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Genetically Modified Food: The Great Indian Dilemma

GEAC has recently rejected the commercialisation of genetically modified (GMO) mustard due to lack of biosafety data and reports on risk assessments.

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GEAC has recently rejected the commercialisation of genetically modified (GMO) mustard due to lack of biosafety data and reports on risk assessments. In another move, a Group of Secretaries, constituted by PM Narendra Modi has recommended two varieties of pulses. MOHD MUSTAQUIM reports on the big Indian divide on GM crops

 

In a scenario when India is yet to commercialise transgenic food crop, after facing the shortage of pulses which shot up the import bill, the government seems to be favourable for giving a go ahead to genetically modified pulses.

In a recent development, a Group of Secretaries (GoS) constituted by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has advocated promotion and time-bound deregulation of two varieties of genetically modified pulses.

The first variety of transgenic pulses recommended by GoS is chickpea, developed by Assam Agricultural University and licensed to Sungro Seeds, Mahyco’s (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company) group company. The genetically modified chickpea is claimed to have increased the yield by 20-25 per cent in field trials and reduced the usage of chemical pesticides by 50 per cent due to the lesser attacks by pests and diseases.

The second transgenic food crop which got a green signal by GoS is pigeon-pea, developed by International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad.

In GoS’ backing to genetically modified pulses, the prime reason is considered to be the onslaught of pulses shortage, its impact on import bill and growing retail prices. In 2014-15, India had imported 4.58 million tonnes of pulses, valued at US$ 2.79 billion. By the end of third quarter of FY 16, the imports have already jumped to 4.41 million tonnes, adding US$ 2.96 billion into current account deficit.

As per the report submitted by the Group of Ministers, Bt-Chickpea has potential to increase annual production of 2 million tonnes while Bt-pigeon-pea can potentially increase 0.75 million tonnes production. It can substantially decrease India’s dependency on pulses imports and can keep the retail prices controlled.

Though India is the largest producer of pulses, its large size population also makes it the largest consumer of this protein grain which also makes the country largest importer. The total peak production of pulses was 19.25 million tonnes in 2013-14 which fell to 17.15 million tonnes in 2014-15. The estimated production of pulses this year is expected to be 17.33 million tonnes.

However, in the first week of February, due to the protest from NGOs and activists, the regulatory body for genetically modified crops, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has put down the idea of allowing commercialisation of GM mustard, hybrid DMH 11, developed by Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP), Delhi University.

After reviewing the bio-safety data, the regulatory body has asked the developer, CGMCP which is headed by the former Delhi University Vice Chancellor, Prof. Deepak Pental, to produce more information with additional biosafety, tests reports regarding risk assessment and risk management (RARM).

“We welcome that GEAC has decided to proceed in a systematic manner in this case, instead of the usual ad hoc nature of its earlier responses. The committee will meet to draw up the concrete modalities of the additional data required to write up the RARM document pertaining to DMH 11,” says Suman Sahai, scientist and chairperson, Gene Campaign.

However, the people advocating for the genetically modified crops, have similar argument for allowing GM mustard too. India imported 14.4 million tonnes of edible oil in 2014-15 costing US$ 10.5 billion to the foreign exchange.

The Group of Secretaries has further recommended for setting up of Crop Genetic Enhancement Network (CG Net) to access global knowledge in molecular research, plant genetics research and advanced breeding technology for improving the agricultural productivity in the country. The CG Net would be focussed on important crops such as gram, mustard, groundnuts, pigeon-pea, chickpea, finger millet, wheat and rice.

The Government of India also seems to be in the favour of GM crops for increasing the yield. The Economic Survey 2015-16, tabled in the Parliament on February 26, states, “Concerns about affordability of hybrids and GM seeds, environmental and ethical issues in cultivation of GM crops, risk to the food chain, disease spread and cross pollination have resulted in their non-introduction. These issues need to be debated, tested, evaluated, so that introduction of hybrids is facilitated in the next six months. The adoption of hybrid and high yield variety (HYV) seeds is one definite pathway to increase agricultural productivity in India.”

