Genetically Modified or GM crops have faced significant opposition from farmers and activists alike. In this piece, Krish Ashok, a software engineer but better known as the author of the book Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, helps us debunk certain myths about GM crops. Much as in his book where he takes a scientific approach to the exoticism of Indian cooking, he points to why what we call as traditional crops are also genetically modified except the mutations have been evolutionary as opposed to driven in a laboratory.
“If you have a problem with genetically modified (GM) crops, I have some bad news for you. The wild version of the grasses from which rice and wheat originated had an evolutionary trick that made the stem brittle just around the time the grain ripened, allowing the plant to shatter easily, causing the seeds to be dispersed more effectively by the wind. But some humans happened to notice that a few of these wild grasses had hard stems that did not shatter in the wind, and that let them collect these grains for their own consumption rather than let the plant pursue its better interest of dispersing its seeds far and wide. In fact, if these humans hadn’t noticed these chance mutant varieties that had hard stems and selected them for cultivation, those plants would not have survived by themselves in the wild.
But that’s not the end of it. Humans also carefully selected grains from wild rice and wheat plants that had other random mutations—seeds that separated from their hard, inedible casings by threshing, again a mutation that would have not survived in the wild because it’s in the plant’s genetic interest to not produce seeds that lose their casings easily. But it is very much in the interest of ancient human farmers, who happen to be the world’s earliest plant geneticists, to find and cultivate plants that can yield enough grain to start, you know, civilisation.
…In short, agriculture is not natural. It is the careful selection of chance mutants of organisms or interbreeding by grafting of variants to produce freakish versions of crops that would never have survived in nature. It requires large-scale human cultivation that involves the wiping out of most other species of plants (and animals) to grow a single species over millions of acres to feed the seven billion people we have on the planet today. The only difference between what we describe as “traditional” crops and what we term GM crops is that the former is merely messy and inefficient genetic engineering done over centuries in comparison to the precise genetic engineering done in a lab.”
But he does recognise some of the valid issues raised by activists:
“To be fair, being sceptical about what you eat is natural and cannot just be dismissed as Luddite resistance to new technology. And there are valid concerns that we don’t quite know the long-term ecosystem effects of genetically modified crops, especially if those plants inter-breed with non-GM plants in a given area. There is also genuine criticism of modern agricultural practices, supported by an exploitative economic system that continues to keep farmers impoverished in most developing parts of the world. Terminator seeds, which require farmers to buy new seeds for every season from a small number of monopolistic trans-national companies, are, not surprisingly, valid targets for activism.”
He ends the piece with some creative illustrations to drive home the point.
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