Let’s get on with GM crops

Ram Kaundinya | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on March 10, 2015

Pity the brinjal Protests lack substance Rajeev Bhatt

With regulatory systems in place, the apprehensions raised over Bt brinjal and other varieties seem unconvincing

In February 2010, a moratorium was announced on the commercialisation of Bt brinjal by the ministry of environment and forests, bringing great uncertainty to the field of agri-biotechnology in India.

This, despite the product having completed all bio-safety studies and received clearance from GEAC, the Centre’s apex regulatory body.

It is now five years since this unfortunate decision was taken. Slowing down the development of GM technology adversely impacted farmers, who could have been helped by its application to resolve some of the challenges they face.

The moratorium on Bt brinjal was a blow to the scientific process that India has put in place for GM regulations, a lost opportunity for farmers and consumers, and a blow to the morale of scientists engaged in agri-biotech research.

Subsequent to the imposition of the moratorium, the ministry insisting on no objection certificates from State governments to conduct field trials made the continuation of new crop application of biotech more bureaucratic.

It further reduced the flow of investments to agri-biotech research.

Progress stymied

Had the research been allowed to continue through a predictable regulatory process during the last five years, it would have led to faster progress in the development of various other pipeline technologies such as drought tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency, herbicide tolerance and so on in the crops including wheat, rice, maize, oilseeds and pulses.

In the case of an important oilseed such as mustard, GM technology application with potential to increase yields, developed by a public institution, has not made any progress.

India faces increasing dependence on imports of oilseeds and pulses to meet the growing gap between demand and domestic production. India’s import bills of edible oil and pulses during the 2013-14 was in excess of ₹74,000 crore.

It is pertinent to recall that Bt cotton, the country’s only biotech crop so far, helped India become the largest cotton producer in the world and the second largest exporter of cotton, from being a net importer prior to its introduction. From 136 lakh bales in 2002 production has increased to an estimated over 400 lakh bales in 2014.

The brinjal controversy

Bt brinjal is a biotech crop product developed by one of the oldest Indian seed companies, Mahyco. Mahyco started working on Bt brinjal in 2000. Subsequently, the product went through all the bio-safety tests as required under India’s regulatory guidelines.

The test results were vetted by the GEAC, comprising experts from various fields before the product was declared safe as required under the relevant statute in October 2009.

There were two expert committees, besides GEAC, that also vetted the studies including the issue of biodiversity impact before October 2009. The recommendation of the apex regulatory body to commercialise the product was disregarded while imposing the moratorium.

Mahyco had also shared the technology free of cost with public sector institutions — the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, the Tamilnadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, and the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi — for use in the OP varieties of brinjal.

Thus, when approved, farmers would get Bt brinjal varieties from these institutions at cost price and would have had the ability to save seeds for the next planting.

One of the arguments used against Bt brinjal in 2010 was that India did not have to be the first country to approve GM brinjal.

In late 2013, the Bangladesh government approved the release of Bt brinjal and now the crop is in its second year of cultivation there.

It is ironic that our neighbouring country has commercialised Bt brinjal with the same technology from Mahyco, an Indian company.

The government reasoned that there appeared to be no overwhelming consensus on commercialising Bt brinjal in the domestic and international scientific community.

Scientific decisions such as the biotech product approval process will have to be on scientific grounds, not on unfounded fears. Our regulatory process for GM crops is among the most stringent in the world.

In 2010, the government lost an opportunity to establish public confidence in the rigorous regulatory process that went into the approval of GM food crops in India.

The scientists’ POV

As far as the scientific community is concerned, most of the credible and renowned industry specialists have been in support of commercialisation of this product based on the regulatory process that the product has undergone.

Scientists from reputed Indian public institutions such as ICAR and the State agricultural universities have also overwhelmingly supported this technology.

The argument that the Green Revolution was achieved through research in public institutions and hence all future agricultural revolutions should come from public institutions is specious , to say the least.

Most of the progress we made with hybrid technology in crops other than rice and wheat came from the private sector. There is no data to show that the farmers lost anything in those crops.

In fact, they gained substantially in yields and profits in hybrid crops such as maize, sunflower, sorghum, pearl millet and many vegetables.

Since imposing a moratorium on Bt brinjal the government has not done anything special to encourage innovation in public institutions to invest more in GM technology development.

Even today, many of the GM traits awaiting regulatory process are from public institutions and not from the private sector.

Stopping the evaluation and regulatory approval of the technology has not done any good, either to public institutions or to private companies.

It has made our process stagnant and we have not gained any additional information about the technology and its safety or performance. It is a great disservice to the country and the farming community

Policy support critical

GM crops are currently safely cultivated in 28 countries around the world by 18 million farmers across 185 million hectares.

About 60 per cent of the world population lives in these 28 countries. Another 31 countries import and consume GM crops. In the past two decades no credible adverse impacts have been reported on human or animal health anywhere.

During the last five years, the global area under GM crops has continued to grow with more crops being approved with new traits.

Developing and commercialising agri-biotech products involves a long time-frame of 8 to 10 years.

Hence, the right policy support is critical to attract scientific talent and investments.

A progressive national programme of ‘Make in India’ of the new government has identified biotechnology as one of the sectors of investment and growth.

The biotech industry is optimistic that Indian agriculture would benefit greatly by implementing these technologies to resolve some of the critical farming challenges we face.

The writer is the director-general of the Association of Biotech Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), an industry body representing agricultural biotech companies

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Published on March 10, 2015
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