Soyameal from genetically-engineered sources as safe as conventional soya

| Updated on: Nov 03, 2021
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Through GM foods, we can reduce the burden of malnutrition, ensure adequate protein intake and achieve nutrition security

The Union government’s decision to import GM soya meal has sparked a debate. This is not a breach of any regulations applicable to the cultivation and consumption of GM crops in India. So, why is there so much of misplaced concern on this import?

The soyameal being imported for poultry feed is not the whole bean and does not carry any risk of being propagated. The scientific term “does not contain any living modified organism” simply means that this protein rich de-oiled and crushed soya material cannot be used as a seed to produce a new GM soya crop.

Hence, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) gave a no-objection certificate. Poultry feed is out of the purview of the Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI). Composition and safety of GM soyameal is exactly the same as the non-GM soyameal.

Genetic engineering, if done as per the regulations, is absolutely safe. The regulations in several countries including India are extremely strict and address every possible concern, based on scientific principles. Some of the issues that the regulators look at are:

Risk of allergy in human body

The entire sequence of the gene which is inserted and the amino acid sequence of the protein that it forms are thoroughly examined to see if they are even remotely similar to any known allergens from the database. Most of the proteins like the Bt protein or other enzymes that are produced due to the gene insertion are small proteins which, when consumed, get digested in the gastric and intestinal juices and become amino acids. They do not trigger allergic reaction since they do not remain as intact proteins and cannot bind to any receptors. Like other proteins, they, too, ultimately become amino acids in the body. This is confirmed through an in-vitro acid enzyme digestion test.

Heat stability

Most of the proteins that cause allergy do not get destroyed by heat. They remain intact even after cooking and can cause allergy. Examples are protein from peanuts or milk or egg or other potential food allergens. Allergy-causing protein is not destroyed even at high temperatures. The heat stability test checks if the new protein gets destroyed when heated and if it does that means it cannot cause allergy.

Risk from allergen sequences

Most allergy causing proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. A known allergen’s amino acid sequence has a particular composition of a chain of amino acids or a 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 allergy in some individuals. So, the next test looks for these allergen sequences using several computer-assisted methods to check them for homology with a database of known allergen sequences. In the event of such a match then there could be a suspicion that the protein which has been produced due to genetic modification could cause allergy. Even the folded or tertiary protein structures are examined for such sequences arising out of conformational proximity.

Risk of human toxicity

This concern arises primarily because proteins like Bt protein are insect toxins. They are so specific to a particular insect type that they are not toxic to other insects, leave alone for humans or animals. However, a test is still done wherein this test protein or toxin is produced by inserting the same gene into an expression system like a bacteria or yeast and fermenting to produce in larger quantities. The protein is confirmed for its toxicity on the target insects through a lab method. If found toxic, they are fed to laboratory animals like rats in multiple times the quantities that humans and animals consume.

A single oral dose of up to 2000 mg of the protein equivalent to several thousand-fold higher than normal consumption is fed to the animals to look for any toxicity changes.

Long-term feeding studies

A known quantity of this GM substance is fed to rats through diet over a 90-day period. This looks at both the toxicity and nutritional adequacy of the test material when it is fed to rats. In many countries, this test is not mandated if the composition of the GM crop material is similar to that of a non-modified counterpart and within the normal variations of a normal plant or a non-modified plant.

The compositional equivalence study answers the question whether the inserted gene could have disturbed some other genes along the DNA chain and caused certain unintended effects. The composition of the edible plant parts in terms of macro nutrients, micronutrients, known toxins, known allergens, anti-nutrients, known bioactive substances, etc are all compared between the GM plant and the non-GM comparator grown in the same field and sampled extensively.

It is unfortunate that inspite of so much of regulation and availability of science-based evidence of safety, the word “Genetic Modification” could cause so much of concern and lead to decisions against the interests of the country and its people.

Regulators ultimately approve only if the data confirms unequivocally that the GM crop is as safe as the non-GM one that the population has been consuming for centuries. Regulatory and government permissions are given based on benefit to risk analysis and in the larger interest of the population.

Based on all the data generated the product is assessed for any potential measurable risk. Approvals are given only if the benefits outweigh risks by a huge margin.

In GM soyameal import, 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’re languishing in the shelves due to non-science-based concerns. Despite history of safe use in several parts of the world, we still ask the same question simply because the GM technology is considered potentially unsafe by some.

Genetic engineering is an extremely useful and precise technology for mankind. Like all technologies, there could be some elements of risk, but the regulators look at those aspects scientifically and take a decision to approve or not.

Against this background, we should appreciate the right policy decision of the government in importing GM soyameal. We are trying to find ways and means of reducing the burden of malnutrition in our country through fortification with micronutrients and through several government programmes to ensure adequate protein intake.

This is one small step in the direction of achieving nutrition security.

The author is MD, FAMS, and former director, ICMR - NIN. Views are personal

Published on November 03, 2021

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