Freedom to choose

Topics GM products

Farmers have revived their agitation in support of revocation of moratorium on approval of genetically modified (GM) crops at a time when the process of structural reforms in the farm sector is already underway. In fact, the underlying objectives of this agitation and the reforms seem quite similar. While the reforms, carried out through Ordinances, are meant to allow farmers greater freedom in selling their produce, the pro-GM stir seeks similar liberty in choosing crop seeds and innovative technologies. 

As a pressure tactic, the farmers plan to sow unapproved GM seeds in the current kharif season, like they did last year, defying the official warning against it. The gene-altered seeds of crops, such as cotton, maize, soybean and brinjal, which have been denied formal approval even after going through the requisite field trials, were distributed to farmers in a well-publicised event in Akola (Maharashtra) last week for this purpose. This movement, spearheaded by the Shetkari Sanghatana, a technology-savvy farmers’ organisation of Maharashtra, seems to have the support of farmers in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and some other states. Interestingly, these farmers propose to put up boards in their fields proclaiming the use of unapproved GM seeds — an act that can entail five years in prison and a fine of Rs 1 lakh.  

Many useful gene-tweaked hybrids of various crops, evolved in the private and public sectors with huge investment, are awaiting the environment ministry’s nod even after getting formal clearance from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). Prominent among these are herbicide tolerant Bt-cotton (HTBt-cotton), Bt-brinjal (India’s first GM food crop) and DMH-11 mustard (capable of ramping up yield by 30 to 35 per cent). Some of these seeds have since been released for cultivation in other countries, including Bangladesh, and are thriving there. Prohibition of new GM crops in India has deprived local consumers of several bio-fortified food products evolved through gene manipulation. Genetic engineering is a powerful technology that has varied applications in the agriculture, bioindustry and pharmaceutical sectors. The ill-advised bar on approval of new GM products, imposed by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2010 under pressure from environment activists, has thwarted its gainful use in all these sectors, though agriculture has been affected the most. This decision, notably, was taken disregarding the viewpoint of agricultural scientists, including Nobel laureates, and scientific bodies. It also overlooked the fact that nearly a dozen GM crops have been cultivated and consumed in numerous countries for decades without any verifiable adverse fallout.

Environmental and health implications of the new GM products are examined thoroughly by the GEAC before clearing them. India has gained immensely from transgenic Bt-cotton, the only GM crop allowed so far. The country has transformed from a net importer to a major exporter of this natural fibre. The ban on approval of new variants of Bt-cotton to replace the aged and worn-out ones has jeopardised the fate of this revolution. It has also prevented plant breeders from evolving tailor-made strains of other crops to combat drought, weeds, pests and diseases. Thus, it is time for the government to heed the farmers’ plea and revisit its GM policy. The decision in this regard needs to be guided by scientific opinion rather than the perceived, but largely unsubstantiated, hazards of GM products.

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