Genetically modified (GM) crops are considered a marvel in modern science. In the 20 years they have occupied the commercial scenario there has been a dramatic increase in their acceptance among the agricultural masses. Thus there has been an estimate US$98 billion increase in the agricultural produce and protected the environment from being exposed to about 475 million kilograms of pesticides. Thankfully there never has been a dearth of critics who continued to question its impacts socially, environmentally and economically upon today's society. But lack of concrete scientific evidence fails to present a clear picture about the various myths surrounding the various qualities as suicides, super-weeds and stealthy genes associated with GM crops. We now undertake a sequential analysis of the various myths surrounding GM crops.
Suicide in Indian farmers and GM cotton-
It has been alleged by prominent environmental activists that there have been 2.7 lakh deaths among farmers in India since the introduction of genetically modified Bt cotton in early 2000s.
The initial high cost of Bt cotton (nearly 5 times the local hybrid varieties) forced local traders to mix Bt and conventional cotton to be sold at a lower price. This adulteration combined with the lack of knowledge of utilization of crop resulting in financial losses and crop wastage which created a bad impact on the already high debt ridden Indian farmers resulting in suicides, as all edged by various environmentalists.
Contrary to the above accusation there has been slight increase in the suicide rate since the introduction of Bt Cotton and prevalence of various other causative factors in suicide among farmers like lack of rainfall and financial hardships have been identified.
There has been an increase in about 24% in the yield in GM cotton leading to a profit of about 50% as compared to conventional cotton for farmers contrary to popular belief. This strongly substantiates its utility when nearly 90% of cotton grown in India is Genetically Modified. Thus the myth is baseless.
The rise of GM induced super weeds-
Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri) is a prominent weed growing in cotton fields and outruns it in the quest for soil nutrients, moisture and sunlight thus substantially decreasing the cotton output of the field. US farmers since the late 1990s have been adopting the herbicide glyphosate resistant GM cotton variety. This led to an increase in yield in cotton with a substantial decrease in weeds until the emergence of the glyphosate-resistant strain of Palmer amaranth in 2004 in a county of Georgia which within a span of 7 years it had spread nearly 80 counties. Herbicide resistance continues to be a problem irrespective of development of herbicide-tolerant crops as well. This has been a result of the absence of conventional methods like using a mixture of multiple herbicides and ploughing and tilling of land. Moreover crop resistance which led to substantial decrease in weed species with increase in soil fertility was not adequately practiced with the rise in GM crops.
According to International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds, glyphosate resistant weeds have spread to as many as 18 countries around the globe with major impacts in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Australia.
Experts acknowledge that compared to conventional crops which are grown at an industrial scale herbicide-resistant GM crops confer less damage to the environment and thus the solution according to them lies in the utilization of sustainable farming mechanisms along with intelligent herbicide mixing to reap maximum benefits. Thus the myth is substantiated.
Spread of transgenic to Mexico's wild crops-
This has garnered mixed results from scientific community across the country. The storm originated when a group of rural farmers wanted to obtain a little extra income by certifying the grain they grew in their mountainous home of Oaxaca, Mexico. On analysis by a prominent microbiological ecologist it was found that that the grains contained a segment of the DNA which was used to increase the expression of transgenes in the glyphosate-tolerant and insect-resistant maize marketed by Monsanto. This was in sharp contrast to the GM crops laws in Mexico. It was thus a result of cross breeding with the planted imported grains from the US b farmers who did not know the real identity of the grains as transgenes. The company was also lambasted for spoiling grain at its place of origin. Subsequently different group of researches obtained contrasting results with some proving the theory otherwise. Thus this remains a contradictory theory with no answer to the myth as of now.
GM crops are alleged to solve the hunger crisis of the developed and the developing countries but according to experts on both sides of the arguments, the answer lies somewhere in between the two extremes.
About Author / Additional Info:
Maitree Baral holds Masters in Bioinformatics and shows profound interest in shraing and discussing various biological aspects.