To most of us, the thought of using science in agriculture recalls images of Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution that changed the way India fed its population. To the critics of genetically modified (GM) foods, it recalls Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a science experiment that goes terribly wrong.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Fear mongering over scientific progress isn’t new for GM foods: Witness the chorus against the introduction of Bt brinjal, which the government will rule on later this week. Still, such fear mongering ignores both what science has established and what reality demands.
Bt brinjal is brinjal modified with a strain of bacillus thuringiensis, a pest-resistant bacterium. Farmers, then, wouldn’t need to spend as much on pesticides, lowering costs that will be passed on to consumers—an attractive promise these days. If high food prices are a supply-side problem, then either reducing costs or increasing quantities is a must.
Bt crops can do both. First, there’s the reduced pesticide costs. A committee at the Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi, reported in 2009 that, per hectare, pesticides for Bt brinjal cost Rs752 against Rs5,952 for the non-Bt variety.
Second, there’s higher productivity. The same committee estimates Bt brinjal yield at 404.19 quintals per hectare; for non-Bt, this figure is at 236.84. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said last week that, with higher incomes exerting more demand for food, increasing supply is a must.
Third, there’s safety. Critics believe introducing a GM strain into the ecosystem could damage natural brinjal or poison consumers. Yes, good science should generate competing perspectives; but is it assumed that when the genetic engineering approval committee at the ministry of environment okayed Bt brinjal in October, it weighed all the available evidence. Govindarajan Padmanabhan, a former director of the Indian Institute of Science, wrote in The Indian Express on Monday that at least 100 times the Bt protein present in brinjal has been given to rats and proven non-toxic.
Farmers understand what’s at stake: Business Standard reported on Monday that the Bharat Krishak Samaj, a nationwide community of farmers, favours GM crops. Even if other farmers disagree, the introduction of Bt brinjal at least presents them with one more choice.
It’s the green lobby that doesn’t seem to understand. Oblivious to the economics of the situation and resistant to the science, activists don’t want this choice available. So, they continue to conjure images of a science experiment running amok.
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