Bioethics in Plant Genetic Engineering
New variations arise in population due to mutation. However, the frequency of variation depends on the rate of mutation. But in nature the frequency of mutation is very low (i.e. one in about 1 OVgene/generation).
Cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops by the farmers is increasing fast throughout the world. Hopefully, the GM technology will support healthcare and industry and provide food, feed and fibre security at global basis.
However, it should be used to increase the production of main staple food, increase the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and provide access to food for small scale farmers. The global community is facing the important challenges associated with public perception of transgenic crops. The major concerns about GM crops and GM foods are given below:
(i) The Risk of Transfer of Allergies:
There is fear of transferring allergens (usually glycoproteins) from GM food to human and animals e.g. peanut and other nuts. GM food from peanut is now widely labelled, but what about GM crops (where there is no labelling)?
(ii) Pollen Transfer from GM Plants:
There is a risk of gene pollution i.e. transfer of transgene of GM crop through pollen grains to related plant species and development of super-weeds. Will pest or herbicide-resistance gene incorporated into GM crop be transferred into closely related plants and increase the ‘weediness’?
(iii) Effect of GM Crops on Non-target and Beneficial Insects and Microbes:
There are many non-target beneficial microbes that harbour on plant surfaces. The insects too harbour on flowers. Will the changed metabolites be colonised by new microorganisms/insects or affect them to get altered?
(iv) Risk of Change in Fundamental Vegetable Nature of Plants:
Transgenes from animals (obtained from fish, mouse, human, microbes) have been introduced into GM plant for molecular farming. There is risk of changing the fundamental nature of vegetables.
(v) Transfer of Transgene from GM Food to Pathogenic Microbes:
Antibiotic marker genes are used to identify and select the modified cells. Such cells grow on medium containing those antibiotics. Commonly, kanamycin and hydromyxin resistance genes are used in GM plants to confer resistance to these antibiotics, while ampicillin resistance marker gene is used for GM bacteria.
If GM food containing antibiotic resistance marker gene is consumed by animals and humans, the transgene will transfer from GM food to microflora of human and animals. Will their gut microbe be resistant to antibiotics?
(vi) Effect of GM Crops on Biodiversity and Environment:
The GM crop is not naturally evolved but they have been manipulated artificially. However, there is risk whether they pose harmful effect on biodiversity (of other plants, microbes, insects, etc.) and overall impact on environment.
(vii) The GM Crop may bring About Changes in Evolutionary Pattern:
Evolution is going on naturally. Plants adapt the fluctuations occurring in the environment through changing their genes and developing better races to which one says the evolved races.
Will transgene flow from GM crops to other non-GM plants and result in alteration in non-GM crop? Will non-GM crop evolve through hybridisation with GM crop?
Now awareness about plant biotechnology, GM crops and GM food is increasing due to public debate throughout the globe and accumulation of evidences of bio-safety (for health and environment).
Several transgenic crops (e.g. corn, cotton, soybean, tomato, potato, and rape seed) and their products are sold in market. The GM crops and GM food are properly labeled. The labeling of GM food and ingredients has become a major issue and generating a great deal of confusion, and difficulty in application.
In some countries including India, the GM crops are commercialised only after extensive field trials for environmental safety related to wild species, toxic effects and approval of regulatory authorities.
Before their release, the GM crops and GM food are properly assessed for any risk associated with them against plants, animals and humans. Even the GM food and ingredients must be safe before their recommendation to sell in the market.
Still there is increasing hope throughout the world that the GM crop can solve the problem of hunger and disease especially in heavily populated poor countries.