Clear the air on GMO

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Clear the air on GMO

With farmers’ groups forcing the issue, the Centre needs to decide fast, either way


Why in news?

  • 1,500 farmers in Maharashtra, under the banner of Shetkari Sangathana, staged a symbolic protest by planting the ‘illegal’ herbicide tolerant variety of Bt cotton, all but confirming reports that this variety, which is unaffected by applications of the controversial weedicide glyphosate, is being grown in cotton-producing areas.
  • It has also come to light that Bt brinjal is being illegally cultivated in Haryana.
  • In both instances, it is clear that farmers are willing to adopt technologies that offer promising and cost-effective solutions to pest attacks.
  • However, as the environmental and health debate on GM varieties rages without any resolution in sight, the Centre has avoided a decision on genetically modified varieties of brinjal, mustard and HTBT (herbicide tolerant Bt cotton). This sort of approach does not help either producers or consumers.

Bt cotton

  • The advantages of Bt cotton in raising crop yields and farmer profits are well known, and that is why almost all India’s cotton acreage is based on Bt cotton; and as a result of productivity surge, India is one of the world’s largest exporter of cotton.
  • Despite this, however, government policy seemed targeted at Monsanto, the primary supplier of GM technology seeds in the country.
    • First, a price cap was put on Bt cotton seed prices even though it is not clear which farmer group was protesting about the prices being too high; had prices been high, it is unlikely the technology would have been embraced the way it was.
    • After this, an attempt was made to put a cap on Monsanto’s royalties and, for good measure, Additional Solicitor General even explained to the court, in a case where the government was not even a party, that the patent issued to Monsanto by India’s Patent Office was illegal!
    • And while this behaviour led Monsanto to abandon its plans to bring in the next level of technology involving HT seeds, it was found that farmers had embraced this technology—albeit illegally—in a big way and that 15-20% of the seeds sold today are illegal HT seeds.
    • While the seed price control order has further reduced the price of Monsanto Bt seeds to Rs. 730 per bag, farmers are paying a much higher Rs. 1,200-1,500 per bag of the HT seeds as they find their technology useful.
    • Interestingly, while the government was first investigating Monsanto for bringing in the illegal seeds, a government panel has opined that it was local seed firms who were responsible for this.

Bt brinjal

  • A decision on Bt brinjal has been hanging fire for nearly a decade.
  • All tests were conducted in the country over seven years, after which the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved it as fit for human use.
  • When several NGOs and others protested against the GEAC report, the UPA’s environment minister, decided not to give the final go-ahead.
  • In the meantime, Bt brinjal grown in Bangladesh in particular has found its way into the Indian market. Such uncertainty has encouraged farmers to take the law into their own hands.
  • The decision not only hurt Indian farmers—the Fruit and Shoot Borer, the pest that is controlled by the introduction of the Cry1Ac gene in the plant, affects 30-50% of the brinjal crop—it let Bangladesh capture the benefits.
    • In 2013, Bangladesh approved genetic varieties that carry the Cry1Ac gene, and now nearly 20,000 farmers in the country grow the crop. Indeed, many media reports suggest the crop being illegally cultivated in Haryana could have links to the Bangladeshi variety.
    • Studies by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) show that the genetically-modified brinjal performed far better than the traditional varieties—zero borer infestation was reported in 2017 and farmers cut pesticide use by upto 60%.
    • A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that farmers saw incomes from the crop rise by 55% since the introduction of Bt brinjal.

Way forward

  • The Centre should adopt an open, consultative process so that producers and consumers’ interests are well served.
  • The climate of suspicion needs to be dispelled. The issue of conserving traditional varieties as well as monitoring carcinogenic effects, if any, should be entrusted to public agencies.
  • There can be no dismissing the concerns worldwide over the health effects of glyphosate. However, in trying to curtail its use, farmers’ issues of rising pest attacks, in a context of drought and climate change, too need to be addressed.
  • Income support could help subsidise the cost of manual labour in carrying out weeding operations.
  • Meanwhile, public-funded R&D should take the lead in producing benign alternatives. It has become apparent that while Bt cotton strains have multiplied yields, the benefits have tapered with pests staging a comeback.
  • As in China, public funding should assume centrestage, so that controversies over the role of vested interests do not cloud an objective assessment.
  • India needs to step up farm output and yield in the least damaging way. Whether a distinction with respect to GM should be made between crops needs to be figured out.

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