The debate over genetically modified food crops unfortunately remains limited to two small groups: environmentalists and agricultural scientists. Yet, there are few things of greater import to the future of food security in India. Early versions of genetic modification led to two ‘green revolutions’ in the 1970s and 1980s and a four-fold increase in grain production in India. The gains from those years are now fading. Global population growth again began outpacing food production in 1990. The consequences are evident in today’s sporadic grain shortages and steeply rising food prices. A third green revolution has become a matter of urgency. Gene transfer technology, or ‘GM’, is widely seen as the best of the existing options. Not only has it delivered further productivity increases, but it also holds out the promise of solving a host of agricultural problems including drought, salinity, pests and climate change. There is now voluminous evidence that wherever GM technology has been granted to farmers it has proven a winner.
Developing countries are big beneficiaries: the third largest GM crop grower in the world is Brazil and the country taking over the GM cotton seed market is China. Bitterly opposed when it was introduced seven years ago, genetically modified Bt cotton has been a runaway success in India. It has generated $3.2 billion in economic benefits much of which has gone to poor and marginal farmers who now constitute 80 per cent of Bt cotton acreage. On Wednesday, the government’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee gave environmental clearance to Bt brinjal opening the doors for its commercialisation. The committee strictly adhered to existing regulatory requirements regarding transparency and safety while making its decision.
Bt brinjal has been tested repeatedly since 2002 and an approval to grow seeds is still many steps away from the dinner plate. The Indian government now needs to be cautious of ideologically-driven opponents who have become adept at using regulatory red tape and scare tactics to delay almost every new farm technology. As the father of the green revolution, the late Norman Borlaug, once noted, if his life-saving technologies had faced the kind of strictures GM faces today, “they would never have become available”.