In 2002 – India commercialised the genetically modified Bt Cotton which contains up to 200 toxins to fight pests, insects, parasites and herbicides and consequently grew into the world’s largest producer of cotton. 95% of all India’s cotton is of the genetically modified seed variety.
The sheer success of this scientific revolution would usher in a new green revolution one would presume, but between 2002 and 2021, Bt Cotton continues to be the only variant granted commercial approval by India’s apex body on GM seeds – GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee), while countries around the world harvest genetically modified tomato, soybean, maize, papaya, brinjal and more.
An overwhelming amount of scientific evidence points towards the productive role GM seeds can play in alleviating hunger. The same amount of a GM crop could contain twice the amount of nutrients – rice can be (has been) modified to include higher volumes of Vitamin A to target malnutrition. From boosting nutritional value, virus resistance, increased shelf-life to lasting longer in granaries, GMO seeds can create a better market for farmers. So, why the hold-up?
The Bt Brinjal Angle
The only other crop that came close to commercialisation post-Bt-Cotton was Bt Brinjal. Like cotton, it would also self-resist pests, insects etc. But the deregulation on Bt Brinjal was suspended (not indefinitely) in 2010. This came after protests from non-governmental organisations, affiliated farmers and non-GMO activists on the effects of GMOs on consumers. While scientific evidence continues to support the positives of GMOs – religious beliefs, ideologies and political angling are blocking the second farming revolution.
Do note, however, that India continues to import produce of GM seeds from countries like Bangladesh where they are farm-approved – completely shattering any argument against the safety of GM foods.
The parliamentary standing committee on agriculture tabled a report in 2012 which stated that “GM crops are just not the right solution for our country”. Among several questions raised on the effectiveness of GM seeds, the report stated that Bt Cotton had in fact not improved the socio-economic conditions of cotton farmers and perhaps deteriorated them.
After well-documented reports from several independent bodies on the millions of cotton farmers who have reported many consecutive successful yields and the overall increase in production and export of cotton – there seems to be a major lapse between policymakers, scientists and farmers.
Despite the proven effectiveness of GM seeds, they are not an end-all solution to India’s food insecurity. There are also legal loopholes that can be exploited by large seed corporations like Monsanto and any guidelines on GMOs will require iron-clad policy-making.
Even though India lacks crop research infrastructure – field-trials and tests on new seed variants and efforts to deregulate must continue at the same time as the government works to establish strong infrastructure and basic guidelines for bio-safety protocols and update them as we go.
In 2013, the much-needed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha. The intention was to create a separate authority to regulate the testing, production, distribution, selling, marketing and manufacturing of GM seeds. More importantly, the single-window track would speed up the process for transgenic crop deregulation. The bill lapsed in the Lok Sabha and is yet to be discussed in a significant manner.
If by 2050, the world has to produce 70% more than we did in 2013 (UN, FAO) then GM crops might be the single most efficient, scientific means of achieving the target.
- GEAC, Framework document, https://geacindia.gov.in/resource-documents/13_2-Regulatory_Framework_for_GE_Plants_in_India.pdf
- Shukla, Al-Busaidi, Trivedi, Tiwaria, Status of research, regulations and challenges for genetically modified crops in India https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6343535/
- Sood, Ishaan, RGNUL Student Research Review (RSRR): https://www.rsrr.in/2021/01/24/gm-crops-regulations-in-india-vis-a-vis-the-farm-laws/
- Genetically Modified Crops and Regulations in India https://www.clearias.com/genetically-modified-crops-and-regulations-in-india/
- Biswas, The Indian Express, GM seeds: the debate, and a sowing agitation: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/gm-seeds-the-debate-and-a-sowing-agitation-6452999/
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.