July 16, 2009
The debate on genetically modified crops is so prone to being hijacked by pseudoscience, alarmism and overstatement that delays have been built into the delivery to Indian farmers of new seeds that farmers in other countries take for granted.
Two years ago, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, India’s apex regulatory authority, granted permission to Mayco for largescale trials of Bt brinjal. This week, K.V. Thomas, minister of state for agriculture, told Parliament that production of GM brinjal, tomato and cauliflower could be expected within three years. Earlier this month, Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh had also told Lok Sabha that among other plants cleared by the GEAC for generation of bio-safety data are cotton, rice, okra, potato, groundnut, corn, cabbage, mustard and sorghum. Before being made commercially available, however, any seed will have to be cleared by the GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation.
The emphasis on the regulatory mechanisms for field trials of GM crops and their clearance for widespread sowing is well-stated for reasons of science and of popular perceptions. Transgenic crops have to be tested in different ecological conditions for the impact on local vegetation and to check if properties like higher productivity or pest resistance hold in the new environment.
But the debate on GM crops needs to be reclaimed from the extremes of the critics convinced of technology’s Frankenstein properties and its votaries who believe transgenic crops are the unambiguous answer to every distress of the farmer and the consumer. Our experience with Bt cotton shows that cropping patterns do not adhere to such abstractions. In fact, in 2001, some cotton farmers served notice of their impatience with the regulatory delays by reaping the benefits of Bt technology, whether inadvertently or through deliberate piracy. The subsequent commercial clearance of Bt cotton has also been a learning curve, and has compelled the development of more productive hybrid varieties.
The case for hastening Bt trials without compromising safety checks is not driven by a desire to catch up with agricultural economies like those in the US, China or Argentina (where the acreage under GM cultivation has grown rapidly). It is instead to give the farmer more options.