Movement in transgenics
Tobacco was the first plant to be genetically transformed\, in 1983, with cereals beginning in 1990, but it is only recently that products such as GM soya have reached the market place in Europe, and, for a variety of reasons, given rise to concern & controversy. The concern must be addressed seriously if society is to exploit the new technologies appropriately. We will address this issue rather extensively a little later. Whereas in India, we have been discussing and debating the issues, the rest of the world is galloping ahead. See
how the agro biotech product sales, includes transgenic seeds, is increasing around the world (table 1). The global area of cultivation for transgenics increased 4-5 fold from 7 million acres in 1996, to 31.5 million acres in 1997, for just 7 crops in 6 countries.
Ag biotech product sales
|$ MILLIONS||SALES||ANNUAL GROWTH RATE|
|Transgenic seeds and plants||20||405||2,030||173%||38%|
|Animal growth horomes||80||225||405||31||12|
|Total U.S. Sales||$242||$875||$2,885||53%||27%
Development, field testing, and commercialisation fo transgenic crops, is now recongnized by the international scientific community to be an essential strategy for food security. Fortyfive countries, including India, have conducted transgenic crop field trials up to 1997. The activity in the developing countries has been shown in Table 2.
Releases of transgenic plants in developing countries (by species and introduced trait)
The emphasis has been mainly on traits for herbicide, insect, virus & fungal resistance, and on product quality with a limited number of genes. Out of a total 159 releases. Argentina leads the way with 43, followed by chile, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Republic of South Africa, with 17-20 each. India is far behind with just a few releases.
There are fears relating to transgenic plants in society. These need to be addressed, not by brushing them aside, but by careful scientific analysis and educational programmes. All biosafety protocols must be followed rigidly. Let us deal with this issue more exhaustively now.
The potential of biotechnology as a method to enhance agriculture productivity in the future has been accepted globally. However, because of its revolutionary nature, risk and uncertainty may be created by the process of genetic engineering and by the resulting genetically modified products. This may result from the introduction of a new unrelated DNA sequence into a recipient organisam. The introduced DNA may have some unexpected effects on the cellular processes of the recipient organism. In addition to this, introduction of antibiotic resistance genes, as selection markers, pose serious implications in public health especially in genetically modified plants that are directly used for food purposes.
Risks are also associated with the genetically modified plants that are released into the environment. The nature of interactions with other organisms of the natural ecosystems cannot be anticipated without proper scientific testing. For example, modified plants with enhanced
resistance to pests or disease threaten to transfer resistance to the wild relatives, which will have implications for biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. These, and many more, doubts plague the minds of common people. Therefore, it is very clear that if the biotechnology potential has to be completely realized, it has to be done in an extremely responsible manner. At each step, proper testing and scientific data have to provided. Not only this, proper regulatory and policy mechanisms have to be put into place. It is therefore, absolutely essential, that conscious efforts be made especially by the developing countries to initiate well-defined programmes for the development and regulations of genetically modified plants. To make this possible and to benefically, ethically and sustainably reap the benefits of biotechnology, there is a pressing need for scientists, researchers, policy makers, NGOS, progressive farmers, industrialists, and representatives of the government, to come together on a common forum in order to discuss the common concerns and find solutions to them.
Will modified plants transfer their introduced genes into wild relatives growing nearby?
Will modified plants that produce new compounds disrupt the ‘balance of nature’ in some way?
Could the planting of a restricted number of cultivators leave crop plants more susceptible to disease?
Could the planting of a restricted number of cultivators lead to a reduction in biodiversity (of crop plants, weed species, insects and microflora in the fields in question)?
Will genetically modified plants be able to avoid the factors that regulate natural populations and threreby change the usual ‘ balance’ between populations?
Similarly, there are concerns about the social and economic effects. For example, some of these concerns are :
How will the structure of farming (particularly in developing countries) be affected by biotechnology?
How will patent laws affect traditional breeders ‘rights (e.g. the right to save seed from one year to the next)?
Will plant bredding be left increasingly in hands of a few companies, and if so, what effects might this have?
Will some countries be ‘plundered’ for their genetic resources?
We also have a set of ethical and moral issues that need addressing. In particular,
The consumer has the right. What will consumers be told about the new food products?
Is it acceptable to ‘interfere’ with nature through genetic engineering?
Do we have the right not to use all means available to improve crop plants, especially when so many people are under or malnourished?
Then there are several regulatory issues. Among these, the three key issues are:
Do current regulations give sufficient protection to farmers, consumers, those who have invested in, and those engaged in research?
Is there sufficient international legislation to ensure environmental protection?
Do current regulations compromise the competitiveness of biotechnology companies by being excessively restrictive?
The Royal society of London had appointed a group of experts to examine various aspects including the scientific evidence concerning the risk of transfer of genes from Genetically Modified (GM) crop plants to wild species and non-GM crops, the uptake of genes from GM food by the digestive system, and the current state of the regulatory system. The experts concluded that the chances of gene transfer happening are slight, provided the regulatory processes are followed, but that this must be kept under consideration.
The experts also concluded that the uptake of genes via the food chain is niot a new issue because genes (i.e. DNA) are normal constituents of the human diet. Many products from GM
plants, such as sugar prepared from GM tomato paste, are so similar that they are regarded as ‘substantially equivalent’ others, for example flour from GM soya, may contain a new gene or its product, although many of the purification processes involved in food prodution will destroy and DNA present in the raw material.
Some GM foods have been produced using an antibiotic resistance ‘market’ gene, which is a laboratory device designed to identify genetically transformed platns. The Royal Society has shown concern about the use of such genes in food products and it suggested that any further increase in the use of such markers in the human ir animal food chain would be undersirable. Gm crop plants have been produced to improve insect tolerance and virus resistance, and to include herbicide tolerance, so that transferred to non-target species of plants, and that the development of resistance by target pests is minimised, the regulatory authorities must be assurd that any negative effects would be no greater than those resulting from conventional procedures; and that any long term effects on the environment and ecology would be clsoely monitored, with statutory restrictions in place to control marketing; and also that best practice advice was adopted by growers.
The reliance on a case by case approach to the legislation, may result in lack of analysis of the overall impact of the technology on agriculture and the environment, and of the long term effects of gmoS. aLTHOUGH MECHANISMS ARE ALREADY IN place to regulate many individual aspects of GM technology, there is no means for looking at GM technology as a whole. As independent, overarching, regulatory body is needed to span departmental responsibilties, monitor the enforcement of existing or future regulations, and strengthen the guidelines to growers of GM crops, such as those specifying the isolation distances between Gm and non-GM crops. The body should also review and monitor the membership of advisory committees and regulatory bodies.
The Indian Effort in R & D
Indian has set up a large network of reasearch institutions and agricultural universities located in dirrerent regions and states of the county.