Genetically modified organisms: Imperative need for a comprehensive policy

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

Pushpa M. Bhargava

The Government of India needs to formulate a comprehensive policy on the production, use and release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).The GMOs are produced through the use of genetic engineering technology in which a gene belonging to one organism and often coding for a particular protein performing a specific function is introduced into another organism which does not have that gene and, therefore, does not produce that protein.

It is also ensured that the new gene is expressed and leads to production in the recipient organism of the protein which it was otherwise unable to make.

Thus, a bacterium or a yeast which cannot normally produce human insulin can be made to do so by introducing the gene for human insulin into the bacterium or the yeast in an environment in which the gene can function and make the bacterium or the yeast produce human insulin.

It is now universally recognised that genetic engineering is one of the most important technologies developed in the last six decades and must rank at the same level as nuclear, space, computer and new information and communication technologies that have been developed during this period. The genetic engineering technology has already established its importance to mankind by producing extremely valuable drugs that were just not available earlier, now cheaply and in abundance. It also has the immense possibility of benefitting agriculture, for example, through production of plants that could grow in soil with high salinity.

However, as of today, there is no way to direct a foreign gene to go to a particular site in the recipient host gene and to ensure that the only change that occurs in the recipient organism is the expression of the function regulated by the foreign gene.

On the contrary, given the nature of available techniques in the area of genetic engineering, insertion of a foreign gene is most likely to cause multiple changes in overall gene expression in the recipient organism and, therefore, in the repertoire (qualitative and quantitative) of gene products such as proteins, RNAs and metabolites in the recipient organism.

These changes may not matter if the organism is used under stringently confined conditions as in a suitably designed factory to produce products such as chemicals, drugs or vaccines which the recipient organism would not have produced if this foreign gene (or genes) had not been put in it through genetic engineering.

However, only detailed molecular biological investigations (such as proteomics, transcriptomics and metabolonomics) will reveal whether these changes are beneficial or of no consequence, or harmful for men, animals and ecology, in case the organism is released in the environment.

Over the years, since the development of gene technology nearly three decades ago, an increasing number of reliable scientific publications (reports and research papers) of high quality and hands-on experience of users of GM crops have documented their beneficial effects from the economic point of view as well as their deleterious effects on health (both of animals and humans), agriculture, economy and environment.

Keeping what has been said above in view, the Government of India should

lencourage the use of GMOs in appropriately controlled conditions to produce useful products such as drugs and vaccines that would be free of the GMOs, in factories or laboratories from where the GMO cannot escape into the environment

lencourage research work in both private and public sector leading to the development of various kinds of GMOs that may be of potential benefit to society, provided it is ensured that the GMO cannot escape into the environment.

lIt must ensure that no GMO is released in the environment unless the following criteria are satisfied: an appropriate socio-economic survey has been done and it has been found that there is a problem that can be addressed by genetic engineering; no alternative technology such as integrated pest management, use of biopesticides or organic agriculture would give the same or similar results as the use of GM technology would; the GMO has successfully gone through a stringent safety assessment protocol which has been approved by responsible scientists around the world and which would include proteomics, transcriptomics, and metabolonomics analyses; chronic long-term toxicity tests; detailed study of effect on parameters that control soil fertility, such as profile of soil microflora, trace nutrient content, and ability to retain moisture; effect on local ecology and gene flow; and agronomical analyses of the consequences of release of the GM crop (this list being only indicative and not exhaustive).

The government should realise the right of people to know what they are eating or using. Therefore, any material containing more than 0.01 per cent of a GM product (this limit being based on the limit of sensitivity of tests available today for detecting the presence of GMOs) would have to carry a label to that effect.

Similarly, food products such as vegetable oils derived from GM crops would also be required to be appropriately labelled.

The government should recognise that some 62 per cent of Indians derive their total sustenance from agriculture or related activities and that some 70 per cent of India lives in its villages; food security, agricultural security, farmers security and security of rural sector are, therefore, synonymous; and to ensure the above security, it is an imperative that seed business is entirely in the hands of India alone.

Keeping the above in mind and having recognised the capability of the country’s public sector and wholly Indian-owned private sector, the government will ensure that if a GM crop is needed, it will be developed from the beginning to the end by Indian organisations in the public sector, or wholly Indian-owned ethical private sector organisations, and that no foreign direct investment will be permitted in the seed sector.

Genetically modified organisms: Imperative need for a comprehensive policy. P.M. Bhargava. The Tribune, 24th October 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *