Can’t evaluate GM crops if even field trials stopped
Given that Bt cotton was such an integral part of the success of the Gujarat agriculture model, and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just been exhorting scientists at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), it is ironic that the government should agree to put on hold trials of genetically-modified (GM) crops after two RSS affiliates registered their protest to the environment minister. The Prime Minister’s lab-to-farm talk at ICAR, it is true, was not about GM crops, it was about taking ICAR’s work to the farmers, but the biggest advances in research globally are in the field of GM crops—ironically, most of the crops whose trials are stuck are those of government bodies like ICAR and some state agriculture universities. The BJP’s manifesto, it is true, said that GM crops would ‘not be allowed without full scientific evaluation (of) its long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers’, but how is such scientific evaluation to be done if even field trials are not conducted?
One option is to look at global evidence, but the problem here is that given the strides GM has made, it is difficult to argue, as the RSS affiliates do, that there is little evidence to show GM crops help. Indeed, while the global acreage under GM has risen from nothing to 170 million hectares at the end of 2012, 81% of total global cropping of soya is GM, the figure is 64% for cotton, 33% for canola and 29% for maize. Indeed, given how agricultural production in India needs to rise to match the demands of a growing population with the farming population steadily reducing, and how new generation technology needs to produce drought-resistant as well as saline-resistant seeds—to name just two needs—India’s lab-to-farm process has to involve a far more intensive usage of GM technology. It is a pity that, much like the previous government, the NDA has also chosen to walk the path of orthodoxy instead of embracing the change technology has to offer—it has to be said, that while the RSS affiliates have said environment minister Javadekar has assured them the trials will be put on hold, the minister has maintained no decision has been taken as yet.
While some of the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s recommendations on GM need to be taken on board such as making the regulatory system more responsive as well as rigorous—the need to, for instance, ensure the law addresses the issue of potential damage to farmers or public health—the point is that these do not run counter to allowing trials; the processes can just as well run simultaneously. Indeed, the environment minister would do well to take a leaf out of the agriculture ministry’s reply to the Standing Committee: in response to the view that ‘lakhs and lakhs of hectares of land have got diverted to Bt Cotton’ and jeopardised ‘the country’s food security’, the ministry gave details of the jump in foodgrain production and the fact that the area under cotton had remained unchanged while productivity had surged and farmers saved money with lower pesticide-spend.