Biotechnology to feed India, natural farming to starve India

The government continues to shackle the agriculture sector and impoverish farmers. What Sharad Joshi said years ago about agriculture still holds: “the central and the most essential fact about Indian agriculture is that it suffers from either the caprices of nature or, when the nature is benign, by the tyranny of governmental interventions”.

Mr Joshi was not talking just about APMCs, the Essential Commodities Act and the abolition of the Fundamental Right to property. He was also alluding to the moratorium on farmers’ access to genetically modified (GM) crops.

Consider edible oils. India imports 13.1 million tonnes of edible oils annually at a cost of Rs.1.17 lakh crores because the Modi government does not allow high-productivity GM soyabean and canola seeds in India, even as it pays rich country farmers to use these technologies for India’s consumption. Even GM mustard, which was developed in India and approved by India’s regulator in 2017, is banned.

The bogey of GM food safety was busted a long time ago, including by the Modi government. On 19 July 2019 in response to Lok Sabha question 4441 in the Lok Sabha, BJP’s Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Shri Babul Supriyo, said: “There is no scientific evidence to prove that GM crops are unsafe”.

Farmers would themselves never want to feed their children unsafe food, but when developed country food regulators and in India have declared GM crops to be safe, then bio-safety concerns are merely a figment of the imagination. Trillions of GM-based meals have been consumed by animals and humans across the world for three decades without a single adverse event. Indians consume vast amounts of GM-based edible oils without any harm – and not just imported. India consumes over 1 million tonnes each year of cottonseed oil made from GM-based cotton, grown in India since 2002.

Biotechnology has been advancing at a breakneck speed. Today the full sequencing of the human genome costs a mere $600. Scientists can edit DNA using the low-cost CRISPR technology discovered in 2012. But India’s world-class biotechnologists feel disrespected in their own country – their work is treated with suspicion.

Bt brinjal was developed in India and approved by India’s regulator (GEAC) in 2009 after tests that lasted nine years but arrogant Congress minister Jairam Ramesh over-ruled India’s scientists and in 2010 imposed a moratorium on all GM crops – that the Modi government has not yet lifted. In the meantime, Bt brinjal was approved by Bangladesh in 2014 and by the Philippines in 2021 and has been consumed in vast quantities in Bangladesh without the slightest adverse effect.

Why does India even bother to teach biotechnology if it insists on rejecting the research of its biotechnologists? Vajpayee had coined the slogan: “Jai Vigyan” but Mr Modi has gone off on a completely opposite tangent. He wants to reverse the Green Revolution itself – he wants farmers to go “natural” and stop using fertilisers and pesticides. Everyone knows that Mr Modi’s knowledge of history is limited to mythology, but could someone please tell him that in the 1950s and 1960s “organic” India averted famine only because of massive PL480 foodgrain imports from the USA? And even he might have heard by now how badly the 2021 mandatory organic farming policy of Sri Lanka has backfired.

Without the Norman Borlaug Green Revolution package of high-yield seeds, artificial fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation, India will starve. In 2003, Borlaug said: “We better develop an ever-improved science and technology, including the new biotechnology, to produce the food that’s needed for the world today”. He warned against kooky ideas like organic farming: “We are 6.6 billion people now. We can only feed 4 billion [with organic]. I don’t see 2 billion volunteers to disappear [i.e. to choose to die]”.

The adverse impacts of India’s GM moratorium are being exacerbated by other restrictive policies. In 2021 SEBI banned futures trading in soyabean at a time when global prices were rising, causing huge losses to soyabean farmers. Thousands of farmers are now wondering: why would they grow oilseeds if SEBI will step in the moment farmers have any chance of getting a good market price? It seems farmers are only allowed low prices: “Heads I win, tails you lose”.

GM technology is very old and well-established by now. It was discovered in 1973 and the first GM crop was approved by the USA Food and Drug Administration in 1992. To date, 538 genetically modified organisms including foodcrops have been approved globally by various regulators. By 2016, 12% of global cropland (around 185 million hectares) grew GM crops, with GM soyabean occupying half the space. Herbicide tolerant crops constitute 88% of the total GM acreage.

GM crops have been developed for a wide range of improved properties such as insect resistance, altered fatty acid composition; faster maturation; reduced water use; ornamental modifications; extended shelf life, improved photosynthesis, improved biosequestration capability, improved nutritional value; toxin reduction, stress resistance and many others. For instance, Golden Rice, already approved by four nations, holds the promise of vastly reducing blindness in India and saving millions of lives. But does the Indian government even want to know about such things?

It is a basic principle of public policy that a government must not intervene where there is no proven harm. With biosafety concerns well out of the way, the government should move rapidly towards a light-handed co-regulatory model for biotechnology and allow farmers and consumers to benefit.

On 17 February 2022, Anil Ghanwat had launched the Feed India civil disobedience movement in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra with a detailed paper published on the rationale of the movement. The farmers now plan to hold a Feed India Feast in which the brinjal plants that were planted will be harvested and consumed at a public event as a celebration of modern biotechnology.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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