Due to the continued cultivation of modern high-yielding hybrid varieties and GM crops, there may be risks of genetic erosion resulting in the loss of our ancestral native seeds. This may have a more negative effect on countries like Nepal where people practice informal seed systems that mainly depend on seeds produced on their own farms the previous year.
The world’s population is growing steadily and is expected to reach 10.9 billion by AD 2100. Food production is constrained by shrinking arable land, poor seed quality, pest attacks, post-harvest losses and environmental degradation, amplifying food price volatility and potentially pushing millions of people in poverty. Climate change and the diversification of diets have also demanded quality and sustainable agricultural production. In the current scenario, to increase productivity, we adopt different agronomic research results, such as high yielding varieties, excessive fertilizers and management of cultivation systems and patterns. Likewise, to control the pest, the random use of pesticides is also practiced. However, there is a large gap between the achievable yield and the yield of farmers, posing a challenge in feeding the growing world population.
Growing hybrid and genetically modified plants may be a better way to overcome these constraints. Hybrid crops are the offspring of two different varieties, which are pollinated by crossbreeding and are the best traits of both parents. Pollination is carefully controlled during hybrid development to achieve the desired combination of traits from both parents. These hybrid crops benefit by increasing yield, improving quality, reducing seed rates and resisting plant stress. Using hybrid seeds alone can contribute to a 15-25% increase in crop yield.
Genetically modified (GM) crops are made by inserting genes from one plant into another using biotechnological techniques. Such plants may belong to the same species or to different species, or to a completely independent type of organism, such as bacteria or animals. The goal is to introduce new traits to the plant that do not occur naturally in these species. These crops are resistant to insects, herbicides and stress, which ultimately increases crop yield by minimizing the cost of cultivation and the use of pesticides. Genes that add nutrient quality can also be introduced into crops.
Global status of GM crops
In 1983 the first genetically modified plant, antibiotic resistant tobacco, was produced, but later in 1996 a delayed ripening variety of tomato was released. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-Biotechnology Applications (ISAAA) 2018, the production area was 191.7 million hectares, up from 1.7 million hectares in 1996, indicating the technology the fastest adopted in the history of agriculture. Until 2018, 17 million farmers in 26 countries were growing genetically modified plants.
Different researchers have found the success of GM crops. GM Golden Rice is the best example of modern biotechnology. It is a feasible and cost-effective way to deliver micronutrients to populations with limited access to diverse diets and other micronutrient interventions. In golden rice, beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A has been introduced. Since cereals are deficient in the amino acids lysine and threonine, genes producing these amino acids are introduced, which increases the nutritional character. Transgenic Bt. Corn, which produces its own insecticide, contains a gene for bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis), which saves corn from boring insects. The use of pesticides has been minimized, resulting in an increase in yield while protecting the environment from its harmful effects. The photosynthetic capacity of C3 crops, such as rice, can be increased by installing the C4 photosynthetic pathway. This significantly increased the yield. Transgenic crops, such as soybeans, have a high content of edible oil and a low content of cyanogenic glycosides in cassava. In addition, herbicide resistant and insect resistant cotton varieties resistant to Colorado beetle and potato virus Y are also developed by this technique.
GM crops in Nepal and their consequences
In Nepal, for the first time, the US multinational seed company Monsanto introduced GM seed to fulfill the purpose of its pilot program, but no GM seed is registered and marketed in Nepal so far. All plans and policies, such as the Agricultural Perspective Plan (2052-2072 BS), the National Agro-biodiversity Policy (2063 BS), the Agricultural Development Strategy (2015 AD), the National Agricultural Policy (2061 BS), National Seed Policy (2056 BS) etc. have strictly prohibited the use of GM seeds in Nepal except for research purposes. However, research can only be carried out with the permission of the authorized agency, but the government can only ban the importation and research of GMOs with the potential risk of altering diversity and having a negative impact on health and the environment.
Nepalese law has banned GM crops, but our country’s main agricultural trade is linked to India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan, across open borders between Nepal and India, via road, where GM crops are grown over thousands of hectares. Without knowing it, genetically modified foods are imported from these countries. Thus, import testing of GM crops, across open borders, must be made strict to control illegal entry.
In the debate on GM crops, not only the importance, but also certain consequences are pointed out. The most debated consequence is the effect on the environment and human health. It can cause allergies in humans. However, various research papers have indicated that GM crops pose no health risk and pose little evidence of environmental damage.
In contrast, genetic diversity is an equally important resource for food production. Due to the continued cultivation of modern high-yielding hybrid varieties and GM crops, there may be risks of genetic erosion resulting in the loss of our ancestral native seeds. This may have a more negative effect on countries like Nepal where we operate an informal seed system which mainly relies on seeds produced on our own farm the previous year. The cost of GM seeds is high, creating an economic burden for our marginalized farmers. The dependence of our seed sector will increase on foreign countries, which can lead to the unavailability of planting material at the right time and in the right place.
Everything has advantages and disadvantages. Nepal is in the embryonic stage of the cultivation of GM plants. Instead of straightforward legalization, more research will be helpful in flagging and reversing negative impacts. Then, cultivation on non-food crops, such as cotton, could be a pioneering step towards the adoption of this new technology. On the other hand, keeping our native seeds in seed banks and gene banks in gene banks will save us from loss.
Indeed, the use of GM seeds should not have harmful effects on the environment, human / animal health and our ecosystem, if it is well managed by a concrete analysis of the risks and benefits. However, adopting the technology without developing control and regulatory policies can lead to serious problems. The experience of other countries with regard to GMOs would help to make new decisions. But the final decision whether or not to introduce GM seeds in Nepal will be made based on the assessment of biosafety reports. If these reports are positive, the adoption of this new technology will certainly reduce food and nutrition insecurity.
(The authors are students of MSc (Agriculture), Faculty of Agriculture, University of Agriculture and Forestry, Rampur, Chitwan.)