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Invest more in water soil health instead of promoting GM

In a candid interview with RM genetics scientist and chairperson of NGO Gene Campaign Suman Sahai speaks about issues related to GM and its relevance in India Excerpts

Suman Sahai
Chairperson, Gene Campaign
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Where are we now with regard to GM?

We are nowhere. So many years after Bt cotton, we are still contemplating whether or not adopt GM technology which is highly regulated worldwide. Any technology you are wanting to consider should make sense for your agriculture and farmers. For GM, there are several issues such as no comprehensive and no coherent policy is in place. Regulatory mechanism is highly questionable and if bio safety measures are not adequate you are asking for troubles. GM is regulated by scientists and they know it can produce high yield on one hand and cause major damage on the other if not regulated carefully. Lot of damage has already been done and it is high time to resolve this issue.

Why there is no consensus?

Way back in 2004, while Gene Campaign celebration its 10th foundation day, we organised a conference on relevance of GM to Indian agriculture. All stakeholders including MNCs, government officials, civil societies, scientists, NGOs and farmers participated. We came out with 20 recommendations which included need of a policy, strong regulatory mechanism, transparency, bio safety measures and people’s participation. Discarding recommendations, Department of Bio Technology (DBT) paid no need to public concerns raised by a group of scientists, environmentalists and civil societies. Later, we had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) way back in 2004. Later it was merged with other PILs filed by civil societies. Since 2008, Supreme Court is hearing the case and a Technical Expert Committee was also appointed. The Committee recommended 10 years moratorium on field trials of GM after taking views of all stakeholders. Unfortunately, TEC report has not been accepted so far. Now we are in 2015, still no clarity on the issue and we still await a final decision.

What are main reasons for this deadlock?

The TEC report is not to the liking of vest interest in the industry and government. Synthetic biology, Nano technology and GM technology are highly regulated. This is a question transformative technology which can radically change the boundaries of nature and biology. In the name of food security, vested interests of the industry, especially MNCs which own this technology, have been misleading with propaganda about benefits of GM while ignoring damages it can introduce. They have strong influence in the government. We should understand that it is serious matter of technology adoption.Worldwide these technologies are adopted very carefully. Even some scientists who are well aware of potential of threat to human and animals are siding with them.
I feel, this drama must be stopped now.

Do you see any shift in approach with the change of the government at Centre?

No, nothing. The last government (UPA) was hiding everything. I frankly do not see any shift in approach and both the governments went ahead without public concerns and undermined informed opinion of scientists and civil societies. Both governments tended to side with the industry. Unfortunately, several regulatory agencies were also compromised. Overall, I would say India is handling GM issue very unprofessionally. Can you be careless about nuclear technology? GM technology also requires similar attention.

What is the way out?

You are sitting here in Uttarakhand where there is no water for agriculture. There are drought prone areas in the county. Water is a major problem. What will GM do if there is no water? Nearly 60 percent of agri land in the country can not grow Rabi. Do scientists need to be told this? If soil is not fertile, how will any crop grow, be it traditional or GM? Therefore, for food security and to feed so called ‘starving millions’ you need to invest more in water and soil health rather than wasting your efforts in promoting MNCs. If you have one thousand rupees for agriculture, you would like to spend it on water and soil health or spend it on expensive GM seeds which are still unregulated and have not passed through stringent bio testing mechanism.

Recently, we witnessed very damaging pest attack on cotton crop in Malwa belt. How do you see this cotton crisis?

Bt Cotton may be suitable for some developed countries, but not for developing countries like India as we have very large area and high pest density. Moreover, there are several variety of pests and even third generation Bt Cotton variety can not sustain their attack. This technology (Bt Cotton) is not suited to our agriculture conditions. There is always possibility of pest attack by different pests. It would be better if we learn lessons from Punjab and accordingly change our approach toward the technology.
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