The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee — the apex body for clearing genetically modified (GM) crops — has given the nod to the commercial release of India’s own Bt cotton: Bikaner Narma. This means Indian farmers may find the grass greener on the other side of this decade, as they bury the memories of one failed crop after another destroyed by pests. gm crops introduce a gene into plants to spell codes for a pesticide protein that helps protect them from insects. Bt cotton contains such a gene that is transferred from the bacterium Bt (bacillus thuringiensis), which lets it produce an insecticide to fight the dreaded bollworm. Thus Bt cotton dramatically improves crops while cutting down the use of pesticides that has become a grave economic and environmental threat. It uses almost 90 per cent less insecticide than non-GM cotton, which translates into that much less pesticide polluting rivers and leaving residues in the soil that kill off harmless insects.
Developed by the Central Institute for Cotton Research, the best thing about the Bikaner Narma variety of Bt cotton is that it is not a hybrid. This should enable farmers to reproduce it on their farms instead of buying fresh seeds every season as they now do for the hybrids available in the market. With this, India joins the growing number of countries — rich and poor alike — on six continents that grow genetically improved crops. Significantly, developing countries like China, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, and South Africa account for a quarter of the global area under GM crop cultivation.
Having said that, however, it is unlikely that the controversy over GM cotton crops in India would go away any time soon. As with any new technology, GM crops will probably be treated with suspicion initially. Critics voice many concerns, although they evidently have no scientific basis. For instance, the fear that pollen from GM crops could travel to neighbouring fields is unfounded. For only those plants that are right next to GM fields could possibly be affected, and even these would be fertilised only if they are compatible and flower simultaneously — tall odds by any yardstick.
It is unfortunate that green activists conjure up images of herbicide-resistant ‘Franken-crops’ and ‘superweeds’ that would have to be eradicated by even more powerful chemicals. Of course, if farmers use herbicide-tolerant crops in isolation, it might engender tolerant crops. But farmers usually rotate crops and herbicides to minimise the chances of tolerance. Let us not forget that there is enough sound science and experience backing agricultural biotechnology. In any case, critics should realise that by adopting a zero tolerance attitude towards GM, they are ridiculing the best bet for feeding India’s — and the world’s — growing population.