Reaping the GM technology benefits

Updated: Aug 6 2014, 09:54am hrs
Soil quality and rainfall are the two factors that are intimately interwoven with food production. Prime Minister Narendra Modi very astutely stressed on the efficient usage of these two elements at his speech on the occasion of the 86th Foundation Day of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) on July 29, 2014, because the land mass available for agriculture is shrinking and losing quality while water/rain reservoirs are also getting depleted. Farmers, he said, fill the stomachs (pet) of others but their earnings (jeb) are yet to be commensurate. He was simply marrying science with the economics of food productivity for societal balance and welfare.

With the use of biotechnology getting commonplace in the last 20 years, overall yields from hybrids and genetically-modified (GM) crops have significantly escalated. Modi was implicitly echoing or endorsing this path to cheaper and higher agri-production. But on July 29 itself, the media reported that field trials of 13 GM crops authorised by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) were indefinitely deferred by the environment ministry due to alleged pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), under the influence of the anti-GM lobby. If RSS is defining policies like the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi did during the UPA regime, it undermines the authority of the government.

gm technology

Even though Indian agriculture output has risen by an average of 3.7%, and yield by 2.2%, over the last five years, food inflation persisted at about 10% per annum until late last year. If production is significantly increased, food inflation will likely mellow, food and fertiliser subsidies can be gradually phased and exports will get a boost while imports (especially of edible oil) will decline. Higher yield per hectare will also be more remunerative for farmers. By delaying the introduction of GM crops in India, we are ensuring that grains in overseas markets become cheaper while Indian grains/oilseeds become costly and crop diversification remains limited. Given this, the pressure to import cheaper GM food items will build up. Can we afford to de-link ourselves commercially from global trade Even Bangladesh is growing Bt brinjal. After clearing Bt cotton, the government continues to dither on other crops.

All modes of crop production have their own pros and cons. Organic crops give lesser output and are more expensive. Can they be produced in quantities massive enough to satiate hunger in India Not feasible! We have conventional crops grown in abundance with average yield levels, supported by copious use of fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides. They carry unacceptable levels of toxic chemical residues for which corrective actions are being discussed.

GM seeds provide extraordinary high yields in the acreage and water constraints, by elimination of diversion of soil/environmental energies to the control of unwanted weeds, herbs and pests. However, their seeds cannot be harvested for planting in subsequent seasons and sowing would require acquisition from seed suppliers like DuPont, Monsanto and others, every cropping season. The other objection being raised is on the grounds of what the ramifications of GM technology will be in the future and what effect it will have on the soil and ecology at large, both of which are unknown and hitherto unsubstantiated fears.

The cons of each type of seed and cropping can be exaggerated and hyped. However, the fact remains that China imports 67 million tonnes (mt) of GM soyabean from the US, Brazil and Argentina and is not complaining. In fact, 2012 was the first year in which 20 developing countries, with 90% of the small and marginal farmers, grew the majority (52%) of the total GM harvest worldwide. About 40 countries are currently using GM seeds.

The Bt technology for cotton has made India the worlds second-largest exporter of cotton (of 1-1.5 mt) in the last five years. Soyabean yield in India is about 1.09 mt/ha and we produce about 10-11 mt annually. The US/Brazil/Argentina yield is at 3 mt/ha, meaning Indias average is a third of the world average. If GM technology is used, soyabean production can rise to 30 mt which can be crushed for 5-6 mt of locally produced soy oil. Import dependency for edible oil (including palm oil) can then be compressed. With GM maize, India can advance its average yield to a minimum of the South American levels of 5 mt/ha vis-a-vis the 2.5 mt/ha now and can scale up production to 40 mt from the current level of 23 mt.

GM crops may be controversial but to dispense with research by projecting poorly-articulated future vulnerabilities and ignoring the advantages they have in the present context is not advisable. Let Indian farmers and users make their choices of process and usage, instead of having these thrust on them through administrative controls and advocacy of pressure groups.

It is time for the GEAC, the government and the courts to let testing, growth and use of GM crop happen without delay. Else, we will be perpetuating inefficient modes of food production and harming the national economy.

Tejinder Narang

The author is a grains trade analyst