Dated: August 17, 2012
Title: Negative Report on GM Crops Shakes Government’s Food Agenda
By: Pallava Bagla
Vol. 337 no. 6096 p. 789
India : Negative Report on GM Crops Shakes Government’s Food Agenda
NEW DELHI—Sounding what some regard as the death knell for the development of genetically modified food crops in India, a high-profile parliamentary panel here last week recommended that GM crop “field trials under any garb should be discontinued forthwith,” and that agricultural GM research should “only be done under strict containment.” In a press conference after the report’s release, the panel’s chair, Basudeb Acharia, was unequivocal: “India should not go in for GM food crops.”
If implemented, the report’s recommendations would paralyze research and erode India’s food security, warns India’s chief of crop research, Swapan Dutta, a rice geneticist and deputy director general here at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. “It would be better if India should end all research on GM crops if the country can’t embrace it,” he says. The government must take a stand on “whether it seeks to embrace or shun biotechnology,” adds vaccine specialist Maharaj Kishan Bhan, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology here. If it comes down in favor of a ban, he says, hope for GM research in India is lost.
Decisiveness won’t be easy, considering that the federal government has been sending mixed signals about its commitment to agricultural GM technology. In 2002, the government gave a green light to the first commercial GM crop in India: cotton carrying the gene for the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, which is toxic to some insects. Today more than 1100 Bt varieties account for 93% of all cotton sown in India; production has skyrocketed from 0.02 million hectares in 2002 to 9.33 million hectares in 2011. In February, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated his support of GM crops in an interview with Science (24 February, p. 907). “In due course of time,” he said, “we must make use of genetic engineering technologies to increase the productivity of our agriculture.”
But some of Singh’s own ministers haven’t been toeing that line. In 2010, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh put an indefinite moratorium on commercialization of Bt brinjal, a kind of eggplant, after the ministry’s scientific advisory panel had given the GM variety a thumbsup. Then in June, environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan told Science that “genetically modified foods have no place in ensuring India’s food security.”
The panel came down squarely on the side of GM skeptics. Chaired by Acharia, a member of parliament representing the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the 31-member panel labored for 2 years on its 492-page report. It blasted GM crops in part on economic grounds, observing that “the experience of the last decade has conclusively shown that while it has extensively benefited the industry, as far as the lot of poor farmers is concerned, even trickle down is not visible.”
GM crop researchers in India were under considerable duress well before the report came out. Since 2011, state governments have refused to issue certificates that would allow GM crop field trials to commence. As a result of this de facto ban, “virtually no new proposals come to us to fund research on GM crops,” says Bhan, whose department has funded work on 30 kinds of GM crops, from rice to rubber. “Today the pipeline has almost dried up,” he says.
The Acharia panel assailed India’s notable GM success, Bt cotton. It pointed out that all Bt cotton grown commercially in India is derived from technology sold by the multinational food giant Monsanto and incorporated in Indian seed varieties. “It is the fear of multinational control of food security that usually leads to a negative approach on recombinant DNA technology,” says agriculture scientist M. S. Swaminathan, chair of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai.
The panel notes that 70% of India’s 1.2 billion people are farmers, who mostly have “no alternative but to buy Bt cotton seed” because the yields are higher. In the last few years, thousands of heavily indebted farmers in India’s cotton-growing regions have committed suicide. In one of its more contentious statements, the panel asserted that “there is a connection between Bt cotton and farmers’ suicides.”
In a statement to Science, Monsanto noted that India has reaped big benefits from Bt cotton: “India has seen a cotton revolution with farmers doubling cotton production using better seeds and technologies along with improved farming practices and other agri inputs.” The company did not address the issue of farmer suicide. Taking more direct aim at the panel, N. Seetharama, executive director of the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises-Agricultural Group in Bangalore, said that “the partial and one-sided arguments put forth in the public domain could harm the national interest.”
Ministries now must digest the report and later explain to the panel whether and how they plan to implement the report’s recommendations, which carry political weight but are not mandatory. If the government doesn’t make a forceful case for GM crops, Bhan says, there may be no alternative but to “stop all use of GM crop technology till it has been totally made in India.” And if Monsanto becomes “a nuisance,” he added, “it can be kicked out.”