Transgenic Crops

Context:  Three States, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana, have deferred a proposal, approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), to test a new kind of transgenic cotton seed.
PYQ: Q. How can biotechnology help to improve the living standards of farmers? (2019)
 About Genetically Modified Crops and Organism:
  • GMO: A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any living organism whose genetic material has been modified to include certain desirable techniques.
    • Genetic modification has previously been used for the large-scale production of insulin, vaccines, and more.
  • GM crops are those crops that involve genetic modification with the manipulation of DNA to alter certain characteristics of the crop.
    • To genetically modify a crop, the gene of interest is identified and isolated from the host organism. It is then incorporated into the DNA of the crop to be grown.
    • The performance of the GM crop is tested under strict laboratory and field conditions.
    • Also called Transgenic Crops.
Genome Editing Technology Vs Genetically Modified Technology:
  • Genome Editing: It is a technique used to make precise changes to the DNA of an organism.
    • Discovery of DNA Editing Technique: Scientists in Germany and the US discovered a technique that allows them to “cut” DNA strands and edit genes about a decade ago.
      • This technique involves the use of site-directed nucleases (SDN) or sequence-specific nucleases (SSN) to bring about desired changes in the genome.
      • Nuclease is an enzyme which cleaves through nucleic acid — the building block of genetic material.
    • CRISPR-Based Systems: Advanced research has led to the development of clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeat (CRISPR)-associated protein-based systems.
      • These systems enable targeted editing of the genome sequence and have opened up possibilities in plant breeding.
    • Categories of Genome Editing: Depending on the nature of the edit, genome editing is divided into three categories: SDN1, SDN2, and SDN3.
      • SDN1 involves making changes in the host genome’s DNA through small insertions or deletions without introducing foreign genetic material.
      • SDN2 uses a small DNA template to generate specific changes without incorporating foreign genetic material.
      • SDN3 involves the introduction of larger DNA elements or full-length genes from foreign sources, similar to the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • GMO Development:
    • It involves modification of the genetic material of the host by the introduction of a foreign genetic material.
    • In the case of agriculture, soil bacteria is the best mining source for such genes which are then inserted into the host genome using genetic engineering.
    • For example, in case of cotton, introduction of genes cry1Ac and cry2Ab mined from the soil bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) allow the native cotton plant to generate endotoxins to fight pink bollworm naturally.
  • Difference between Genetic Modification and Genome Editing:
    • Genetic modification involves introducing foreign genetic material into the host genome, typically through genetic engineering.
    • Genome editing, on the other hand, can be done without introducing foreign genetic material.
    • GMOs often involve the insertion of genes from sources like soil bacteria, whereas genome editing focuses on modifying the existing genome of the organism.
Status of Transgenic Crops in India:
  • Commercially Cultivated Transgenic Crop:
    • Cotton is the only transgenic crop currently being commercially cultivated in India.
  • Previous Transgenic Crop Approvals:
    • In 2010, the GEAC approved GM brinjal, but the union government placed it on an “indefinite moratorium.”
    • In 2017, the GEAC initially cleared GM mustard but later imposed additional tests before its commercial cultivation.
  • Approved Transgenic Crop:
    • The GEAC approved the environmental release of Mustard hybrid DMH-11 during its 147th meeting on 18 October 2022.
      • The approval was granted for seed production and testing, taking the crop one step closer to full commercial cultivation.
    • Brinjal, tomato, maize, and chickpea are in various stages of trials that employ transgenic technology.
Process of Developing Transgenic Crops in India:
  • Inserting Transgenic Genes: Transgenic crops involve the insertion of transgenic genes into plants to elicit a sustained, protective response.
  • Safety Assessments: There are multiple safety assessments done by committees before they are cleared for further tests in open plots of lands which are located at either agricultural universities or plots controlled by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR).
  • Open Field Trials: Transgenic crops undergo open field trials in different geographical locations and crop seasons to assess their suitability and performance across different states.
  • Comparison with Non-GM Variants: Transgenic crops must demonstrate superiority over non-GM variants on claimed parameters, such as drought tolerance or insect resistance, without causing harm to other cultivated species.
  • Commercial Clearance: Transgenic crops can apply for commercial clearance once they have proven to be demonstrably better than non-GM variants and have passed safety assessments.
Regulation of GM Crops in India: 
  • Strict regulations are in place to control threats to animal health, human safety, and biodiversity at large during the processes of development, cultivation and transboundary movement of GM crops.
  • Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC):
    • The GEAC under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), is responsible for the assessment of proposals related to the release of genetically engineered organisms and products into the environment, including experimental field trials.
    • GEAC have the power to take punitive actions under the Environment Protection Act.
