Vol – XLIX No. 30, July 26, 2014

By clearing the way for field trials of genetically-modified (GM) food crops, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Environment Ministry has inadvertently laid a political challenge before the Narendra Modi-led government in New Delhi. Will it adhere to its stated objection to GM crops mentioned in its election manifesto, or will it take another of its, by now fabled, “U-turns” and go down the path of its avowed neo-liberal economic policies where the interests of investors, particularly from overseas, take precedence over other concerns?

It is curious that the GEAC has chosen to clear the way for some 15 GM food and other crops to undergo controlled field trials. These include rice, mustard, chickpea, cotton and brinjal. The introduction of GM mustard was strongly opposed several years back and the field trials were cancelled. Bt brinjal was also cleared for trials but withdrawn in the face of objections from the Ministry of Environment and Forests based on the views of farmers at a series of public hearings around India. Despite this, and the fact that the Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments against field trials of GM crops in the absence of adequate regulatory systems, the GEAC has chosen to go ahead. In fact, the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) set up by the Supreme Court to look into this issue has recommended a moratorium on field trials because it believes the regulatory system is inadequate.

As in many other parts of the world, the advent of GM food and other crops to enhance productivity has faced entrenched opposition in India too. The opposition falls into several distinct categories. One camp argues that the technology, which involves introducing a “foreign” gene, is dangerous because once introduced, it is irreversible. In other words, once you have a GM crop, you cannot reverse the process if you find that it is causing harm. These groups have also questioned whether GM technology does, in fact, increase productivity as is claimed by the promoters of the technology. They also point out that the environmental costs might outweigh any benefits that the introduction of such a technology brings.

The other argument revolves around food security. In India, as in many other parts of the world, a few multinational corporations, principally Monsanto, have a virtual monopoly on the GM technology. If a country’s food production becomes overly dependent on seeds and other inputs from a handful of such companies, will it not compromise its food security?

The third argument is about the suitability of GM food crops for a country like India where the majority of farmers own small plots of land. To make them dependent on a technology with high initial costs, and without an assurance that it will guarantee higher yields, is placing them at a great risk. This has already been evident in the spate of farmers’ suicides witnessed in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra in the course of the last decade where farmers fell for the hard-sell of Bt cotton and got entrapped in a debilitating debt cycle due to higher costs without commensurate returns.

And the clinching argument is the absence of adequate regulatory and monitoring mechanisms to ensure that the field trials are conducted following safety protocols and that they do not infect surrounding areas. The record in this regard has been less than satisfactory in India. In fact, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture (PSCA) had called for a ban on field trials precisely for this reason. The basic norm to be followed includes ensuring that there is a 20% non-Bt refuge area around the trial area. Yet, field trials of Bt cotton demonstrated the absence of adequate monitoring of compliance of such rules.

Another important criticism of the entire process of field trials is the absence of an independent authority to assess safety and suitability as well as a liability regime that can fix responsibility for damage. The GEAC tends to rely on data from those very private companies whose products it is supposed to assess. Surely credible field trials needed to assess the safety of GM crops are not possible under these conditions. Finally, labelling and public awareness about GM crops are particularly poor and will allow private companies to mislead people.

In addition to all this, the issue has taken an interesting political turn after the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the general elections. In its election manifesto, the BJP has expressly stated its opposition to the introduction of GM food crops in India. Among the groups opposing GM crops are the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, both affiliated, like the BJP, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). How will the Modi government resolve these contradictions?

Politics apart, what is evident is that the question of introducing GM food crops in India is still open for debate on all counts – safety and suitability. In addition, the monopoly control of GM technology in the hands of a few large corporations is reason enough for concern. It is dangerous to allow the spread of GM crops before these concerns are addressed. India needs to tread warily down the GM path.