Getting GM trials back on track must be Moily’s priority
Imagine the irony of Bt Brinjal being sent across the border from Bangladesh while, thanks to successive environment ministers Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan not even allowing trials to take place in India, India’s productivity continues to be a fraction of the global average. While not agreeing to even allowing trials after expert committees had agreed to holding them has been one of the reasons behind Natarajan’s exit from the Cabinet, holding back vital progress on genetically modified (GM) crops seems to have become a hallmark of the government. Indeed, even in the case of Bt Cotton in 2002, the government kept delaying trials but, thanks to seed suppliers who paid no heed to the law and thousands of farmers who were happy to go along, the widespread use of illegal Bt Cottton left the government no option but to allow trials and then speed up approvals—from just 8.8 million bales of cotton in FY03, the spread of Bt raised production to around 37 million bales in FY14 and, as a result of the huge surplus, India managed to export over R20,000 crore of cotton last year.
While getting GM trials back on track has to be one of the first tasks for new environment minister Veerappa Moily, it is important to note that, for the first time in the world in 2012, there were more farmers in developing countries who were using GM crops than those in the developed world—according to a McKinsey Global Institute study on disruptive technologies, the total area planted with GM crops has risen from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to more than 170 million hectares in 2012. While McKinsey estimates advances in GM seeds could potentially have an economic impact of between $100 billion and $200 billion across the world by 2025, India seems determined not to be a part of this journey.
The problem, however, is that were India not to participate in this revolution, it will not find it possible to even meet the basic needs of its population. In the case of rice, the sharp depletion in the water table in the rice bowl means production has to be shifted to eastern regions—but the productivity here is just 2.5 tonnes per hectare as compared to four times this level in developed countries. Similarly, with global weather patterns changing dry-wet-cold-hot periods dramatically, it is GM seeds that hold the key to future productivity. And unlike in the past where success depended on the size of national R&D budgets—China is spending upwards of $3 billion each year on developing biotechnology—India’s path has been made relatively simpler. While it is true the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s annual biotech budget is under $100 million—that of Monsanto alone is $1 billion a year—just allowing field trials and speeding up approvals will ensure India too can be part of this global revolution.