India commercialized biotech cotton in 2002, but has not commercialized a biotech food crop and has sharply limited field trials since 2010.  The new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed that after taking office last May.  Mr. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state when biotech cotton was first grown and was a supporter of commercialization.

In 2014, about 95 percent of India’s 30 million acres of cotton were provided protection from bollworms and a leaf eating tobacco caterpillar.  On average, the number of insecticide sprayings per year was reduced from over 2 dozen to 2-3.  Since commercialization of Bt cotton, production in India has tripled and it the world’s largest producer.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), the crop is grown by 7.7 million small, resource-poor farmers.  Six biotech events have approved and are grown in 1,100 varieties for the many agro-climate zones in India.  Most of the approved Bt cotton hybrids are produced from two Monsanto biotech events and are approved for seed, fiber, and feed production/consumption.

The Modi government first authorized field trials of mustard.  Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar told Reuters, “Field trials are already on because our mandate is to find out a scientific review, a scientific evaluation.  Confined, safe field trials are on. It’s a long process to find out whether it is fully safe or not.”

Despite the success of biotech cotton in India, the regulatory approval process went off-track in 2010 according to the U.S. Agricultural Attaché in India. In October 2009, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) recommended the approval of commercial cultivation of Bt eggplant and forwarded it to the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) for a final decision.  In February 2010, MOEF announced a moratorium on the approval until the regulatory system could ensure human and environmental safety through long term studies.   Little has been done since then.

In July 2011, the GEAC introduced new procedures for authorizing biotech crop field trials requiring technology developers to obtain a ‘no objection certificate’ (NOC) from the state governments.  Field trials languished until March 2014 when GEAC was reconvened under the previous government and field trials for several new crop events were approved.  More were approved in the following two months. The new government was elected in May of 2014 and quietly began field trials on additional crops in August.

According to the Agricultural Attaché, both private Indian seed companies and public sector research institutions are involved the development of biotech crops for pest and herbicide tolerance, nutritional enhancement, drought tolerance and higher yields.  Crops being developed by public sector institutions include banana, cabbage, cassava, cauliflower, chickpea, cotton, eggplant, rapeseed/mustard, papaya, pigeon pea, potato, rice, tomato, watermelon and wheat. The private seed companies are focused on cabbage, cauliflower, corn, rapeseed/mustard, okra, pigeon pea, rice and tomato, and next generation technologies (stacked events) for cotton.  Note that many crops are being researched by both groups.

The Reuters article reported biotech crops are part of Prime Minister Modi’s effort to increase productivity in low yielding crops and substitute for arable land lost to urbanization.  This will be partly a repeat of the Green Revolution in the 1960s that introduced high-yielding seed varieties for food grains and the use of fertilizer and irrigation.  The challenge now is edible oils and vegetables which are increasingly in demand.  Edible vegetable oil is India’s third largest imported product after crude oil and gold and accounts for 60 percent of vegetables oil consumption.  The biotech mustard plant now in field trails raises output by up to 30 percent.

GEAC has now approved two eggplants events for field trial.  This is somewhat anti-climatic because Bangladesh, a next door neighbor, released for commercialization the eggplant event subject to the 2010 moratorium in India.  In January 2014 Bt eggplant seedlings were given to 20 farmers for planting.  They harvested the benefits of fruit and shoot borer control that Indian farmers have been denied.  An additional 100 farmers were added for the winter crop, with further expansion planned for this year.

GEAC also approved in 2014 four additional soybean events for import and use as feed and food (for a total of five).  This was critical since most of the soybeans and products traded in the world have some of these events, with more events in the biotech soybean development pipeline.  India has a zero tolerance for unapproved events.  Some could be approved for planting in India to increase domestic production.

Mr. Modi has anti-biotech opponents in his own political party who fear reliance on seeds patented by multinational companies like Monsanto.  India itself has shown that those companies can provide technology that is not yet available domestically, the benefits are large and domestic public and private sources of seed have a role to play.

All this activity does not mean that it will be smooth sailing ahead.  Groups like Greenpeace continue to oppose the use of biotechnology.  Court cases are yet to be settled.  Public funding for research on biotech crops must compete with other uses of government funds.  While India is a potential market for private companies, there are limits to patience.  They have already lost five years in product development and regulatory maturation.

The benefits of lower pesticide use, higher yields through better pest control and safe use in developed and developing countries will continue to encourage public official and farmers to work with all types of biotech crops.  Putting technology in the seed is a cost effective way of reaching thousands of limited resource farmers.  The challenge is to put together the regulatory structure and technology platforms that allow that to happen.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade and @World_Farmers on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.