bt gene in the Brinjal crop helps protect the crop against such insects and reduces the pesticide application by more than 70%. It will enable farmers to substantially increase their farm income due to saving in pesticides and increased marketable yields. A comparative reduction in the use of pesticides will benefit both farmers and end consumers in addition to the environmental benefits that will accrue due to reduced pesticide residues in soil and possibly even groundwater.

More than 25 independent biosafety studies were performed for Bt Brinjal, six years of field testing completed with atleast 60 field trials conducted to establish efficacy and economic benefit to farmers. Yet, our highest regulatory authority GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee), under the MOEF, was reluctant to approve commercialization citing the need for more tests. These tests have not been defined till date. There are about 2000 varieties of local brinjal still available. GEAC has already scrutinized the exhaustive and detailed biosafety testing on bt brinjal, which indicated it is no different from conventional brinjal with respect to human health or the environment.

Has bt brinjal been approved for commercial cultivation in any other country?

Bangladesh through the NCB (the Bangladeshi equivalent of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) approved commercial planting of four Bt Brinjal varieties developed by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) incorporating Mahyco’s proprietary gene construct technology in Oct 30, 2013. Bangladesh become the first country in the world to do so. Following this, 20 farmers planted Bt Brinjal seedlings on over two hectares of land in four brinjal growing regions of Gazipur, Jamalpur, Pabna/Ishurdi and Rangpur in the spring of 2014. There have been no reports of any ill effects so far, as perthe International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) latest status report.

India has enough food stock to address food security goals and increasing population.

Although our current situation in rice and wheat is comfortable, the country is going to face serious shortage of pulses and oilseeds in the next 10-15 years when India’s population is expected to reach 1.5 billion by 2030. With increasing population and climate change , additional food would has to be produced on existing agricultural land or marginal soils to remain a nation with food and nutrition security.

To understand the enormity of the challenge India faces on issue of food shortage, security and depravation, let us at the outset quote some statistics. The net per capita food availability in India in 1971 was 394 gm per day. This was just after the onset of Green Revolution in India.

Exactly 30 years later, in 2001, the net per capita of food grains availability was 396 gm per day: a princely rise of 2 gm! [Source: Economic Survey published by the Government of India]. And by 2015 things have not improved significantly.

Naturally, India ranks very high in the global Hunger Index published by the International Food Policy Research Institute even as several sub-Saharan and out neighbours in South Asia fare far better than us. Ranked 55 out of 76 countries, India for instance, ranks below Nepal [Ranked 44] and Sri Lanka [Ranked 39].

Needless to emphasise a comparison with other countries is central to understanding the extent of food shortage prevailing in India. Advanced countries, on a per capita basis, consume anywhere between 600 gm to 700 gm per day. Such healthy consumption in these countries is supplementary to the substantial quantity of meat, fruits, vegetables and milk.

Can agri-biotechnology technology threaten or destroy the local biodiversity?

Plant biotechnology has not led to a reduction of biological diversity. By increasing the yields on existing agricultural crop land, GM plants contribute to the preservation of natural habitats and global biodiversity. Agricultural crop land can be pared down with the use of GM plants (ISAAA) and thus the conversion of species-rich areas to crop land can be reduced. GM plants allow soil-conserving management that preserves the soils and retains the moisture in the soil. Every agricultural use alters environment and biodiversity.

The diversity of species in the soil is by no means constant. Of course there is an impact on the ecosystem when genetically modified plants are cultivated. This would only be problematic if it were to lie outside the customary fluctuation range and is carefully examined in the course of the approval process.

It is alleged that poor farmers are being forced to buy high priced seeds thereby creating a monopoly by MNCs. Is this true?

Technology not useful to the farmer can never be successfully marketed anywhere in the world. Farmers always only buy seeds developed to suit their local agronomic and environmental conditions and based on their experience. There is no blind trial. In India, it is compulsory to test and register all seeds at local State Agriculture Universities within the ICAR (Indian council of Agriculture Research) system. This ensures that only good quality locally relevant seeds are available. Seed cost in India is below 5% of the revenue earned by the farmer in one acre and as such it is not a significant cost compared to the amount spent on fertilizers, pesticides and other farming operations.

Is there any truth in the allegation that MNCs are patenting Indian seed varieties and taking away the rights of the Indian farmer to save his own seeds for the next farming cycle?

