Vol.4, No.10, 541-548 (2013) Agricultural Sciences
Genetically modified crops and climate change
linkages: An Indian perspective
Amanpreet Kaur1, Ravinder Kumar Kohli2*, Paramjit Singh Jaswal3
1Department of Environment, Post Graduate Government College-46, Chandigarh, India
2DAV University, Jalandhar, India
3RGNUL, Patiala, Punjab, India;
*Corresponding Author: rkkohli45@yahoo.com, rkkohli45@gmail.com, aman_envirocare@yahoo.com
Received 29 June 2013; revised 29 July 2013; accepted 19 August 2013
Copyright © 2013 Amanpreet Kaur et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License,
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs) and Climate
Change (CC) are the two most contentious eco-
logical issues the world faces today. Application
of transgenics in agriculture is most debated be-
cause of its direct and indirect implications. The
advertized bene fits in the backdrop of the poten-
tially harmful effects on health and environment
make this an issue of greater concern. On the
other hand, Climate Change is a problem of enor-
mous scale and it s after-effects ev en more grav e.
The impact of climate change on agriculture,
though well researched, is still very uncertain.
Further, the introduction and global embrace of
a technology with unverified credentials may
prove to be an ill-conceived and ill-timed act.
The future of GMC technology in India will be
both challenging as well as exciting. Therefore
any decision on this front should be taken with
scientific rigor and logic. Our aim is to explore
this complex inter-relationship and provide im-
petus for further research.
Keywords: Genetically Modified Crops; Climate
Change; Carbon Emissions; Agriculture; Bt Crops
Climate Change (CC) is the greatest challenge mankind
faces today. Its impacts like rising sea levels, melting of
glaciers, droughts, floods, loss of biodiversity, spread of
diseases, continue to increase at rates far steeper than the
rate of social change [1]. Scientists, climatologists and
governments world-over are striving to find ways to
combat this phenomenon. Among its most worrying as-
pects is the effect on agriculture.
Potential impacts of CC estimated under HadCM3 glo-
bal climate model of IPCC (Inter-Government Panel for
Climate Change) indicate net loss in crop yields by 9 to
22%, even after including beneficial effects of increa-
sed CO2 levels and various farm level adaptations [2].
Predictions of changes in crop yield seem difficult,
since global CC is bound to alter the cropping pattern in
time and spatial scale. To combat this issue, man is ma-
nipulating the genetic traits by inserting/altering desired
genes into the crops to produce Genetically Modified Crops
(GMCs) as per suitability.
Since the first commercial cultivation of transgenic
Tomato in 1996, nearly 170 million hectares (mha) of glo-
bal land is under GMCs cultivation, with USA, Brazil
and Argentina as the top three countries (Figure 1(a)).
Soya, Maize, Cotton and Canola (Figure 1(b)) are the
top four crops [3]. Herbicide tolerance and insect resis-
tance, the two most widely transgenically induced traits
(Figure 1(c)), are expected to decrease pesticide usage
and increase crop yields.
In India, Bt cotton is the only GMC being grown com-
mercially. Released for commercial cultivation in March
2002, today it covers 9.4 mha of the total 10.3 mha land
under cotton [4]. Despite the wide acceptance, it remains
shrouded in controversy and has received a mixed re-
sponse from the Indian farmers. In the overall context of
the extensive an d rich backgro und of farming in Ind ia, Bt
cotton remains a minor change. It is perhaps too early to
critically evaluate the impact of such a change. The
direct and indirect impacts of these crops on human
health, ecology and environment remain to be evaluated
and hence, GMCs today still stand at the crossroads of
In the present scenario of changing climate, huge skep-
ticism surrounds the ability of our agricultural system to
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OPEN A CCESS
A. Kaur et al. / Agricultural Sciences 4 (2013) 541-5 48
Figure 1. (a) Country wise Distribution of GMCs Source: Clive
2012; (b) Crop wise world distribution of GMCs Source: Clive
2012; (c) Trait wise distribution of GMCs, Herbicide Tolerance
the most popularly grown Source: Clive 2012.
