This article concentrates on the recent issue of Genetically Modified Rice (GM rice), its implication, and its impact and vice versa. However, to have a clear-cut vision, we must briefly understand the science behind it, i.e., genetic modification in biotechnology.
Genetic Modification and How it is Done?
Biotechnology has evolved with scientific advancements, where numerous techniques are implemented for the betterment of different sectors like agriculture, medicine, forensics, etc. For example, in agriculture, intense research through genetic application has been done on crops and plant species, making them pest resistant, cold-tolerant, etc. Hence, genetic modification in crops is done through alteration on genetic material through Recombinant DNA Technology (RDT) or Genetic Engineering Techniques.
Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) or Genetically Engineered Organisms are obtained through specific DNA clones using RDT and adds up to the DNA of one organism to the genome of another. The added genes are called transgene. The transgene inserts itself into a chromosome and is passed to the progeny as a new component of the genome. Hence the resulting organisms carrying the transgene are called Transgenic Organisms or Genetically Modified Organisms. In this way, a designer organism is made that contains some specific change required for an experiment in basic genetics or improvement for some commercial strain.
Now, let us understand the scientific procedure, how Genetic modification of plants is done.
- A plant organism is identified as having desired characteristics.
- A specific gene having the desired characteristics is located and cut out from the DNA.
- Then the gene is attached to a carrier which is a piece of bacterial DNA called Plasmid, to get it modified.
- A type of switch called ‘Promoter’ is also included with combined gene and carrier. This helps the gene to work properly. The carrier often includes marker gene to identify them.
- The gene package is then inserted back into the bacterium, which is allowed to reproduce and create many copies of the gene package.
- Then the gene is transferred into a plant modified with the help of gold or tungsten particles and fires at high speed in the plant tissue or by using soil bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens).
- The plant tissue which is inserted with the genes becomes a full-size GM plant.
To check whether the plant has been genetically modified with naked eyes, scientists have developed some techniques. An extra marker gene is inserted in the plants like when the plant is exposed to a chemical test; it changes colour.
India’s Approach towards Genetically Modified Crops
Green Revolution had tremendously increased food supply in India, but the mere fact is that hunger has grown in India in absolute terms some 320 million people. Although setting food grain production target’s 367.3 million tonnes is not enough as these include exports. So results in a deficit in feeding the country’s people. But how will GM remove such food crisis?
However, agrochemical is often too expensive, and it is not possible to increase further yield by using conventional breeding. But the use of GM crops, improved yields are possible. Yet, the environmental and human health impact of the crops is not evaluated on a long-term basis. Having a rich background in farming, India‘s introduction of GM crops affects less on evaluating with a range of production. Bt cotton, the first GM crop introduced In India, showed diverse responses throughout the country. New GM crops, like Bt Brinjal and GM mustard, have got approval for open field trial, but due to debate among the varied critics, it was marred and disapproved for commercial cultivation.
The approval for experimentation is conducted by GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee), who is responsible for granting permits and large-scale open field trails and approval for commercial release of biotech crops.
Regulations on GM Crops in India
- Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee is India’s top biotech regulator, which functions as a statutory body under the Environment Protection Act 1986 of the Ministry of Environment and Forest.
- Earlier it was known as Genetic Engineering Approval Committee.
- The committee is responsible for the approval of activities involving large scale use of hazardous microorganisms and recombinants in research and industrial production from the environmental angle.
- It is also accountable for granting proposals relating to the release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment.
- GEAC checks the unapproved GM variant, and such cases can attract a jail term of 5 years and a fine of Rs 1 lakh under EPA 1989.
- According to Food and Safety Standard Authority (FSSAI), a recently issued order set the tolerance limit of accident-prone GMO is 1% of the imported consignment. The regulation does not apply to processed food at present.
- Although the role of GEAC was diluted with the enactment of the Food Safety and Standard Act, 2006 and FSSAI was asked to take over approvals of imported goods.
- An order was issued by FSSAI on 21 August 2020, requiring Non – GM origin and GM-free certificate issued by the competent national authority of the exporting country.
Genetically Modified Rice
Genetically Modified rice is genetically altered variety for agricultural purposes. The rice genome is modified by the process known as Agrobacterium mediated Transformation. Hence the rice plant DNA is modified to become pest resistant, herbicide resistant, generate nutrients and flavours or even produce human protein.
Golden Rice Project
- Golden rice is a variety of Oryzasativa (Asian rice), which is produced through biofortification.
- Biofortification increases the nutritional values of the crops.
- The rice is modified to produce Beta carotene, which is a precursor of Vitamin A
- The project was introduced in 1999, where two European scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, planned to increase the nutritional value of rice through genetic engineering, which was further proposed to the Rockefeller Foundation.
