The proponents of genetically modified technology in agriculture have got support from unexpected quarters in India. A group of 33 economists have petitioned the Prime Minister to favourably consider the commercialisation of GM mustard.
In an open letter, the group calling themselves concerned Indian economists, claimed that by bringing hybrid vigour, GM mustard seed breaks the yield barrier leading to higher yields. Hybridisation is a well-known and accepted way to increase yields and has done so for diverse crops such as cotton, maize, sorghum and vegetables.
GM mustard has been successfully evaluated for food safety, environmental safety and agronomic superiority by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) of the Government of India. Several public sector institutions conducted research trials on their safety and efficacy, apart from the fact that this technology has been in use for the last two decades in Canada, the US and Australia without any adverse consequences.
There is, therefore, no reason to deny the technology to our farmers, the signatories, who include, Ch Hanumanta Rao, former Planning Commission member, Y.K. Alagh, former Union Minister for S&T, Mahendra Dev, Director Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, P.G. Chengappa, President Agricultural Research Economics, N Chandrasekara Rao, Institute of Economic Growth; Uma Lele, former World Bank economist; Sangeeta Shroff, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics; and Bharat Ramaswami, Indian Statistical Institute, among others, claimed.
In India, GM cotton is the only crop that has been given approval for commercial cultivation in the past two decades. Successive governments have gone by committee recommendations and bowed to pressure from anti-GM groups in expanding the basket of crops. Globally, GM technology remains controversial, even as technology marches on with newer varieties of corn, soya and vegetables.
The opponents to commercialisation criticise the regulatory process. The integrity of the regulatory process is paramount and it should be protected at all costs. Products that meet the benchmarks laid down by a fair, transparent and rigorous regulatory process should be approved for commercialisation.
However, it is self-defeating to test indefinitely. That amounts to a ban on commercialisation of all GM crops. That may serve the critics of GM crops. But, surely, that is not the intent of the Government of India.
Foregoing yield increases is costly – especially to the poor. The seed-fertiliser technologies of the 1960s reduced poverty, increased farm wages and incomes. Bt cotton, introduced in 2002, accomplished the same in many parts of the country. These crops have disseminated widely, which is a testimony to how farmers have valued them. Higher yields augment limited land resources and alleviate farmer distress, the economists said in the letter.
Technology is not a magic bullet. Complementary policies, such as for water, land, inputs, prices, credit and insurance will continue to be needed. Cooperatives and producer companies are important to ensure inclusive growth.
However, sustainable development requires that we encourage technologies that conserve our scarce resources. The University of Delhi developed GM mustard with financial support from the National Dairy Development Board and the DBT. GM mustard is an achievement of the Indian public sector. Its release will encourage and empower researchers in the public sector to bring in advanced quality traits in mustard as well as in other crops, they said, to buttress their argument for its release.