Benefits and banes of consuming GM foods

Benefits and banes of consuming GM foods
This week, environment minister Prakash Jayadekar announced the government’s decision to disallow field trials of 13 genetically modified or GM crops. Earlier, these trials were all set to be conducted.

What are GM plants and food? GM crop plants come from seeds that have undergone a transgenic process during which selected DNA originating in a different species is inserted into them. Thus, a plant geneticist can isolate the gene for resisting drought from one plant species and insert it into a totally unrelated species. The new plant will have high tolerance for resisting droughts. Genes from non-plant organisms also can be inserted into plants to create seeds as has been done for creating Bt Cotton, which grows in India. The crystal protein genes of bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which has the ability to produce crystal protein that kills insect larvae, has been transferred into cotton seeds.

GM food propagators say that such plants would be resistant to pests, droughts, excessive rain, extreme cold or heat and herbicides. They would also have higher vitamin content since they would be nutritionally enhanced. Some researchers are even working to produce plants which have vaccines inserted into them so as to reduce disease. According to scientists, global hunger can be appeased with the quality and quantum of food from GM sources.

India is a leading nation in the development and use of GM crops. Bt Cotton has been harvested in India for many years now. Because of widespread agitation by environmental group Greenpeace, our then environment minister Jairam Ramesh put on hold the introduction of Bt Brinjal into India even though the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had approved its introduction into India.

However, there are arguments for and against GM foods. Some people say that they have the potential to harm other species. A study is being conducted in Europe to verify the claim that monarch butterfly caterpillars that consumed pollen originating from Bt Corn plants died. Honeybees around the world may have fallen prey to insecticides being introduced into seeds. There has been a decline in honeybees around the world since 2005 and the main cause for this appears to be pesticides like neonicotinoids being applied to seed which are then absorbed by plant tissues as they grow.

There is also a fear that insects may become resistant to the GM crops which have been modified to produce their own herbicides. Some people feel that plants which have been engineered for pesticide tolerance may cross breed with weeds around them, thus resulting in weeds impervious to any pesticide.

GM foods could also increase allergic reactions in humans as happened with Bt Cotton crops being grown in Madhya Pradesh. According to a report, many people involved in picking the cotton to load and unload, weigh, and store in their homes, suffered from an allergic reaction to it. A woman was also hospitalised for nine days.

India, with its exploding population, needs to come up with a foolproof plan to be able to feed all its millions. Bill Gates, on his visit to India, had suggested that India should go in for advances in food technology to make it easier for her to feed her starving millions. What he meant was that we should increase GM plants and food in the country. But what is very important is that all of us, when choosing a food to eat, should ensure it has been grown in the best possible way and is as clean of pesticides and herbicides as possible so as to ensure we get the maximum nutrients into your body. After all, this is the fuel for us to carry on living.

(The writer is a vegan chef and author of The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style!)

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