Home / Politics / Policy /  Agriculture minister bats for GM technology in food crops

New Delhi: In a sign that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is ready to change its stance on genetically modified crops, Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh on Friday said the technology holds “great promise" in increasing productivity and countering climate stress.

Singh was addressing the Indian Seed Congress in Agra, Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP had opposed the introduction of GM crops without careful and proper testing in its manifesto, as had the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, both, like the party itself, are affiliates of the Rashtriya Sawamsevak Sangh.

However, a person familiar with the matter said Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in favour of tapping the scientific advantages offered by GM crops to improve the lost of farmers as well as give Indian agriculture a boost and has been working on the two other affiliates of the RSS in this context. The person declined to be named.

Currently, no genetically modified (GM) food crops are allowed for commercial cultivation in the country. However, over 95% of the cotton crop grown in the country use the Bt technology.

“Bt cotton in Gujarat and other states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has clearly demonstrated what these new technologies can do to boosting farmer incomes with consequential effects on their well-being," Singh said on Friday. “Newer technologies like herbicide tolerance, drought tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency, healthy oils and feed, and nutrition enhancement, can, when introduced commercially in India, substantially increase productivity leading to greater farmer incomes and farmer well-being.“

Singh further said that adoption of appropriate techonogies are required to eliminate losses due to droughts, floods, salinity, biotic and other abiotic stresses and to produce more from less inputs like water and land. “In this context, genetic engineering holds great promise," he said, adding that the government will support public-private partnerships (PPP) for development of crop biotechnology sector.

With the agriculture minister arguing for GM technology for the first time, the NDA government appears to be taking a clear stance on the contentious issue. “Now, I think everyone is on board. Scientific evaluation and confined trials with adequate safeguards is the way forward," environment minister Prakash Javadekar said in an interview earlier this month.

Biotech companies welcomed the move while activists criticised it.

“We’re very positive about the government’s focus on the agricultural sector and its intention to work with farmers and industry," said Ram Kaundinya, director general of ABLE-AG, an association of crop biotech companies. “Indian scientists have developed GM seeds for rice, pulses, and oil-seeds suited to Indian agro-climatic conditions. The seed industry needs a regulatory framework across state and centre that fosters a transparent, efficient and cooperative lab-to-farm synergy. We also need to strengthen public-private linkages to encourage technological breakthroughs."

“Instead of a precautionary approach the centre’s stance of late has been promotional with regard to allowing GM in food crops. By giving a go-ahead the government is ignoring recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee (2012) and the T. S. R. Subramanian committee report (submitted in November last year) which observed that existing regulatory systems are inadequate and inefficient," said Rajesh Krishnan, convenor of the Coalition for GM Free India.

The agriculture minister’s remark comes close on the heels of the newly elected Maharashtra government giving its nod to field trials of four GM crops in January. The crops approved for field trials in Maharashtra include rice, brinjal, chick pea and cotton. The approved rice varieties include BT rice and others that help in nitrogen and water use efficiency. The Bt brinjal approved for trials was developed under a PPP model.

Maharashtra is the fifth state to allow confined field trials after Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Andha Pradesh gave it’s no objection certificate (NOC). Since June 2011, it is mandatory for state governments to give NOCs for field trials. Several states like Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have refused to give NOCs in the past.

Following Maharashtra’s example other states may soon allow field trials. “Based on National Seed Association of India’s discussions with state governments, we are hopful Telengana and Gujarat will give NOC’s for field trials," said Usha Zehr, chief technology officer at Mahyco, a seed company.

The genetic engineering appraisal committee (GEAC), the biotech regulator under the environment ministry, last year approved 12 crops for experimental field trials for the purpose of generating biosafety data. The crops approved for field trials are cotton, rice, castor, wheat, maize, groundnut, potato, sorghum, brinjal, mustard, sugarcane and chickpea.

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