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A Lateral View on Genetically Modified Crops

I recently had to write an essay on Genetically Modified Crops for my Biology project, which took up most of my weekend. This got me into thinking further on the subject.

Genetically modified crops, or GM crops, are very simply put crops with foreign genes inserted into them. The most popular GM crop is Bt cotton, which is grown in India, and is the only mass-produced GM crop in the country.  GM crops have been the subjects of controversy from the word get go – but what exactly are people debating about? Some people are debating GM crops as a product itself; saying that they can be injurious to our health, kill pollinating agents and lead to super bugs and super weeds. But other people are protesting the role of multinational corporations like Monsanto. So how many of these allegations are true?

GM crops are known to produce highly evolved species of pests and weeds. This is due to evolutionary pressure being put on that species as crops like Bt cotton are made to kill bollworms, which eat cotton leaves. Now there have been reports of bollworms eating the GM cotton and surviving, along with reports of weeds not dying with herbicides. In Andhra Pradesh Bt cotton yield decreased because of bollworms eating Bt cotton, and the farmers were forced to buy an improved variety of the seed, which was more expensive and is said to have no effect on the bollworms in some regions. GM crops are also known to kill pollinating agents such as bees and butterflies. That is what one group of people says.

The other group has no problem with GM crops; they just have problems with Monsanto. Monsanto is a huge multinational corporation and the leading producer of GM crops in the world; exporting it’s products throughout the globe except most of Europe. It mainly exports corn, soybean, cotton, wheat, canola, sorghum and sugar cane seeds, each with it’s own modification or ‘version’. Monsanto drew attention (the bad kind) when it patented a gene for a GM crop. This had never been done before and people didn’t like it. The patent meant that if you buy the GM seeds, you can’t harvest the seeds, and if you do, you will be prosecuted. Monsanto has sued more than a 100 farmers for doing this, alleging breach of contract and infringement. Most farmers couldn’t afford the costs of a prolonged legal battle with a giant like Monsanto and went bankrupt. The others couldn’t even afford to pay a lawyer to take Monsanto to court. Monsanto also sued a farmer who harvested the seeds of a GM crop unknowingly after the seeds blew in from another farm. Bottomline, all the farmers who raised a voice against Monsanto, perished into oblivion, enraging this group who are now protesting against the MNC.

People also think that GM seeds are too expensive. That is true. While regular cotton seeds cost Rs. 50-60/KG, Bt seeds cost Rs.3,000-4,000/KG. And since Bt cotton stopped working, Monsanto released a new seed with two Bt genes instead of one, and some people think this is a marketing strategy and does nothing different. The high price of GM seeds combined with the fact that GM crops are now fast replacing organic crops, encourages farmers to harvest the GM seeds – against Monsanto policies – and risk getting sued.

On the plus side, GM crops have bigger yield and less use of herbicides and pesticides. Crops like Bt cotton kills the bollworm so that the farmers don’t have to spray pesticides on their crops. GM crops have better flavor and some GM crops contain extra nutrients like Golden Rice containing extra Vitamin A. Also crops can be cold tolerant or drought tolerant so that it can be grown in places that the normal seed cannot be grown. GM crops are also disease resistant, and some GM crops are herbicide resistant – this leads to less herbicide sprayed on the crops and thus damage to the environment is reduced. Although these benefits don’t look very important they however are. GM crops can grow in a variety of climates, which means that more food can be produced in areas where food is scarce. Golden rice can help in Vitamin A deficiency. Crop yield is increased because farmers don’t have to worry about weeds, pests or diseases. This can have major implications as GM crops become more and more mainstream, cheaper ways to produce them can be invented and this could end world hunger. But corporations like Monsanto who patent the gene for pure profit stop this from happening. If other people could research the gene, GM crops could be much more advanced. If Monsanto changes its policies, it would be beneficial for the entire world.

So, which group are you a part of?