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Our Agriculture, Our Food and GM Crops

from the Insider of the Industry

Thus far we have mostly heard the voices of all those who are opposed to GM crops. We present below an article by a well informed insider of the industry.

Population explosion, increasing standards of living and changing food habits in India are already creating considerable pressure on our country's food supply system. Our population is expected to cross 150cr by 2030 and 185cr by 2050. Can we imagine what additional pressures will come on our ability to feed this population with affordable food?
It is clear that we have to increase agricultural production to be able to produce enough food for the expected population. In spite of the fact that we produced 260m tons of food grains in 2013-14, we are woefully behind the targets in pulses, oil seeds and vegetables. We are already importing 20% of our pulses requirement and 50% of our edible oils requirement. It will be practically impossible to meet the demand which is expected to double by 2030 with imports of these two categories of food products. Demand for meat is growing rapidly. Every Kilo of meat production consumes five kilos of agricultural produce, i.e., grains. On the other hand climate change is making agriculture more and more difficult. We have to produce more per acre of land and per litre of water. India has 100m ha of rainfed agriculture and 20m ha of saline soils. The risk bearing ability of the small and marginal farmers in these areas is very low. Can we make these lands more productive and improve the financial position of these farmers?
Traditionally plant breeding which involves crossing lines followed by a process of selection, has helped us to improve crop varieties. The farmers have been selecting good varieties for centuries and have been practising a kind of breeding activity. In its modern avatar, Molecular breeding has brought in a complete new dimension to plant breeding with the use of genomics, molecular markers and various other tools. This has increased the speed and accuracy of breeding. In spite of all these advances the crop yields in India have been growing at less than 1% per annum in almost all the crops since 1990 except in cotton which has seen an annual average of 4.5% growth in yields. There was a spike in cotton yields since 2002 when Bt cotton was introduced.
Seed industry: The formal seed industry structure started in India with the establishment of National Seeds Corporation in the public sector about 60 years back. Various states have set up their own seed development corporations. The private seed industry started about 50 years back. Since there were no entry barriers in seed business many seed companies came up. It is a very fragmented industry with more than 200 seed companies in the country. Seed industry is very regionalized because the germplasm is very region specific. Very few companies have national presence because it is difficult for seed companies to have germplasm which can work all over the country. Seed is a research based product. Every seed variety / hybrid is different. Research needs scale and investment which have been lacking in the seed industry due to fragmentation. Lack of intellectual property protection till 2002 also led to lack of research investment. The net result is that very few companies have world class research facilities among the Indian companies. Multinationals have been allowed in the Indian seed industry. Many of them have built specialization in certain crops based on their global capabilities in those crops.
There are two types of seeds. The single line based varieties (Open Pollinated Varieties - OPV). The farmers have been using OPVs for centuries. These products replicate themselves and hence the farmer can save the grain and use it as seed in the next crop. Our green revolution was achieved with dwarf OPVs (High Yielding Varieties -HYV) in wheat and rice. Hybrids are developed by crossing two varieties. These seeds seggregate in the next generation and hence farmer can not use the grain as seed in the next crop. We have been using hybrids in India for the last 50 years. Some of the crops like cotton, sorghum, millet, corn, sunflower, bhindi, brinjal, etc are almost fully hybridized. While rice, wheat, pulses, soybean, groundnut, mustard, etc have remained OPV crops, hybrid rice and hybrid mustard are just picking up.
Biotechnology: Biotechnology has revolutionized agricultural research for the last 40 years. Biotechnology can be defined as “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, to make or modify products or processes for specific uses. Biotechnology has been classified as classical biotechnology and modern biotechnology. Classical biotechnology products include, making cheese, wine, bread etc. Modern biotechnology products include recombinant DNA pharmaceuticals, immunodiagnostics, industrial and food grade enzymes, genetically modified crops. (Exhibit no.1)
As can be seen from the above definition, biotechnology is something which has been in use for many decades, especially in the case of antibiotics, vaccines, etc. Bread and wine making, using microorganisms, has been in practice for Centuries.
However it is modern biotechnology which is more revolutionary. It involves genetic modification (GM) of organisms and is used extensively in the pharmaceutical industry even in India. Genetically modified (GM) crops have revolutionized crop yields around the world since 1996. Do they provide the answer that we are looking for? (Exhibit no.2)
What is Genetic Modification (GM) technology? A plant contains a gene or genes of a different species which have been artificially introduced into its genome, which expresses a unique trait(s) or characteristic(s) that enhances the overall value of the plant or plant products. Genes of different species could come from other plants or from microorganisms as in the case of Bt. Transgenic plants are also referred as biotech or GM crops.
