Farming for the future

The environment ministry should now seize the initiative on GM crops.

Updated: January 20, 2014 9:36 am

Deepak Pental

The environment ministry should now seize the initiative on GM crops.

To achieve prosperity, developing nations must learn to deal with complexity. The most durable path to prosperity is to compete and innovate. This requires building institutions that have the intellectual capacity to deal with complexity, are willing to evolve and have the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. Economic progress in India has been hampered by weak institutions that are either complacent or rent-seeking or both. This is evident in many spheres of development. Take the case of transgenic, or GM, crops.

Currently, around 47 per cent of India’s population depends on agriculture for a livelihood. And for most of the 21st century, India will remain an agricultural society. One cannot underplay the role of agricultural growth in improving rural incomes and securing India’s food and nutritional needs. The country requires concerted efforts to achieve low input-high output agriculture and growth rates of around 8 per cent for the sector that contains crops, livestock and fisheries. Unfortunately, for the past two decades, we have been clocking a little above 3 per cent growth for the sector.

Higher growth rates for rural India will require action on many fronts. This includes using the best that science and technology has to offer. In 2012, crops with transgenes were grown on around 170 million hectares of land. North and south America are the most extensive growers of transgenic crops. Bt cotton is the only transgenic crop released in India, and the results have been most encouraging. But this is just the beginning. In the last 10 years, genomes of nearly all the major crops grown around the world have been sequenced. New technologies are being developed for gene replacement. Utilising the available and emerging knowledge in plant sciences for more productive agriculture without compromising on the safety of the environment and ecosystems is the challenge.

The most vocal groups opposing transgenic technologies are environmental activists and ideologues. They have excelled in spreading falsehood and fear on transgenic crops. But much more damaging is the role of contrarian scientists — some of whom were drafted by the ministry of environment and forests to be members of a technical evaluation committee (TEC) appointed in May 2012 at the behest of the Supreme Court. The TEC submitted an interim report to the Supreme Court in October 2012, asking for a 10-year moratorium on the use of transgenic crops, and the authors of the earlier report submitted a final “majority” report in July 2013. Their contentions are: transgenic technology’s long-term effects are not known, so India should follow the “precautionary principle”; the country does not have the scientific knowhow to conduct biosafety analysis and it will take 10 years to train scientists to do so; and, above all, the socio-economic conditions of the agrarian sector do not call for the use of a high tech solution. The TEC has cited a few contrarian scientists from abroad but refused to cite hundreds of reports on the development, biosafety and economic benefits of transgenic crops, written by scientists and environment safety organisations. The committee has done great damage to the concept of a scientific temper and evidence-based policymaking by mixing up biosafety issues with socio-economic issues.

The most irresponsible player in the transgenic crops debate has been the MoEF. In a letter to the prime minister on transgenic crops, a former environment minister had echoed all the NGOs, environmental activists and contrarian scientists. Even though the court did not put a stop to the functioning of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committees (GEAC) situated in the MoEF, the ministry gave the impression that a moratorium already exists. Thus, regulatory bodies on transgenic crops, such as the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation, situated in the ministry of science and technology, and the GEAC, have been rendered defunct.

How do we get out of this logjam before irreparable damage is done to India’s future in agriculture? The scientific advisory council to the prime minister has made some pertinent suggestions — the appointment of full-time chairpersons for the RCGM and GEAC, for instance. Further, it recommends that the GEAC issue a “decision document”, which provides justification for field trials and informs the public at large that due research has been done. States should also be provided with the decision document. Objections or queries by the states or by the public should be properly addressed.

There should be support for research and development in agriculture across party lines. In fact, agriculture R&D is crucial to the economic prosperity of India. The debate must be taken to a higher plane — how to achieve 8 per cent growth in agriculture and how much research should be supported by public funding to create open-source knowledge to achieve low input-high output agriculture. For now, the most important issue is to allow the GEAC to function.

The writer teaches genetics, researches on breeding of oilseed mustard and is former vice chancellor of the University of Delhi. Views are personal

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