GM crops are inimical to food security. Claims of their success are baseless. The Government is promoting the interests of the MNC seed industry.

Agrarian distress in our country is not news anymore, neither are farmer suicides. Since the neo-liberal policies began in the 1990s, more than 2.5 lakh farmers have committed suicide. Majority of them are small and marginal farmers doing rainfed agriculture.

In a country where more than 60 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture, the reality is that while year-on-year agriculture production is increasing, our farmers are in serious distress.

Last year, our food production touched a record 235 million tonnes. But surprisingly the number of hungry also seems to have risen in recent years.

viewing The context

It is in this context of ensuring food and livelihood security that we should view the current debate on GM crops. The debate, while it has seen ideological positions for and against genetic engineering, has also thrown up the question of appropriate technologies.

Is this the kind of technology that we should embrace to empower our farmers and bring food security to our country, or should we be looking at solutions that are sustainable?

Is the current government in a hurry to adopt this technology which is a subject of controversy due to various reasons — ranging from the potential impact on human health to the real issue of the exercise of monopoly on the seed sector, by multinational biotech seed companies?

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture took up this issue to find out whether GM crops should be part of our agriculture.

The Standing Committee, with 31 members from the ruling and opposition benches in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, started its deliberations in the end of 2009.

This was when the debate around GM crops was raging due to Bt Brinjal, the first GM food crop in the country to have reached commercialisation stage. Bt Brinjal was put under a moratorium by the then Union Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh, but the debate on GM crops continued as the country had close to 72 crops that were genetically modified and in the research pipeline.

Some of them were also undergoing open field trials. The Standing Committee, over the next two-and-a-half years, went through close to 467 memoranda from various stakeholders totalling some 15,000 pages, travelled to many States to understand and listen to various stakeholders, and to check the ground reality.

The final report was adopted unanimously at a committee meeting on August 3 and tabled in Parliament on August 9, 2012.

The report critically analyses the need for risky technologies such as genetic engineering in agriculture to ensure food security and improvement of farm livelihoods, and comes to the conclusion that GM crops, with their potential threat to the health of the citizens, biodiversity and farm economies, do not have a role in ensuring food security.

They could also put the livelihood security of farmers and farm labourers under threat.

MNC power

One of the eye-openers for the committee was our visit to Yavatmal to hold a public consultation to understand the reality behind Bt cotton, the first and the only GM crop commercially cultivated in our country.

While promoters of the technology, such as the biotech seed companies, and even the government consistently maintained that Bt cotton had increased production and productivity of cotton and lifted cotton farmers out of distress, what we saw was a different story.

Rising input costs with seeds and other inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides — which are essential for Bt cotton hybrids — and falling yields, have actually increased the burden of farmers in Vidarbha and other rainfed regions.

The committee’s investigations from yield data provided by the government institutions also found out that the national level yield has actually stagnated in the last five years when Bt cotton area increased. Added to this were cases of increased attack from secondary pests and other new diseases.

The last 10 years of Bt cotton also establish the fact that monopolies in the seed sector could be a matter of great concern. In the current scenario, 93 per cent of Bt cotton has the proprietary gene of Monsanto, the American seed giant, which is the world’s largest seed company. This monopoly has also given Monsanto the power to arm-twist governments to increase prices of seeds.

The company had even taken the State government of Andhra Pradesh to court over increasing its royalty per packet of Bt cotton seed.

The systematic wiping out of non-Bt seeds from the market and aggressive marketing techniques, along with the failure of our public sector institutions to provide ample quantities of seeds, have pushed farmers into the hands of the unscrupulous seed industry, which only sells Bt cotton seeds.

Strangely, this ‘lack of choice’ for the farmer is drummed around as farmers accepting Bt cotton. It is essential that an independent and comprehensive analysis of the 10 years of Bt cotton is done at the earliest.

Regulatory failure

The existing GM regulatory system with the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment and Forests as the nodal agency to approve the release of GM crops, and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) located within the Department of Biotechnology under Ministry of Science and Technology as the risk assessment agency, has come under heavy criticism. The regulatory apparatus has been unable to put in place a scientific risk assessment system and carry out effective ground monitoring of GM crops.

Fingers have been raised at the systematic rigging of the regulatory system due to conflict of interest, lack of clear policy direction and an unscientific approach towards approval of environmental releases of GM crops, including experimental trials permitted in open fields.

In the approval for various Bt cotton hybrids in the past 10 years and the process run by the regulatory system on Bt Brinjal, it is evident that regulatory agencies seem more inclined to favour the industry.

Added to this is the lack of accountability and liability that has provided a field day for promoters of such GM technologies to get away with violations that could affect food and environmental safety.

It is shocking to see that instead of learning from these regulatory lapses, the government, in the last one year, has been trying hard to introduce a new Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Legislation (BRAI Bill, 2012) in Parliament, which would provide for a single-window clearance system for GM crops.

Biosafety authority

The need of the hour is an all-encompassing biosafety authority which will not restrict itself to just approving products of modern biotechnology.

The main mandate of the authority should be ensuring biosafety by protecting biodiversity, human and livestock health and environment, while regulating products of modern biotechnology.

It should be created through an Act of the Parliament, which is extensively discussed and debated before acquiring the shape of a law.

Until then there should be no environmental releases of any GM crops, including those in the garb of field trials.

(The author is a CPM MP, and Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture.)

(This article was published on September 13, 2012)
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