Traditional crop improvement done by farmers or breeders lacks precision on transfer of particular character or trait. Most of the times un-wanted or other characters get transferred along with the desired character because genes move in batches from one generation to the other. Removing the non-desired characters would take some time for breeders and some time it may not be possible also. After spending considerable time, breeders or farmers’ may not get the desired character and often they compromise. Further, transferring any trait can be possible only between the sexually compatible species which places constraints on the process. GM technology overcomes these limitations and helps in transferring the exact gene very precisely without any attachment of undesirable genes coming along with it. This makes GM technology faster and more precise. (Exhibit No. 3)
GM crops are being used in the world since 1996. Their rapid adoption among farmers is one of the best examples of technology acceptance in agriculture. Corn, Soybean and Cotton are the leading GM crops in the world followed by other crops like Canola, Sweet pepper, Papaya, Brinjal, Sweet Corn, Sugarbeet and Potato.
As per ISAAA (International Service for Acquisition of Agri Biotech Applications) brief 44 reports more than 1.8 cr farmers in 27 countries planted 17.5 cr ha of biotech crops in 2013, reflecting a fifty lakh hectares or three percent increase in global biotech crop acreage. Out of this 19 countries are developing countries. 90% of the farmers who planted GM crops are small and resource poor farmers which shows that it is a scale neutral technology. 2013 also marks the first-ever commercial plantings of drought-tolerant biotech maize in the United States.
Regulatory approval process for GM products in India
The regulatory process in India is very stringent and is on par with the best processes around the world. However, improving the regulatory process is a continuous process. Efforts are being taken by the Government to strengthen the regulatory process further. India has adequate safeguards in bio-safety and food safety already built into the existing system. Only after thorough testing at different stages with great care and regulatory oversight, GM crops are authorized for commercial cultivation.
The same regulatory structure consisting of committees RCGM (Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation) and GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) assess the GM products in agriculture, pharmaceuticals and industrial applications based on which the Minister of Environment and Forests approves the commercialization. High quality scientists and technical experts are members of these committees. RCGM is housed in the Ministry of Science & Technology while GEAC is housed in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. These committees look at various data points involving the safety of the technology to human beings, animals, soil, environment and other important parameters apart from the agronomic performance of the hybrids containing the technology. India has adequate safeguards in bio-safety and food safety already built into the existing system. Only after thorough testing at different stages with great care and regulatory oversight, GM crops are authorized for commercial cultivation.
In agriculture Bt cotton is the only approved product. In Bt. Cotton, five events got approved : cry1Ac (Mon 531 event), cry1Ac & cry2Ab (Mon 15985 event), cry1Ac (Event No.1-JK Agri Genetics), GFM cry1A gene (Nath Seeds), cry1Ac (ICAR event) and cry1C (Metahelix). Bt cotton was commercialized in 2002. Bt is extracted from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt gives the plants the power to kill some of the insects (belonging to Lepidoptera family) when they chew on the plant parts. Bt results in reduced pesticide applications.
In pharmaceuticals 20 different recombinant DNA products, mostly vaccines, are approved. The list includes Insulin, Hepatitis B vaccine, Human growth hormone, etc.
All this information is available on the website www.igmoris.nic.in.
Research in GM crops: Research in GM crops involves developing the gene/construct which gets transferred into the seeds of a crop (it is called an Event). It is a very expensive and time taking process. Many global corporations, medium sized biotech companies and public institutions conduct this research in many parts of the world. Exhibit 4 shows the whole process of developing GM traits. Obtaining regulatory approval some times involves getting clearances from some of the countries who import food (example: Japan). Due to continuous increase in regulatory requirements the cost of obtaining global regulatory approval for a single event has gone beyond 100M$ (Rs.600cr).
GM crop field trials form a part of this process of research and regulatory approval. The objective of trials is to ensure that the efficacy of the genetically modified seeds are scientifically evaluated and data is generated which helps us to understand the bio-safety and the utility. All scientific assessment including field trials is a part of the regulatory process after which GEAC decides for a particular GM event in a crop which may be fit or unfit for cultivation in India.
Commercial arrangements for GM seeds. There are two types of commercial organizations. Those which develop the traits are in the first category of 'Technology Providers'. The second category consists of seed companies who license the trait from the technology providers. The Event is passed to the licensee through 'Donor seed'. The licensee transfers the gene from the donor seed to their own seed in a greenhouse. The licensee produces the parent seeds and the final commercial seeds from this every year and markets them to the farmer. The technology provider gives the donor seed only once when the agreement is signed. The licensee is free to produce and sell after that. All the GM seed is produced in India and there is no import of seed for every year sales. The licensee pays a pre determined royalty to the technology provider based on the volume of seeds sold as is the normal practice in any licensing arrangement for any technology in any field.
