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Learn from Bt cotton

The political class will have to keep decision-making on GM crops science-based

Learn from Bt cotton
Even Bangladesh has marched ahead with Bt brinjal. More than 70 countries have accepted use of GM crops.

By Ashok Gulati & Ritika Juneja

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As soon as the government took the decision to release India’s first genetically modified (GM) food crop—Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11)—for ‘environment release’, some activists approached the Supreme Court seeking a ban on it for various reasons. The Supreme Court has ordered status quo till the next hearing, on November 17. The opposition to GM food crops is not new. There has been a global campaign by many activists. Yet, in reality, GM crops have spreading around the world since 1996. By 2019, roughly 190 million hectares were under GM crops, led by corn and soyabean in the US, Brazil, and Argentina, and canola (rapeseed/mustard) in Canada, with no harmful impact on human or animal health or environment per se (see infographics). There is ample evidence in support of that. Even Bangladesh has marched ahead with Bt brinjal. More than 70 countries have accepted use of GM crops.

We had our first GM crop, Bt cotton, released in 2002 by the Vajpayee government, who envisaged a science-led transformation of agriculture. He extended the original slogan of ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ (salutations to the soldier and salutations to the farmer), given by Lal Bahadur Shastri, to include ‘Jai Vigyan’ (salutations to science). Are there any lessons from the Bt cotton decision for the case of mustard?

Look at the results of the historic decision taken by Vajpayee. Cotton production increased remarkably, from mere 13.6 million bales (1 bale = 170 kgs) in 2002-03 to 39.8 million bales in 2013-14, registering an increase of 192% in just 12 years, ushering the famous ‘gene revolution’. Cotton productivity increased from 302 kgs per hectare in 2002-03 to 566 kg per hectare in 2013-14, an increase of 76%, while area under cotton cultivation expanded by 56%, of which about 95% is under Bt cotton. But, the gains to cotton farmers whose incomes increased significantly are perhaps more important. In fact, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that Bt cotton led Gujarat’s “agrarian miracle” of very high (above 8%) annual growth in agri-GDP during 2002-03 to 2013-14. And it made India the second-largest producer after China— and second-largest exporter after the the US—of cotton in the world today.

The success of Bt cotton holds several lessons for policymakers, but it is not free from controversies and debates. Several concerns have been expressed by NGOs, civil society groups and farmers’ groups from time to time to emphasise the risks associated with GM crops. Some of these include enhanced sucking pest damage in Bt cotton, increase in secondary pests such as mired bugs and Spodoptera, emergence of pests’ resistance, environment and health implications in terms of toxicity and allergenicity that can cause hematotoxin reactions in human body and, of course, farmers’ exposure to greater risk of monopoly in seed business. Based on largely unproven fears that unite the ideologues of the Left and the Right, the commercial release of herbicide-tolerant (Ht Bt) cotton, Bt brinjal and now GM mustard have been held up. This is despite the official clearance from the country’s bio-tech regulator Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).

This is ironical because GM products have been in our food systems for years. India heavily depends on import of edible oils (55-60% of India’s domestic requirement is imported) and a large portion—about 3-4 million tonnes every year—is already coming from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the US, etc, which is all GM (in soybean and canola). We eat plenty of our own cotton seed (binola) oil, and about 95% of our cotton is now GM. Cotton seed is also fed to cattle, and it gives the milk its fat content. Even poultry feed of GM soya and corn is being imported. So, one thing is very clear: that GM food is already in our diet, and has been there for quite some time. By not allowing GM mustard, or for that matter, even Bt brinjal, for so long, one is denying the basic right of farmers who want to increase their incomes and best way to do that is by raising productivity in a sustainable manner. And that’s where the role of science comes. The field trials of GM mustard at different locations showed 25-28% higher yield and better disease resistance compared to indigenous varieties. This can go a long way in augmenting domestic mustard oil supplies and farmers’ incomes.

It was expected that India would be at the forefront of this gene revolution and would emerge as a major export hub to other Asian and African countries. What IT revolution has done in computer science, Bt revolution could have done in agriculture. Unfortunately, our policy paralysis on GM technologies from 2003 to 2021, under pressure from activists and ideologues, has cost the farmers a lot. India is no more at the forefront. But, it is still better to be late than never, and catch up on the gene revolution. Dissent is a good sign of any democratic society as it brings checks and balances. But once the safety tests are done and the scientific body (GEAC) has given the green signal, what is needed is political leadership to keep the decision-making science based. Agriculture of tomorrow is going to be science-based, and the winners will be those who adopt it and develop it further today. Innovation is the name of the game, and ‘Jai Anusandhan’ is a good slogan given by prime minister Narendra Modi, but it will have meaning only when the government goes ahead with not just GM mustard but also fast tracks Ht Bt cotton, Bt brinjal, and even GM soya and corn.

The author is Respectively, distinguished professor, and fellow, ICRIER

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First published on: 14-11-2022 at 04:15 IST