Genetically Modified Crop Technology | Political Economy

transgenic crop technology

Imported genetically modified (GM) soybeans are in the news. While soybeans are an important subject, the purpose here is to address misgivings about GM crops. The science part of GM crops is simple, but there are also some misconceptions. We know the evolutionary process by which long-term domestication (mutation/recombination/selection and reproduction) led to the formation of current cultivated crop forms.

Selective breeding based on the principles of genetics (Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance, 1864) revolutionized crop production at the beginning of the last century. After the discovery of double-helix DNA (Watson and Crick, 1951), the sciences of molecular biology and genetics have advanced to the point where the precise construction of genes (genetic engineering) is possible. However, it does not violate the principles of genetics, population biology and evolution.

The biology of GM crops is well understood and a robust risk assessment process is in place. The newest form of precision genetics, known as genome editing, is doing away with the risk assessments required for traditional GM crops. Earlier versions inserted genes into phylogenetic disorders (transgenes), while genome editing modifies endogenous genes as needed, producing targeted mutations that mimic naturally occurring mutations. Natural/random genetic mutation is an ongoing process in all living organisms.

Experimental versions of genetically modified (GM) plants became available in the early 1980s. Commercial applications began in the mid-1990s. Over the past 25 years, grain production has increased by 980 million tons, arable land has decreased by 23.4 million hectares, and pesticide use has decreased by 748.6 million kilograms. The average increase in net income per hectare was US$ 112 after the adoption of GM crops.

Today, more than 70 countries commercially grow biotech crops on some 190 million hectares. GMO/soybean and GMO products are traded in almost every country in the world except the EU.

In the early 1980s, I witnessed the first release of ice-negative genetically modified bacteria in California. The news caused an uproar in the media, and many legal battles ensued. Finally, it is recognized as an environmentally friendly frost control mechanism available in nature. Since 1996, the acreage of GM crops has grown exponentially.

The major commodity producers in North and South America, China, India and Australia are commercial hubs for GM crops. The EU is still opposed to their commercial cultivation, but this is mostly political preference in disguise. GM crops are not only cheaper and safer to grow, but also environmentally friendly.

The anti-GMO lobby has raised some concerns. Cancer Stories has been investigated and found to be unreliable. The threat of chemicals causing cancer is equally viable or higher for non-GMO crops due to increased consumption of pesticides. Herbicides are applied to every acre of non-GMO wheat we grow, which, ironically, is the main argument against GMO crops.

We are a country of 220 million people who import $10 billion worth of basic commodities every year. It is extremely important to dispel unfounded doubts about scientifically, environmentally and economically viable technologies.The law allows the introduction of genetically modified crops, including soybeans.

The Cartagena Protocol covers threats to biodiversity. There is a grain of truth to the superweed story, but it’s not because of any fault of the GMO side. Instead, it is a case of resistance developing in organisms that occurs in non-GM populations due to indiscriminate use of chemicals. Terminator genes and accidental escape are discussed as counter-arguments without discussing available preventive measures and alternative remedies. There is a case for the ethics of chemical use, not the negative impact of technology.

The first demonstration of the value of GMOs in the 1980s was strain-specific viral resistance. It was later shown to work on strains with different genetic makeup. Economically viable GM traits include insect-resistant cotton, corn, canola, and soybeans; cost-effective weed control in herbicide-resistant crops; climate resilience (heat and drought); food quality (tomatoes that keep fresh); Golden Rice for vitamin A; and salt tolerance. Golden Rice is particularly worth mentioning for its vitamin A content, which is severely deficient in people who eat rice. Biofortified GM crops for zinc and iron are also ready for commercialization.

Our GM crop journey began with the haphazard/illegal cultivation of Bt cotton at the turn of the century; so did the benefits and misconceptions. India started at the same time, but more systematically. In 1992, cotton production in both countries was similar (12/13 million bales); today, India’s production is 40 million bales, while our production has dropped to 5 million bales. Along with the counterfeit seed business and poor regulation, scientific piracy is also to blame. Despite technical mismanagement, the introduction of Bt cotton is known to have reduced pesticide use.

The poor cotton crop has paved the way for expanded corn, rice and sugarcane acreage. Current pest (fall army worm) challenges to corn provide a strong case for the introduction of GM corn. Otherwise, corn production will collapse like cotton. Because this new pest is an almost impossible problem to control through pesticide application.

The story of soybeans is no different from the examples of cotton and corn. A major breakthrough in corn yields has been achieved thanks to the introduction of hybrid seeds, which can be further stimulated and made cost-effective by using genetically modified hybrids that contain a bunch of useful genes.

The health and opportunity costs of a malnourished (insufficient calories, vitamin A, iron, zinc) population far outweigh the potential threat of cancer. Malnourished populations are vulnerable to cancer-causing chemicals and environmental hazards, while there is compelling data to support reducing chemical use through the introduction of genetically modified crops. If GM technology poses any threat to our lives, we’ve invested in it since the introduction of Bt cotton.

Unless some disruptive technology application is adopted, our food security crisis will continue to deepen. The application of ICT, data science, and genetically modified crops is disruptive, and for good reason. But there are regulatory and public perception issues.

We are a country of 220 million people who import $10 billion worth of basic commodities every year. It is extremely important to dispel unfounded doubts about scientifically, environmentally and economically viable technologies. Land laws allow the introduction of genetically modified crops, including soybeans. There are some unfair barriers that need to be removed. I propose open debate in the media and advocate for appropriate policy interventions that avoid deepening the food security crisis by setting aside political preferences.

The author is Vice Chancellor, Faisalabad Agricultural University\

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