feed the world. High degree of uncertainty imputed to
CC and its interactions with agriculture cast doubts on
the safety of GMCs. Moreover, agriculture in India is the
backbone of the economy. It covers 60.5% of land area,
accounts for 15.7% of the country’s gross domestic pro-
duct (GDP) and provides employment to 55% of the work
force [5]. Tampering with it, in backdrop of potential CC
impacts and carbon emission liabilities, could be disas-
trous for the country. In the light of given problem, Bi-
otech companies now herald GMCs as solution to CC for
feeding our ever growing popul ati on in t he warmer worl d.
Interaction between climatic factors and crops is very
strong but replacing the conventional crops with GMCs
in a warming world gives a new perspective. Intensive
crop farming requires large inputs of oil, fertilizers, pes-
ticides which collectively are major contributors to cli-
mate change. GMCs also appear to be going on the same
lines [6].
Most of the pretensions about th ese crops as a solu tion
to CC appear to be overdrawn and entirely premature.
Successful crop plants are the resultant of interaction be-
tween genes and environment (product of dose and pe-
riod of exposure). Introducing or changing gene(s) is thus
no guarantee of success. A multifaceted approach broa-
dens the horizon as GMCs are b elieved to mitigate green
house gas (GHG) emissions in number of ways.
2.1. Reduced Pesticide Usage with
Increased Yield
Herbicide Tolerant (HT) and Insect Resistant (IR) crops
claiming to reduce pesticide usage can further reduce the
carbon footprint of the whole process. Low pesticide use
means less manufacture, storage, transport and spraying,
which collectively brings down the carbon emissions of
the process [7]. Increased yield s with lesser pesticide use
on the same piece of land, reduces the pressure on the
system [8]. Increasing the crop yield or reducing the pest
attack, in short, converts into profit for its grower as he
can grow more on the same piece of land. This is the
main objective behind GMC cultivation. Whether it has
really been achieved, is still questionable.
It is reported that only in areas where there are fre-
quent disease outbreaks, especially during planting sea-
son, the HT and IR crops show better performance.
Otherwise, under normal conditions they show little or
no impact on crop yields [6]. Compared to conventional
cropping/organic systems, GMCs are not expected to
show similar results especially in terms of yield and qua-
lity. On the other h and, pesticide usage is hardly any dif-
ferent when compared between HT crops and their con-
ventional counterparts. Instead, cultivation of GMCs has
led to increased pesticide usage because of the conve-
nience factor.
An even worse scenario which has been widely re-
ported is the development of resistant weeds/super-weeds
and secondary pests [9]. Widespread infestation of the
exotic mealy-bug species, Phenacoccus solenopsis, was
reported on Bt cotton in 2007 in India [10]. Further, the
Bollworms have already started showing signs of field
evolved resistance to Bt cotton [11].
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A. Kaur et al. / Agricultural Sciences 4 (2013) 541-5 48 543
New enemies of GMC fields
Super-weeds—Gene flow from transgenic
crops to its wild relati ves co uld
unintentionally confer such benefits to these
weedy relatives resulting in the evolution of
super-weeds. Such weedy relatives are mostly
species related to the crop and so become
very difficult to control.
Secondary Pests—A species which was not
a pest before but its population increases to
densities that cause damage to the crop is
called as a secondary pest. Development of
secondary pests has recently increased in
GMC fields where pesticide applications kill
natural enemies of such species and disturbs
the biological control [12].
Source—Powles 2008
2.2. Increased Carbon Retention
Since man started agriculture, plowing has been a pro-
cess of aerating the soil, to integrate organic matter and
release large amount of carbon gases trapped. However,
GMCs are considered as no-till crops which in turn de-
crease the carbon lost during tillage. In this way, these
crops can increase retention of carbon and further bring
down the emissions.
