GM Crops: Opening Fields

The issue of GM crops has been a bone of contention between the industry and activists. Now, it has turned ugly when bypassing the Supreme Court’s TEC and Parliamentary Standing Committee recommendations, the Government axed 18 months old moratorium on open field GM trials. Mohd Mustaquim reports

GM Crops: Opening Fields

The issue of genetically modified (GM) crops has been a bone of contention between GM industry and GM activists for more than one and a half decade. Now, it has turned ugly when bypassing the Supreme Court’s Technical Expert Committee and Parliamentary Standing Committee recommendations, the Narendra Modi government axed 18 months old moratorium on open field GM trials.

The country’s biotech regulator, Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) had given clearances for field trials of transgenic rice, brinjal, mustard, chana (chickpea), maize and cotton in August 2014.

After getting permission from GEAC, it is mandatory for the biotech companies to obtain a no-objection certificate from the state governments to conduct field trials.

After GEAC’s nod, the BJP ruled Maharashtra government in January 2015, has given NOC for open field trials for above mentioned transgenic crops. Giving the NOC, Maharashtra has now become the fourth state in granting the open field trials of GM crops after Punjab, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh.

On the other side, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana denied to grant NOC for field trials of GM mustard, developed by scientists of University of Delhi and GM chickpea, developed by Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat.

There has been a big debate in the Country on GM crops. Some organisations and farmer leaders are strongly opposing the move of field trials. They argue, should the food security of the country go to the hands of multinational biotech companies?

Lamenting on field trials, Farmer Leader and President, Bhartiya Krishak Samaj, Krishna Vir Chaudhary says, “We ask the Maharashtra government to withdraw the permission of GM trails. GM foods will not be in the interest of India. If it happens, the National Food Security will be governed by Monsanto in the Country.”

He further says, “According to the Parliamentary Standing Committee report, there should be an immediate moratorium for 10 years on GM field trials. Previously, there were five people in the Technical Expert Committee of Supreme Court. All five members were top scientists and experts from the country. They opposed the field trials.”

But, later UPA government added former Director General of Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Dr. RS Paroda in the committee by Monsanto’s efforts, Chaudhary alleges.

More than 100 million farmers in India are concerned that if the government takes GM crops to the final stage, their livelihoods and national food security would increasingly depend on large multinational companies.

Chaudhary further elucidates, “Worldwide debates and researches have brought to the fore some health and environmental hazards related to the GM crops. New types of uncontrollable super weeds appearing on account of cultivation of GM crops are causing new problems to agriculture. Despite this fact the government is aggressively promoting GM crops.”

The activists argue that country’s GM regulatory body currently does not have technical competence, until technical competency, the GM trials should not happen. Dr. Suman Sahai, founder of Gene Campaign says, “The TEC recommendations were very clear along the same line, until we don’t have technical competence, we don’t get enough bio-safety data, we do not have the good methods of testing the bio-safety, until our capacity is improved we should not allow GM crops. It does not mean that we are asking for a ban. But, we are asking for a much more careful system of testing and evaluating the things.”

“The TEC report has not been active upon, no further training, no further improvement, no testing improvement, nothing has changed. But, field trials have been given permitted. This is a very unfortunate evaluation,” she further says.

Disagreeing with Dr. Sahai, Shilpa Divekar Nirula, Managing Director, Monsanto India says, “The regulatory mechanism in India is amongst the most comprehensive and robust in the world and takes into account the latest developments of biotechnology. It has evolved taking into cognizance leading systems from around the world and is compliant with Codex Alimentarius Commission created by FAO and WHO to develop food standards, guidelines and related texts for safety testing of biotech crops and is comparable with other nations that approve biotech crops for cultivation and import.”

Currently, around 20 applications for field trials of six GM varieties of crops—cotton, corn, brinjal, chickpea, rice and wheat are pending with the GEAC. The Ministry of Environment is yet to call a meeting of GEAC to deliberate on the applications. The biotech industry is now knocking the door of the prime minister’s office and environment ministry.

The agricultural biotech industry feels that the backlog in meeting of GEAC has put the entire sector in difficulty. Since August 2014, the GEAC has not considered a single application of GM crops. Thus, the industry fears that they may loss one more year if the applications are not accepted before the Kharif season.

The economic wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) has been strongly opposing the field trials of GM crops. It is said that Manch’s strong opposition is one of the reasons behind the delay to call GEAC meet. However, according to sources, SJM has softened their stance and opposing open field trials only, not the confined trails in the agricultural universities and institutes.

Introduced in 2002, so far, cotton is the only commercial GM crop in the country. But, it is grown by the farmers in 90 percent of cotton acreage in such a way, which has made India, the fourth largest GM country behind United States, Brazil and Argentina.

“Before introducing Bt-cotton, India had been importing cotton. However, seven million Indian Bt-cotton farmers have changed the global cotton economy. Today, India is the second largest producer and exporter of cotton,” says, Monsanto India MD.

However, cotton and food crops are a different ball game. Food crops have direct relation to human health and food security of 1.25 billion Indians. Thus, without losing the self dependency of food security, the policymakers need to take forward GM food crops on very cautious way.

The BJP manifesto before 2014 Lok Sabha election was clear in its objection to GM crops. Though, the Technical Expert Committee of Supreme Court and Parliamentary Standing Committee had asked a moratorium on field trials, but, the Centre permitted field trials in a hurry, has made farmer community and environment activists feared. Only large MNCs’ pitch should not affect the country’s policy making, especially in a crucial sector in which livelihood of more than half of the population is dependent. National food security and the farmers’ livelihood cannot be compromised in providing a market to the large corporations.

The advocacy group of GM crops argue that about 60 percent of India’s edible oil is met through imports, around 18-19 million tonnes per year, adding import bill a huge amount Rs 62,000 cr. To check this deficit, GM mustard is relevant for India.

Without GM, India is the second largest producer of rice behind China, produced 88 million tonnes of rice in 2014. More importantly, after feeding world’s second largest population, India have been the largest exporter of rice for many years which last year was ceded to Thailand. However, it was not due to the falling rice production in India, it was due to the increasing rice production in Thailand.

Despite erratic Monsoon in the last decade, in the recent years, India’s foodgrain output has increased drastically. In 2012-13, the country produced 258 million tonnes of foodgrains. In 2013-14, it was increased to all time high 265 million tonnes. However, due to last year’s deficient Monsoon, the foodgrain production in 2014-15, fell to 257 million tonnes.

Though, India has to depend upon imports for oilseeds and pulses, the Indian scientists community has been working hard along with the farmers which have resulted in tremendous growth of foodgrain production in the recent years.

According to an FAO report, released during the G20 agriculture ministers meet in Istanbul in May 2015, it is estimated that one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year.

The major concern, today is to make food safe. According to the Ministry of Food Processing Industries’ figures, vegetables around Rs 44,000 cr get wasted annually. Thus, pushing for biotechnology in the vegetables like brinjal in the country won’t have any relevance. And therefore, the Indian authorities will have to take the issue on very cautious way before making it a biotech market for MNCs. 

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