Indian Patent Act does not provide patents on plants and plant parts including seeds. We have to differentiate between seeds and biotech traits. Seeds are carriers of traits, much like how computers carry a chip. The companies who develop seeds through their own research protect them under the Plant Variety Protection Act, 2002. Under this Act the farmer has all the freedom to save seed and reuse it. The Government has full rights to intervene if any particular seed is demanded and the company is not making it available. There are enough safeguards in the Act.

How do you counter the allegation that Biotech seed companies may exploit farmers because they have to buy fresh seeds every year?

The necessity of having to buy fresh seed every year has nothing to do with GM technology. This is a character of any Hybrid seed. Farmers always have a choice not to buy hybrid seed. If they sow varietal seeds they can continue to re sow their own farm saved seed. This has been a common practice among farmers not only for all hybrid seeds but also for some OPV (Open-pollinated varieties) seeds, for years before arrival of biotech crops. Since hybrid seed is a product of male and a female crop it needs to be freshly produced every year by crossing the male and female parents.

Why aren’t long term health studies conducted on GMO plants?

This might surprise you, but long-term health studies have been conducted on GMOs. Aside from the fact that GM foods have a long, safe track record (17 years in the marketplace), GM crops are repeatedly and extensively tested for consumer and environmental safety, and those tests are reviewed in the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, and similar organizations internationally. Tests are conducted by both industry experts and independent organizations.

On Biofortified.org, you can research a growing list of exclusively independent studies, and this link goes to an interesting blog post discussing the perceived bias of industry studies.

Furthermore, the European Union, which strictly regulates GM crops, has also conducted numerous studies on the safety of GMOs. According to the European Commission, “the main conclusion, after more than 130 research projects covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than, e.g., conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Are GMO causing an increase in the use of pesticides?

A recently published research paper that published a meta-analysis on the impact of genetically modified crops, specifically soyabean, maize and cotton, on crop yields, pesticide use and/or farmer profits. This was a global study, conducted by the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, Georg-August-University of Goettingen in Germany.

The results are extremely positive and encouraging. The analysis highlights robust evidence of GM crop benefits for farmers in developed and developing countries. On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent, increased crop yields by 22 per cent, and increased farmer profits by 68 per cent. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed ones.

To give an example – The production of Bt cotton in INDIA and other countries, reduces the use of synthetic pesticides on cotton and also gives high yield. Many field trials have shown that Farmers grew the Bt variety, obtained up to 75% more cotton than those who grew the normal cotton variety. It is also observed that Bt cotton requires lesser sprays of chemical pesticide than for normal variety. So Bt cotton shows a positive impact on the farmer’s life because this variety found to be cost effective as it reduce the number of pesticide spray, time saving and improve the cotton variety in terms of yield and production.

Why do GMO companies seem like they are so against labelling GMO foods?

According to Cathleen Enright, Former Executive Director of the Council for Biotechnology Information – When it comes to safeguarding your health and nutrition, there is much support for mandatory labelling of food, including GM food, if it raises a safety or health concern, for example, to alert sensitive populations to the potential presence of an allergen. There is also the support for mandatory labelling of GM food if there is a change to the food’s composition, nutritional profile, taste or smell, or any other characteristic that would make it different from its conventional counterpart.

But the support cannot be mandatory for labeling of GM food just because the food in the market was produced using genetic engineering, for example, in wine, yogurt or bread made with GM yeast, vegetable oil made from GM soybeans, or cereal sweetened with GM sugar. These foods are as safe and nutritious as their non-GMO counterparts as determined by recognized authorities around the world including the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Science, the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Their safety has also been affirmed globally by food safety regulatory authorities including in the European Union, which comes as a surprise to some who mistakenly believe that GMOs are banned by the European Union. Why then, should GM foods deserve a special label?

Are GMOs contributing to the death of bees and butterflies?

GMOs are not contributing to the death of non-pest species of butterflies. Some types of Bt proteins are purposefully targeted to kill particular moth and butterfly species. These Bt proteins can be produced by plants when they are genetically modified. However, this targeting is intentionally aimed for moth or butterfly pest species that would anyway be killed using insecticide sprays if Bt were not used. Bt proteins are very specific in this regard. Some non-pest species of butterflies can be killed using Bt. However, the butterflies need to eat the Bt in order to die. However it is the pest species and not the non-pest species that eat GMO plants. Therefore, the non-target pest species are not exposed to the Bt and do not die! Studies done in the field have found few effects on non-target pest or beneficial species, including other types of butterflies that are not targeted by Bt. One infamous study found that monarch butterflies can be killed when force-fed milkweed covered in extremely high levels of pollen containing Bt. However, it was easily shown that this study was not realistic since the pollen levels were nearly 6 to 1,000 times higher than those found in the field. Therefore, monarch butterflies, and other types of non-pest butterflies, are not being killed by Bt.

