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Bt-ing the retreat

The government may have erred in stalling Bt-Brinjal. For GM crops offer a quickfire way for India to become the bread basket of the world.

Rishi Joshi        Print Edition: March 7, 2010

In the late 1960s, when the government of the day, led by Indira Gandhi, sought to push ahead with Intensive Agricultural District Programme (IADP) that created the Green Revolution, the move was opposed by the Communists who said it would lead to a Red Revolution with countryside awash in the blood of farmers. That melodramatic vision was rooted in the IADP-advocated never-before use of fertilisers, pesticides, weed killers and water in farming and—this was the big fear—disease-resistant varieties of seeds, often the result of cross-pollination and hybrid techniques in labs and research farms.

Even discounting their penchant for histrionics, the Left parties ate crow like rarely before. IADP—better known as the programme that triggered the Green Revolution—turned out to be one of the biggest successes of modern India and even Gandhi-baiters grudge her respect for winning the country, today home to over a billion people, some semblance of a food security.

Are India's green lobbies making the same mistake today in opposing biotech, or Bt in short, food crops? On February 10, with an obvious eye on their protests and a near-frenzy whipped up by the media, India came out with a strong "no" to the commercial release of Bt-Brinjal, the first-food variety genetically tweaked in the lab. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said he took such a "precautionary approach" because of sharp divisions among Indian scientists. The decision was awaited keenly because India, already the world's top brinjal grower, would have been the first country to introduce the genetically-modified, or GM, food crop. So, was the decision, indeed, a wellconsidered one?

Justifying its decision, the government, in essence, posited two arguments: one, there was no pressing need to introduce the Bt-Brinjal (developed by Mahyco, an Indian company quarterowned by US multinational Monsanto) on Indian farms. Two, this was the first GM food seed aimed at direct consumption by humans (as different from, say, Bt-Cotton or oilseeds consumed by animals) and, hence, trials needed further validation.

On both counts, the government's logic is slightly to majorly flawed. The Mahycodeveloped Bt-Brinjal seed protects the vegetable, used in cooking from West Bengal to Punjab, against the fruit and shoot borer (FSB). The pest damages as much as 95 per cent of brinjal crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a body that counts Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science among its donors, as also respected Indian agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan as a patron.

Farmers, often struggling with harsh growing conditions such as drought or high soil salinity, make do with local varieties that are not FSB-resistant. Replacing their crop with GM varieties would potentially reduce their spending on pesticides while promising a better crop-resulting in better financial yields. Further, in denying permission to Bt-Brinjal, Ramesh is in effect admitting that the government's in-house regulatory process—run by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) that has participation from the ministries of environment, agriculture and science & technology— was flawed.

Ramesh is on record that the moratorium against Bt-Brinjal is for only six months. But it appears to a big setback for the initiatives to commercialise India's first GM food crop. The entire process could take a minimum of six years, which is the time needed to set up a biosafety laboratory by the government, if work begins immediately.

Intentions to set up such a testing laboratory in India (as also demands for GM food labelling) are legitimate. Any new technology—especially, when it has to do with food—has to be scrutinised carefully before it is allowed to enter consumer markets. But, hanging in balance is the big competitive advantage the country could harness in agriculture with a first, big move in this area (already, the country has the fourth-largest area of biotech crops in the world, going by 2008 data).

India's experience with GM cotton, for instance, could be the silver-bullet pointer that New Delhi needs to be convinced with. A decade ago, India was importing about 2.5 million bales of cotton a year; now, it's exporting about 8 million bales annually, adding some $840 million to the national farm economy. Supporters say this surge in productivity has also boosted the textile industry, while conserving natural resources, saving pesticide costs for farmers as also reducing India's carbon footprint. Take that argument forward: Global food production by 2050 will have to double to keep up with demand and GM crops could be the way forward for India to capture that market.

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