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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The GM bogey

If an anti-technology mindset spreads, we will have to pay for it dearly.

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Published: December 8, 2014 12:58:49 am
In the fast-developing GM landscape, frequent reviews are needed. Even the European position now is different from what it was in the 1990s. In the fast-developing GM landscape, frequent reviews are needed. Even the European position now is different from what it was in the 1990s.

The decision to disallow experimentation in genetically modified (GM) crops by various states is questionable. However, it reportedly got a fillip from the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee report to review environment-related laws. Subramanian apparently contended that European countries also don’t allow field trials of GM crops. The report is, indeed, a useful document. It makes a plea, for example, for a new set of policies for compensatory afforestation. It does not, however, discuss the issue of GM crops, or the research on them. So if Subramanian did say something on the issue, it should be seen as a side comment rather than the committee’s view.

It is true that the US and China are bullish on GM crops. Europe was strictly against them. But the Lisbon Protocol was a step towards a more nuanced formulation. India has been in the middle. Its legislation on producers’ rights and environmental clearance by the empowered committee on a case-by-case basis is unique. These legislative formulations of the mid-1990s were based on expert committees, including one led by M.S. Swaminathan. But in a fast-developing field, frequent reviews are needed. Even the European position now is different from what it was then. But until further review, the existing legislation stands.

GM cotton was the target of various Gandhian and obscurantist lobbies in the 1990s. The movement against Navbharat Seeds is a good example. Sanat Mehta argued, and I supported him, that the cost of this would be high for farmers in western India and Andhra Pradesh. We created a system in which millions of farmers were criminals and the most preferred seeds were sold illegally. Navbharat seeds were sold at Rs 450 per kg; the Monsanto variety at a premium price of Rs 1,250. Legal systems that were created as safety controls were used to look into productivity, cost and other commercial issues. But isn’t the market supposed to conduct economic tests?

There was also no thought about the relationships between user groups (co-ops, farmers groups etc), small technology companies (India’s strong suit) and multinationals. It is another matter that later, agreements between local seed producers and MNCs were fortunately allowed. After that, we became a major factor in the global cotton trade. Indeed, cotton has powered the growth of Gujarat’s agriculture in the last decade. Another major experiment, which had a bearing on the food security of the poorest, took place in Gujarat. The Adivasi areas of Panchmahals, Banaskantha and Sabarkantha have the highest levels of nutritional deficiency in the state. Studies by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research show that poverty in these areas is as high as in the Bimaru states, despite government claims to the contrary. GM seeds have made a huge difference to maize production, a staple of the Adivasis. The average yields in the region were around 1.5 quintal per hectare. Small farmers would regularly starve. GM maize was originally developed by Monsanto but a field study by N.M. Sadguru Water and Development Foundation, Dahod, showed that, funded by the state government, the Gujarat Agricultural University had also done good work in the area and their GM variant had a higher yield compared to the MNC one. Some extraordinary civil servants started Project Sunshine — Adivasi farmers were encouraged to use GM seeds produced by Gujarat Agricultural University scientists and private companies. NGOs like the Vivekananda Trust and the N.M. Sadguru Foundation participated in the process. These facts are well known to senior political leaders from the state, particularly those who have a farming background. Yet, an aggressive NGO was able to put a stick in the wheel. The maize success story has been repeated in north Bihar, where it is grown both as a food staple and poultry feed.

A major crop group that needs a big yield push in India is pulses. The average yield is around one tonne per hectare. Our agricultural universities have developed seeds that could produce 1.5 tonne per hectare. But BT seeds aim to do around 2.5 tonne per hectare. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research has considerable expertise in this area. But its scientists get terribly disillusioned when they get negative signals from the establishment. There are new technologies, using which a seed-development process that used to take seven to eight years can be completed in less than four.

Improving the yield of pulses to two tonne per hectare is essential to overcome the nutrition and food-inflation barrier. When all these facts are mentioned, obscurantists bring up some exceptional cases of traditional varieties. But this is a non sequitur. Let’s talk about the average farmer under average conditions. Grains like rice and wheat do not cause food inflation. Pulses, vegetables, fruit and milk do. If an anti-technology and anti-science mindset spreads, we will have to pay for it dearly.

The writer is professor emeritus, Sardar Patel Institute, Ahmedabad

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