A crippling drought has prompted the Narendra Modi government to look for solutions in genetically-modified (GM) crops, a sector it has tried to restrict due to ideological differences.
Sugarcane plantations, which guzzle more water than most crops, are being blamed for the drought crisis in two big producer states, Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The government is willing to back efforts and give permission for trials in drought-tolerant GM sugarcane by the Coimbatore-based Sugarcane Breeding Institute and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research under the farm ministry, according to a letter from Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar to former agriculture minister and leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, Sharad Pawar.
India is the world’s largest consumer of sugar and also the second-biggest producer, after Brazil. Frequent droughts have forced scientists to find sustainable ways of growing it.
GM crops have been stiffly resisted in the country by civil society organisations, including those affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ruling BJP’s ideological parent, on grounds of bio-safety and market control by seed firms.
GM crops are those in which a gene has been altered for a specific outcome, such as pest-resistance.
The Modi government has no policy on shutting out GM crops, but it has focused more on traditional farming practices and has put curbs on GM options, since coming to power.
In December, the farm ministry intervened to bring down BT cotton seed prices and referred Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (India) Private Limited (MMBL) -- a 50:50 joint venture of US biotech giant Monsanto Company – for a probe into alleged monopoly. BT cotton is the only GM crop India has allowed so far.
Pawar, who is a Rajya Sabha MP, had written to Javadekar seeking speedy permissions to try out drought-tolerant cane. Pawar is the president of the Pune-based Vasantdada Sugar Institute, which is trying to acquire a gene for drought-resistant sugarcane in partnership with the state-run ICAR.
The ICAR is trying to acquire a gene originally developed by Ajinomotto Company, a Japanese firm, through an Indonesian public-sector sugarcane firm. The Indonesians have completed advanced trails of drought-resistant sugarcane and both ICAR and Pawar’s institute are collaborating to import it, said Bhagirath Choudhary, head of the South Asia Biotech Centre, which is involved in the project.
The environment minister, replying to Pawar on March 29, said the review committee on genetic manipulation – a body under the biotechnology department -- is currently evaluating the Coimbatore-based facility’s application to start work on drought-tolerant GM sugarcane.
“After approval by RCGM, the application will be recommended to the GEAC for necessary permission to conduct field trials,” Javadekar said. GEAC stands for the genetic engineering appraisal committee, the GM crops regulator.
The biotechnology department recently set up a working group to consult with states in finalising modalities for notified GM field trial sites, Javadekar wrote.