In National Interest, Modi Must Support GM Crop Technology

With a lot of procedural delays marring the field trial of GM crops, the Centre should try and take states on board.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
A farmer squats along a footpath near a banner during a day-long protest in New Delhi August 8, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
Snapshot

Need for Action

  • Gujarat the biggest beneficiary of Bt cotton, with farmers even resorting to the use of pirated seeds
  • Unlike previous regime, current environment minister does not seem to be in favour of complete ban on field trials
  • Despite PM’s promise of a second green revolution, NITI Ayog still mulling over a policy on GM crops
  • Lack of consensus between the Centre and states with even BJP-ruled states averse to field trials
  • PM should jump into the fray and help get rid of all the myths associated with GM crops

Genetic engineering has been good for farmers and for the nation, as the example of Bt cotton demonstrates. When Narendra Modi assumed office nearly 15 months ago, there was expectation that the pipeline of approvals for field trials and cultivation of genetically-modified crops would be unclogged. He did not make any explicit promises but his support was assumed.  

Gujarat has benefitted the most from Bt cotton, India’s first and only genetically-modified crop, approved in 2002. The previous season Gujarati farmers grew Bt cotton illegally with pirated seeds, tired as they were of the country’s long-winded regulatory process. Not wanting to anger them, Modi as chief minister disregarded the directive of Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the technology regulator, to destroy the cotton crop.

Under the Van Bandhu Kalyan Yojana, a five-year scheme for tribal uplift in Gujarat initiated in 2007, Modi tacitly supported Anand Mohan Tiwari, the state’s secretary for tribal affairs, who was targeted by extreme environmentalists and right wing ideologues within the Sangh Parivar for allowing Monsanto to supply hybrid maize seed to tribal farmers.

Under the Yojana, Tiwari set a target of doubling their income within five years by moving them from low-yield white desi maize to high-yielding (non-GM) maize hybrids. Tiwari believed the energy and enterprise of the private sector would do the trick. He roped in reputed NGOs too to guide the farmers in good agronomic practices.

A farmer attends a day-long protest against the introduction of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in Parliament by the Centre in New Delhi, August 8, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
A farmer attends a day-long protest against the introduction of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in Parliament by the Centre in New Delhi, August 8, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Targeting Monsanto

Monsanto was one among a handful of private seed companies that was chosen through competitive bidding. But the activists spread canards that hybrid maize could trigger cancer and cause children to be born with Mongoloid features. But the activists did not have their way and Monsanto continued be a supplier of non-GM hybrid maize seeds so long as Tiwari was in charge.

Unlike the previous dispensation, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s positive vibes for GM technology were not shared by environment ministers Jairam Ramesh and Jayanti Natarajan, there is no such tension in the present government. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar told the Lok Sabha in July last year that there is ‘no proposal for a complete ban’ on field trials or cultivation of GM crops.

The government also filed its objections in the Supreme Court to a ban on field trials recommended by a committee which the court had appointed to vet India’s GM regulatory system. In June, Modi made a brief mention about GM crop technology while hoping that the agriculture research institute in Jharkhand would help bring the second green revolution to eastern India. But the statement was feeble.

At the PM’s prompting, NITI Aayog has now begun consultations on a policy on GM crops.

(Photo: PTI)
(Photo: PTI)

States Don’t Support

But the Centre’s support is not shared even by BJP-ruled states. Maharashtra has suspended trials under pressure from activists after permitting them in January. Haryana is unlikely to allow them. Rajasthan under Vasundhara Raje has said ‘No’. So has Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh.

In Congress-ruled Karnataka, young junior minister for agriculture with independent charge Krishna Byre Gowda declared in February that the government was facing severe opposition and it was unlikely to permit field trials, despite a committee on biotechnology not only recommending them but also advising the state to educate public opinion.

At the moment only Delhi, Punjab and Andhra allow field trials.

Scientists Are Upbeat

Support for the technology among agricultural scientists, however, is very strong. In February 2014, a roundtable of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) under the chairmanship of M S Swaminathan called GM crop technology “promising, relevant and efficient” for low-input, high output agriculture. It wanted the “de facto moratorium” on field trials to be lifted at the earliest.

Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) Joint Director (Research) K V Prabhu says the requirement of no-objection certificates from state governments for field trials was holding back public sector advancement in GM crop technology. He said they should trust the country’s sound regulatory mechanism and if GM technology in healthcare was acceptable there was no reason why it should not be in crop sciences.

IARI’s Head of Genetics Ashok Kumar Singh was worried that the younger generation was getting dissuaded. They did not want to pursue a science in which they did not see a future. He said three agricultural science academies, including NAAS, had written to the PM who had agreed to actively promote GM technology.

Both N P Singh, Director of the Kanpur-based Indian Institute of Pulses Research and CLL Gowda, the just-retired Deputy Director of Icrisat, the Hyderabad-based institute which researches crops for semi-arid tropics, said Bt technology could reduce extensive losses caused by the stem borer in chick pea (chana) and pigeonpea (arhar).

An Indian scientist points to a patch of genetically modified (GM) rapeseed crop under trial in New Delhi, February 13, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)
An Indian scientist points to a patch of genetically modified (GM) rapeseed crop under trial in New Delhi, February 13, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Bringing The Public Sector In

Public sector investment in genetic engineering is vital for public acceptance of the technology.  Farmers do not need persuasion; support needs to be created among the urban middle class which weighs in on policy.

Luckily, there have been some helpful moves in this direction. Earlier this year, a Delhi University team led by its former vice-chancellor and geneticist Deepak Pental gave its Bt cotton technology to Punjab Agricultural University and the Central Institute of Cotton Research for incorporation in seeds that farmers can save and sow.

Pental has also developed GM mustard which he says is at least 20% more productive than the conventional oil seed. He believes like Bt cotton, it will be a hit with farmers.

Modi should lead from the front. The environment ministry must allow commercial cultivation of those GM crops which have passed bio-safety trials. He must use forums like his monthly radio talk to persuade the public to the benefits of GM technology. Public sector scientists will speak up when they see the PM doing so. Only with forceful and constant iteration can the mindless opposition to GM technology be chipped away.

(The writer is consulting editor to www.smartindianagriculture.in)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!