Genetically modified food or feed imports cannot be permitted, if Indian farmers do not have the freedom to cultivate the same here.

Green groups are up in arms against the Government’s decision to allow duty-free imports of soyabean meal. While more often than not, their opposition stems from a purely ideological position on genetically modified (GM) organisms or transgenic technologies, in this case though, they have a point. The bulk of soyabean traded internationally — especially the crop from the three leading producers, the US, Brazil and Argentina — incorporate alien genes that confer resistance to insect pests or allow the plant to withstand herbicide application. India currently does not grow any GM soyabean, even while it imports 1-1.5 million tonnes (mt) of soya-oil annually. But oil, by virtue of not containing any protein, is free of GM matter. The same cannot be said about soya-meal, the protein-rich cake remaining after oil is extracted from the bean. By permitting imports of de-oiled cake at zero duty, the Government has effectively opened the country’s doors to GM soyabean — unless, of course, it says that only non-GM material can come in. The latter condition would, however, make imports itself unviable.

The Government should rethink its latest move. Not because GM technology is bad, as the Greens would claim, but because transgenic soyabean cultivation is prohibited in India. The Government has so far granted commercial planting clearance for only GM cotton, containing genes from Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt soil bacteria. The only other crops slated for release in farmers’ fields in the next couple of years are corn and cotton, harbouring both insect resistance (Bt) and glyphosate herbicide tolerance traits. When farmers in Madhya Pradesh or Maharashtra cannot grow GM soyabean — for which nobody has even sought regulatory trial approvals — how can the same crop raised by American or Brazilian farmers be deemed as safe for consumption in India? Nor can the fact that Indian livestock are already consuming oil-cake from Bt cottonseed — without any demonstrable adverse effects — be justification for allowing feed manufacturers here to use imported GM soya-meal. That would only be discriminating against Indian soyabean growers.

The decision to scrap import duties on de-oiled cakes — including that from sunflower, canola and mustard-seed — has been taken ostensibly with a view to address domestic shortages of feed material arising from a poor monsoon. The Government is, at the same time, not keen to clamp down on oil-meal exports: In 2011-12, almost four mt of soya-meal alone got shipped out, fetching over Rs 7,000 crore in foreign exchange. While curbs on exports are certainly not advisable, that still cannot be a reason to open up imports without going through the bio-safety and other regulatory procedures governing GM food/feed imports prescribed by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee. It is quite possible some of these regulations, pertaining to both imports as well as approvals for domestic cultivation, are out of sync with the country’s growing food requirements. But till they are there, they cannot be sidestepped.

(This article was published on August 5, 2012)
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