- Presently, a transnational agribusiness corporation Syngenta currently holds commercial rights to it.
- Another new variety called Golden Rice 2 was announced in 2005, which produces upto 23 times more Beta carotene than original golden rice.
- As it produces Beta carotene, which gets converted to Vitamin A, it helps to metabolise the human body.
- Vitamin A is good for healthier skin and the immune system.
- Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is widespread in the population dependent on rice or other micro-nutrient carbohydrate foods. Hence, its golden rice will combat the VAD deficiency in this region.
- It may also cause eye dryness that leads to blindness in children, especially if it’s not treated. Advocates claim it can counteract VAD by maintaining Vitamin A levels.
- It cures infectious diseases such as measles as well.
The Golden Rice Debate
The Golden Rice Project was announced as a way to help underdeveloped countries find a solution to VAD. After that, however, a backlash against the GMO arose, halting the project’s expansion. Friends of the Earth, MASIPAG (a farmer-led organisation in the Philippines), and Green Peace were among the many individuals and organisations who spoke out. Simultaneously, proponents of the project, such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, continued to tout the initiative’s potential benefits.
In the international forum, a clear debate was counted for or against the Golden rice. Laureates say that Golden rice has the potential to reduce or eliminate VAD. But the opposition raises the question of what conditions might that potential be actualised? Although two conditions must be set up in Golden rice, it must be suitable for cultivation and should be bioavailable that is easy to digest.
Taking the former into account, both Golden rice varieties are Japonica, which is easier to modify and does not perform well in Asian fields, especially in Indian fields. And the latter is mere vexed, as studies done by the journal ‘The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition’ found that natural intake of golden rice like any other variety is not evitable, as it needs proper fat intake as well absorbs Beta- carotene. So, reflecting the actual lives and habits of poor Asians and Africans, who generally cannot afford fat-rich meals every day.
Hence, the facts above suggest that neither green peace nor regulatory hurdles have delayed the golden rice release. In fact, India’s distinguished biotechnologists Dr Swapan Dutta, former Director general (crop science) of ICAR, stated, “Golden rice will only be available broadly to farmers, and consumers if it is successfully developed into rice varieties suitable for Asia, approved by national regulators and shown to improve Vitamin A status in community conditions”.
Current Debate about Golden Rice in India
Due to opposition, the Golden rice project employed golden rice in fewer developing countries than originally proposed. Currently, there are 16 national rice research institutions under the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, including those in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, India, South Africa, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Only one GM crop has been approved in India: Bt cotton. There are no GMO food crops that have been approved for commercial cultivation. Enclosed field trials, on the other hand, are allowed at least 20 Gm crops. Public universities and research institutions such as the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and private companies like Bayer Bioscience and Mahyco have conducted Golden rice trials.
Recently, a French manufacturer of rice flour claimed to have found unauthorised GM rice in a consignment of 500 tonnes of broken rice imported from India in June 2021, which led to loss in its reputation of India and its agricultural market India being the leading exporter of rice.
Was GM Rice Exported from India?
Commercial production of genetically modified rice is prohibited, according to the Commerce Ministry. Since the European Union (EU) forbids the use of genetically modified rice, the source of contamination is unknown. However, contamination could have occurred during rice flour production in Europe, according to the EU. Although APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) launched an investigation, the source was revealed as a Maharashtra-based dealer who had received non-GMO certification from a testing organisation only before shipping.
The EU has been asked to provide specific genetic markers to do additional research. Farmers and environmentalists claim that plants or seeds from GM field trials could contaminate non-GM crops, pointing to the unlawful GM cotton and brinjal varieties that are currently on the market.
What are the Implications for Indian Farmers?
As the world’s leading rice exporter, India earned Rs 65000 crore last year from the sale of 18 million tonnes of grain. Premium basmati rice makes up a fourth of the total. The largest importers of basmati are West Asian countries, the United States, and the United Kingdom, while the majority of non-basmati goes to African countries, Nepal, and Bangladesh. For Indian farmers, such an incidence may have been a nightmare scenario, similar to what happened in the United States in 2006 when Bayer tested residues of GM rice variety during exports. As a result, rice exports from the United States were halted by trading partners such as Japan, Russia, and the European Union, affecting farmers and forcing Bayers to pay $750 million in penalties. India established regulations to ban GM trials in the basmati belt under pressure from the rice export lobby at the time.
- As many Indian farmers are dependent on European imports, the centre must check to assuage the importers that India’s produce is compliant with trade demands.
- For the sake of domestic and export customers, the regulatory regime must be tightened.
- Government must ensure that research into all approaches – GM or non- GM should not become a casualty in this matter of export quality compliance.
- And to garner the level of public interest and support, so that with development of agricultural technology, sustenance is needed for policy perspective, with both donor and recipient nations.
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