Embrace technology; allow GM crop trials

India’s resistance to introduction of GM crops defies economic logic


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India’s experience in combating inflation has a mixed record. Sudden spikes in food inflation are common. Poor rain and floods alike can disrupt supplies of agricultural commodities, injecting inflationary pressures in the Indian economy within no time. This is over and above the huge demand surge in recent years especially with respect to high protein foods such as pulses.

Genetically modified (GM) crops are one common supply-side response that has been considered as a solution. Of all the countries in the world, it is perhaps India that needs this option the most. There is increased pressure on land and most of the area that could have been brought under cultivation has already been exploited. In the economists’ jargon, India needs to go in for “landesque” technology. GM crops squarely fall in that class.

Yet, India’s resistance to GM crops is astounding. Last week, after alleged pressure from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh—organizations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) continued to keep on hold the field trials of GM crops that have waited for entry into the Indian market for years now. This immediately followed the decision by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) earlier last month to approve the field trials of 13 GM crops.

The decision is one more example of perverse policy continuity between the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Narendra Modi. In 2010, the UPA government imposed a 10-year moratorium on the commercialisation/release of Bt. Brinjal. The UPA government’s decision was vindicated by the report of a six-member technical committee appointed by the Supreme Court as well as a Parliamentary standing committee looking into the matter—both of which in 2012 recommended a moratorium on further field tests of GM crops in the country.

Last year, again, the GEAC recommended field trials of GM crops and, this time around, support came in from then prime minister Manmohan Singh and Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar; the then environment minister Veerappa Moily gave the formal go-ahead to field trials earlier this year reversing the decision of his predecessor Jayanthi Natarajan. In the absence of certainty over government policy towards field trials of GM crops, and with regulatory approvals hard to come by in any case, the adoption of GM crops on a wide scale has remained a dream.

The string of accusations fuelled by the issue of allowing GM crops for commercial use also provides a sneak peek into the interest groups battling behind the scenes. GM seed companies have accused opponents of GM of fear mongering and affecting the country’s agricultural productivity, while environment agencies and farmer groups have blamed GM crops for various health hazards, farmer suicides owing to failed crops, as well as monopolization of the seed market by multi-national corporations like Monsanto. These are more in the nature of fears than anything else.

Meanwhile, there remain other groups, even within the farming community, that have welcomed the cultivation of GM crops owing to their higher productivity and disease resistance. In the absence of a robust market in the country for GM products, it cannot be said whether GM has passed the all important test of the market. But there is ample evidence from countries such as the US suggesting that a blanket ban on even field testing GM crops will be an unreasonable move on the part of the government.

Currently, the institution of an independent regulator—through the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill that has been pending approval in Parliament for years now—is touted as a possible solution to the present mess. The proposed regulator is supposed to work under the department of biotechnology as an objective body regulating the entry of GM crops into the Indian market on a purely scientific basis. But the success of any such measure will depend entirely on how independent, and efficient, the body can act in a heavily politicized setup.

Even before its formal institution, which still looks like a long way ahead, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India has been portrayed as holding a favourable bias towards the entry of GM crops. Given that regulatory bodies more often than not turn into mere licensing bodies, much hope cannot be placed on such a setup. It would be much wiser to allow markets to build more organic regulatory mechanisms instead of piling on more layers of sluggish government bureaucracy.

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