India: Stick the Course on GM
News Feb 01, 2010
At the first annual conference of chief secretaries yesterday, the PM said that the sense of comfort over India’s food security is somewhat misplaced. The way forward lies in increasing farm productivity, as India’s agricultural productivity still ranks far below the best in the world. This is well known, as are the constraints on expanding land usage for food production. Genetic modification offers a basic solution for increasing productivity.
Our columnists have pointed out that overall estimates for all major crops indicate that most of the increase in South Asian production (where India is a major player) would have to come from more yield improvement (87%) and higher cropping intensities (8%). Clearly, the anti-GM lobby that rails against industrial, large-scale systems of food production and advocates small, Rousseauesque farms as an alternative cannot really fulfil this grand mission. Yet, this lobby’s pseudoscience, alarmism and overstatement continue to hold the fort.
The latest manifestation of this is the battle over Bt brinjal, which has already passed through extensive evaluations involving about 200 scientists and experts from over 15 public and private sector institutions. India’s biotechnology regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), has approved its commercialisation.
Still, the environment and forests minister now claims that he is personally entitled to take his time arriving at a decision on what to do with the GEAC recommendations.
Why did we put up with years of agronomic and biosecurity testing by the GEAC if these tests were going to be questioned by government folks themselves?
Surely, Jairam Ramesh is not suggesting that the elaborate, rigorous and science-based regulatory approval process be restarted.
At a time when food inflation should be pushing the government to expedite food security solutions, it can’t simply start over trials and experiments without explaining what was wrong with the previous ones. That will show that the Bt cotton lesson still hasn’t been learnt.
Not only has Bt cotton proved a huge success in terms of offering yields that are many multiples of traditional ones, but let’s remember what happened when the government took too much time making up its mind about Bt cotton—plain and simple piracy. This is likely to happen with Bt brinjal too as the buzz has been that it could add to the current annual production by 50-70%—that’s how much crop is destroyed by pests that the variety under discussion is supposed to protect against.
Finally, the seeds are being manufactured by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company in collaboration with Monsanto. That further compromises the usual guff about GM being a multinational conspiracy.
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