Control on Seeds: 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. The biotech traits are patentable under the Patents Act. But it will not cause any food security issues as the seeds are available irrespective of the biotech trait. As mentioned earlier the biotech trait is given only once to the seed company through donor seed and it is an irreversible process. We have to note that the seed is not imported. All the Bt cotton seed is produced in India.
For many decades before GM seeds came, the farmer was buying hybrid seeds every year because grain from hybrid seeds could not be used as seed. On the other hand for centuries the farmer has been saving seed from his crops where they are not hybrids. So, saving of seeds has nothing to do with GM technology. GM technology can be inserted in either hybrids or varieties.
Socio Economic and Environmental benefits of GM crops: Between 1996 and 2012, biotech crops have made positive contributions through: decreased production costs and increased productivity (estimated at 377 million tons) valued at US $117 billion; environmental benefits by eliminating the need for 497 million kg (active ingredient) of pesticides; reduced Carbon Dioxide emissions by 27 billion kg in 2012 alone (equivalent to removing 12 million cars from the road for one year); conserving biodiversity by saving 123 million hectares of land from being placed in agricultural production during the period 1996 to 2012; and alleviating poverty for 16.5 million small farmers and farm families, totaling more than 65 million people. (Source: ISAAA)
Government Policy & Implementation: A written biotech policy of the Government of India, drafted by a Committee headed by Dr MS Swaminathan ten years ago clearly supports the use of GM technology in all crops including food crops. The only exception made was Basmati Rice. There was no other ban on the use of this technology in the policy document. The Government of India spends thousands of crores of rupees every year including ongoing work in public institutions on GM technology. So far more than Rs.8000 cr is invested by the government in biotech research.
More than 50% of the traits under development in India are from the public institutions. Various traits like Insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, drought tolerance, virus resistance have been developed by the public institutions in several crops like vegetables, pulses, cotton, rice and others. There is a considerable inventory of traits developed in these institutions which needs to be brought to the market through a support mechanism for their regulatory approval and commercial introductions. When public institutions participate actively in the market it helps to contain potential monopolistic practices. (Exhibit no.5)
Bt Cotton: The initial objective for developing plants based on GM organisms was to improve crop protection. The GM crops currently on the market are mainly aimed at an increased level of crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses or through increased tolerance towards herbicides.
Insect resistance is achieved by incorporating into the food plant the gene for toxin production from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (BT). This toxin is currently used as a conventional insecticide in agriculture and is safe for human consumption. GM crops that permanently produce this toxin have been shown to require lower quantities of insecticides in specific situations, e.g. where pest pressure is high.
In India an example is the commercial production of bt cotton. Since the 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. The fact that 60 lakh cotton farmers of India have been using Bt cotton for the last 12 years shows that the technology has delivered results.
GM traits in the pipeline: There are many GM traits available in the GM space which could be of great use to India in the coming years in its effort to fight drought, salinity, high fertiliser use, improving agricultural productivity and so on. The country is going to face serious shortage of pulses and oilseeds in the next 10-15 years as we try to meet the changing food habits of our increasing population. We are going to see a serious shortage of farm labour which will demand technologies that can work with less labour force. The humongous amount of water we use for cultivating transplanted paddy, just to use water as a weed management mechanism, will shortly become a luxury that we cannot afford. We need to find different ways of cultivating paddy and using other technologies to control weeds, while using the water to grow other crops. GM can help us in all these areas with input traits like herbicide tolerance.
There are output traits which enhance the grain quality of crops in terms of nutrition through fortified food. Golden Rice is one example. There are healthy oils in soybean and other crops with GM technology. There are also traits that enhance the nutrition value of corn which will help the animal feed industry.
