Seeds of change

Sharad Pawar’s pitch for GM crops is well timed and persuasive.

Written by The Indian Express | Published: August 29, 2013 4:29 am

Sharad Pawar’s pitch for GM crops is well timed and persuasive.

Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar presented a strong argument in Lok Sabha on Tuesday on why it makes no sense to stall on the careful introduction of genetically engineered crops,given the demands of food security. Even as the Supreme Court ponders the question on scientific open field trials of these crops,there are sharp differences in the technical expert committee it set up. Meanwhile,the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill is waiting in the wings. Fears about genetically engineered plants have been swirling for years,but the big scares around public health and environmental impact have been steadily busted — be it about pesticide-resistant superweeds,or such plants contaminating their “natural” neighbours and eradicating biodiversity.

On the other hand,their demonstrable upsides — improved yields and resistance to pests — have made many farmers opt for Bt crops,even pirating them when they are not available. Bt cotton is what converted India into a cotton-exporting country. As Pawar stressed,farmers’ enthusiasm for these seeds speaks for itself. What’s more,over 350 million people in North America have been consuming GM foods for over 15 years. But despite having been a big biotech beneficiary in the 1960s,with the Green Revolution,India has been the site of bitter resistance to the idea. “Green” activists,suspicious of both technology and capitalism,continue to be absolutist on the matter,dismissing peer-reviewed scientific arguments,alleging corporate plots,declaring regulation untrustworthy. To make matters worse,policymakers have played right into this fear-mongering. The environment ministry went to the extent of instituting public hearings where activist prejudices were given the same credence as rigorously tested scientific evidence,and imposing a moratorium on Bt brinjal.

The point is,scrupulous and disinterested scientific farm evaluations are the only way to find the facts,to test the claims of industry data as well as NGO orthodoxy. What is needed is comprehensive,case-by-case study of each GM crop,an analysis of risks and benefits,not a panicky ban. Given the rising burden of food security,and the pressure on land and water,science must be harnessed to improve agriculture and raise yields — and those who are still wary of genetically engineered crops are free to choose the organic alternative. Ideology has no place in this debate,regulation does.

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