Over zeal for GM crops is not a fair deal !

Adil Raza Khan

Twenty first century is an epoch of crisis of food, water and other resources. The crisis of food and water did exist in the past but the rapid variation in the climate has made the situation more catastrophic especially for the agriculture sector globally as well as nationally. This appalling situation has compelled the scientists and policy makers around the world to re-think for alternative methods that have to be applied for producing more and more to secure the global food demand. The induction of genetically modified crops is one of the major methods that has been surfacing on the ground to tackle this crisis.

Genetically Modified crops or GM crops are the crops whose genetical materials are altered in a way that do not occur naturally. This biotechnological modification is done with the transfer of gene from one organism into another.

Though not on a wide scale, the GM crops have been introduced in India too. At present, India has approved GM crops in the category of non-food item. Bt Cotton, a genetically modified variety of cotton, was the first in this category to get approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). Bt Cotton is being produced in different parts of the country and has left a mixed impression. The approval for BT Cotton encouraged the policy makers to think beyond the non-food items such as GM Mustard etc. The voice for GM crops finds a loudspeaker in the wake of varying agricultural output, India’s ever-increasing food demand and the challenges to feed around 67 per cent population under the National Food Security Program.

The supporters cite a number argument in favour of GM crops.

  • Higher crop yields
  • Lowering the dependence over monsoon
  • Pest and disease resistance
  • Economic well-being of farmers
  • Reduction in the farmer’s suicide
  • An increase in agricultural income
  • Lowering income level disparity
  • Meet the increasing demands for food with respect to food security programs
  • A boost in the agricultural export
  • An overall economic convergence

The above benefits sound good and appear suitable in the Indian contexts. But if we assess the situation holistically, the arguments opposing the GM crops too left an impression that stand in favour of those who are willing to disallow any such alternatives. The environmentalists firmly believe that it could trigger the already degraded ecosystem and also hinder the Intended Nationally Determined (INDC) goals pledged by India during Paris Climate Treaty. The counter they produce against the introduction of GM are:

  • Though the GM claims for higher crop yields, yet it is not going to help and solve the problems of food since over production can cost the land heavily in the form of degradation of soil and its fertility.
  • Monsoon is a natural phenomenon that has been disturbed over the years because of manmade activities causing global weather changes. Instead of a short cut or introducing GM, there must be a sustainable approach towards Monsoonal retreat.
  • It is a scientifically approved fact that GM crops have no effect of pests, albeit nobody claims that pesticides or other chemicals would not be used on such crops. In short, it doesn’t reduce the demand of heavy priced pesticides that damage the environment on the one hand and cut the pockets of farmers on the other hands.
  • Over production always remains a short cut. While sustainable approach brings wellbeing in a true sense.
  • It is true that crop failure is the major reason for farmers suicides. But still it cannot be said that GM alone can reduce this curse. The implementation of irrigation programs and the Insurance schemes like Pradhan Mantri Sinchayi Karyakram and Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana could be more appropriate than shifting towards GM.
  • The government data indicates that in some areas the farmers do not receive the fair price against their produce despite having a good harvest season. This plight of the farmers suggests that farmers are still away from availing the benefits of Minimum Support Price or MSP. Improving the market mechanism and ensuring MSP at every door can solve the problems. The initiative of e-NAM is a way forward in this regard.
  • The argument favouring GM to meet the growing food demand, appears unwise as India leads in terms of food production year after year despite experiencing drought, flood and other natural calamities. At present, the total food production exceeds to over 250 million tonne while at the dawn of independence it was merely 17 million tonne. In fact, we lack in the storage capacities and management and not in the food. This also indicates that India has a great potential of food export but due the absence of a sound agro export policy and export promotion mechanism, we are unable to penetrate in the global food market on a large scale.

Moreover, the environmentalists, farmer’s rights group and other civil societies see this as an attempt of global agricultural giants to make India handicapped and dependent over foreign assistance with respect to seeds and chemical-fertilizers. It is a well-known fact that, multibillion dollar foreign companies are involved in the field of biotechnological innovation and they are eyeing global markets to sell their products. The products not only cost heavy to the farmers but to the economy as whole. The reluctance for the GM is not coming from the environmentalists and farmers group only but the expert panels appointed by the governments do portray a gloomy picture. Recently the Supreme Court had also directed the centre to take “considered” and “well-informed” view before taking a policy decision on the commercial release of GM mustard crop.

Doubling farmer’s income is the mandated goal of the incumbent government. But the goal nowhere mentions GM as the base to increase farmer’s income. Government approaches its goal embarking upon 3P objectives. The 3P can be best described as Protection, Productivity and Post-harvest management. Protection deals with crop insurance, Productivity refers to the availability of quality seeds and ample water for the farms or fields etc. Schemes like Soil Health Card Setting up of Mega Food Parks near all the Industrial Corridors is a leap forward in this direction. Engaging agricultural labours in the food processing units by providing them skill training would not only solve the income crisis but also catalyse agricultural export and ultimately deal the issue of disguise unemployment in the country.

The logical consequences of BT cotton are yet to be ascertained. A recent report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology revealed that the claims on Bt cotton need to be probed further. The report claimed that the government cited only overall cotton output and not the average yield in area. “India’s cotton yields increased by 69% in the five years between 2000 and 2005 when Bt cotton when Bt cotton was less than 6% of total cotton area, but by only 10% in the 10 years period from 2005 to 2015 when Bt cotton grew to 94% of the total cotton area.” The finding depicts the casual approach of the government regarding the scientific study of GM crop impact on health. In fact, agronomist M S Swaminathan, who has been much vocal for technological intervention, is also not convinced with the idea of giving boost to GM cropping pattern.

When the world’s major economies including US are emphasizing upon re-introducing traditional farming practices for sustainable agriculture, India’s over enthusiasm for genetically engineered technology is not going to solve our sustainable goals as well feeding over a billion population. Keeping all the criticism and skepticism in mind, government should assess all the negative externalities before giving it a go ahead sign.

Adil Raza Khan worked with Rajya Sabha TV and Presently he is working as a freelancer.

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