Time for an informed debate on GM trials

Updated: Aug 4 2014, 06:29am hrs
As India asserts its position globally, it must develop and use the best technologies for the benefit of Indian farmers for long-term agriculture sustainability. GM technology is safe, effective and widely used by more than 18 million farmers around the world while global biotech crop plantings mark 18 years of continued growth. In that context, the opposition to GM is not justified.

A written biotech policy of the government of India, drafted by a committee headed by MS Swaminathan ten years ago, clearly supports the use of GM technology in all crops including food crops. The only exception made was basmati rice. There was no other ban on the use of this technology in the policy document. Since 2010, there is a wide gap between the policy and the implementation, which has caused uncertainty in technology deployment and investments, and has put further scientific work in jeopardy.

The government spends thousands of crores of rupees every year including ongoing work in public institutions on GM technology. If the policy and the government investments are pointing to one direction and the implementation is pointing to another, what message are we giving to the researchers, investors, corporates and even biotech students who are pursuing this technology There is a complete demoralisation in the ranks of all these sections of society. If we are we talking about scrapping genetic modification or applying biotechnology in agriculture, then it would be death knell for education, research and commerce in this field, which goes contrary to our biotech policy.

This is also in contradiction to what Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned in his recent speech to agricultural scientists on the occasion of the 86th foundation day of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), where he stressed on the need to disseminate technologies to farmers in a simple manner and make per drop, more crop. Quoting Modi, We have to find ways to produce more on less land and in less time without any quality erosion.

There are many technological traits available in the GM space which could be of great use to India in the coming years in its effort to fight drought, salinity, high fertiliser subsidy, improving agricultural productivity and so on. The country is going to face serious shortage of pulses and oilseeds in the next 10-15 years as we try to meet the changing food habits of our increasing population.

We are also going to see a serious shortage of farm labour, which will demand technologies that can work with less labour force. The humongous amount of water we use for cultivating transplanted paddy, just to use water as a weed management mechanism, will shortly become a luxury that we cannot afford. We need to find different ways of cultivating paddy and using other technologies to control weeds, while using the water to grow other crops. There is need for a serious debate on the entire crop portfolio of the country, the priority crops for GM technology interventions, the priority GM traits which will be essential for the country and the areas where GM technology will not be necessary or will not be allowed.

Denigrating the countrys premier institutions cant achieve anyones ulterior motives. It is the facts which matter, and not whims and fancies of organisations. Institutions such as the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Union agriculture ministry, and the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister have endorsed the need for deployment of GM technology in the country. Scientific assessment should be done by scientists and scientific bodies set up by the government.

A farmer leader or any scientist supporting GM technology cannot be labelled as an agent of multinational corporates. With globalisation, most of the corporates have direct or indirect operations in other countries. Why is this labelling as an agent of multinationals happening only in agriculture and not in other sectors

The environmental impact of GM technology is well documented by a series of studies by Brookes and Barfoot of the UK and has brought out enormous benefits derived by 14.4 million small and resource poor farmers, a 9% reduction in pesticide consumption and various other benefits. In the past year, Brazil and China have approved the worlds latest biotechnologieseither for cultivation or for food/feed purposes or both. Farmers in the US and Sub-Saharan Africa will access drought tolerant corn seeds in the next 12 months while farmers in India who faced a drought last year have no sight of when, if ever, they will have these choices.

Often we hear about multinationals taking over Indian agriculture which is used more to scare the general public rather than to present a logical point. There is no policy restriction on multinationals having their business in seeds and biotechnology in India. When a multinational licenses its gene to a local seed company, the global firm gives the gene only once through the donor seed and hence there is no continuous dependence. Five different Bt technologies are approved in cotton in India including one from Monsanto, two from Indian companies, one from China and one from the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR). The market share of the gene depends on various factors including its efficacy in the field. It is driven by market forces. Bt is made available in both hybrids and open pollinated varieties (OPV) of cotton in India.

Let us clarify that the Bt cotton seed or, for that matter, any seed (except some vegetable seeds) is not imported but produced in India. In fact, 100% of the Bt cotton seed is produced in India by the Indian seed growers. And 95% of the Bt cotton seed is produced by small and medium sized Indian seed companies. The rest of the 5% is produced by multinationals in the country.

This is a technology generating employment, rural livelihoods, agricultural production and large-scale economic benefit to Indians in India. A misconceptionany technology provider does charge a royalty as is the case in any industry, whether it is IT or pharmaceuticals or GM technology. The ultimate test is in the market and the customer decides what price he needs to pay for a particular product.

Considerable research has taken place in public institutions. Out of the total regulatory pipeline of nine crops and more than 50 events, more than 50% are from public institutions. If we want to encourage the Indian public sector in this field, as is done in China, we should provide them with the right support to deregulate their products and bring them into the market.

About future traits and crops, we need to formulate suitable policies if we are worried that there could be exploitative and monopolistic practices. The best way to counter it is to encourage competition in the market.

Finally, let us look at the issue of our regulatory system. According to the central governments affidavit in the Supreme Court in the current case between Aruna Rodrigues and the government of India, The UoI firmly believes that the present system of regulating field trials and safeguards employed for conduct of such trials are science based, robust and comparable to international best practices. Moreover, improvement in regulatory system is a dynamic process based on the advances in science. UoI is committed to continuously follow up and update regulatory oversight based on the scientific advancement but without halting the research and development in the country It is very clear that improving the regulatory mechanism is a continuous process because of the continuous research that goes on in the area of technology development. Our current regulatory system is at par with the best in the world.

As an industry committed to democratic value, we always welcome contrarian opinions. However, obstructionist policies, protests and agitations, and destroying GM field trials are not exactly the way of bringing well-informed counter-opinion to the table. It is now time for a multi-stakeholder dialogue under the auspices of the government. It is time to create a common goal for all of us, i.e. how do we feed our 150 crore population by 2030

If the last four years stalemate on the GM technology development continues, it will be a dark future for the seed and crop biotech industry and the Indian farmer. We were expecting a change in the situation with the new government. We are still hopeful that the government will take into account all aspects of the issue before taking a final decision.

By Ram Kaundinya

The author is chairman of the Association of Biotech Led Enterprises-Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), an industry body representing agri biotech companies.