The minister for environment and forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, recently put on hold the field trials of a few genetically modified (GM) crops. The field trials for these crops were approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex technical body that works under her ministry. In 2010, her predecessor, Jairam Ramesh, imposed a moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal after it had passed through the due regulatory processes.
At one level, both these decisions indicate the big mess the regulatory system for GM crops is in today. At a deeper level, the two decisions demonstrate a deep-seated ideological resistance to the use of GM technology, a resistance that is at odds with the central government’s stated policy of using this technology for the benefit of the rural poor.
Before reversing the decision of the GEAC on Bt brinjal, Ramesh convinced himself about the absence of a competent regulatory authority. Natarajan has reversed the GEAC decision by citing a case in the Supreme Court in which the petitioner has questioned the competence of the GEAC. However, if both these ministers believe that GEAC is incompetent to do its job, why do they not effect change?
Instead of filling in the regulatory gaps, the environment ministry waits for instructions from the court on how to evaluate GM crops.
Currently, we have a regulatory committee that rarely meets. And when it does meet and makes a decision, it stands a good chance of being reversed in an ad hoc manner, weakening the system further. The nascent biotechnology industry of the country is working under the most uncertain regulatory environment today. Such a state of affairs is bound to demoralize scientists and discourage investors. The costs will also be borne by millions of poor farmers who will be deprived of the benefits of this frontier technology.
Why should a democratically elected government abdicate its responsibility to govern by leaving the decision on complex scientific matters to the Supreme Court? It seems a deep-rooted suspicion about GM technology lies at the root of this reluctance to govern. This is reflected in the environment minister’s recent letter to the Prime Minister.
In her letter (a part of it is in the public domain), Natarajan invokes the precautionary principle as a guiding principle for policy on GM technology. This famous precautionary principle is the backbone of anti-GM politics. An excessively conservative interpretation of the precautionary approach that is advanced by anti-GM groups is the following: “Irrespective of possible benefits, a new technology should never be introduced unless there is a guarantee that no risk will arise.” If this line of thought is pursued to its logical outcome, there should be a moratorium on the use of any new technology that involves risks. However, no one can ever guarantee an absolute absence of risk in the use of any new technology. If such a conservative interpretation had been followed, new technologies such as vaccines or mobile phones would never have entered our everyday life.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics offers a compelling argument about the precautionary principle. It says that the precautionary approach should not be considered a single inflexible rule. The sensible application of this principle must be relativistic, i.e. we must select the course of action (or of inaction) with the least overall risk. If the status quo is largely satisfactory, it is easier to forgo the potential benefits. So the developed world can afford to (though that would be ill-advised even for them) ignore GM technology. But a developing country like India, where a majority of its farmers are poor and eradication of rural poverty is a daunting task, cannot afford such an approach.
In her letter, Natarajan writes: “Food security is not a function alone of food production and crop yield growth but also about poverty/development and access to food, etc.” She is right. But the most important determinant of rural poverty eradication and development is the growth in yields of food crops. A majority of Indian farmers are dry land agriculturists, small and resource poor. They desperately need a technology that offers them drought and pest resistant crops.
After the Green Revolution of 1970s, Indian agriculture has not experienced any jump in yield growth. The only exception is that of Bt cotton. This is the only GM crop in the country and our experience with this technology must strongly inform the discourse on the issue. The economic benefits of Bt cotton to the farmers become obvious from the fact that in just 10 years after its arrival, Bt cotton varieties occupy most of the total cotton area in the country.
The political appeal of the arguments based on the restrictive use of the precautionary principle cannot be countered by reasoned argument alone. It requires a political leadership that is well informed about the realized and potential benefits of this technology and speaks on behalf of the rural poor. But such leadership seems a far cry from what we have now.
Milind Murugkar is a policy analyst with Pragati Abhiyan, a non-profit development organization. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org