Only four states in India have allowed field trials of GM crops
The moment you say GM food, you see a phalanx of activists lining up to shoot down any discussion on allowing it in India. But many scientists and some ecologists point to the benefits available from adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops. Several of them are now getting heard, their voices rising above the din.
One such is that of wildlife conservationist and tiger specialist Ullas Karanth. He says that GM is a tool to save natural biodiversity, although there should be adequate check on large corporations that own the technology so that public interest is not compromised.
The Bangalore-based author of The Way of the Tiger, and director of the India programme of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society disagrees with Krishna Byre Gowda, Karnataka's minister for agriculture.
Gowda had said in February at Bangalore India Bio, the 15th edition of the annual talk show of the Indian biotechnology industry, that GM technology is controversial. And that because of the stand taken by the European Union "it has become difficult for us". He also said there was "so much pressure from the left and the right", and that "a responsible government cannot ignore the opinion of larger society".
Why Byre Gowda should give precedence to decisions by the European Union above 29 countries, including 19 developing ones, which grow GM crops on 181.5 million hectares of land, some of them for 19 years, is not clear.
"I find it very strange that GM is being criticised although all the national academies of science, including the one in Europe, have basically endorsed GM," says Karanth.
He says just because a number of people oppose GM technology, decision makers do not have to "balance science versus nonsense".
Karanth, the son of litterateur Shivram Karanth, believes that agriculture as now practised, with its heavy use of pesticides, is biodiversity-destroying like industrialisation, mining and land-grabbing wind and solar energy farms. GM technology, he says, can save the biodiversity by making crops much more productive, better able to absorb nitrogen, tolerant to saline soils, low in water use and toxic to specific pests.
Prior to the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002, the only GM crop India allowed for cultivation, the country used 9,400 tonnes of insecticides for bollworm pest control a year. In 2011, only 222 tonnes was used, says K.R. Kranthi, Director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research. Sucking pests however have thrived. But the 42-time reduction in use of use of pesticides against bollworms has to be weighed against the 2.5-fold increase in toxins to kill sucking pests, Kranti says.
The country has also become a net exporter of the produce from being a net importer before BT cotton was grown.
"I think society has to move in the direction of reason and weighted science not just because people say things. What is the evidence behind it? That is how we can achieve progress. Whether it is in agriculture technology or science," says Karanth.
Only four states in India have allowed field trials of GM crops. At the centre, Minister for Environment Prakash Javadekar is said to be in favour of GM crops. He told parliament that the government would give approvals "case-by-case".
But with the sowing season approaching, the crop biotech industry is worried it will face another wasted year as the apex Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which makes recommendations for cultivation of GM crops by farmers, has not met in a long time.
Madappa Mahadevappa, a well-known agricultural scientist and two times vice chancellor of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, has urged the Karnataka government to allow field trials of GM crops.
The state's expert group on agricultural biotechnology, of which Mahadevappa was the chairman, had in its report (submitted last June and now being deliberated by various ministries) advised the setting up of empowered committees at the state and district levels to engage in public outreach in order to allay apprehensions about GM crops and coordinate research.
Mahadevappa is known for award-winning work in rice breeding and the very popular KRH-2 rice hybrid. He is also chairman of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra committee. KVKs impart vocational training to farmers and extension workers. "No KVK member has ever said we do not want GM crops," Mahadevappa asserts.
Karanth sees a parallel in GM in the shifting scientific positions on climate change. Initially it was met with scepticism but over time as evidence built up, scientists changed their stances. ˜There is always a dichotomy in science. Nobody agrees at the first point. But gradually scientific consensus builds up and then it becomes mainstream knowledge," he says.
(Vivian Fernandes is consulting editor of www.smartindianagriculture.in, a website supported by the crop biotechnology industry. The views expressed are personal.He can be contacted at [email protected]