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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Opinion | Left or Right, genetic science unites all luddites

Opinion | Left or Right, genetic science unites all luddites

The prime minister must stand up to the anti-science obscurantism that is set to ruin our farmers

Lakhs of farmers have gone rogue, because they see much more value in this than in obeying laws that have left Indian agriculture in a parlous state (PTI file)Premium
Lakhs of farmers have gone rogue, because they see much more value in this than in obeying laws that have left Indian agriculture in a parlous state (PTI file)

Earlier this month, in Maharashtra, the farmers’ organisation Shetkari Sanghatana (SS) announced that its members would be planting genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant (HT) Bt cotton. HT Bt cotton is not allowed in India, and growing any GM crop illegally attracts five-year imprisonment and a 1 lakh fine. But the government itself estimates that HT Bt cotton is being planted in over 15% of the country’s total cotton cultivation area. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have gone rogue because they see much more value in this than in obeying laws that have left Indian agriculture in a parlous state. Can the government arrest these hundreds of thousands of farmers? Apparently, one SS farmer has been detained.

The GM debate has been going on in India for two decades now and is one issue that has brought the leftists and the far-right together. So we find Communists and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) both peddling bad science, using every rabble-rousing tactic and making sure that the Indian government keeps the farmer deprived of technology and agriculture hobbled.

To begin with, two basic points for the Luddites to consider. One, ever since man began farming thousands of years ago, we have been genetically modifying plants, through methods like saving and replanting the best seeds, cross-pollination and hybridization. Genetic engineering (GE) is simply the latest technique, the difference being that it involves transferring genetic material from one organism to an un-related organism—for example, DNA from bacteria to corn. It is just another leap forward in a long journey of innovation, like from chullahs to gas ovens. Two, I call upon every diabetic leftist and SJM anti-GM activist to forsake their insulin injections—your daily

dosage is genetically engineered. In fact, the development of synthetic insulin faced years of intense anti-GE activism, exactly what we see today against GM crops. Time has proved the agitators hilariously wrong.

There are three classic Indian GM cases. Former University of Delhi vice-chancellor Deepak Pental developed HT GM mustard DMH-11, which, after rigorous tests, was certified as safe by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which initially cleared its commercialization. DMH-11’s yield is 25% higher than the best non-GM seeds available in India. However, activists went ballistic and the government has backed off. Meanwhile, India imported about 80,000 crore worth of edible oils last year, and the bill keeps growing. Bt brinjal was approved by the GEAC in 2009 but, under pressure from activists, the government disallowed its planting. Bangladesh, using the same GEAC report, went ahead. Today, about 17% of the country’s brinjal farmers grow Bt brinjal, which has reduced pesticide costs for GM crop farmers by 61%. The Bangladeshi Bt brinjal farmer’s net returns per hectare are six times his non-Bt counterpart’s per year.

The only GM crop allowed in India is Bt cotton, a historic decision taken by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002. Farmers seized the opportunity—today, 95% of cotton area is under Bt cotton, which has transformed India from a net importer to the world’s largest producer and second largest exporter. Farmers’ incomes have more than doubled. A study by Prof. Ashok Gulati and Kavery Ganguly

estimates that Bt cotton has earned India about $67 billion from exports and import savings over a period from 2002-03 to 2016-17.

In 2017, 189.8 million hectares of biotech crops were planted in 24 countries (and consumed in 67). To achieve the same yield standards, more than 300 million acres of conventional crops would have been needed. According to UK consultancy firm PG Economics, the first 20 years of biotech crops (1996-2016) have seen a reduction of pesticide spraying by 671.2 million kg and the environmental footprint associated with pesticide use by 18.4%. The figures for 2016: The drop in release of greenhouse gas emissions was equivalent to removing 16.75 million cars from the roads; the direct global farm income benefit from GM crops was $18.2 billion, equal to an average increase in income of $102 per hectare. And in these 23 years of GM agriculture, there has not been a single authenticated health hazard case specific to it. In fact, millions of farmers now run far lower risks of pesticide poisoning. So what are these Luddites fighting against?

Agriculture is possibly the most environmentally destructive human activity. So high yields coupled with lower greenhouse gas emissions, which GM crops have been proven to provide, are absolutely essential for a sustainable future. In India, farmers are stuck with low-yielding breeds, and climate change will only bring more insect attacks. Yet, the Prime Minister still talks of doubling farmers’ 2015 income by 2022. More than anyone else, he knows the benefits of GM crops, because it was the farmers of Gujarat who gained the most from Bt cotton. How long will he allow himself to be held hostage by some obscurantist fanatics? Hundreds of thousands of farmers are already rebelling, and India’s future itself is at stake here.

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Published: 28 Jun 2019, 02:26 PM IST
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