The story of the 'humble' Bt brinjal: Brinjal is one of the most widely consumed vegetables in India. To ward off pests like the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) insect, it needs highest 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 was to protect the crop against such insects. Bt brinjal reduces the pesticide application by more than 70%. It will enable farmers to substantially increase their farm income due to saving in pesticides, increased marketable yields while consumers benefit from a relatively much less pesticide sprayed vegetable, less prices and environmental benefits.This technology was developed by the seed company Mahyco in collaboration with two Agricultural Universities, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwar and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore. Mahyco offered Bt in brinjal hybrids while the two Universities were offering the same Bt in OP varieties of brinjal. In spite of the approval by GEAC, a moratorium was imposed on the development of Bt brinjal in 2010 by the Minister of Environment and Forests. For bt brinjal more than 25 independent bio-safety studies were performed, six years of field testing completed with at least 60 field trials conducted to establish efficacy and economic benefit to farmers. Although our highest regulatory authority GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee), under the MOEF, recommended the commercialization of Bt brinjal in 2010 but the event was put on hold through a moratorium by the then Minister of MOEF. The Minister asked GEAC to prescribe more tests to check the safety of the Bt Brinjal, but till today these tests have not been specified. GEAC had already scrutinized the exhaustive and detailed bio safety testing on bt brinjal, which indicated it is no different from conventional brinjal with respect to human health or the environment. Bt Brinjal is safe to human beings. This can be established in two ways. One nature of Bt. Protein: Bt protein is non-toxic as per the data on acute and sub-chronic toxicity studies; non-allergenic as per data on thermal stability and protein digestibility. Mode of action of Bt. Protein: There are three steps to occur before Bt. Protein shows it activity: one-Bt protein have to undergo digestion by proteases to release the active part of protein and this has to occur at alkaline pH 10.5+; second- epithelial cells of mid-gut should have receptors to provide anchoring for the Bt. Protein; third-formation of pore in the mid gut. Has the human and animal guts are devoid of proteases specific to Bt. Protein, having acidic pH in the gut, and no receptors on the epithelial cells, the Bt protein do not get activated to harm animals and human beings.
Meanwhile Bangladesh through the NCB (the Bangladeshi equivalent of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) approved commercial planting of four Btbrinjal varieties developed by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), incorporating Mahyco’s proprietary gene construct technology in Oct 30, 2013, becoming the first country in the world to do so. Following this, 20 farmers planted Btbrinjal seedlings on over two hectares of land in four brinjal growing regions of Gazipur, Jamalpur, Pabna/Ishurdi and Rangpur in the spring of 2014, and there has been no reports of any ill effects so far, mentioned the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) in its latest status report.
Now let us look at few questions and answers which have been prepared by WHO (World Health Organization) in response to questions and concerns by a number of WHO Member State Governments with regard to the nature and safety of genetically modified food. One of the objectives of the WHO Food Safety Program is to assist national authorities in the identification of foods that should be subject to risk assessment, including GM foods, and to recommend the correct assessments.
What are genetically modified (GM) organisms and GM foods? Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.Such methods are used to create GM plants – which are then used to grow GM food crops.
Why are GM foods produced?GM foods are developed – and marketed – because there is some perceived advantage either to the producer or consumer of these foods. This is meant to translate into a product with a lower price, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both. Initially GM seed developers wanted their products to be accepted by producers so have concentrated on innovations that farmers (and the food industry more generally) would appreciate.
Are GM foods assessed differently from traditional foods? (WHO) Generally consumers consider that traditional foods (that have often been eaten for thousands of years) are safe. When new foods are developed by natural methods, some of the existing characteristics of foods can be altered, either in a positive or a negative way National food authorities may be called upon to examine traditional foods, but this is not always the case. Indeed, new plants developed through traditional breeding techniques may not be evaluated rigorously using risk assessment techniques.With GM foods most national authorities consider that specific assessments are necessary. Specific systems have been set up for the rigorous evaluation of GM organisms and GM foods relative to both human health and the environment. Similar evaluations are generally not performed for traditional foods. Hence there is a significant difference in the evaluation process prior to marketing for these two groups of food.
Are GM foods safe? (WHO)Different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.
GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles and, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods. (Exhibit no.6)
Now let us look at a few more myths that are being propagated among common people and the Facts:
Myth: Conventional farming /organic farming instead of GM technology will enhance productivity.
Fact: No single approach like conventional crop improvement alone will double crop production by 2050. Blending new technologies and plant breeding techniques with conventional farming systems would improve crop yields where traditional agricultural practices may not have solutions or would take too long to arrive for farm benefits. We need a package of solutions in which GM is also one part.
Myth: GM Crops lead to loss of biodiversity.
