I recently learned about a legal challenge to the application of genetically modified (GM) crops in India, where a technical expert committee recommended that the Supreme Court declare a 10-year ban on field trials of GM crops in India. This ban would eliminate the nascent agricultural biotechnology’s R&D sector and prevent the furtherance of R&D activities of GM.

I find this decision to be shortsighted; evidence suggests India has gained immensely from introducing GM cotton and could gain even more from introducing GM varieties to other crops.

The discovery of DNA has given rise to modern “genetically modified drugs” that have already saved many lives. With GM crops, genes that confer certain traits are inserted into existing varieties and modify their genetic content. For example, a gene may provide resistance to a disease or enhance the nutritional value of a crop. The National Academies of the US and major European countries consider GM crops to be as safe as conventional and organic crops.

Better than toxics

I have studied the impacts of GM crops. Most of their applications have been in controlling crop diseases or pest problems. From farmers’ perspective, adoption of GM varieties is simpler and less dangerous than the adoption of toxic chemicals to control pests.

They tend to increase crop productivity primarily where pest pressure is high and existing pest control treatments are losing effectiveness. Cotton in India is grown under more humid conditions than in the US, and is likely to suffer severe pest pressure.

Multiple studies have attributed between 30-60 per cent increases in cotton yields in India to the adoption of GM varieties, which is much higher than is in the US, GM crop varieties are adopted on about 96 per cent of the cotton acreage in India while only on about half of the cotton acreage in the US.

These higher yields translate to human welfare gains. Many studies have documented that adoption of Bt cotton improved the average profits of farmers and increased farm workers’ safety.

The adoption of Bt cotton has also contributed to reductions in rural poverty and improvements in peasants’ livelihoods. It has increased labour demand, which has specifically resulted in an increase in hired female workers, and increased worker earnings, which has led to a rise in household incomes, especially those of poor and vulnerable farmers.

India gained from adopting GM cotton but has lost from not adopting it with other crops. The US, Brazil and Argentina adopted GM in corn and soybean, which led to increases in output and gains from exporting these extra crops. India and the rest of the world have also indirectly enjoyed benefits from the increased global supply of corn because of GM.

Without GM adoption, corn prices would have been about 15-30 per cent higher and soybeans prices20-40 per cent higher. If India had adopted GM corn, its yield gains would have likely been larger than those in the US, resulting in lower corn imports, higher earnings to farmers and lower costs for consumers.

GM varieties provide new means to increase crop productivity and are essential in the transition to a renewable, bio-based economy. India’s strong scientific base is likely to make it a leader in this new bio economy. I hope that India will take advantage of the opportunities provided by biotechnology, and develop a system that enables the introduction and adoption of GM varieties.

The writer holds the Robinson Chair in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley