While molecular biology may not be a magic bullet to solve our impending food problems, shutting it out would be foolhardy.

The recommendation by a Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) to ban all field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops for a ten-year period is most unfortunate. It is one thing to prohibit commercial cultivation as a measure of precaution on grounds of possible injury to human health or environment, even where these cannot be established with absolute scientific certainty. But invoking this even for field trials is perverse, as it extends the ‘precautionary principle’ to unreasonable limits. How can any agricultural scientist do serious transgenic breeding without evaluating the agronomic performance of his candidate plant lines in open field conditions? The TEC wants a ten-year moratorium on such experiments, even if carried out in sites specially demarcated for the purpose. If all trials are to be performed only in contained laboratory or greenhouse conditions, it is as good as killing research. Moreover, the panel has not given a convincing rationale for a 10-year moratorium, as the arguments made by it can be used to justify a 5 or a 15-year suspension just as effectively.

The TEC’s recommendation is not going to hurt the likes of Monsanto as much as the public sector research institutions and domestic private seed companies doing work on GM technologies. Monsanto’s Bt cotton, including the seeds from its second-generation ‘Bollgard-II’ proprietary knowhow, is already being planted by Indian farmers in over 10 million hectares. Moreover, the American life sciences major’s cotton and maize hybrids, genetically engineered to ‘tolerate’ spraying of glyphosate-based herbicides, have completed open field trials in the kharif season just gone by. But on the other hand, a host of public sector transgenic products – a GM mustard hybrid from Delhi University’s Department of Genetics and a late blight disease-resistant potato developed by the Central Potato Research Institute near Shimla, among others – are awaiting regulatory approvals for open field trials. If the TEC’s report is accepted, they will all have to wait for at least another 10 years!

Extending the precautionary principle to research is dangerous, particularly for a country that faces the challenge of feeding a rising population with growing incomes, amid diminishing land and water availability for farming. Molecular biology, genomics, marker assisted selection or transgenic crops may not be magic bullets. But to shut these out, even as options, would be foolhardy. Bt cotton acreage in India would not have gone up from virtually nothing to 11 million hectares since 2001 had farmers not seen some value in it – unless they were suffering from some kind of collective delusion year after year. They would, likewise, not want to be denied the option of using new technologies in other crops. It is for India to decide whether to leave this entire field – not now, but ten years on – with multinational agri-biotech firms or promote competition through indigenous players as well. The latter, unfortunately, cannot wait that long.

(This article was published on October 22, 2012)
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