Two RSS-affiliated groups, the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, seem to have successfully petitioned the environment minister to hold off field trials of genetically modified crops. Only a week ago, the statutory body for these decisions, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), had allowed farm trials of rice, mustard, cotton, chickpea and brinjal, ending a long, stubborn and ill-founded resistance to the idea. But that decision has now been frozen by the environment ministry, repeating the folly of previous policymakers who gave in to fear-mongering instead of respecting the scientific consensus.
Most anxieties around the public health and environmental impact of GM crops, whether about pesticide-resistant superweeds, “terminator seeds” that are designed to be sterile, or plants that contaminate their “natural” neighbours and eradicate biodiversity, have been punctured by better research. GM crops hold great promise for small farmers, boosting yields and cutting pesticide costs. They have been grown in the US, China, Brazil and many other countries, and the rising demands of food security and the limits on land and water make it necessary to lean on science to raise yields. Even in India, farmers have opted for Bt crops, pirating them when not available.
The use of Bt cotton quadrupled the crop within a decade, making India a cotton-exporting country. And yet, the politics around GM crops, which combines a reflexive suspicion of technology and capitalism, has not stopped swirling in India, even though the global movement is largely spent. This activist absolutism has ended up swaying policymaking, with environment ministers in the previous government equating their claims with that of rigorously tested, peer-reviewed science, and using “public hearings” to invalidate GM crops, declaring moratoriums on trials. This environment ministry must not make the same mistake of prohibiting research. Given that those who remain suspicious can opt for the organic alternative, it makes little sense to block the inputs and possibilities of science for others.
Scientific and disinterested farm evaluations are the only way to understand the case-by-case risks and benefits of each GM crop, rather than siding with industry or NGO studies. The government should urgently get moving on these, as well as on framing strict regulatory standards to watch over the use of GM crops. As a first step, it should take the debate back from the ideologues.