To have, or not to have, genetically modified (GM) crops, is a raging controversy in India today. While opponents of GM crops cite several reasons for rejecting such technologies, many argue that we cannot afford to ignore this option.
The threat to our food grain exports has often been cited as one of the reasons for not allowing GM crop trials. Is this a genuine concern, or is it a mere ruse to influence policymakers against technologies that can potentially help our agricultural sector end the impasse that it is currently in?
Agricultural products contributed around 9% of the total of over $400 billion worth of goods exported from India last year. In value terms, food grains and oil meals constitute less than 40% of all exported agricultural products. Rice tops in the list of exported food grains. With record rice production and exports from Thailand falling significantly, India has emerged as the largest exporter of rice. Last year, we exported 9.75 million tonnes of rice, of which around three million tonnes was the premium basmati variety.
Much of our non-basmati rice exports end up in countries such as Bangladesh and Nigeria, countries where food production is well short of demand. Some countries in western Europe, where the opposition to GM crops is most strident, could be sensitive to the so-called GM contamination in their basmati rice imports. This argument has been used in the past to restrict field trials of improved basmati-like varieties. An objective analysis of the facts shows that such arguments for banning field trials are misleading. It does not help the agricultural sector nor does it serve the interest of Indian farmers.
Europe accounts for just 3% of the total basmati exported from India. More than 70% of our exports go to Gulf countries, which have to get their supplies from India to meet their full requirement. All these countries import processed food items from the US, which contain significant amounts of GM ingredients. Unlike in several European countries, they do not even mandate labelling of food items for GM ingredients.
Analysis shows that more than 96% of our basmati exports are to such countries that will not be affected by allowing GM rice trials. Even the contention that exports to Europe will be affected is misleading as Europe is the largest importer of GM soybean and corn from the Americas.
The possibility of adventitious mixture of GM grains from research trials with that of commercially produced grains is extremely remote as these trials are well contained using scientific principles of isolation—geographical, temporal and spatial isolation.
Several GM crops that can create huge value to the Indian farmer are in advanced stages of testing. A recent study by the Centre for Social Development in Delhi has shown that the net returns to the farmer have gone up by 375% after the adoption of BT cotton. With rice occupying almost four times the area under cotton in the country, the potential creation of value in this case will be much more than the value of the total rice exports from India.
Indian agriculture needs technology solutions to meet food and nutrition security challenges. Heeding misleading arguments against GM crop trials will result in potential solutions needlessly remaining just that.
K.K. Narayanan is the managing director of Metahelix Life Sciences, a Bangalore-based agri-biotech company.
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