GM Crops: Ban or Boon? A talk by G. Padmanaban

Norman Borlaug, the architect of the Green Revolution, won the Nobel peace prize in 1970 for creating a new strain of wheat which grew with shorter stalks and would therefore not topple over. This advancement is estimated to have saved a billion lives by making the planet food-secure. Borlaug did his work the old-fashioned way–by grafting and selection. The next generation of life-saving advancements in agriculture may well be made in the laboratory.

The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture is a hotly debated issue between regulatory agencies, scientists, and environmental activist organisations like Greenpeace. The broad scientific consensus on the safety of GM food has failed to change the minds of anti-GMO activists. Anti-GMO activists point to other issues:  Should multinational corporations control the means of production of food in our country? Do farmers have a right to be able to plant the seeds they harvest?

Dhwani is pleased to host a talk by Prof. G. Padmanaban, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry and former Director of IISc, on Wednesday the 17th of August 2016, at 5:30pm at Kanada auditorium. Padmanaban is perhaps most famous for work showing that curcumin, a chemical found in turmeric, has anti-malarial properties. He is also well known for his ability to communicate science, and for being a trenchant critic of pseudoscience, and is ideally suited to talk about this subject. A note from the speaker follows.

GM Crops: Ban or Boon?

G. Padmanaban, Dept. of Biochemistry, IISc

Growth in agriculture in India is not keeping pace with population growth. India has to address the issues of food and nutrition security. Although India ranks high in terms of production of cereals, pulses, oil seeds and horticultural crops due to use of large amount of land, it has low ranking in terms of productivity. Therefore, technology is needed to improve productivity, which would include soil and water management. It is equally important to look at technologies governing the plant genetics in terms of productivity. Plant breeding technologies have been used over the ages to improve crop yields. The advent of genome-based technologies have revolutionalised plant breeding. Marker-Assisted-Breeding (MAB/non-GM) uses appropriate DNA markers to breed specific plant characteristics and to accelerate the whole process and transgenics (Genetically Modified or GM) involve the introduction of newer genes into the plant by gene-cloning methods to obtain desired characteristics. The former involves transfer of large chunks of DNA between compatible parents, while the latter can be done with just one or a few genes without any species/sex barrier. MAB requires appropriate mapping populations to start with, since it involves crossing between two contrasting parents. Drought-resistant maize has been generated using MAB technology. Successful examples of GM technology are in terms of pest resistance and selective elimination of weeds. The major crops globally commercialized are GM Corn, Soybean and Cotton. GM rice is a tantalizing possibility on the horizon.

Research and smaller applications are available with a large number of crops. Plants resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses as well as with improved nutritive quality have been generated. India has benefited substantially with the introduction of Bt Cotton, which contains a gene(s) from Bacillus thuringensis to protect against Boll worm infection. There is an embargo on the commericialization of Bt Brinjal developed in India. 29 countries have been growing GM crops. The technology is also under going changes rapidly with the introduction of specific gene modification strategies without involving trangenes. In India we still do not have a regulatory frame work to handle such technologies, although whole sale gene modifications using gamma-radiation have been in use as a standard practice!

There are also concerns with the introduction of GM crops in terms of health safety, biodiversity and resistance development by the pest. There is a strong scientific base to address all these concerns. However, there is a divided opinion among the public on the introduction of GM crops. This speaker believes that more often public are misled by wrong and misinterpreted data and GM technology has tremendous scope to contribute to food and nutrition security in the Developing countries. At the same time, it is not a magic bullet to solve all problems facing Indian agriculture. For example, we do not have an appropriate monitoring/counseling extension service to help the farmer in the use of GM crops for cultivation and this has already resulted in a trend for resistance development in Bt cotton. An appropriate combination of MAB, GM and crop rotation technologies with regulatory approvals on a case to case basis would help Indian agriculture substantially.

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