No reason to stop Bt brinjal field trials

A Narayanamoorthy/P Alli | Updated on February 18, 2021

Farmers have gained from GM tech. The naysayers seem averse to scientific progress percolating to agriculture

The polarised debate over genetically modified (GM) crops in India is back in limelight. The advocates and dissenters of GM technology broke open the debate following the Centre’s approval given for confined field trials to new brinjal varieties for biosafety evaluation by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in seven States.

With this decision, the gene modification of more than 200 verities of rice, wheat, maize, castor and cotton, among other crops, will no more be a distant reality, inflicting a severe blow to the Basudeb Acharya Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (SCTEC) which had called for a complete halt of all field trials of GM crops for a 10-year period.

Demonstrating the most anti-science spirit, the aforementioned two committees justified their recommendation of moratorium on three grounds. First, that it is the country’s biotechnology policy which is responsible for the ongoing agrarian crisis. Second, this technology is bound to deprive the livelihood of poor agricultural labourers who are mostly women and children. And third, there is a possibility that this technology can damage human health and the environment.

Are these arguments backed by any scientific or empirical evidence? How far as these issues true? If the Green Revolution technology that promoted the use of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilisers has been acceptable to all, why not GM technology which also aims to enhance our agricultural productivity in a scenario of rising population, diminishing land productivity and depletion of groundwater?

How can the country ensure food security to its people and higher income to farmers if the committee applies brakes on GM technology? When farmers in vast majority have endorsed the blending of science with traditional knowledge, why is the anti-GM lobby aggressively involved in killing technology in India? Why has it become a fashion for certain groups in our country to oppose any technological progress that benefits the farming community? How does one prohibit the entry of imported GM foods that are already flooding the Indian processed food market in the form of cornflakes, edible oils (like soya and corn oil), etc?

At a time when Bt cotton is still being considered as a disaster for Indian farmers and blamed for the suicide spree of cotton farmers, despite researchers documenting with empirical evidence the phenomenal success of Bt cotton and its socio-economic benefits, the Centre’s push for field trials of Bt Brinjal is indeed an encouraging signal.

Brinjal or eggplant, is one of the most important vegetable crops grown in about 7.30 lakh hectares (2017-18) in India and is ranked as the second highest consumed vegetable in India. It is an extremely pest-prone plant and farmers resort to frequent insecticide applications and biological control measures to counter the threat of insects, pests and diseases. Since farmers tend to rely mainly on the subjective assessments of the visual presence of the pest, they end up over-spraying of insecticides multiple times; 10-15 times or so.

In addition to financial cost associated with indiscriminate insecticide applications and its negative effects on the environment, high pesticide residue in brinjal pose serious risk to consumers’ health and safety. When Bt brinjal promises to counter the threat of insects, pests and diseases in brinjal, enhance crop yield and secure the income of its cultivators, why oppose this technology?

Murdering research?

Critics claim that the root cause of the ongoing agrarian crisis is due to the advent of biotechnology in agriculture. If this is so then how come the entire cotton area of the country has been brought under Bt cotton within 10 years of its introduction? Indian farmers at present are finding it difficult to cope with rising labour costs, catapulting the overall cost of cultivation of crops which in turn is pivotal towards dwindling agricultural productivity.

The need of the hour is any technology that saves on labour and this is what the researchers are attempting to do by blending science with traditional knowledge. It seems that such arguments of linking agrarian crisis with biotechnology are a tactic of the anti-GM lobby who do not want technology to benefit farmers. Without evaluating the agronomic performance in open field conditions, it is impossible to carry out serious transgenic breeding? If all trials are performed only in contained laboratories, then it is as good as killing research.

It has become common for anti-technology activists to use false and unfounded allegations to question farmers’ desire to have access to better technology. For instance, since the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002, India’s cotton yield increased tremendously, with an increase in the farmers’ income as well. In fact, more than 95 per cent of cotton growing areas of the country is planted with Bt cotton, reportedly resulting in in about 40 per cent saving in use of chemical insecticides. However, the anti-GM lobby continues to claim that Bt cotton has caused crop failures and mass suicides in India.

There is no doubt that once GM brinjal is introduced in Indian farms, the anti-GM lobby will be all set to question its efficacy. When over a million small, marginal and resource-poor farmers who depend on this input-intensive crop for their livelihood are expected to benefit from Bt brinjal, why apply brakes on such a technology? If the cost of Bt brinjal seeds turn out to be costly, it can be questioned so that the government can establish appropriate mechanism to control it. There is always scope for refinement which is in-built in science and further research can be undertaken to reduce the cost of Bt brinjal seeds.

Those countries which have faced food security problems are fast adopting GM technology. No doubt the concerns related to cost of seed and safety regulations must be addressed by a well-designed panel of scientists, economists and regulatory agencies by following due process. It is also equally important to get the perceptions of farmers on this technology on making any drastic decision as the technology is developed for them. The move to conduct field trials of Bt brinjal, clearly shows that the policymakers are in favour of allowing scientific benefits to percolate down to the society. When science is employed in every sector, why prevent it in the agriculture sector?

Narayanamoorthy is former Member (Official), CACP. Alli teaches Economics at Vellore Institute of Technology. Views are personal

Published on February 18, 2021

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