The Financial Express (India)
July 16, 2009
The government’s parliamentary reply that three genetically modified varieties of vegetables—tomato, brinjal and cauliflower—will be in commercial production in three years clarifies a situation made murky by constant activism. This should be taken as proof that the government is serious about bringing about a second Green Revolution in a fast stagnating agriculture sector. India has been very slow to adopt GM technologies and has thus missed the opportunity to exploit the many advantages that come with GM farming. GM crops, at a minimum, offer the unambiguous benefits of higher yields and greater resistance to pests, both of which could give a big boost to the average farmer. So far, the only GM crop permitted in India is Bt cotton, which was cleared for production for the first time nearly seven years ago. The results of the experiment with Bt cotton have been very positive—cotton production has almost doubled since GM seeds were introduced, and productivity has shot up. At the same time, there has been no evidence of any damage to soil patterns, which is one of the fears bandied about by the anti-GM lobby. Incidentally, apart from the rise in quantity, there has also been an improvement in the quality of cotton produced in India, which has reduced our dependence on imports of high-quality cotton.
The government’s decision is bound to face resistance from various narrow focus groups, who will attempt to highlight the perils of GM crops and GM food. The government should lean on the overwhelming body of scientific evidence, which has ruled GM foods completely safe for consumption. GM seeds and crops have been shown to have no negative effects on the soil either. Evidence from elsewhere where GM farming has been used more extensively—particularly from the US, Argentina and Brazil—shows the enormous rise in yields after the adoption of GM technology. These countries have been using GM seeds for a long time now with no adverse health effects reported. Incidentally, we already consume GM products in India via imports—soyabean oil from Argentina are entirely GM. Of course, there is good reason to have proper regulation to ensure that all scientific procedures are complied with. India actually has one of the best institutional structures for this, courtesy Supreme Court intervention and government action thereafter. All GM proposals must pass a two-tier regulatory system through the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. Both the bodies have a wide range of experts with different views on GM that ensures adequate checks and balances. The systems are in place, and the government must proceed even beyond the three vegetables on the near-term agenda.