Opinion

Time to shed our prejudices against GM

K. C. Ravi | Updated on March 09, 2018

Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

We need all the available technologies to meet the demand for food.



The Technical Expert Committee (TEC) recommendations to the Supreme Court do not augur well for agriculture biotechnology in the country.

The TEC has called for an indefinite moratorium on open field trials of Genetically Modified (GM) crops till the deficiencies in the regulatory and safety systems are effectively addressed.

The spin-offs of the move leads us to wonder “to be or not to be” in the agriculture biotechnology space in India.

There can be no doubt about the benefits of this technology, as espoused in recent statements by both the Prime Minister and President of India. Pranab Mukherjee said recently at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) foundation day, “Development and introduction of genetically modified crops have the potential to revolutionise agriculture. The concerns over their perceived risks should be addressed by following internationally accepted procedures for assessing safety parameters.”

Asking us to follow restraint and reason about GM crops, Manmohan Singh had said at the 100th Science Congress, “Complex issues, be they genetically modified food or nuclear energy or exploration of outer space, cannot be settled by faith, emotion and fear but by structured debate, analysis and enlightenment. A scientific approach and understanding of these issues are therefore as vital as our core scientific capabilities.”

Soon thereafter, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar said that the Government can’t take the “luxurious decision” of banning field trials of GM crops, while ensuring that “abundant precaution” had been taken to ensure safety to the health of humans, animals and the environment.

This was a direct reference to the Parliamentary Standing Committee report which had also recommended a 10-year moratorium on GM crop trials.

WHY WE NEED IT

The adoption and success of Bt cotton is part of folklore . It is an well recognised how India has transformed itself from a net importer of cotton to a net exporter and occupy the fourth position in the world in terms of production.

Such was the initial euphoria that people believed if IT was India Today, BT (read as Biotechnology and not the gene bacillus thuringiensis) was Bharat Tomorrow. But today, a mass hysteria has been triggered by the opponents of BT.

Ever since the second biotech crop, Bt brinjal, was stopped from being commercialised, the debate has taken a turn for the worse. Even field trial research can be conducted only after obtaining a ‘No Objection Certificate’ from State governments.

But if one were to step back and view the debate dispassionately, it would be clear that every technology since the evolution of mankind has brought with it concerns and challenges.

And the cardinal principle that has guided mankind to adopt technologies is to maximise benefits and minimise risks.

When I was young, my grandmother often used to say that even to tread hard on mother earth is detrimental to the environment, leave alone running heavy machines.

Similarly, if we were intent on ruling out the side effects of allopathic medicines, we would have to stop consuming all forms of medication. Biotech formulations in pharmaceuticals have, however, been accepted for human consumption.

There is ample evidence -- with many parts of the world growing or consuming genetically modified products -- that agricultural biotechnology has the potential to improve productivity, secure yields, and improve the quality of crops while minimising any environmental impact. If we are to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050, then GM and other biotechnology options which enhance yields should be available to farmers. According to one estimate, we shall require to produce twice as much food from the same area of farmland, and with less water, in the next 40 years.

MOVE ON

We need all available agricultural technologies, including biotechnology, to meet the current and projected global demand for food, feed, fibre, and biofuels. Plant breeding and genetic modification should help.

The various concerns can be overcome if concerted efforts are made by government, public institutions, scientific community, private players and NGOs. We have built quite a rigorous regulatory regime. Field trials should not stop.

India cannot afford to go back at this stage after putting so much time, effort, energy and resources to build the requisite infrastructure and capacity.

A new centre for agriculture biotechnology was announced even in the last Budget, adding to the enormous public sector infrastructure at the Centre and the States. The stage is set for a robust biotechnology regime. Shunning it is surely not the best option.

(The author is Vice-President, Syngenta, South Asia. The views are personal.)

Published on July 31, 2013

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