But conservation tillage was discovered and practiced
even before GMCs came in. It has been practiced as tra-
ditional farming technique in India for decades. Thus, re-
duction in carbon loss by this process is expected to be
2.3. Climate-Ready Crops
Apart from these indirect benefits, some GMCs are
being climate proofed to bear the environmental stress in
changing climate such as droughts and floods. In some
cases, both direct and indirect benefits can also be looked
upon from GMCs like the bioengineered nitrogen fixing
crops which are expected to increase the nitrogen use
efficiency as well as reduce our dependence on fossil
fuel based nitrogen fertilizers. It also helps to reduce
GHG emissions and water pollution due to leaked nitro-
gen products.
But there has been very little progress in terms of de-
veloping GM nitrogen-fixing and drought resistant crops.
Such modification requires major changes in plant meta-
bolism. Its interactions with the agro-ecosystem are un-
known. It is a known fact that no seed can germinate in
complete absence of moisture. Thus development of a
drought resistant crop appears to be relatively impractical.
A safer option would probably be to use the wild rela-
tives of crops growing in the geographically diverse re-
gions of India and develop climate resistant hybrids.
2.4. Biofuels
World over, GMCs are being grown for agro-fuel pro-
duction with 70% of total GM Soya grown for this pur-
pose only. Bio-fuels are believed to be a cleaner fuel with
lower emissions and a befitting altern ative to fossil fuels.
However, this role of GMCs for increased agro-fuel pro-
duction replacing fossil fuels is based on very little evi-
dence. Instead, rapid expansion of agro-fuel cultivation
can lead to loss of land primarily used for food produc-
tion, increased chemical usage, displacement of farmers
and indigenous people and loss of biodiversity [13].
2.5. Genetically Engineered Trees
Genetically engineered trees are also being developed
for a range of uses. In China, Poplar species have been
genetically engineered, cloned and planted on commer-
cial scale to prevent soil erosion [14]. These fast growing
trees fix more CO2 and produce more cellulose fo r indus-
trial use than conventional trees and appear as a very at-
tractive option. Regarding genetically engineered trees,
meaningful and adequate benefits are currently uncertain,
keeping in view the complexity of their large habitats
and numerous interactions.
Biotech companies often combine several
GM traits together in a crop and refer them as
stacked GM traits. For example, Monsanto
and Dow have developed a maize variety
called Smart-Stax containing two herbicide
tolerance and six insect resistance traits.
International Service for the Acquisition of
Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non
profit organization primarily funded by
biotech MNCs, publishes an annual report on
GMC status of the world. While calculating
the area under GMC, it calculates the are a
under different GM traits individually and by
doing this it multiplies the area under stacked
GMCs with the number of GM traits it
contains. Thus for the crop with two stacked
traits, it claims double the area or in the case
of Smart-Stax w here it is eigh t times the area
[15]. By suc h count ing, a h ighly exaggera te d
and misguiding pict ure is pres ented to the
world. Source
FOE 2010
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A. Kaur et al. / Agricultural Sciences 4 (2013) 541-5 48
Whether GMCs can be helpful in reducing carbon
emissions or not, is still question able. These possibilities
need to be studied and researched extensively to prove
their relevance. Despite claims and counter claims on the
pretension of GMCs as solution to climate change, a
large number of biotech companies around the world are
patenting climate ready genes in a rush. At the recently
held United Nation Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in
Nagoya, Japan (18 - 29 October 2010), it was claimed
that under the pretext of developing climate ready crops,
these biotech companies seek to control worlds’ plant bi-
omass. Over 262 patent families, subsuming 1663 patent
documents published worldwide (both applications and
issued patents) make specific claims on environmental
stress tolerance in plants (such as drought, heat, flood,
cold, salt tolerance). Out of these over two-thirds are
held by three major biotech companies where as public
sector researchers hold only 10% [16].
The acceptance of GMCs is sharply divided over the
continents. While, Americans are grow ing nearly 80% of
total GMCs, Europeans have taken a stringent stand
against these crops. Similarly the developing world too is
confused over adopting GMCs in a hurry. Geographically,
Southern hemisphere, which is expected to suffer more
due to climate change, grows negligible GMCs (Figure
If GMCs can actually mitigate climate change impacts,
then why they are not being grown in regions of the
Figure 2. Complete mismatch between countries growing
GMCs and the ones’ mosteffected by climate change, in wake
of claims of GMCs mitigating climate change impacts.
world which will suffer earlier and more severely by it?
