Transgenics: Concerns and Prospects

Kanika - Senior Scientist, Plant Biotechnology and is currently working on genomics.
Shiv Kumar- Principle Scientist working on agricultural policy and IPR issues.

Science has had an enormous impact on human existence providing numerous innovations which have improved the lives of many. Agricultural research and its role in food production is highly important. This view has been changed of lately by introduction of transgenics. Transgenics can be considered as "engineered evolution". This technology has challenged the traditional concept of nature. In fact agriculture now is considered as a struggle to produce food for an ever increasing population against natural forces. For this, alternative options are:
1) intensification of agriculture in areas currently farmed;
2) expansion of area under cultivation; and
3), shifting from low value agriculture to high value agriculture (agriculture diversification).

This pressure on land and water for enhanced food production might result in damage of delicate ecosystems. To counter this impending danger, strategies of cultivation of transgenic crops would contribute to increase in agricultural production, alleviating poverty and hunger of masses besides promoting environmental conservation.

All organisms are an integral component of environment, and are interrelated. These also interact in a delicate balance. The primitive ancestors of almost all modern food crops are hardly bear any resemblance to the plants growing in the farmers field now a days. However, with the application of new technologies the breeding has been hastened. Specifically, the introduction of genetically modified crops into the environment and food chain has become controversial in most of the countries. The possibility that transgenics will form a large proportion of the crops grown within next few years/decades has aroused reactions from stakeholders ranging from welcome and acceptance to unease and outrage. However, there has been lot of differences between the reaction of consumers across the world. The rational concerns of consumers must be respected and honoured by policy makers that would help /assist further development of public policies for securing benefits of GM crops. Evolving development of a regulatory system must protect human health and environment besides commanding public confidence.

Regulatory policies are evaluated mainly on three principles:
i) general welfare,
ii) maintenance of people's rights, and
iii) justice.

It is also needed that burdens and benefits of policies and practices to be fairly shared among the stakeholders. The concerns of the stakeholders are addressed as: Will this technology promote the general welfare by improving food safety or reducing the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture? Whether this technology pose unknown risks? What implications this technology has for the rights of consumers to be informed out GM status of food? What implications this technology has for the rights of scientists to be free to conduct their research in ways that protect their intellectual integrity? Who will be the principal beneficiaries from the introduction of the new technologies and what obligations do they have to compensate the loser?

Some perceive transgenics as unnatural and disapprove of their development and use. Genetic modification of crop plants developed till now don't differ from conventional plant breeding or other human interventions. Genetic engineering is just a tool which plant breeder use to achieve their breeding goals more accurately and rapidly. It is true that combinations of bacteria and plant genes are nearly impossible to come together in nature but if their potential side effects are thoroughly assessed, there is no need to prohibit such combinations from being released for commercial cultivation.

In most of the countries where transgenics are grown, their release into the environment is subjected to rigorous regulatory regimes. The present regulatory regimes are appropriate for early stages of transgenic cultivation but as more and more crops will be cultivated in near future, broader view of policies regarding release of transgenic for commercial cultivation needs to be taken care of. Cultivation of transgenics especially the one tolerant to herbicide and insects will change the prevalent practices. There will be benefits to the environment and wildlife but there will be risks too. Therefore, a complete assessment of direct and indirect effects of such introductions should be carried out so that the risks and benefits can be compared. It is not possible to assess all the risks of transgenics adequately in advance. It is required that transgenics are monitored for years even after their commercial release with a possibility of withdrawal if problems are noticed. So there should be a provision of post-release monitoring also. Though the potential dangers posed to the environment from different transgenics are very low, their introduction on a large scale might have an impact on the environment either through changes in agricultural practice or through gene flow into the wild or other crops. Introduction of transgenics for commercial cultivation should be handled in such a way that it should contribute both to improvements in agricultural practices and environment.

Regarding public concerns about GM food safety: A choice should be available for the consumers for choosing between a GM and a non GM product. More and more efforts should be made to inform the consumers about what efforts are being made to test and monitor their safety. If choices are to be offered to the consumers it will be necessary for food producers to segregate GMs from non-GMs and label it properly.

There is need that experts and the regulatory authorities are continuously interacting with each other for approval of novel products. The difficulty of policy making with regard to transgenics is presently greatly influenced by public distrust and outcry. We need to build public confidence and scientific community has to share its responsibility in disseminating information.

The transgenic technology has advanced at a very fast pace and has been commercialised also. A number of patents have been granted on plant genes, methodologies of genetic modification and transgenic plants. Many more patents have been filed. This environment will make it difficult for developing countries to gain access to new technologies.

The possibility of new plant varieties or transgenics being presented for registration with the benefit of both plant variety rights and patent protection could limit the mechanism by which germplasm is shared among breeders. This locking of genetic material is contrary to the spirit and intent of plant variety rights.

Most of the developing countries may not develop the capacity to screen, evaluate and manage their release and use. If such capacities are not developed, the star scientist in the developing countries will be tempted to migrate to private sector seriously hampering the programme of improving food grain production. We also have to ensure that despite this limited regulatory capacity of developing world, risk to environment and human health is minimum. For this, the developed countries should transfer their know-how from advisory and regulatory bodies which can be modified to meet the socio-political and physical environment of other countries. Different countries have different farming systems, food chain and environments so they need different biosafety and environmental procedures.

Centre of diversity of the wild populations of some of our modern day agricultural crops are in developing countries. So we should assess that risk implications of introgression of genetically modified traits into the centre of diversity for the genetic resources through ex situ and/or in situ conservation. The developing countries wish to protect their rich natural biodiversity may clash with their need to improve yields by growing the crops that can be grown in inhospitable environment.

Proactive actions by the government are needed before any commercial plantings are undertaken in order to protect the wider environment to ensure that choice is available for those who do not wish to consume GM food.

Potential of transgenic technology is substantial. But this requires proper safety regulations. Scientific community involved in developing transgenics needs to recognise and accept a very important responsibility to public. We need to ensure that ethical concerns are taken into account and the products are safe for human consumption and are not harmful for the environment. We have to ensure that the true potentials of transgenic technology are harnessed to meet the most urgent food needs of the world as well as to reap commercial benefits. As a consumer, we should be open minded and should have faith in our regulatory authorities and should not believe on information which is not from any authentic source. All of us including scientists, consumers, public and private sectors along with charitable foundations and international research organisations need to join hands to ensure the safe application of transgenics to meet the demands of future.

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