Say no to naysayers

The government must move boldly to adopt genetically modified food crops

Those of us who are old enough to have been around in the 1960s will recall that the middle years of that decade were a period of national shame. Not just because the memories of the humiliating defeat at the hands of China in the 1962 border war were still fresh. Those were the years of acute food shortage in the country, particularly in the state of Bihar, which experienced famine like conditions in successive years.

Mass starvation was averted through the import of massive quantities of American grain under Washington’s Food for Peace programme also known as Public Law (PL) 480. Dependence on PL 480 grain was a constant reminder that the nascent country had failed its people and that the US had bailed it out.

And yet within years, thanks to the genius of our agricultural scientists and the sagacity of the political leadership of the time, which backed certain bold initiatives, food shortage, which was once endemic, became history. The Green Revolution had saved India.

Crop

Forty years down the road, India faces a moment of truth once again due to another crisis in the farm sector. It is a multi-dimensional crisis and its severity is not widely appreciated. Yields have plateaued; landholdings are getting smaller; the pressure on land is ever increasing; climate change threatens to hurt agriculture in the heartland of the old Green Revolution; and food prices have shot through the roof, especially in recent years. To complicate matters, the Centre’s welfare programmes, though well-intentioned and perhaps effective in many ways, have already upset the balance of forces in the economy of rural India.

A slew of reforms are needed to help put the derailed farm sector back on the rails. But two initiatives can make a significant difference if policy-makers make the right moves. One is promoting the organised retail sector by carrying out a series of inter-related reforms. The Government has made a beginning by permitting foreign investment in multi-brand retail. Much more needs to be done. Cumulatively, such reforms have the potential to transform the entire farm to fork value chain.

The other area where policy-makers can play a transformational role through bold moves is the adoption of genetically modified (GM) food crops. Crop biotechnology can lead to dramatic results. Bt Cotton has been a runaway success in India in just ten years. This success can be replicated in food crops ranging from the maize to pulses, oilseeds, rice and vegetables, including brinjal, on which there is currently a moratorium.

The most common genetic enhancement of crops gives them superior resistance to pests and an increased tolerance to herbicides. While they may not lead to direct yield increases, the farmer spends less on pest management and his profitability increases significantly. But there are other technologies in the pipeline that enable GM crops to use soil nutrients better, help them to grow with far less water than is needed now and give them protection against temperature fluctuations. There are yet more technologies that tweak the profile of grain to deliver more nutrition. These technologies can lead to increases in yield while at the same time cutting down input costs for the farmer.

Considering that the commercialisation of GM food crops first took place no earlier than 1996, it is amazing how their acceptance has skyrocketed. By one estimate, 16.7 million farmers around the world grew GM crops during 2011 and developing countries grew close to 50 per cent of those crops. The US from the developed world and Brazil from the developing world are global leaders in GM food crops. It beats reason as to how GM food that is health-wise acceptable to the people of the US and Brazil should be unacceptable to the people of India.

But this means nothing to the Luddites, environmentalists and anti-private sector activists, who are hell-bent on seeking to stall, slow down or roll back the acceptance of GM food in India. They prevailed on the former minister for environment to order a moratorium on BT brinjal.   Most recently, they have taken the matter of GM food crops to the Supreme Court through public interest litigation. In November 2012, a technical evaluation committee set up by the Court recommended, in its interim report, a 10 year moratorium on all field tests on GM food crops.  The Court displayed sagacity in refusing to accept the recommendation, saying that it would like to hear the views of all stakeholders before proceeding and has asked the expert committee to present its final report within six weeks.

Any GM crop technology is subjected to intense regulatory scrutiny, including thorough risk assessment before it is released for commercial use. Pharmaceutical drugs too have to undergo stringent regulatory testing before they are cleared for manufacture or marketing or both. The rigorous implementation of a stringent regulatory framework can go a long way in assuaging public apprehensions on this issue.

The Government of India has taken a very strong stand in its affidavit to the Court. It has said if that if there is a moratorium on field trials, it would take India back by 20 years and strike a blow against the Government’s efforts at feeding the country’s growing population.

But submitting such an affidavit is not enough. The Government’s true test would be whether, in the coming days, it yields to its natural proclivity to pussyfoot or it displays the same aggressive commitment to GM food that it did to FDI in retail. Future generations will not forgive us if the Government does any less. Think again of the Green Revolution and recall the role played by Bharat Ratna C Subramaniam, then Union Food and Agriculture Minister. It was he who took the political decision to go for high-yielding hybrid wheat seeds and, in the face of objections from many scientists and the Finance Ministry, pushed for the import of seed from Mexico. Had he listened to naysayers and not taken many such bold decisions, we would perhaps still be leading a “ship to mouth” existence.

Photo: Lee Stone