GMC is monoculture based, more suited to large land
holders. However in India, where, 80% of farmers have
marginal and small land hold ings of less than 2 ha, GMC
may not augur well. As they grow a variety of crops to-
gether and cannot afford to leave large isolation distan-
ces as a pre-requisite in GMC cultivation. Performance
of GMCs varies with region, cultural practices, agrocli-
matic conditions and geographical conditions. In India,
Bt Cotton failed miserably in South but fared better in
Punjab in North [10 ] .
Lack of legal capacity to monitor, assess and control
activities involving GMCs further decreases their chanc-
es in developing world. Thus GMCs are not an asset to
us, unless they are developed keeping in mind geogra-
phic concerns, needs, farming practices, economic back-
ground, local innovations and ecology on a whole. This
can be best done by involving the local groups, govern-
ment research agencies, farmers and allowing them to in-
novate and evolve need based GMCs. But patenting of
GMCs by the biotech companies hampers such efforts.
Independent research by government agencies becomes
difficult because of huge investment involved and lack of
information and technological exchange.
Further it is very expensive and difficult to prove the
safety of GMCs in the light of various claims of b iotech
giant which some NGOs and scientists term as mis-
guiding and misleading [17]. Some of the adverse ef-
fects attributed to GMCs include new allergens in food
supply, antibiotic resistance, production of new toxins,
concentration of toxic metals, enhancement of the envi-
ronment for toxic fungi to grow, increased cancer risks,
degradation of the nutritional food value, and other un-
known risks that may arise later [18].
An initial study which raised major concern amongst
scientific community showed that on consumption of
GM soybeans containing brazil-nut gene could induce
poten tially fatal a llergies in people a llergic to brazil nut
[19]. GM potatoes, that contained Galanthus nivalis agg-
lutinin, caused ripples in the scientific community and
biotech companies alike. These potatoes were found to
damage vital organs, immune system and stomach lin-
ing of rats and affect other non targ et species [20].
Bt cotton growers from Bathinda (Punjab), India, com-
plained of a chronic skin allergy among the field wor-
kers and have to take antihistamines. Increased incidents
of dead cattle and sheep grazing on harvested Bt cotton
fields in Warangal district (Andhra Pradesh) in Sou-
thern India as well as other parts of the country has been
reported since 2005 [21]. Such repeated patterns of ill-
ness, corroborating evidence, and health reactions have
consistently increased and superimposed the known po-
tential risks of GMCs [22].
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A. Kaur et al. / Agricultural Sciences 4 (2013) 541-5 48 545
BtBrinjal—A controversy in India that
Refuses to D ie!
BtBrinjal, India’s first GM Food crop got inter-
twined in controversies right from the beginning.
Following its approval by Genetic Engineering Ap-
proval Committee, a safety debate broke out in the
country. Union Minister of Environment, Jairam Ra-
mesh took the issue in public domain where it was
strongly opposed by various sections of the society.
Consequently, a moratorium was put on its release on
Feb 9, 2010 and in his decision, the minister ap-
pointed six premier academies to scrutinize safety of
BtBrinjal and give a rigorous scientific opinion on
GMCs. This Inter Academy report on GMCs when
released declaredBtBrinjal safe. The very next day,
Coalition for GM free India, highlighted malice in
the above report terming it as superficial overview
witho ut any critic al ana lysis. T he BtBr inja l sectio n of
the report is accused to have been copied from a
pro-GM newsletter of Dept of Biotechnology. Poorly
researched, containing plagiarized sections, it had
reflected badly on the science academies and was
consequently withdrawn [23]. Later an updated re-
port released was tidied up by adding references and
details of the only meeting held on June 1, 2010 to
discuss this crucial issue. Updated report was termed
as scientifically invalid and socially sterile than the
original one, by P.M. Bhargava, expert nominated to
the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. Amount
of discontent and doubt in minds of co mmo n man ha s
reached to limits from where winning the trust will
now be even more difficult. Source: Jayaraman 2010
Considering the economic front, it is generally re-
cognized that GMCs can go a long way in boosting the
economy of agriculturally rich countries [24]. Bt Cotton
has contributed to the observed leap in cotton produc-
tivity, turning India into major cotton exporter [25].
