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A greenfield project

Andhra Govt’s advice to farmers not to allow animals to graze on Bt cotton fields reflects the confusion reigning among lay people and policymakers alike about GM crops.

india Updated: Jun 18, 2007 23:54 IST

The Andhra Pradesh government’s advice to farmers not to allow animals to graze on Bt cotton fields reflects the confusion reigning among lay people and policymakers alike about genetically modified (GM) crops. The government appears to have issued this warning after some goats and sheep grazing on Bt cotton fields were found dead in the course of the last year. Apparently, this coincided with the findings of four labs that detected traces of nitrates, nitrites and organophosphates in Bt cotton plants, prompting edgy authorities to play safe. It would be unfortunate if green activists now start drumming up “Frankencrop” fears and super-weed scares again to discourage a technology that clearly has so much potential to help hapless cotton farmers in the country.

In fact, even critics would find it difficult to dismiss the credentials of Bt cotton as one of the most successful agro-experiments in the country — borne out by the output of cotton that has more than doubled over the last five years. Bt cotton contains a transgenic gene that is transferred from the bacterium Bt (bacillus thuringiensis), which lets it produce a safe insecticide to fight the bollworm pest. It has the proven potential to improve crops, while cutting down on the use of pesticides that pose a grave economic and environmental threat. For instance, GM cotton uses almost 90 per cent less insecticide than non-GM cotton in the US, which translates into almost 90 per cent less pesticides that pollute rivers and leave residues in the soil, killing harmless insects.

Perhaps India should take a leaf from the notebook of Chinese farmers who overcame initial fears to make spectacular advances in the commercial use of Bt cotton. Their efforts prove the positive role that GM crops can play. True, the science of genetic manipulation is still Greek to the Indian farmer, and its complexity and newness does leave room for fears. But that doesn’t warrant trashing the thousands of field tests and analyses done on it and adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards a technology that could bring about a second green revolution.