Two developments last week say a lot about national priorities when it comes to harnessing technology for boosting crop yields to feed rising populations. The first was the China National Chemical Corporation offering to pay $43 billion for acquiring Swiss agrochemicals and plant biotechnology giant Syngenta that, only six months ago, was a takeover target for US life sciences major Monsanto. The state-owned company’s takeover, which follows President Xi Jinping’s call “to boldly research and innovate, [and] dominate the high points of GMO (genetically modified organisms) technology”, only shows the value the Chinese authorities attach to biotechnology in furthering food security. The same week also saw India deferring a decision on allowing commercial cultivation of a GMO mustard hybrid.
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s statement that no decision would be taken without “due consideration and consultation” clearly signalled a government not wanting to ruffle the feathers of anti-GMO groups drawn from both the extreme left and right.
The government’s ambivalence is striking, more so when it concerns a crop that contributes to a quarter of India’s edible oil production, which, in turn, meets hardly a third of its consumption. A technology that is expected to raise mustard crop yields by 25-30 per cent would obviously go some way in reducing reliance on imports, currently valued at over $10 billion. Also, out of the total 14.5 million tonnes (mt) of imports, a significant chunk (3.5 mt) comprises soyabean and rapeseed oil, which are predominantly GMO. The “swadeshi” activists protesting against domestic cultivation of GMO hybrid mustard seem to be silent when it comes to “videshi” imported GMO oils. Also, unlike Bt cotton that is based on the proprietary technology of a multinational (Monsanto), the developer of GMO mustard happens to be a publicly funded centre under Delhi University. In other words, this is a product that fits with the Modi government’s own Make in India framework.
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The opposition to GMO mustard on grounds of it being a “food crop”, unlike cotton, is equally dubious. Cotton-seed yields not only fibre, but also oil and de-oiled meal consumed directly or indirectly by human beings. If nobody is really protesting against their consumption — or, for that matter, of imported GMO oils — there is no reason to single out hybrid mustard. The time has come for the government to stop pandering to Luddite interests and worry more about what is in the interest of farmers and national food security.