“I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM (genetically modified) crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely."

These were the opening remarks of Mark Lynas, a leading anti-GM activist by his own reckoning, to a shocked audience at a recent farming conference in Oxford. Lynas’s full speech is worth reading as it reveals the inside story of one of the biggest propaganda campaigns in modern history run by a small band of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which managed to shape public policies around the world. The key takeaway is the disregard activists such as Lynas have had for hard evidence. The set of assumptions that fuelled his activist zeal will put even the worst macroeconomist to shame.

Lynas’s account should ring warning bells in India, which has been caught in the cross-fire between the biotech and organic lobbies, and which seems to be capitulating to the pro-organic and anti-GM activist set. More than a decade after Bt cotton was introduced in India, GM testing may be banned if activists who have filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court have their way. This follows a parliamentary standing committee report released in August slamming GM crops, based largely on the testimonies of activists. The report correctly identified loopholes in India’s regulatory structure on GM crops. But it chose to ignore reams of scientific literature attesting to the safety and efficacy of GM crops, as a letter from a team of 65 academic researchers to the Prime Minister pointed out.

Research by Cornell University political scientist Ronald Herring shows this is a global phenomenon: GM myths propagated by well-networked activists, such as the one about cattle dying after ingesting GM cotton leaves, tend to persist long after they have been debunked, and have far more influence among politicians than peer-reviewed academic research. As Lynas put it, the anti-GM campaign was the most successful campaign he was ever associated with. He counted India among the success stories.

The success of anti-GM activists in India is, however, not a testimony to their lobbying skills, rather it is a testimony to a huge state failure. The inability of the Indian state to develop a reliable and credible biotech regime has made the state and its scientific institutions vulnerable to criticism from sundry NGOs funded by pro-organic groups. The false claims by a few Indian scientists about developing an indigenous variety of GM cotton further eroded the credibility of government scientific institutions.

The remedy offered by the United Progressive Alliance government’s leading luminaries such as Jairam Ramesh has been worse than the disease. Instead of institutionalizing mechanisms to correct India’s failing regulatory institutions, Ramesh chose to have public hearings across India to decide whether to allow GM brinjal. This was a uniquely populist policy intervention to settle a question of science, and led to a moratorium. The chances of regulatory reform suffered a setback (why go for reforms when public hearings can settle everything?) and pushed India to the current impasse.

The fear stoked by the biotech lobby that the lack of access to GM technology will lead India to a hungry future may be overdone. Nonetheless, it is true that biotech innovations are among the few options India has to raise agri-productivity and farm incomes rapidly. Maybe even Ramesh will deliver an apology in a few years.

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