Home >opinion >online-views >Finding the middle ground on the GM crops debate

The ongoing debate around introduction of trials of genetically modified (GM) crops is very divisive, as most debates on this issue are. Almost without exception everyone commenting on it appears to have an extreme view. There appears little appreciation, on either side, about the possible risks and caveats. As such, it is not surprising that the average reader is fairly confused and always wondering if there is any middle ground to be achieved in this very public matter.

Perhaps, the shrill tone and extreme views are a reflection of the high stakes for the proponents of both sides—the industry and the anti-GM activists. The Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE) has the India units of some of the biggest multinational corporations such as BASF, Dow, Monsanto and Bayer as its members. According to one estimate, the Indian biotechnology industry is estimated to be around $11.6 billion by 2016-17, up from $4.3 billion in 2011-12. On the other side are scores of activists, and several scientists, who disagree rather vehemently. Perhaps, proponents of both sides realise they need to be shrill to rise up the ranks.

On the face of it, GM technology makes a lot of sense. A brief introduction is available here. The benefits from genetic modification are restricted only by our imagination. By itself, the technology is a boon when one considers the use in the pharmaceutical sector. But the range of benefits is simply astounding—from newer medicines and cures to fortified bananas that have a day’s essential vitamins in-built to remarkably innovative solutions like plants that glow in the dark.

However, notwithstanding the remarkable technology that genetic modification is, when it is applied to farming, especially in the Indian context (predominantly poor farmers, small land holdings and inadequate public sector extension network), it does raise some questions about government regulation and public choice. As such, in my opinion, government policy and regulatory structures, such as the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill, must hold dear to the freedom of choice—both for producers as well as consumers.

For the producers, this implies that they should have the right to conduct trials if they so choose. However, such a freedom should not preclude the freedom of those farmers who wish to cultivate traditional varieties of seeds. This implies that the government should not only allow GM trials, but also ensure strict regulation of such trials so that there are no unintended consequences. Allowing social audits of such trials, and whether all preconditions are being followed, will instill confidence in the process. This is important because the government and the industry at present enjoy very little credibility after GM crops were openly introduced in Gujarat where the state government, then ruled by the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, chose to look the other way. It stands to reason that if there is nothing wrong in the GM technology, then the government should wholeheartedly support its trials, albeit with an equal measure of transparency. If after the trials, the government chooses to go ahead with the introduction of GM crops—as it should if nothing untoward is found in the trials—then following the same principle of choice, the government should ensure that cultivation of GM crops is done in a manner which does not adversely affect the neighbouring cultivation.

There is one more aspect in relation to the producers or the farmers that is crucial from the public policy perspective. It is commonly held that introducing GM seeds would naturally imply that the traditional varieties, which are often better at adapting to local conditions, will be lost. This can happen because preserving seeds requires either storing them in modern seeds banks, which require latest technology, or cultivating them continuously. Once the farmer discontinues using the traditional varieties, he would lose the seeds in a couple of years and with it, his ability to revert to the traditional variety if he so wants, say, five years after introducing GM crops. He may want to revert because the GM yields plateau or because the demand for non-GM crops is high and as such, more profitable. The way out is for the government to ensure that it has a robust seeds bank from which farmers can buy the traditional varieties at reasonable prices. If the farmers have to go back to the GM companies to buy the traditional varieties at an exorbitant price, then it would amount to cronyism, wherein some companies stand to gain disproportionately because the policy precluded the farmer’s choice of returning to traditional varieties. The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources is the central body mandated to preserve seeds. However, India’s agricultural extension reach is very poor and would need strengthening if the farmers have to enjoy their freedom to choose.

From the consumer’s perspective, it is important to allay the apprehensions customers already have about the safety of GM crops. This can be resolved in a fairly straightforward manner—labelling. Just like one requires an “organic" label for selling organic crop, there should be a “GM" label. This is not something new or extraordinary. Several companies selling common salt label their packets “iodized" to distinguish themselves from those that are not. Such a move will protect the choice of the consumers who wish to distinguish between the regular varieties that they have consumed for decades and the new introductions. The industry has been reluctant in allowing for labelling, claiming it is a costly ordeal. Moreover, they suggest that India’s labelling regulations are so weak that almost anyone can label anything. However, that is not an argument for giving up on labelling itself. Instead, that is an argument to reinforce our labelling regime.

Policy Puddle comments on public policy developments.

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