  • Acts and rules that regulate GM crops in India include:
    • Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA)
    • Biological Diversity Act, 2002
    • Plant Quarantine Order, 2003
    • GM policy under Foreign Trade Policy
    • Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006
    • Drugs and Cosmetics Rule (8th Amendment), 1988
  • Broadly, the rules cover:
    • All activities related to research and development of GMOs
    • Field and clinical trials of GMOs
    • Deliberate or unintentional release of GMOs
    • Import, export, and manufacture of GMOs
Why have Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana rebuffed the GEAC?
  • Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Telangana have rebuffed the GEAC regarding the testing of transgenic cotton seeds developed by Bioseed Research India.
  • State Approvals for Testing:
    • Agriculture being a State subject, companies interested in testing transgenic seeds need approvals from the respective states to conduct trials in farmer’s fields.
    • The GEAC recommended the testing of the Cry2Ai transgenic cotton seed, which is resistant to pink bollworm, in Telangana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Haryana.
    • Only Haryana gave permission for the tests, while the other three states, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Telangana, rebuffed the GEAC.
Significance of GM Crops: GM crops are perceived to offer benefits to both producers and consumers. Some of them are:
  • Genetic engineering can improve crop protection. Crops with better resistance to pest and diseases can be created. The use of herbicides and pesticides can be reduced or even eliminated.
  • Farmers can achieve high yield, and thereby get more income.
  • Nutritional content can be improved.
  • Shelf life of foods can be extended.
  • Food with better taste and texture can be achieved.
  • Crops can be engineered to withstand extreme weather
Challenges: 
  • Unintended Side Effects and Lack of Long-Term Testing:
    • Genetic engineering is a relatively new field, and there are concerns about the potential unintended side effects of genetically modified (GM) crops.
    • Limited long-term testing has been conducted to understand the full effects of consuming GM food, leading to uncertainty about their safety.
  • Potential Harm to Non-Target Organisms:
    • Some GM crops are engineered to produce toxins that target pests, but there are concerns that these toxins may harm non-target organisms, including farm animals and beneficial insects.
  • Antibiotic Resistance:
    • GM crops are sometimes modified to include antibiotic markers to kill germs and pests.
    • There are concerns that the consumption of GM crops with antibiotic markers could lead to antibiotic resistance in humans, making actual antibiotic medications less effective over time and increasing the risk of superbug infections.
  • Social and Economic Issues:
    • Activists raise concerns about multinational agribusiness companies gaining control over farming, which can displace small farmers and create a dependency on GM seed companies.
    • The financial burden of purchasing GM seeds and the limited rights of farmers to retain and reuse seeds are additional concerns.
  • Market Acceptance:
    • Concerns exist regarding the acceptance of GM food in the market.
    • Some consumers are hesitant to embrace GM crops due to their perception that they are unnatural and engineered in a lab, deviating from what occurs naturally.
Way Forward: 
  • Rigorous Monitoring and Enforcement:
    • Strict monitoring mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that safety protocols related to genetically modified (GM) crops are followed diligently.
    • Regulatory authorities and relevant agencies should enforce regulations effectively to prevent the unauthorized cultivation and spread of illegal GM crops.
  • Independent Environmental Impact Assessment:
    • It is essential to conduct comprehensive environmental impact assessments of GM crops by independent environmentalists or expert panels.
    • These assessments should evaluate the potential long-term effects of GM crops on ecology, biodiversity, and human health.
  • Regulatory Certainty: 
    • Taking up the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill again is a must.
    • Government should start with transparency; bringing biosafety data in the public domain.
  • Enhancing Food Security Beyond Genetic Modification:
    • To ensure food security, it is essential to recognize that genetic modification alone is not the sole solution. Instead, it should be combined with other measures aimed at promoting sustainable crop management and improving overall agricultural practices.
Additional Information: About Pink Bollworm:
  • The Pink Bollworm or Pectinophora gossypiella is a pest that feeds on the reproductive parts of cotton plants, where the fibers are produced.
  • It is considered to be one of the most destructive pests of cotton worldwide and is a major problem for the cotton industry in India.
  • Its feeding activity negatively affects the yield and quality of cotton.
Genetic Modification in Cotton:
  • In 2002, the GEAC approved the use of genetically modified cotton, known as BT cotton, to combat the Pink Bollworm.
  • BT cotton carries a gene called Cry1Ac, derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which helps the plant produce a protein that is toxic to the Pink Bollworm.
  • Resistance Development:
    • Over time, the Pink Bollworm developed resistance to the Cry1Ac protein, rendering it less effective against the pest.
    • This necessitated further research and the development of new genetically modified varieties of cotton.
  • Cry2Ai Gene:
    • The newly developed genetically modified cotton variety expresses the Cry2Ai gene, also derived from Bacillus thuringiensis.
    • This gene confers resistance to the Pink Bollworm in the cotton plant.
  • Broad Spectrum Targeting:
    • Unlike Cry1Ac, which primarily targets lepidopteran insects (moths and butterflies), Cry2Ai targets a broader range of insects, including some coleopteran (beetle) and dipteran (fly) species.
News Source: The Hindu

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