If livestock eat genetically modified grain, will there be GMOs in my meat?

GMO products have been in the US food supply since 1996. The livestock sector in the US and Europe has been one of the most regulated and monitored sectors. Yet almost 20 years of using GMO feeds has resulted in not a single negative impact on animal or human health. Farm animals, raised on GMO corn and soybeans over several generations have shown no evidence of negative effects on growth, reproduction or disease. And there has been no documented case of human illness or allergen associated with GMO foods.
Estimates of the numbers of meals consumed by feed animals since the introduction of GM crops 18 years ago would number well into the trillions. By common sense alone, if GE feed were causing unusual problems among livestock, farmers would have noticed. Dead and sick animals would literally litter farms around the world. Yet there are no anecdotal reports of such mass health problems.

Do GMO cause cancer and other allergies?

Cancer is a terrifying prospect, one of the most feared diseases. The American Cancer Society says that there are “many possible causes” for cancer and provides comprehensive lists of established and anticipated cancer-causing agents. GMOs are not on the lists, not even in the “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens” category.

Scientist worldwide have debunked French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini 2012 study that states that GMO causes cancers because the team used rats that were genetically predisposed to have cancer. The paper was subsequently withdrawn by the journal in which it was published. Additionally, international organisations such as World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences and the European Food Safety Authority have documented GMO safety.

More recently a team of Italian scientists collected more than 1700 studies on GMOs over the last decade alone, none of which showed any cancer risks or significant health threats. A GMO safety study conducted by Council of Biotechnology Information states that GMO food does not cause allergies. According to Food Allergy Research and Education, “nearly any food is capable of causing an allergic reaction.” Most allergens are proteins, and the organization states that ninety percent of food-allergic reactions in the United States are caused by allergens from only eight foods: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, shellfish and fish.

Are big companies forcing farmers to grow GMO`s?

The necessity of having to buy fresh seed every year has nothing to do with GM technology. This is a character of any hybrid seed. Farmers always have a choice not to buy hybrid seed. If they sow varietal seeds they can continue to re sow their own farm saved seed. This has been a common practice among farmers not only for all hybrid seeds but also for some OPV (Open-pollinated varieties) seeds, for years before arrival of biotech crops. Since hybrid seeds are a product of male and a female crop it needs to be freshly produced every year by crossing the male and female parents.

Additionally, the Indian Patent Act does not provide patents on plants and plant parts including seeds. We have to differentiate between seeds and biotech traits. Seeds are carriers of traits, much like how computers carry a chip. The companies that develop seeds through their own research protect them under the Plant Variety Protection Act, 2002. Under this Act the farmer has all the freedom to save the seed and reuse it. The government has full rights to intervene if any particular seed is demanded and the company is not making it available. There are enough safeguards in the Act.

Are GMO`s increasing the price of the food?

The cost of the food is impacted by various factors such as transportation cost, environmental factors, supply, availability etc. GMOs can play an important role in keeping food prices low. According to Graham Brooks, Agriculture Economist GM technology focuses on increasing crop productivity and reducing the cost of technology.

In a recent seminar conducted in India by Prof Susan R McCouch of the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, Cornell University, USA has stated that countries which are cultivating GM crops, the use of pesticides has come down considerably. This has resulted in the cost to cultivating come down considerably.

Are GMO`s contaminating organic food crop?

The coexistence of multiple production methods – organic, conventional and GM – is not a new concept. Farmers have been producing different types of crops next to one another before and since GM seeds were first introduced in 1996, and they work hard every day managing their farms to ensure each crop meets the appropriate marketing requirements.

Additionally, a report from the American Seed Trade Association explains that, “Building upon many generations of experience, coexistence involves agricultural best practices that bring the greatest benefit to all along the agricultural value chain from seed developers to farmers and from retailers to consumers — from field to fork.” The report reminds us that, “The coexistence of various production methods is not a new concept to the agricultural community,” and that, “Farmers are accustomed to producing different crops next to one another.”