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GM Food: Frankenfood or Panacea?

Though the Indian government is generous in funding biotech research, it is extremely cautious in reaping the benefits of the research. This extreme sense of
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Though the Indian government is generous in funding biotech research, it is extremely cautious in reaping the benefits of the research. This extreme sense of caution is evident from its handling of the case of genetically modified Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, otherwise known as DMH-11. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) which functions under the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and which is responsible for regulating the commercial release of genetically modified crops (GM crops) granted environmental clearance for DMH-11 in 2017. However, on account of pressure from those opposed to GM crops, the Ministry of Environment vetoed the clearance saying that GEAC should conduct further studies on GM food crops before clearance for DMH-11 is finalised.  

On 22 October 2022, GEAC gave clearance for DMH-11 a second time. With this clearance, DMH-11 is ready for seed production and performance evaluation trials on the field before it is approved for commercial release. During the evaluation period, its effects on pollinating insects such as honeybees will be studied after which the government has to take a call as to whether DMH-11 should be allowed for commercial cultivation.

  

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DMH-11 was developed by means of hybridisation with the help of transgenic technology at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) at Delhi University by Professor Deepak Pental and his team of scientists. To produce DMH-11, they hybridised the genetically modified Indian mustard called Varuna with the genetically modified East European Early Heera-2. The process of hybridisation of the two genetically modified mustard varieties is fascinating

National Agricultural Science Museum
National Agricultural Science Museum, New Delhi.

Hybridization is not easily possible in a hermaphrodite plant, a plant having both stamen (the male reproductive organ) and pistil (the female reproductive organ) and hence self-pollinates. Since the mustard plant is a hermaphrodite, unless the self-pollinating nature of the plant is turned off, it cannot be subjected to hybridisation through a normal cross-pollination process. Therefore, Pental and his team genetically modified Varuna so that it would turn off its male reproductive faculty and become purely female and crossed it with Early Heera-2 which was also genetically modified in such a way that in the progeny from the hybridization, the male reproductive faculty will be turned on and making it a hermaphrodite. This can be done only by means of transgenic hybridization that involves both genetic modification (GM) technology as well as hybridisation.   

Understanding the process of genetic modification calls for a basic understanding of the cell of an organism. Take the case of a human cell. At the centre of every human cell, there is a nucleus. The nucleus contains 46 chromosomes. Similarly, every cell of every organism has a nucleus even though the number of chromosomes varies from organism to organism. Each chromosome contains a certain amount of deoxyribonucleic acid, commonly known as DNA arranged in a certain order as if in the form of some code. Each section of this code is what is known as a gene, the carrier of certain characteristics of the organism from one generation to another. For example, the colour of one’s hair or skin is determined by the genes one has inherited from one’s parents. 

Dr Deepak Pental
Dr Deepak Pental, agriculture scientist.

Modifying certain characteristics of an organism by inserting the desired DNA from another organism is the scientific principle behind genetic modification (GM) technology, known also as genetic engineering or biotechnology. After inserting the desired DNA into the cell of the recipient organism, the resultant cell is grown in tissue culture and developed into an organism whose progeny will inherit the characteristics specific to the inserted DNA.    

GM technology is used both in animals and plants. However, it is used mostly to modify agricultural plants. By altering the genetic makeup of agricultural plants, we can ensure the development of high-quality plants with desired medical properties and enhanced nutrient components at low costs. Their high-yielding nature and ability to endure environmental and climatic stress and resist pests and diseases make them commercially sustainable and highly cost-effective. Since these plants are programmed either to hasten or delay the maturing, softening and ripening of their crops, their crops are characterised by desired storage and shelf life.   

For the transgenic hybridisation of the Varuna with Early Heera-2, the scientists extracted three genes, namely, Barnase, Barstar and Bar from the bacterium called bacillus amyloliquefaciens found in soil. Barnase has the capacity to eat up the Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) of cells other than the cells in which it is found. What prevents Barnase from eating up the RNA of the cell in which it exists is the presence of Barstar in the same cell. Every cell of bacillus amyloliquefaciens contains Barnase and the Barstar, the gene that has the potential to destroy RNA and the gene that has the potential to protect RNA.  

GM technology is used both in animals and plants. However, it is used mostly to modify agricultural plants. By altering the genetic makeup of agricultural plants, we can ensure the development of high-quality plants with desired medical properties and enhanced nutrient components at low costs. Their high-yielding nature and ability to endure environmental and climatic stress and resist pests and diseases make them commercially sustainable and highly cost-effective.

The scientists took the Barnase and introduced it into the cell of the Indian mustard, Varuna, and cultured the cell into a plant. Barnase, now found in Varuna, turned off the possibility of the plant’s stamen that produces sperm encapsulated in its pollen grains. Consequently, the new Varuna plant became purely female. They introduced Barstar as well as Bar to the cell of Early Heera-2. The presence of Barstar made the cell resistant to the attack of Barnase. The cell was cultured into a plant and then its sperm was used in cross-pollinating the new purely female Varuna in order to produce DMH-11. Since the cells of DMH-11 contain both Barnase and Barstar, Barnase present in these cells will not be able to eat up the RNA in the same cells. 

