Sunday, May 15, 2016

Why Block the Useful Science?

By Vinod Varshney
India’s policy-making is overwhelmed by those who have mastered the art of blocking benefits of science reaching to farmers. Sounds preposterous, but it is true, especially in the field of genetically modified crops, which hold the promise of revolutionising Indian agriculture. But these are not being allowed to move from lab to land on ideological grounds. The arguments in opposition are sometimes facetious, like these are meant to benefit only MNCs, who have monopoly over the technology and intend to bring vast Indian agriculture under their control for their own profit to the bewilderment of Indian farmers. Using scientific jargon, they also allege that it might lead to uncontrolled genetic pollution in other varieties and consumption of genetically modified foods might also be harmful to human health. They ignore that genetically modified crops are being grown in so many countries, developing and developed both, cutting down input cost, improving yield and quality of the food. While they raise spectre of damage to health, they pass over the fact that we import such foods and millions of Indians eat them in the country as well as abroad without any harm.  

India witnessed the first wave of protest in the early 2000 when Bt Cotton was to be released. NGOs succeeded in influencing public discourse on this issue and misguided the entire nation. It is worth remembering how Bt Cotton was finally allowed. Before it could be released for commercial production in an open, legitimate and transparent manner, eager farmers had started growing Bt cotton on their own illegally earning huge gains. When news broke out to the shock of the regulator that the banned variety was being grown, and farmers were happy doing so, the NDA government had no option but to allow it in 2002. The result is for all to see. This has led to substantial increase in cotton production, benefitting millions of farmers.

But the gumption to oppose this useful science hasn’t lost its vigour. Recall Manmohan Singh government which put an indefinite ban on the genetically modified brinjal in 2010 despite all the environmental safety data had been put in public domain in deference to the SC verdict and the GEAC, which regulates this technology, had cleared it for commercial release.

Contrary to the Indian approach, Bangladesh proceeded on the rational track. Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute which was only a few years behind India, finally developed its own fruit-and-shoot-borer resistant indigenous brinjal varieties. The government there released them for commercial cultivation after due scientific trials. Yes, plenty of opposition was mounted by international NGOs and their offshoots within the country, but the hollowness of their protest is now exposed by the success of Bt Brinjal on the farm. Pakistan, Myanmar, Philippines and Vietnam have also chosen to adopt this path. But Indian system is not prepared to learn anything and continues to oppose the marvel of this foreign gene insertion technology.

The latest example is GM mustard, which is a herbicide resistant variety and holds promise of increasing yield by 30 percent. The cost of seed would also be lower. The proposal for its commercial planting had first been rejected as long back as 2002. Strong protests with nationalistic overtones erupted all around ballyhooing that an American company, holder of the patent was being allowed to profit from the Indian farming. But this time round, the GM mustard has been developed by Dr Deepak Paintal of the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University.

Issues of safety were raised despite the same technology being used in respect of Canola in Canada where it is being grown since 1995 and in the US since 2002. Environmental safety has been proved by various trials in India, yet the technology remains on hold.
(The article was first published in the Indian monthly magazine Lokayat )

My previous article on this issue:


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