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Genetic modification (GM), also known as genetic engineering (GE), is an artificial method of gene manipulation, transferring a gene of a living organism, whether plant or animal, into another. The DNA structure or sequence is usually tampered with, and foreign substances are added to the isolated genes.

While gene transfer does occur in nature, the basic difference is that it is obviously natural, in compliance with the tenets of nature, and thus has no side-effects or dangers associated with it. The species concerned would invariably be closely-related and a combination of hereditary characteristics based on natural laws of dominance would only be possible. It should also be noted that gene transfer of the type that is effected by biotechnologists in their laboratories is NEVER possible nor desirable in nature.

GE plants or other organisms can, through interbreeding, contaminate local or even regional gene pools and biodiversity, thus affecting entire ecosystems. This is not just a possibility but has already occurred when GM crops have interbred with other plants and contaminated the produce as well as gene pool. Moreover, because GM has been using various toxins, antibiotic-resistant genes, allergens and genes sourced from dangerous strains of bacteria and viruses, their presence within a food chain can have devastating results on food quality and human / animal health.

The threats of GE are many. Firstly, GE is relatively imprecise, with the technology itself not guaranteeing accurate ‘positioning’ of the gene. The life cycle of the organism created by GE, called a genetically-modified organism (GMO), is also neither predictable nor controllable. Its effect on and interaction with other organisms in its environment can never be known immediately and the effects may not even be apparent until some generations later. Lastly, the polluting genes which contaminate biodiversity and gene pools CANNOT be exterminated or removed by any means whatsoever. In other words, whenever adverse effects of GM or GMOs become apparent, the ‘rogue’ cannot be weeded out. Food products can also be contaminated directly genetically, or mixed with GM food. In either case, consumers would never even know.

In India, Bt cotton is a well-known example of GE and has been discussed on a separate page on this website. Other examples of GM posing a threat to India include :

GM Mustard : A cocktail of genes taken from the tobacco plant and various bacteria. The plant is engineered to be resistant to a highly-poisonous herbicide that kills all other plants. In other words, the company that sells GM mustard seeds also profits by selling the herbicide over which it has a monopoly. The plant also carries a toxic male sterile gene aimed at stopping pollen production.

GM Soya : A Monsanto creation that has genes of various bacteria, the petunia plant and of the cauliflower mosaic virus. The plant has also been engineered to be resistant to a specific herbicide, in this case the highly toxic Roundup. Hence, as with GM mustard, GM soya too comes as a package with its own herbicide that can be supplied only by one company.

GM Maize : Branded Starlink and created by Aventis, GM Maize was found to contain allergens that caused nausea and shock in humans by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Declared unfit for human consumption, Starlink was withdrawn from the US markets and various products of which it was an ingredient were recalled. Starlink however made a surreptitious return as an innocuous unlabelled corn-soya mix which was distributed under the World Food Programme (WFP) in some Third World countries. On exposure of the same, many of the recipient nations refused the product. In India, the same product was sought to be distributed as food aid by Catholic Relief Services and CARE-India during the aftermath of the Orissa cyclone in 1999. The ‘aid’ was rejected and the import of the product banned after samples of the material were tested by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), New Delhi (an affiliate of Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya) and found to be genetically-modified.

To know more about GMOs and the implications of growing them and eating GM food, you may follow these links :

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