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July 2009



Times View: Gm Is The Wave Of The Future

THE TIMES OF INDIA  The government plans to introduce genetically modified (GM) foods, particularly tomatoes, brinjals and cauliflower, to help meet food production targets in three years' time. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Department of Biotechnology has approved the three transgenic crops that are in various stages of tests and development in institutes across the country. This decision is bound to be controversial, as this is the first time that India will experiment with GM crops in food. To date, India has only allowed the use of GM cotton, a non-food crop.

For the past few years global food consumption has outstripped production, causing world food prices to spike last year. The global recession has seen many people, particularly in developing countries, fall below the poverty line once again.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation says there are now a billion people who do not have enough to eat (defined as less than 1,800 calories per day), 100 million more than last year. During the food crisis last year, there were food riots in many countries. In Haiti it even led to a coup. Is that the future we want? India faces a mammoth task in feeding its billion-strong population. Biotechnology offers the best promise of producing enough food for everybody. Are we going to let the fear of hypothetical risks shut down an area of science that promises to solve this problem and save millions from hunger?

India cannot, in good conscience, abandon yield-boosting modern technology. The food crisis is real and more immediate than we might like. With climate change, and dwindling water resources, it is imperative that this country explores all available options to increase food production. GM food items can and should be labelled as such so that consumers have a choice. But we must remember that while GM foods have not killed anybody, starvation is another matter.

On a GM platter
The debate on genetically modified crops is so prone to being hijacked by pseudoscience, alarmism and overstatement that delays have been built into the delivery to Indian farmers of new seeds that farmers in other countries take for granted. Two years ago, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, India’s apex regulatory authority, granted permission to Mayco for largescale trials of Bt brinjal. This week, K.V. Thomas, minister of state for agriculture, told Parliament that production of GM brinjal, tomato and cauliflower could be expected within three years. Earlier this month, Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh had also told Lok Sabha that among other plants cleared by the GEAC for generation of bio-safety data are cotton, rice, okra, potato, groundnut, corn, cabbage, mustard and sorghum. Before being made commercially available, however, any seed will have to be cleared by the GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation.

The emphasis on the regulatory mechanisms for field trials of GM crops and their clearance for widespread sowing is well-stated for reasons of science and of popular perceptions. Transgenic crops have to be tested in different ecological conditions for the impact on local vegetation and to check if properties like higher productivity or pest resistance hold in the new environment. But the debate on GM crops needs to be reclaimed from the extremes of the critics convinced of technology’s Frankenstein properties and its votaries who believe transgenic crops are the unambiguous answer to every distress of the farmer and the consumer. Our experience with Bt cotton shows that cropping patterns do not adhere to such abstractions. In fact, in 2001, some cotton farmers served notice of their impatience with the regulatory delays by reaping the benefits of Bt technology, whether inadvertently or through deliberate piracy. The subsequent commercial clearance of Bt cotton has also been a learning curve, and has compelled the development of more productive hybrid varieties.

The case for hastening Bt trials without compromising safety checks is not driven by a desire to catch up with agricultural economies like those in the US, China or Argentina (where the acreage under GM cultivation has grown rapidly). It is instead to give the farmer more options.

FINANCIAL EXPRESSGood and modified – Financial Express
The government’s parliamentary reply that three genetically modified varieties of vegetables—tomato, brinjal and cauliflower—will be in commercial production in three years clarifies a situation made murky by constant activism. This should be taken as proof that the government is serious about bringing about a second Green Revolution in a fast stagnating agriculture sector. India has been very slow to adopt GM technologies and has thus missed the opportunity to exploit the many advantages that come with GM farming. GM crops, at a minimum, offer the unambiguous benefits of higher yields and greater resistance to pests, both of which could give a big boost to the average farmer. So far, the only GM crop permitted in India is Bt cotton, which was cleared for production for the first time nearly seven years ago. The results of the experiment with Bt cotton have been very positive—cotton production has almost doubled since GM seeds were introduced, and productivity has shot up. At the same time, there has been no evidence of any damage to soil patterns, which is one of the fears bandied about by the anti-GM lobby. Incidentally, apart from the rise in quantity, there has also been an improvement in the quality of cotton produced in India, which has reduced our dependence on imports of high-quality cotton.

The government’s decision is bound to face resistance from various narrow focus groups, who will attempt to highlight the perils of GM crops and GM food. The government should lean on the overwhelming body of scientific evidence, which has ruled GM foods completely safe for consumption. GM seeds and crops have been shown to have no negative effects on the soil either. Evidence from elsewhere where GM farming has been used more extensively—particularly from the US, Argentina and Brazil—shows the enormous rise in yields after the adoption of GM technology. These countries have been using GM seeds for a long time now with no adverse health effects reported. Incidentally, we already consume GM products in India via imports—soyabean oil from Argentina are entirely GM. Of course, there is good reason to have proper regulation to ensure that all scientific procedures are complied with. India actually has one of the best institutional structures for this, courtesy Supreme Court intervention and government action thereafter. All GM proposals must pass a two-tier regulatory system through the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. Both the bodies have a wide range of experts with different views on GM that ensures adequate checks and balances. The systems are in place, and the government must proceed even beyond the three vegetables on the near-term agenda.