Comparing such obvious econo mic benefits with intangi-
ble ecological losses predicted due to mass GMC cultiva-
tion is arduous. There are two contrasting approaches to
it. One weighs short term economic gains ignoring the
basic law of nature and its ecological impacts. On the
contrary, other accounts for long term ecological losses
over short term economic gains due to perpetuating loss
of biodiversity, development of super-weeds, secondary
pests and disturbing the food web oscillations. Long term
ecological research only, can settle this economic issue.
GMC and CC have ethical issues also, as success of
any new technology depends on its acceptance by the so-
ciety. Any scientifically feasible process may not be ethi-
cally right. These values are of great prominence in India
where people of different religious beliefs live and joint-
ly worship various plants and animals.
India, a major center of biodiversity and is more sus-
ceptible to genetic pollution in the wake of increased cul-
tivation of GMCs.The trans- boundary movement, transit,
handling and use of all GMCs may have adverse effects
on the conservation and sustainable use of biological di-
versity. Taking into account its possible impact on human
health and the environment, it is restricted under the Car-
tagena Protocol on Biosafety to CBD. The protocol lays
down provisions for direct use as feed or food or pro-
cessing of GMOs, where information of centers of origin
and centers of genetic diversity of the recipient or pa-
rental organisms is mandatory [26]. Interestingly, the top
three GMCs growing countries have not ratified to this
protocol (Table 1).
Even if all above mentioned issues are ignored and a
developing world laced with GMCs is imagined, the
picture still looks murky. Effects of mass cultivation of
GMCs on ecology, agriculture, economy and health are
many. These effects may compound every year with
every new GMC. On analysing effects of any particular
GMC in a particular geographical region, we anticipate
many ecological, economic and ethical problems. Now, if
we accumulate the effects of every single GMC growing
in every corner of the world, the results may be disa-
strous. This in the backdrop of completely uncertain, un-
known potential changes in climate could be even worse.
Changing climatic condition s coupled with mass cultiva-
tion of GMCs could accentuate climate change impacts
than mitigating them.
Moreover, abrupt, extreme and uncertain changes due
to climate change require, agriculture model to be flexi-
ble and diverse so that it can easily adapt to changing
situation. GMCs, grown as monoculture, are highly sus-
ceptible to complete crop failure in case of disease break-
out or an environmental calamity like drought or flood. It
also narrows the crop diversity and accentuates the dan-
ger of genetic pollution as well as extinction of many
wild varieties even before they are discovered. It is an
inflexible technology that requires years and millions of
dollars for every new transgenic plant to be invented.
Thus cultivation of these crops deteriorates the stability
of the agricultural system and holds little hope for com-
bating climate change.
The inherent power of GMCs, which can go a long
way in serving mankind, is not doubtful. However, con-
troversies over its health, economic, ecological and ethi-
cal implications, mar its role in serving mankind in any
possible way. On the basis of ab ove insight into both the
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OPEN A CCESS
A. Kaur et al. / Agricultural Sciences 4 (2013) 541-5 48
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OPEN A CCESS
Table 1. Countries growing GMCs and their respective Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety status.
