GM crops may hold key to fighting food crunch

Are genetically modified crops the answer to looming climate change-induced food shortages?

Published: Dec 28, 2015
GM crops may hold key to fighting food crunch
Image: Corbis
Advanced DNA sequencing technology can insert a foreign gene into another plant to develop a new breed that can withstand adverse effects of climate change

Under the glare of white and yellow tube lights are rows of seedlings in petri dishes neatly laid out on metal shelves. With their frail shoots holding on to a few tiny green leaves that are half the size of a thumbnail, they look nothing like ‘Frankenfood’ or ‘Frankenstein food’, as they are called by those who oppose what scientists have done to them.

It’s possible that one of these seedlings, either of rice or wheat, has the genetic trait to withstand extended drought, another to use water more effectively, a third may reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) laboratories in Jalna, Maharashtra, these have been subjected to careful genetic engineering to give them traits that may not be possible by traditional plant breeding. And if they fulfill their potential, they could well grow into a new generation of crops that can withstand climate change.

Advanced DNA sequencing technology and precision tools that can insert a foreign gene in targeted spots on another plant’s chromosome has made it possible for private enterprises and research institutes to develop seeds that address the problems that countries like India are facing because of climate change.

With unpredictable rainfall, increasing number of hot days and high salinity levels that can decimate crops, private companies, non-profit organisations such as the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and autonomous institutes like The Indian Institute of Horticultural Research are looking at ways to make stronger and more productive seeds.

Dr Bharat Char, head, biotechnology, research and development at Mahyco, which partnered with Monsanto to bring Bt Cotton to India, however, cautions: “More often than not, such technology is not a magic bullet that will double yield. What we can hope for is to maintain current production levels in the face of extreme weather and increase yields in favourable conditions. But first, we need to undertake field trials to see if they can live up to their potential and withstand the effects of climate change.”  

There are several studies that show how crop yields in the Indian subcontinent will be affected by climate change. A 2013 World Bank report, ‘Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts and the Case for Resilience’, looks at how warming between 2°C and 4°C will affect “critical areas like agricultural production, water resources, coastal ecosystems and cities”. One of its conclusions is that if the world warms by 2°C, which may happen within the next two to three decades, we will be facing prolonged droughts, heatwaves and more intense rainfalls and flooding. This warming trend has already begun to emerge in South Asia: “The region’s already large population of poor people is particularly vulnerable to disruptions to agriculture, which could undermine livelihoods dependent on the sector and cause food price shocks,” the report says.

These are not predictions for the distant future. Agriculture in India has already been adversely affected by black carbon (primary sources include emissions from cook stoves, wood burning and forest fires) and harmful ground level ozone (formed when two primary pollutants like carbon monoxide from vehicle exhaust, or sulphur dioxide from factories react in sunlight and stagnant air). University of California, San Diego, researchers developed a model using India’s 1980 temperature, rainfall and pollution levels as their base. They compared actual crop yields in 2010 to what they would have been had the 1980 levels remained the same and found that wheat yields were about 36 percent lower than expected, while rice output had reduced by up to 20 percent. The study ran in a 2014 issue of PNAS, the official scientific journal of the National Academy of Sciences in the US.

GM crops may hold key to fighting food crunch
Image: Corbis
GM rice plants kept in glass flasks

“There are a number of such impact studies,” says Dr Ajay Parida, executive director of MSSRF, a non-profit NGO, in Chennai. “For instance, if the night temperature increases by 1°C in the Punjab-Haryana belt, yield of wheat will reduce by 500 kg per hectare.” In his most recent paper published in the Indian peer-reviewed publication, Current Science, he cites a 2009 International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report, which observed that compared to 2000, average yields in 2050 will decline by about 50 percent for wheat, 17 percent for rice and about 6 percent for maize. “The impact of changes in precipitation, salinity levels, erratic rainfall patterns etc will vary depending on the crop and their location. For instance, in the coastal areas, rice yields will show a reduction of about 25 percent due to increased salinity levels.”

At MSSRF, Parida and his team have isolated genes from naturally salt-tolerant mangroves and have inserted them into rice varieties so that they can grow in high salinity conditions.

The debate on the need for genetically modified (GM) crops—the multi-billion dollar industry is led by giants like Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont—is polarising. Have we, like Mary Shelley’s scientist Victor Frankenstein, unleashed a monster? Depending on whom you ask, GM crops are either part of the problem responsible for a reduction in seed diversity and its failure to address food security, or the solution.

