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Unpacking Genetically Modified Crops: Are They Really So Scary?

Genetic modification sounds like a nightmare – an experiment gone wrong to create mutant creatures that will take over the world.

For months, the Supreme Court has deliberated over whether genetically modified mustard should be allowed in the country. They’ve appointed expert committees to assess whether the crop would be safe for human consumption. Meanwhile, activists are lobbying hard against GM mustard, calling it “Terminator Mustard.”

But the reality is much less scary. We've actually been genetically modifying our world for centuries! Sure, science has gotten a lot fancier since the days of mating two types of dogs to get a cuddlier, better looking breed, but the act of selecting genetic traits that we want is the same.

So it's time to take a closer look at some of the facts and myths surrounding genetic modification. Because often the problem isn’t so much the science, it's the way genetically modified products make their way into the market.

That isn’t to say there aren’t any concerns about GMOs. Activists like Vandana Shiva are worried that if seeds like GM mustard take over, they will replace existing varieties and reduce biodiversity, which is important for plant survival.

In the case of GM mustard, the crop has been bred to resist an herbicide, so that farmers can spray the herbicide and kill everything except the mustard. Activists say this could lead to superweeds, which would develop a resistance to these herbicides.

But herbicides aren’t just used for GMO crops, they’re also used across the board in agriculture, so while some weeds are developing resistance to herbicides, this is happening even in areas without GMOs, biotechnology companies say.

Still, GMOs can be more expensive than other seeds, and farmers need to buy new seeds every year rather than cultivate seeds from their crop. Pro-GM farmers say the choice to pay up for GMOs should be theirs based on how they perceive what they need.

Plus, in India, where GM cotton is the only approved GMO crop, farmers are allowed to replant their own seeds, but tend to prefer to buy new seeds every year, because they’re likely to get higher yields with fresh seeds.

A woman works in the mustard fields of Khokana in Lalitpur, March 18, 2015. (Photo Courtesy: Reuters)
A woman works in the mustard fields of Khokana in Lalitpur, March 18, 2015. (Photo Courtesy: Reuters)

We live in a complex world. Though generally GMOs are bred to be more productive, more drought resistant and more pest resistant, there are many factors that impact crop growth. So in the end, alternative factors could prevent GM crops from reaching their full yield potential.

In the coming decades, we’re all going to face severe drought, growing populations, malnutrition, and warming temperatures. Scientists will keep working on ways to address these challenges in an effort to minimise human suffering, and they will do this through GMOs as well as a variety of other technologies.

Now the courts need to decide whether they think it’s safe enough to introduce into the country.