Country GMCs grown Cartagena Status
Argentina# Soybean, Maize, Cotton Not ratified
Australia# Cotton, canola Not ratified
Bolivia@ Soybean Ratified
Brazil$ Soybean, Maize, Cotton Accession
Burkina Faso@ Cotton Ratified
Canada# Canola, Maize, Soybean, Sugarbeet Not ratified
Chile# Maize, Soybean, Cotton Not ratified
China@ Cotton, Tomato, Poplar, Papaya, Sweet pepper Ratified
Colombia@ Cotton Ratified
Costa rica@ Cotton Ratified
Cuba@ Maize Ratified
Czech Republic@ Maize Ratified
Egypt@ Maize Ratified
Germany@ Potato Ratified
Honduras@ Maize Ratified
India@ Cotton Ratified
Mexico@ Cotton, Soybean Ratified
Myanmar@ Cotton Ratified
Pakistan@ Cotton Ratified
Paraguay@ Soybean Ratified
Philippines@ Maize Ratified
Poland@ Maize Ratified
Portugal@ Maize Ratified
Romania@ Maize Ratified
Slovakia@ Maize Ratified
South Africa$ Maize, Soybean, Cotton Accession
Spain@ Maize Ratified
Sudan@ Cotton Ratified
Sweden@ Potato Ratified
USA# Canola, Maize, Soybean, Sugarbeet, Cotton, Squash, Papaya, Alfalfa Not ratified
Uruguay# Soybean, Maize Not ratified
Source: Clive, 2012 and List of parties, CBD. Notes: @-ratified (States which have signed a treaty, when it was open for signature, that can proceed to ratify it.
Signature of itself does not establish consent to be bound, hence the further act of ratification.); $-accession (States which have not signed a treaty during the
time when it is open for signature can only accede to it. Therefore the term “accession”); #-not ratified.
contentious issues; Climate change and GMCs, it emerg-
es that the occurrence and impacts of both are highly un -
certain and unsettled. So , overlaying the doubtful asp ects
of GMCs on the uncertain, sudden potential impacts of
Climate Change, paints an unsettling face for our future.
Based on the literature study, gaps in current know-
ledge in GMCs and its prospect as a solution to Climate
Change are acknowledged. Lack of factual scientific data,
absence of post commercial cultivation monitoring, mis-
represented data, wrongful interpretation and modifica-
tion of existing information, together generate massive
asymmetrical knowledge base.
Providing food for all, remains at the heart of the
entire problem. But research and development have lost
focus from this important need and wandered in different
directions. Providing food to all not only requires produ-
cing more but also maintaining, storing and transporting
it hygienical ly with minimu m wastage. Accor din g to Fo od
Corporation of India, food wo rth Rs.500 billion ($120 bn)
is wasted every year. These post-harvest losses are about
25 - 30 percent of total agricultural produce [27]. Grain
saved is grain produced. So the need is to save the exist-
ing food than producing more by altering genetic path
and disturbing ecology.
Along with it, increasing the existing food production
with minimal energy inputs like pesticides, fertilizers,
from the existing land und er agriculture is required. This
is possible only if we change our input intensive form of
cultivation to a sustain able one. Redu cing pesticide, ferti-
lizers and irrigation facilities to bare minimum and using
A. Kaur et al. / Agricultural Sciences 4 (2013) 541-5 48 547
alternatives like organic farming, will help in solving the
problem of climate change to an extent as well as a be-
fitting replacement to GMCs. Unless this is done, in-
ternational efforts, like Conventions on Biodiversity and
Climate Change, will continue being failures like the re-
cently held COP16 at Cancun, Mexico. Such conventions
are more of political and economic negotiating efforts
with little result. Until economic concerns remain the main
driving force beh ind such conv entions, drawing an y real,
remarkable gains from them appears impossible.
Thus, we deduce from the above synthesis that the cur-
rent approach to the issue of GMCs usage in agriculture
and/or as a solution to CC, is still subject to scrutiny. It is
economic driven and is based on illuso ry benefits. A fair,
extensive and underpinning research is the need of the
hour. Aim of this synthesis is to trigger thought process
and research in the field of GMCs as a forbearer to cli-
mate change. We need to rethink our agricultural inno-
vations and tech nologies, change our industrial appr oach
to agriculture and collaborate with indigenous knowle-
dge of locals to give it a new direction.
We express our gratitude to our institutions for al-
lowing and encour aging us to wor k .
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