The Union government’s decision to import GM soybean meal has sparked debate. This is not a violation of the regulations applicable to the cultivation and consumption of GM plants in India. So why are there so many misplaced concerns about this import?
Soybean meal imported for poultry feed is not the whole bean and poses no risk of spread. The scientific term “contains no living modified organisms” simply means that this protein-rich, deoiled and ground soybean material cannot be used as seed to produce a new crop of GM soybeans.
Thus, the Genetic Engineering Evaluation Committee (GEAC) issued a certificate of no objection. Poultry feed is outside the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI). The composition and safety of GM soybean meal is exactly the same as that of non-GM soybean meal.
Genetic engineering, if carried out according to regulations, is absolutely safe. The regulations of several countries, including India, are extremely strict and address all possible concerns, based on scientific principles. Some of the issues considered by regulators are:
Risk of allergy in the human body
The entire sequence of the gene that is inserted and the amino acid sequence of the protein it forms are carefully examined to see if they are even slightly similar to known allergens in the database. Most of the proteins like Bt protein or other enzymes that are produced due to the insertion of genes are small proteins that when consumed are digested in stomach and intestinal juices and become amino acids. They do not trigger an allergic reaction because they do not stay as intact proteins and cannot bind to any receptors. Like other proteins, they too eventually become amino acids in the body. This is confirmed by an in vitro enzymatic acid digestion test.
Most of the proteins that cause allergies are not destroyed by heat. They remain intact even after cooking and can cause allergies. Examples are peanut or milk or egg protein or other potential food allergens. Allergenic proteins are not destroyed even at high temperatures. The thermal stability test checks whether the new protein is destroyed when heated and if so, it means it cannot cause an allergy.
Risk linked to allergenic sequences
Most allergy-causing proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. The amino acid sequence of a known allergen has a particular composition of an amino acid chain or configuration in the tertiary structure of the protein where a set of amino acids come close to each other and these could bind to some of the receptors and cause an allergy in some individuals. Thus, the next test searches for these allergen sequences using several computer-aided methods to verify their homology with a database of known allergen sequences. In the event of such a match, there could be a suspicion that the protein that was produced due to genetic modification could cause an allergy. Even folded or tertiary protein structures are examined for such sequences resulting from conformational proximity.
Risk of human toxicity
This concern arises mainly because proteins like the Bt protein are insect toxins. They are so specific to a particular type of insect that they are not toxic to other insects, let alone humans or animals. However, a test is always performed in which that test protein or toxin is produced by inserting the same gene into an expression system such as bacteria or yeast and fermenting to produce in larger quantities. The protein is confirmed for its toxicity on target insects by a laboratory method. If they are found to be toxic, they are given to laboratory animals such as rats in several times the amounts consumed by humans and animals.
A single oral dose of up to 2000 mg of protein equivalent to several thousand times more than normal consumption is given to animals to check for any change in toxicity.
Long-term feeding studies
A known amount of this GM substance is given to rats through the diet over a period of 90 days. This examines both the toxicity and nutritional suitability of the test material when given to rats. In many countries, this test is not mandatory if the composition of the GM growing material is similar to that of an unmodified counterpart and within normal variations of a normal plant or an unmodified plant.
The compositional equivalence study answers the question of whether the inserted gene could have disrupted other genes along the DNA chain and caused certain unintended effects. The composition of edible plant parts in terms of macronutrients, micronutrients, known toxins, known allergens, antinutrients, known bioactive substances, etc. are all compared between the GM plant and the non-GM comparator grown in the same field and widely sampled.
It is unfortunate that despite so many regulations and the availability of scientific safety evidence, the word “genetic modification” can cause so much concern and lead to decisions that are contrary to the interests of the country and its people.
Regulators ultimately approve only if the data unequivocally confirms that the GM crop is as safe as the non-GM crop that people have been consuming for centuries. Regulatory and government approvals are granted on the basis of benefit for risk analysis and in the wider interest of the population.
Based on all the data generated, the product is assessed for any potential measurable risk. Approvals are only granted if the benefits far outweigh the risks.
In importing GM soybean meal, there are no such risks and the benefits are considerable. We have a huge volume of regulatory data on several GM crops in our country, which could be of immense economic benefit to us. They languish on the shelves due to concerns not based on science. Despite the history of safe use in several parts of the world, we still ask the same question just because GM technology is viewed as potentially dangerous by some.
Genetic engineering is an extremely useful and precise technology for mankind. Like all technologies, there could be elements of risk, but regulators look at these aspects scientifically and make the decision to approve or not.
In this context, we should appreciate the good policy decision of the government regarding the import of GM soybean meal. We are trying to find ways and means to reduce the burden of malnutrition in our country through micronutrient fortification and through several government programs to ensure adequate protein intake.
This is a small step towards achieving nutrition security.
The author is MD, FAMS, and former director, ICMR – NIN. Views are personal