S.Subramanium/The Hindu


Activists protesting against BT Brinjal. Photo credit:S.Subramanium/The Hindu

As much as energy security is integral to Indian climate change policy, meeting basic development targets are important too. A few days ago, the UK gave £6m towards Indo-British research projects, out of which £1.5m has been earmarked ‘to exploit and develop advances in biotechnology applicable in an agricultural context.’ 

This, in the same week that the regulator on GM foods, the government’s GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee) announced it will look into independent studies questioning the safety of genetically modified strains of brinjal (aubergine), currently undergoing trials. Protests marked the meeting of the GEAC.

The Indian context 

BT Cotton, perhaps the most well known GM crop in India, turned cotton into a cash crop and made India into a major exporter and the 2nd largest producer in the world. The GEAC has also given the go-ahead for trials into GM versions of brinjal (aubergine), transgenic cotton, tomato, rice and okra (lady’s finger). Proponents of GM foods argue that not only do they provide stronger better crops and reduce water use and emissions, they are also vital in the context of food security, as populations increase and climate change affects agriculture.

 But, as these independent studies argue, BT brinjal in this case, could pose a hazard to humans as well as biodiversity.  

Moreover, the emergence of new secondary pests, health problems and cattle deaths have been associated with farmers who switched to GM crops. Additionally, associated financial burden, debt traps and farmer suicides have been documented.  There has been widespread public outcry as well. So why is it that in spite of the questionable utility of genetically modified crops in India is the government still pursuing them?

Lack of information, weak regulation and public participation

A large part of GM debate in India is about bringing in new investment and technology, modernizing agriculture and integrating it into the market.  Much of the problem lies in the opaque manner in which these decisions are taken. As of now, the regulatory process is questionable: it is not transparent, there is little public participation, and the rampant spread of illegal GM crops is testimony to the regulator’s weak powers.

 Virtually nonexistent in this whole question has been the inclusion of public participation and debate, even though (or perhaps because) those directly affected by such commodities are millions of poor farmers. This has created a confrontational situation: with the powerful biotechnology MNCs with financial and political clout on one side lobbying the government and the public and the activists on the other side. The two don’t really meet (except perhaps in litigation). Debate on GM products does exist, but it is rarely integrated into the regulatory process itself. Information is not disseminated – Greenpeace, for example,  resorted to filing a Right to Information petition for access to the BT Brinjal bio safety reports, following which Mahyco, the company trialling the vegetable got a stay order before being directed by the courts to release the reports.

The way forward 

India urgently needs to incorporate debate into the political process in order to comprehensively assess if GM is the way forward. One has to look at the alternatives – organic farming, for example – as well. Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya is one of many groups arguing for a less external-input intensive approach to India’s problems: sustainable agriculture that relies on the farmer’s participation, encourages ‘seed sovereignty’ and local solutions that are environmentally friendly. IFAD’s study into organic agriculture and poverty reduction in China and India highlights the need for for better support systems for smaller farmers switching to organic farming that help in certification, marketing and capacity building. 

Very little importance is given to public consultation on a very public issue, and most people don’t entirely understand the arguments involved. To top it all, the government too is flip flopping on the issue: the Union Agriculture Minister and the Health Minister have both said that India should be GM free. Or is this just electioneering?

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