The Big GM Divide

The industry seems to be divided into two different poles. While the biotechnology industry wants commercialisation of genetically modified crops, the another group consists of activists, agriculture experts and farmer leaders wants all safeguards to in place before commercialisation of the crops with genetically modified organism (GMO).

Advocating for agricultural biotechnology, Vibha Dhawan, Senior Director, The Energy and Research Institute (TERI), says, “No technology in the world is free from side effects. But, only biotechnology has to face roadblocks on the name of regulation and activism. Farmers are not fool, so it should be left to them to decide what seed they want to grow. There was no public consultation before adopting chemical fertilisers and pesticides. We have seen their hazardous effects, especially in Haryana and Punjab. There’s still no one talking about it.”

She thinks that agricultural biotechnology would tackle multiple challenges adhered to Indian agriculture sector such as low productivity, small landholding, lack of sustainability, deficient monsoon, over exploitation of land and water resources, pests & disease and many more. “Today agricultural growth is hovering around 1 per cent compared to 3 per cent of 1970s. To spike the growth we need GM crops,” Dhawan adds.

The regulations for agriculture practices and food safety in the United States are globally considered and followed. The US department of agriculture which is the apex body for regulating agriculture, food safety including genetically modified food crops, gives emphasis on the need for environmental risk assessment, including Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA) of GM crops.

“The GEAC asking for an RARM document is fully in line with international practices. In fact, an EcIA should become standard procedure in biosafety assessments of GMOs in India. This is currently not in the case,” argues Sahai.

The supporters of genetically modified food are pointing out India’s need of importing corn after 16 years. Floating the tender of 2,50,000 tonnes of corn, India had mandated that the supplier must ensure that the corn must not have any contains of genetically modified organism. However, due to the shrinking farm land and increasing population, the corn which is grown largely across the globe is genetically modified. The major producers of corn such as the United States, Brazil and Argentina are growing GM corn.

Experts point out that the large shipment of non-GM corn has vulnerability to have contamination of GM corn. Due to increasing dependency on imports, the supporters of GM food are advocating for commercialisation of GM corn within the country.

Raising questions about the Government’s stance of GM food, Bhagirath Choudhary, Founder Director, South Asia Biotech Centre, says, “The Government has been the biggest stumbling block in taking agricultural biotechnology from the lab to land over the years. The field trials for GM crops are not allowed. If field trials are not conducted, then how would we know that whether the technology is safe or not? The States must allow the field trials of oilseeds and pulses.”

“In the Union Budget 2015-16, the allocation to Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) was cut down by 25 per cent. It has hurt the agricultural research and education. In this circumstance, the agriculture institutes can’t invest in high yielding and safe varieties of seeds,” Choudhary adds.

Some experts argue that India needed sharp rise in food production in 1960s to take the country out of the hunger. But today, we need to think beyond Green Revolution as the situation is different. To feed the increasing population, we need to adopt advance technologies in the agriculture sector.

Labeling a charge on the opposition of GM food, N Chandrasekhar Rao, Professor, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), says, “In the case of agricultural biotechnology, the government is hijacked by the people who are paid by the people who want this technology drive out from the country.”

However, Sahai looks it as a gimmick and diversion of the discussion from biosafety. She argues, “It is very unfortunate that people are making baseless allegations just to divert the discussion from biosafety data. When they are asked on biosafety data, they have no answer. We cannot compromise on biosafety just to benefit the multinational seeds companies. Before the Government allows genetically modified organism in food crops, all biosafety mechanism needs to be in place.”

The issue of GM crops is very complex in India. Though the country is largely dependent of imports of oilseeds and pulses, in this desperation, the regulatory body should not allow GM food in a hurry. It may be harmful in the long run for the country. Before, GM food is commercialised and reach to the farmers’ field all safety mechanism needs to be in place.  

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