Genetically Modified foods: Why there is cause for concern

Likely risk to health and environment; MNCs may exploit farmers 

Apples that do not get brown after slicing. Oils with reduced saturated fat. Vitamin A-enriched rice. All thanks to genetic modification of crops! However, GM foods (those containing genetically modified ingredients) are as hotly a debated topic today as they were 25 years ago. Global consumer concerns focus on the likely adverse health and environmental impact of interfering with nature.  As of 2015, GM crops were banned in 38 countries.


The Indian government doesn’t allow commercial cultivation of GM food crops as yet. Bt cotton is the only GM crop being grown in the country. However, Indians may well be consuming GM processed foods – knowingly or unknowingly – through imports.

What has turned the spotlight again on the safety of GM foods, is a recent decision taken by the Central Government. It has approved field trials of 13 GM varieties of wheat, sorghum, rice, brinjal, maize, cotton, mustard, sugarcane, chickpea and potato.

Purpose of GM

GMOs—or genetically modified organisms—are created in a laboratory by altering the genetic make-up of a plant or animal. For instance, a desired trait may be introduced into a plant to make it resistant to certain pests and diseases or to improve its nutrient profile.

Some scientists believe that GM food poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food. A 2014 report concluded that GM technology adoption had reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. However, grave concerns remain. The major ones are described below.

Consumer concerns

Health impact: We still don’t know enough about the long-term effects of genes inserted into GM crops. Genetic modification could add to the existing problem of antibiotic resistance. Toxins or allergens may be increased, transferred or produced. Animal studies suggest that GMOs might cause damage to the immune system, liver and kidneys.

Environmental impact: Growing GM crops on a large scale may affect biodiversity as development of superior GM strains may crowd others out of the market. It could produce tougher or ‘super’ weeds and lead to increased use of herbicides.

Food supply monopoly: Most current GM methods and GM crop varieties are owned by companies and patented.  Farmers are at the mercy of such corporations.

Other undesirable effects: Transfer of genes from animals or fish into vegetables may not be acceptable to vegans and vegetarians.

Where are GM crops grown?

The first genetically modified crop approved for sale in the US, in 1994, was the FlavrSavr tomato. It had a longer shelf life, because it took longer to soften after ripening. In 2015, GM crops were grown in 28 countries and on over 10% of the world’s arable land. USA, Brazil and Argentina are the leading producers of GM crops. The top GM crop grown in 2015 was soybean, followed by maize and cotton.

Processed food  

Last year, tests by Consumer Reports discovered that GM ingredients were present in many packaged foods, such as breakfast cereals, chips, baking mixes and protein bars. GM ingredients also pop up in unexpected places. Some spices and seasoning mixes contain GM corn and soy.

Food and health 2

Need for labelling   

While the debate for and against GM foods rages on, it is important that such food is adequately labelled so that consumers can make an informed choice. In India, the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011 state that every package containing  genetically modified food shall bear at the top of its principal display panel the letters ‘GM.’ The rules apply to 19 products including biscuits, breads, cereals and pulses.

What consumers can do to avoid GM foods

  • Opt for organic products
  • Read the labels carefully.  Names like ‘thickener’, ‘natural flavouring’ and ‘drying agent’ may be confusing
  • Minimise consumption of processed food
  • Scrutinise the additives. Be wary of corn and soy – both ingredients are present under many names
  • Don’t use cottonseed oil
  • Cook from scratch instead of consuming canned or ready-to-eat food
  • Steer clear of artificial sweeteners
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