This principle ensures the preservation of the cells of DMH-11 and the survival of the plant. Barstar present in DMH-11 turns on its ability to produce sperm encapsulated in pollen grains. This enables seed production by means of pollination, this time self-pollination. Bar introduced into Early Heera-2 makes the DMH-11 resistant to the herbicide glufosinate and hence its survival even when herbicide glufosinate is sprayed in the mustard field to destroy weeds. Furthermore, owing to the hybridisation process that has gone into its creation, DMH-11 has the capacity to yield 28% more than its parent Varuna.

GM mustard in India
The process of hybridisation of the two GM mustard varieties is fascinating.

While the global average in mustard yield is about 2,000 to 2,200 kilos per hectare, the Indian average for traditional Indian varieties of mustard is about 1,200 kilos per hectare. The quantity of mustard harvested in India is inadequate to meet the requirement of edible oil in India. Owing to India’s deficient production of edible oil, about 60% of its requirement is by import at the expense of billions of dollars. During the financial year 2021-22, while India produced 8.5 million tonnes of edible oil, it imported 14 million tonnes of edible oil at the cost of $18.99 billion. Unless India maximises the production of its oil seeds like mustard through hybridisation, it is difficult for the country to become self-sufficient in its production of edible oil. This is where the role of GM technology in the agricultural field can turn out to be the saving grace. After all, genetically modified food has been around the world for human consumption for over two decades now and it is increasingly becoming a major component of the food chain in the world.

While the United States has been largely optimistic about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), especially crops, and has been growing them on a large scale, Europe has been largely pessimistic about it. In fact, 19 out of the 27 member countries of the European Union have voted to ban GM crops either partially or fully. All the same, GM crops remain a strongly debated issue across the globe. In India, Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), a political and cultural affiliate of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), an Indian farmers’ organization also affiliated to RSS, as well as different environmentalists have been opposing the GM crops in the country. However, India introduced Bt Cotton, a genetically modified version of cotton for commercial cultivation in the country in 2002 and it turned out to be a runaway success. Today, Bt cotton accounts for 90% of the cotton produced in the country, and it turned India from being an importer to a major exporter of cotton. Even though GEAC approved the commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal in 2009, four months later, the government imposed an indefinite moratorium on the commercial cultivation of the product owing to serious objections from various quarters in the country. 

In 2019, globally, 678 million people were affected by hunger. In 2020, their number rose to 782, and in 2021, the number rose to 828 million. The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and conflict have contributed to this phenomenal rise. Hunger is becoming a major problem in the world, especially in most parts of the developing world today. The political will of the nations of the world notwithstanding, an increase in food production can definitely be an antidote to world hunger to some extent. 

Hunger map 2021
Map of countries by percentage of population suffering from chronic hunger.

As per the estimate of the World Health Organization (WHO), 50,000 to 5,00,000 children become blind worldwide every year due to Vitamin A deficiency and about 50% of them die within 12 months of their becoming blind. Genetically modified Golden Rice was developed by Professors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, two European scientists, in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2004 as a remedy for Vitamin A deficiency. On the humanitarian ground, Potrykus and Beyer donated the Golden Rice technology to the public in countries where rice is the staple diet. The case of Golden rice is a clear instance of how GM technology and its progeny, GM food, can serve as a panacea for the illnesses and ills of humanity. 

GM technology has its undersides too. Genetic modification of an organism results in the alteration of its natural state and original behaviour with possible unknown consequences on itself, on the environment in which it flourishes, on the biodiversity around it, and on humans. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) also raise many moral and ethical concerns.     

As per the estimate of the World Health Organization (WHO), 50,000 to 5,00,000 children become blind worldwide every year due to Vitamin A deficiency and about 50% of them die within 12 months of their becoming blind. Genetically modified Golden Rice was developed by Professors Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, two European scientists, in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 2004 as a remedy for Vitamin A deficiency.

The fear that the introduction of GM technology in the agricultural sector will be the death knell of the traditional indigenous seeds and that the farmers will automatically come under the control of multinational companies that produce, patent, market and control GM seeds, is not entirely unfounded. In case of the failure of the company in question, the farmers who depend on it for seeds, pesticides and fertilisers to grow the GM crop will be at the receiving end resulting in a crisis in the market. 

Critics of GM technology often refer to GM food as Frankenfood after Mary Shelley’s fictional monster that was brought to life by a dangerously ambitious scientist, Victor Frankenstein, in his laboratory with disastrous consequences. In her essay, “Making a ‘Monster’: An Introduction to Frankenstein,” Anne K. Mellor says, The condemners of genetically modified meats and vegetables now refer to them as ‘Frankenfoods,’ and the debates concerning the morality of cloning or stem cell engineering constantly invoke the cautionary example of Frankenstein’s monster.” 

The debate as to whether GM food crops will turn out to be the treacherous Frankenfood or a panacea for the illnesses, ills and paucity of the world will and should continue. This healthy debate will keep the world treading on the road of GM technology with care, caution and responsibility. 

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of thespace.ink or its editorial team members. 

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Having pursued his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s College, he furthered his academic journey by obtaining a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Pune University, a Master of Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a PhD from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. In addition to his academic pursuits, he writes on a wide array of subjects encompassing literature, philosophy, religion, culture, cinema, politics, and the environment.

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