import of genetically modified (GM) soy is in the news. Although soy is an important subject, the intention here is to answer doubts about GM crops. The science of GM crops is simple, but there are some apprehensions. We know the evolutionary process that has shaped the current form of cultivated crops through a long process of domestication (mutations/recombination/selection and multiplication).
Selective breeding based on the principles of genetics (Mendel’s laws of heredity, 1864) revolutionized crop production at the turn of the last century. After the discovery of double helix DNA (Watson and Crick, 1951), the science of molecular biology and genetics advanced to the point where precise genetic engineering (genetic engineering) became possible. However, there is no violation of the principles of genetics, population biology and evolution.
The biology of GM crops is fully understood and robust risk assessment procedures are in place. The latest form of precision genetics, called genome editing, is exempt from the risk assessments required for traditional GM crops. Earlier version inserts genes across phylogenetic (transgenic) barriers while genome editing modifies endogenous genes as desired, producing a targeted mutation that mimics natural mutations. Natural/random genetic mutation is a constant process in all living organisms.
Experimental versions of transgenic (GM) plants were available in the early 1980s. Commercial applications had begun in the mid-1990s. less land cultivated and 748.6 million kg less pesticides used. There is an average increase in net income of $112 per hectare with the adoption of GM crops.
Today, more than 70 countries are growing GM crops for commercial purposes on an estimated 190 million hectares. Almost every country in the world except the EU trades in GM/soy and GM products.
I witnessed the first release of GM bacteria without ice in California in the early 1980s. The news hit the media by storm and many legal battles followed. Ultimately, it was accepted as an environmentally friendly frost control mechanism available in nature. Since 1996, the area devoted to GM crops has increased exponentially.
North America, the major commodity producing countries of South America, China, India and Australia are commercial hubs for GM crops. The European Union is still opposed to their commercial culture, but it is mostly a disguised political preference. GM crops are not only cheaper and safer to grow, but also environmentally friendly.
The anti-GMO lobby has raised several concerns. The cancer stories were investigated and found to be dubious. The threat of chemicals as a cause of cancer is equally viable or higher with non-GM crops due to higher pesticide consumption. Every acre of non-GM wheat we grow receives an application of herbicide, which ironically is the main argument against GM crops.
We are a country of 220 million people who import essential goods worth $10 billion a year. It is extremely important to dispel unfounded apprehensions regarding scientifically, environmentally and economically viable technologies. Law allows introduction of GM crops, including soy.
The threat to biodiversity is covered by the Cartagena Protocols. The superweed story has a faint element of truth, but not because of any fault on the part of the transgenes. Instead, it is a case of resistance building in organisms that also occurs in non-transgenic populations due to indiscriminate uses of chemicals. Terminator genes and accidental leaks are discussed as counter-arguments without discussing available precautions and alternative remedies. There is a case for the ethics of using chemicals, not the negatives of technology.
The first demonstration in the 1980s of transgenic value was strain-specific viral resistance. It was later shown to work on strains with different genetic constructs. Economically viable GM traits include insect-resistant cotton, corn, canola and soybeans; cost-effective weed control of herbicide-resistant crops; climate resilience (heat and drought); food quality (stay fresh tomatoes); Golden rice fortified with vitamin A; and salt tolerance. Golden rice deserves special mention for its vitamin A content which is largely deficient in rice-eating populations. GM crops biofortified with zinc and iron are also ready for commercialization.
Our journey to GM crops began with the lawless/illegal cultivation of Bt cotton at the turn of the century; as are the benefits and misperceptions. India started at the same time but more systematically. In 1992, cotton production in the two countries was similar (12/13 million bales); today it stands at 40 million bales in India, while ours has fallen to 5 million. Along with the counterfeit seed trade and poor regulation, scientific piracy is also to blame. Despite poor technology management, the introduction of Bt cotton is known to have reduced the application of pesticides.
The failure of the cotton crop paved the way for the expansion of the area devoted to maize, rice and sugar cane. The current pest challenge (Fall Armyworm) to maize provides a strong argument for the introduction of GM maize. Otherwise, there will be a collapse in the production of maize like cotton. Because the new pest is an almost impossible problem to control through the application of pesticides.
The story of soybeans is no different from the examples of cotton and corn. A major breakthrough in maize yield has occurred through the introduction of hybrid seeds which can be further galvanized and made profitable by using GM hybrids containing a useful gene stack.
The health and opportunity cost of a malnourished population (deficient calories, vitamin A, iron, zinc) far exceeds the potential threat of cancer. The malnourished population is predisposed to carcinogenic chemicals and environmental hazards, while there is compelling data to support the reduction in chemical use with the introduction of GM crops. If GMOs pose a threat to our lives, we have already been there since the introduction of Bt cotton.
Our food security crisis will continue to worsen unless some disruptive technological applications are adopted. The application of ICT, data science and GM crops is disruptive for good reason. But there are regulatory and public perception issues.
We are a country of 220 million people who import essential goods worth $10 billion a year. It is extremely important to dispel unfounded apprehensions regarding scientifically, environmentally and economically viable technologies. The law of the land allows the introduction of GM crops, including soybeans. There are unfair barriers that need to be removed. I propose open debate in the media and advocacy for appropriate policy interventions to avoid deepening the food security crisis, putting political preferences aside.
The author is the Vice Chancellor of Faisalabad University of Agriculture\