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Genetically modified crops: the way forward

The government must be transparent and address understandable fears


Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Last October, principal scientific adviser to the government of India R. Chidambaram sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the use of genetically modified (GM) food crops, in which he said: “India... should not hesitate to be the first introducer of new advanced technology, after convincing itself, of course, about its value to the users and the nation, its economic viability, its safety and environment friendliness.” It is an eminently reasonable stance. But more often, it’s a lack of clarity that dogs the debate on GM crops in India—as witnessed last Friday when a committee of government and independent experts met inconclusively for the third time this year to evaluate field trial data on GM mustard.

The Indian GM crops saga is a convoluted one. Currently, it has the world’s fourth largest GM crop acreage on the strength of Bt cotton, the only genetically modified crop allowed in the country. But the introduction of Bt cotton has been both highly successful and controversial. Cotton yield more than doubled in the first decade since its introduction in 2002, according to the Economic Survey 2011-12—by which point it accounted for 90% of cotton acreage. But it was also shadowed by controversy, with a tangle of pricing and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues followed by government price interventions and litigation.

GM food crops have fared worse. An agreement to develop Bt brinjal was signed in 2005 between Mahyco—American agricultural biotech giant Monsanto’s Indian Bt cotton partner—and two Indian agricultural universities. Following the study of biosafety data and field trials by two expert committees, Bt brinjal was cleared for commercialization by India’s top biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, in 2009. But nothing came of it, with moratoriums imposed by then Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh and his successor Jayanthi Natarajan following opposition from civil society groups and brinjal-growing states.

This split within the government—Veerappa Moily subsequently reversed Natarajan’s decision on field trials, and both Manmohan Singh at the time and Modi subsequently have advocated GM crops—shows how fraught the issue is.

Multiple studies have shown no human or ecological ill-effects, as well as increased yields and resistance to pests among other benefits. Perhaps the most wide-ranging of these is a 2014 meta-analysis—by Wilhelm Klumper and Matin Qaim of the University of Gottingen, Germany—of 147 studies on farm surveys and field trials of GM crops carried out across the world. Their results: use of GM technology increased crop yields by 22%, reduced chemical pesticides by 37% and increased farmer profits by 68%, with better results in developing countries than in developed ones.

But the foundation of such studies has been questioned by opponents of GM crops—ranging from civil society groups to a minority within the scientific community—who allege that regulatory bodies and scientific publications are in bed with GM corporates. In India, Bt cotton has been questionably blamed for economic distress and farmer suicides and raised questions of biodiversity and horizontal gene transfer.

Both Singh’s and Modi’s administrations must share the blame. GM crops have never been a purely scientific issue. They are situated at a socioeconomic and political nexus, and involve understandable fears about long-term human and environment safety, market monopolies in seeds and food sovereignty. Politics involves managing perceptions; both governments have failed here.

If the Modi government is to lay the ground for a measured, tested introduction of GM crops, it must clean house. It can start with transparency; keeping biosafety data out of the public domain, as has been done with GM mustard, will not help. Nor will the lacking regulatory regime, rightly pointed out as being inadequate by the Supreme Court. Taking up the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill again is a must. So is resolving IPR issues that have again reared up with the Andhra Pradesh government seeking compulsory licensing or revocation of the Bt cotton technology patent in its struggle with Monsanto. Such interventions create regulatory uncertainty and deter the entry of competitors that could check monopolistic conditions.

Given agricultural distress and the need for broad reforms in the sector—and the potential of GM crops to supplement those reforms with increased drought resistance and reduced pesticide dependence, among other benefits—opposition must be managed, not allowed to hold sway.

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