Fact: The biodiversity in the farm fields is not destroyed in this process of crop improvement or the deployment of Genetic Modification technology (GM). Genetic diversity is rather preserved in the gene banks of various seed banks / Institutes and is utilized fully to develop new varieties. The variety of biological and genetic diversity is progressively reduced in the commercial arena because of the process of selection and breeding. It has nothing to do with the use of Genetic Modification (GM) technology. Such diverse genetic background is available to plant breeders to be used in their breeding programs to improve the plant varieties, hence it is not lost. It is to be noted that when all companies use the GM technology in a crop, their market share will depend on the quality of their genetics. Hence every company will try to improve the quality of their products by using diverse genetic materials. This necessitates maintaining and developing diverse materials. For example now we have more than 600 Bt cotton hybrids representing a wide variety of genetic materials. So, GM has no incremental adverse effect on biodiversity.
Myth: Europe does not support GM crops and GM foods
Fact: The website of European Food Safety Authority shows that GM foods carrying about 25 different GM events are approved for import and consumption in Europe. Six EU countries planted a record 114,490 hectares of biotech Bt maize, up 26% from 2010, and an additional two countries planted the biotech potato “Amflora”. A trillion meals from or derived from GM crops have been consumed globally including Europe demonstrating their safety to humans. (Exhibit no.7)
Myth: India does not consume GM foods now.
Fact: India has been importing GM oils of Canola and Soybean since 2007. Bt Cotton seed oil is being consumed in India since 2002.
Myth: Bt cotton seeds are highly priced and farmers are losing money.
Fact: 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.50,000 cr of profits.
Myth: Farmers commit suicides due to the failure of Bt cotton.
Fact: Bt cotton has not added any additional risk to the farmers. Farmer suicide is a tragic phenomenon that takes place for a variety of complex social and economic reasons which long pre-date the introduction of insect-protection Bt cotton technologies in India since 2002 in hybrid cotton seeds. The GM technology completely eliminated the intensity of the devastating pest cotton bollworm and enhanced economic conditions of cotton growers. Over 90% of the cotton crop in Gujarat and Punjab is a GM crop and there are no farmer suicides in these states.
Myth: Farmers are being forced to buy high priced seeds because of monopoly by MNCs. 
Fact: More than 600 hybrids of Bt cotton seed are available from more than 30 seed companies representing Bt cotton technology from five sources. There is no question of monopoly of seed by any one company. The prices of Bt cotton are currently fixed by the State Governments.
Myth: GM seed is to be bought every year by the farmer while non-GM seed can be saved by him.
Fact: Seed has to be bought every year if it is a hybrid and it can be saved if it is a OP Variety. Farmers have been buying hybrid seeds every year for more than 5 decades. This has nothing to do with GM technology which can be carried by both hybrids and OP varieties.
Myth: GM seeds have to be imported every year from a foreign company. Hence our agriculture becomes a slave of a foreign company.
Fact: All seeds (except for a few vegetable varieties) are produced in India. Bt cotton is produced 100% in India. 95% of the production is done by small and medium Indian companies. Indian farmers produce seed which is a huge economic activity in the villages. Production of Bt cotton seed generates an income of more than Rs. 1500 cr to the small and resource poor farmers in the villages of AP, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Bt brinjal, if approved, also will be produced in India.
Myth: Seed companies have gone out of business because of Bt cotton
Fact: More than 30 seed companies have been given access to Bt cotton technology through a licensing mechanism in India. This covers all the important cotton seed companies including the small and medium sized ones. More than 600 Bt cotton hybrids are made available by these companies to the farmers. All these cotton seed companies have grown their business with the help of the technology. No seed company has gone out of business because of the technology.
Shri Narendra Modi mentioned in his recent speech to agricultural scientists on the occasion of the 86th ICAR foundation day, where he stressed the need to disseminate technologies to farmers in a simple manner and make “per drop, more crop”. Quoting Shri Modi, “We have to find ways to produce more on less land and in less time without any quality erosion.”
If this dream has to be realized we need to work with a basket of solutions. No single approach can take us there. GM technology definitely has a part to play in this basket of solutions. It is not a silver bullet. But it has to be used particularly in areas where traditional breeding can not produce answers or will take too long to produce the answers. We need to prioritize our crop portfolio, determine the crops and the GM traits that we want to use in India and establish a clear research investment plan in those identified priority crops and traits. This is the time for an informed and constructive dialogue among stakeholders under the auspices of the Government to iron out the differences and arrive at a common action plan with the objective of producing enough food to fee our 150cr population by 2030 and our 180cr population by 2050.
Author is the Chairman of Association of Biotech Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), an industry body representing agri biotech companies. He represents the interests of the agri biotech companies in India.


About Author

Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is an Indian academic and writer. She was a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), based in Delhi, and the Director of the Indic Studies Project based at CSDS which aims to promote the study of "Religions and Cultures in the Indic Civilization".