GM crops: Promises outweigh perils?

President of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh in Gujarat, Maganbhai Patel, ardently opposes cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops in India. But on his farm in Modasa (Sabarkantha), Maganbhai harvests castor, groundnut, potatoes and well, BT Cotton, too. In a long comment on why GM crops need to be avoided at all costs, he said that after a decade of BT Cotton in Gujarat, multiple reports reveal per hectare yield is falling and fertilizer costs increasing.

However, when asked why he cultivates Bt Cotton, he says: “My dear, I don’t have an option. In
Gujarat, it is difficult to get any good quality non-Bt cotton seeds.”

Approximately 97% of seven million bales of cotton produced in Gujarat are from the genetically-modified seed. This cash crop has virtually swept Gujarat’s countryside in the last decade. Going by the increase in per hectare yield of cotton and, therefore, of huge profits, Gujarat farmers with an entrepreneurial bent of mind are now keen to experiment with more GM crops. But as anyone who has even a slim understanding of the issue will agree, this is fraught with dangers.

For the uninitiated, the Union ministry of environment and forest refused to allow the harvesting of GM crops in India after an elaborate public hearing process across the country three years ago. On Saturday, the country ‘celebrated’ three years of moratorium on Bt Brinjal.

The subject has always provoked contentious debates. In recent times, GM crops have been debated as much globally as in India, following a turnaround by the European anti-GM activist, Mark Lynas, who has ‘unconditionally’ withdrawn his crusade against the controversial technology.

Besides, field trials have been stopped in the country for now following concerns about the technology raised by the Supreme Court-appointed technical experts committee. And that perhaps explains the urgency to this debate right now.

A ‘National Seminar on GM crops and Food Security – Issues and Prospects’ has been organized on February 14-15 at Gujarat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad. Further, the theme of National Science Day on February 28 this year is ‘GM Crops and Food Security – Issues and Prospects’.

The government is confused, scientist are divided, the anti-GM lobby is gaining traction amid the chaos, and seed marketing companies are getting desperate.
The international media is abuzz with debates, and true enough, this has trickled down to Gujarat as well. In a way, Gujarat has been the laboratory of GM crops in India, with the apparent runaway success of Bt Cotton mentioned earlier. If the fears related to genetically-modified food have any basis, Gujarat will be among the first states to be severely affected.Over and above the proliferation of Bt Cotton in our food chain through cattle feed and cottonseed oil, reports of multiple field trials of GM Maize, Brinjal and unconfirmed reports on GM Rice have come in.
Anand Agriculture University conducted field trials of Maize in 2011-12 and Brinjal 2009-10. Activists claim more field trials could have taken place “clandestinely directly with the farmer.” Without scientific monitoring and regulation, open field trials pose the danger of contaminating the surrounding fields and damaging the local ecology.

There is a very vocal section of activists who doubt the technology and actively campaign against it. Three years ago, they tasted victory in the moratorium on Bt Brinjal and, along with it, other GM crops as well. Their argument is that the technology claims to address the problem of low productivity but raises serious concerns about the technology’s long-term impact on human health, sustainability, ecology and environment.

Director of Center for Environment Education Kartikeya Sarabhai rues the fact that in India the debate about GM food is going back to the basics of productivity after reaching a certain level of maturity during the Bt Brinjal consultation process. “It has come back to productivity but that is not the only concern. There is tremendous pressure to restart this debate and I would wish the debate includes bio-safety, environment and ecological vulnerability, long term cost-benefit analysis, farmers’ independence and dependence on multi-national companies for GM seeds,” he said. CEE was the central monitoring authority for organizing public hearings across the country led by the then MoEF, Jairam Ramesh.

A very proactive anti-GM crusader in Gujarat, Kapil Shah of Vadodara-based Jatan Trust, claims the whole argument that people will go hungry if GM crops do not come to the rescue of human kind, is extremely exaggerated.

“The problem basically is of wastage, storage and distribution of farm produce. Every day we hear cases of tons of food grains going waste because of hoarding by big corporate houses with the help of politicians. Food scarcity is an artificially created phenomenon. 85% of GM maize goes for industrial use. According to data in the public domain, 12% people in United States faced food insecurity before GM crops were introduced; after GM, 15% people face food insecurity,” he said.

Seed marketing companies and pro-GM crusaders like Lynas quote ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ to defend their position. However, Shah instantly picks a hole in this argument claiming,“We want to believe science, but a close scrutiny invariably reveals they have been compromised. We are open to science, but it fails to reassure us that it is an unbiased independent opinion,” he says.

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