A 2012 study by Washington State University on the impact of GM crops in the US in the last 16 years concluded that the overall pesticide use increased by an estimated 183 million kg or about 7 percent. These findings go against the promise that engineered crops would reduce the dependence on pesticides and herbicides. In 2013, the Washington DC consumer rights group Food & Water Watch, after examining data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the “total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops—corn, cotton and soybeans —increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.” (Glyphosate is a herbicide used to kill weeds and sold under the Roundup brand by Monsanto.)

At least half of the countries in the European Union, including Germany and France, have decided to ban cultivation of GM crops. In South America, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela have banned cultivation of GM crops, which have been accused of making farmers dependent on expensive seeds.

India allows the cultivation of genetically modified cotton, but has adopted a more cautionary approach to food items like Bt Brinjal, which it banned in 2010.

Parida makes a case for not damning the science itself. “The seeds that we cultivate [at MSSRF] are varieties that farmers can use for generations and don’t have to return to the supplier every year to buy a new batch,” he says. “Similarly, many of the public sector research institutions are focusing on developing transgenic seed in varietal background.”  

However, despite the bans in developed (and richer) nations in EU, the cultivation of GM crops is increasing, especially in developing and poorer nations, and activists as well as policymakers have expressed their concerns. There is a real fear that the GM crops are playing a role in reducing agro-biodiversity and replacing traditional agricultural methods and low-input farming practices in developing nations with high-input farming and mono-cropping. “Such changes do not only have an impact on the biodiversity in the surrounding area, but also increase the vulnerability of farmers relying mostly on GM crop rather than dividing risks of crop failure between a greater variety of products,” notes a 2013 European Parliament report, ‘The Impact of Biotechnology on Developing Countries’. 

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Application (ISAAA), which operates out of North America, Africa and Asia, says in its latest report that in 2014, 18 million farmers (90 percent of who are “small and poor”) planted GM crops on 181 million hectares across 28 countries. The non-profit organisation—funded by both agrochemical companies like Monsanto and government agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and US Agency for International Development (USAID)—reports that last year, five Asian countries (India, China, Pakistan, the Philippines and Myanmar) cultivated GM crops on 19.5 million hectares.

mg_84449_eco_freindly_rice_280x210.jpg
So far, the technology has failed to live up to its promises, and expectations. The major GM crops grown—corn, soybean, cotton and canola—do little to improve food security. In a 2013 article titled ‘Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods’ published in the MIT Technology Review, editor David Rotman notes that while 76 percent of corn grown in the US are genetically modified to resist insects, and 85 percent can tolerate weed killers, only about 4 percent of the crop goes into making high-fructose syrup and 1.8 percent to make cereal and other foods for humans.
 
The hope now is that GM research that focuses on crops such as rice and wheat will be able to tackle climate change-related issues of food security. “The answer to whether transgenic crops can help address India’s agricultural problems lies in field trials,” says Parida. India’s protocols on field trials have remained uncertain: After the uproar over Bt Brinjal, the then UPA government imposed a moratorium on its release and made it necessary for companies and institutes to get a no-objection certificate from state governments before conducting field trials. The current government, too, has upheld the power of individual states. “The government has to have open and transparent systems and a robust regulatory body that will help instill desired confidence among the public and allay fear of negative impact of technology, if any,” says Parida. Char, too, is frustrated by the lack of clarity and transparency. Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh have permitted field trials of GM crops in the past year, while Maharashtra gave permission for this past kharif season and then reversed it.

The good news is that biotechnology or bioengineering in crops is not limited to GM technology. Many research institutes and companies are researching a strain of wheat that can withstand unseasonal hot days during the sensitive grain filling stage when the kernel size is determined.

Also, not all engineered crops are modified with genes from other non-related organisms. For instance, a decade ago, scientists from the University of California, Davis, isolated a gene called Submergence tolerance 1, or Sub 1, from a variety of rice that had low yields but could survive for a long time under water. Working with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, the team cross-polinated the Sub1 rice with a variety of Indian rice called Swarna. The result, Swarna Sub1 seeds, can survive underwater for up to a fortnight, unlike most rice seeds that die in three days. Today, Swarna Sub1 is grown in flood prone states like Orissa, and is popularly called ‘scuba rice’.

In September 2015, IRRI and the University of California Riverside researchers announced they have identified a gene that can help rice seeds not just survive but grow underwater.

The science of terminator seeds and rice seedlings that survive underwater falls in the realm of the fantastic. However, crops that can face the vagaries of climate change are only part of a bigger solution. “The science has to work along with improved irrigation, improved soil heath and policies to assist farmers,” says Char. GM cannot be an excuse to ignore or withstand the effects of human-driven climate change with impunity.

(This story appears in the 08 January, 2016 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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