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India Needs Genetically Engineered Crops and Foods
Prof. C. Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org, chaakaaraav@yahoo.com

The past couple of months there was an enhanced tempo of anti-agribiotech propaganda in India, though much of it is old wine in the old bottles from the old companies.   Among them, Dr Suman Sahai, by her much too often voiced rhetoric, wants the public to believe that GM crops are a losing proposition everywhere (Times of India, February 1, 2006).  She has even interpreted the Prime Minister of India’s call for a ‘focus on dry land agriculture, small farmers and labour intensive technologies’, as a stand against genetically engineered (GE) crops and foods. 

For the anti-tech lobbies, everything the industry proposes automatically becomes suspect. The agricultural biotech industry has its own perception, based on systematic and meticulous surveys of the country’s needs, and on what is beneficial to the farmers, the industry and so to the country. The industry would lose heavily, if the farmers do not accept what the industry produces.   It is certainly necessary to be a watchdog of the activities of the industry, but a witch-hunt stance is in no body’s interest. 

Small farmer and India’s food security

The interests of the small farmer are of paramount importance.  Nevertheless, what the anti-tech activists often propose as critical to small farmers well being will only shackle them to the morass they have been in for centuries. The issue of small farmers’ interests and that of nation’s food security are often at cross roads.   The country’s technological competence, food security and business interests cannot be put at risk, in the name of protecting poor farmers’ interests.  Land holdings smaller than 20 acres are not commensurate with profitable agriculture.  The thousands of farmers, whose land holdings are above this, would certainly benefit from mechanization and modern technologies for pest- or herbicide-resistance. All the consumers of agricultural produce would benefit from quality and nutritional enhancement.

India’s export trade interests

India’s interests in agricultural trade rest in exporting quality products. The Swaminathan Committee recommendation that ‘Transgenic research should not be undertaken in crops/commodities where our international trade may be affected, e.g., Basmati rice, soybean or Darjeeling Tea’ignores several ground realities and reflects an anxiety to appease the anti-tech lobby. Indian produce such as Basmati rice and Darjeeling tea need improvements on several counts. Other countries are striving to produce improved Basmati and tea, for example Pakistan’s GE basmati rice. There is an enormous disparity between the high-pitched praise of Indian produce for the export market and its actual position in international markets. Consumers go for quality and not just brand names. As conventional agricultural technologies have not been effective in improving the quality of India’s export commodities, we should adopt better technologies, where modern biotechnological means are a viable option. 

India’s soybean exports are not serious concern. The suggestion that non-Bt soybean is superior to Bt soybean is absurd. In fact Bt-crops also prevent post-harvest losses due to insects hatching out of stored seed.

Countries opposing GE crops

Suman Sahai's assertion that ‘many countries are closing their doors to GM produce’ has the European Union (EU) in mind and even so it is far from reality. The EU had imposed a de facto moratorium on GE crops and foods, in response to the din raised by anti-tech groups.  However, on February 7, 2006, in a confidential but leaked, interim report, the WTO ruled against EU’s stand.  Over the past three years the EU has approved over 180 GE crops for field-testing.  In 2006 itself, the EU has so far approved 92 GE crops for field-testing in Spain (37), France (18), Germany (9), Hungary (7), Portugal (5), Sweden (4), Czech Republic (3), Poland (2) and Ireland (1). The traits include herbicide tolerance, pest resistance, high enzyme levels, high yield, photosynthetic efficiency and others, in transgenic corn, potato, rapeseed, cotton, tobacco, flax and sugar beet.  At least 15 public institutions, besides about the same number of biotech corporations, are involved in developing these transgenics.  The EU has also approved import of about 25 GE corn varieties for use as feed and some GE varieties are likely to be approved as food soon.   

Weeds, weeding, herbicides and herbicide resistant varieties

Anti-tech activists are up against herbicide resistant transgenics.  Herbicide tolerant crops are needed because weeding constitutes about 30 per cent of cultivation costs and this has to be brought down, and also because manual weeding is time consuming, expensive and incomplete. It has to be repeated thrice or more during the crop season, resulting in seasonal pressure on labour availability, besides raising costs.  Farmers with larger land holdings opt for herbicides. But, herbicide tolerant varieties offer several advantages, over herbicide sprays. They also facilitate minimum tillage cultivation and so help in soil conservation.  

Biodiversity and GE crops

Loss of biodiversity is a lame excuse to prevent new technology, as studies have shown that biodiversity in and around crop fields has actually increased with Bt crops, compared to conventional crops that are subjected to ill-advised heavy chemical inputs of fertilizers and pesticides that affect biodiversity in several ways.

Responsibility of the Government of India

Despite the overwhelming evidence in favour of GE crops, anti-tech lobbyists have a single-tracked approach to biotechnology. They make themselves out to be David fighting the biotech Goliath. GE crops are not forced on anyone. However, a farmer should be free to choose between conventional and GE crops. It is up to the Government of India to ensure that the country’s policy on GE is not derailed by the cacophony of the anti-tech lobby with a vested interest in keeping the Indian farmer poor and the country’s agricultural competence low.  

Against this background, the announcement by Kapil Sibal, India’s Minister for Science and Technology, on April 9, 2006 in Chicago, that biologically engineered crops and pharmaceuticals are critical to the long-term economic and agricultural security of India, is a welcome sign.