As in 2001, India has reached another inflexion point in its policy on GM crops. At that time, Hyderabad-based Navbharat Seeds distributed illegal Bt cotton seeds in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, arguably putting the Centre under pressure to legalise Bt cotton, produced by Mahyco-Monsanto, in March 2002. This year, 1,500 farmers in Maharashtra, under the banner of Shetkari Sangathana, staged a symbolic protest by planting the ‘illegal’ herbicide tolerant variety of Bt cotton ( BusinessLine , June 10), all but confirming reports that this variety, which is unaffected by applications of the controversial weedicide glyphosate, is being grown in cotton-producing areas. It has also come to light that Bt brinjal is being illegally cultivated in Haryana. In both instances, it is clear that farmers are willing to adopt technologies that offer promising and cost-effective solutions to pest attacks. However, as the environmental and health debate on GM varieties rages without any resolution in sight, the Centre has avoided a decision on genetically modified varieties of brinjal, mustard and HTBT (herbicide tolerant Bt cotton). This sort of approach does not help either producers or consumers.
A decision on Bt brinjal has been hanging fire for nearly a decade. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee cleared Bt brinjal in October 2009, but the Ministry of Environment held back its clearance, citing a lack of scientific consensus. In the meantime, Bt brinjal grown in Bangladesh in particular has found its way into the Indian market. Such uncertainty has encouraged farmers to take the law into their own hands. Activists and academics in the anti-GM camp have alleged that ‘quasi-official’ leaks of GM varieties are engineered to ensure that approval becomes a fait accompli . The Centre should adopt an open, consultative process so that producers and consumers’ interests are well served. The climate of suspicion needs to be dispelled. The issue of conserving traditional varieties as well as monitoring carcinogenic effects, if any, should be entrusted to public agencies.
There can be no dismissing the concerns worldwide over the health effects of glyphosate. However, in trying to curtail its use, farmers’ issues of rising pest attacks, in a context of drought and climate change, too need to be addressed. Income support could help subsidise the cost of manual labour in carrying out weeding operations. Meanwhile, public-funded R&D should take the lead in producing benign alternatives. It has become apparent that while Bt cotton strains have multiplied yields, the benefits have tapered with pests staging a comeback. As in China, public funding should assume centrestage, so that controversies over the role of vested interests do not cloud an objective assessment. India needs to step up farm output and yield in the least damaging way. Whether a distinction with respect to GM should be made between crops needs to be figured out.