Ignorance and regulatory hurdles derailing promise of GM crop technology in India

  • Updated: Mar 15, 2016 16:21 IST
Can we allow unscientific reasoning to deprive a rising global population of their right to food? (HT File)

2016 is the United Nations’ Year of Pulses. It holds great importance for India, where pulses — the edible seeds of certain leguminous plants, including peas, beans and lentils — are a key, traditional source of nutrition. But many of these staple foods are going beyond the reach of many Indians due to rising prices fuelled by declining domestic production and record imports.

India has a billion mouths to feed and can ill-afford to be food-insecure. Sound public policy — especially regulatory policy — is essential.

As food productivity and nutrition have been declining in India over recent decades, the issues surrounding food security have not received sufficient attention from the Indian government. Perhaps the bureaucrats have forgotten the importance to India of the Green Revolution of the 1960s: In 1963, Indian wheat grew in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease. The maximum yield was 800 pounds (one pound=454 g) per acre. By 1968, thanks to the new varieties created by Dr Norman Borlaug — the “Father of the Green Revolution” — the wheat grew densely packed, was resistant to rust, and the maximum yield had risen to 6,000 pounds per acre.

Read | Economic Survey 2016 backs hybrid seeds in boost for GM food crops

While India’s scientific community has been working on technologies to advance domestic agriculture, policymakers have been timid and inept and have blocked the maturation of new products and technologies.

The present Indian government has focused on marketing the country as a destination of immense business potential, economic progress and prosperity. Among its many stated goals was ushering in a more business-friendly climate, which is why last December’s governmental price controls on cotton seeds — a particular setback to producers of high-quality but more expensive “genetically modified” (GM) seeds — is inexplicable. In addition, the government also intends to dictate the free-market arrangements between a technology licensor and a licensee, which is unheard of.

GM crops, which are the culmination of a centuries-old seamless continuum of techniques for the genetic improvement of crops, have been proven to be effective and have not posed any sort of novel uncertainty or problems. There is no evidence that they require any sort of special regulation.

Read | Monsanto threatens to exit India if govt imposes cuts on GM royalties

The year 2016 is also significant in commemorating two decades of introduction of GM crop technology. As of 2012, such crop varieties had been cultivated on more than 1.5 billion hectares by more than 17 million farmers in some 30 countries — without disrupting a single ecosystem or causing so much as a stomachache. Worldwide, these new varieties have provided “very significant net economic benefits at the farm level, amounting to $18.8 billion in 2012 and $116.6 billion” from 1996 to 2012, according to an analysis by economists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot.

India’s government must not deprive its citizens of such benefits.

Read | Time we gave science its fair due when it comes to GM crops

It takes 10-12 years on average to bring any new crop biotechnology from the research labs to commercialisation. With such long gestation periods, the industry cannot survive in perennial uncertainty over whether their research will eventually culminate in commercial products. India’s farmers are yearning for innovative technologies to boost their yields, provide resilience against pests, drought and other challenges, and enhance their income. However, uncertain regulatory policy and other sorts of governmental interference will not only lead to the flight of much-needed capital for research and development in agriculture, but also a brain-drain of promising and talented intellectual capital. Prolonged regulatory impasses and pandering to special interests represent a dereliction of duty.

According to government figures, India’s food import bills have been rising and unprecedented. The government needs to act responsibly, by allowing science and rational thinking to prevail in public policy. It must play an active role in setting up clear guidelines for field trials and commercial approval of new crop varieties and adhere to them. Uncertainty is anathema to research and development.

I wish India good luck in these endeavours, but I am reminded of the observation of French microbiologist Louis Pasteur that “luck favors only the prepared mind.”

Henry Miller is Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

The views expressed are personal

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