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GM: Food for the future

Genetically modified farming is about India's scientific future, not its current fear

india Updated: Jan 22, 2006 23:40 IST

The three great science and technology narratives in India are from atomic science, information technology and biotechnology. As a survey of science and society by Shiv Visvanathan and Chandrika Parmar (EPW, July 2002) argues, biotechnology, associated most with genetically modified (GM) agriculture, "is an imagination...not yet...domesticated by social discourse". What this means is that we haven't come to a broad conclusion about biotech. Atomic science and IT are now part of national consciousness - as achievements. The jury is out on GM farming.

That is a good thing, as this study by HT Research argues. The politics of fear is perhaps the strongest when it comes to GM food. From riotous Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha activists - they destroyed a KFC outlet in Bangalore in 1996 - to intellectuals in rarefied forums, there's no shortage of people giving GM a bad name. That social discourse still hasn't domesticated GM farming as evil means India can yet reap the benefits of transgenic crops we will sow.

The science of GM (see main graphic) is as old as human civilisation and as new as the shiny laboratories being set up with venture capital funds. Wild wheat was crossed with goat grass in 8000 BC. The result was a hybrid called emmer, which was crossed with another natural goat grass. That produced the bread wheat. GM farming draws from this millennia-old tradition of breeding and hybridisation. The important difference is that it allows more control and precision.

Where traditional plant breeding involved crossing of thousands of genes, GM technology allows the transfer of a few genes or just one desirable gene. This can be used to produce plan varieties that fight pests better, or offer better nutrition - oil seeds with lower saturated fat content. Perhaps, most important, in the context of India, GM farming can increase yield.

Experts say GM farming, at its best, can triple yield. As the first section of this study shows, agricultural productivity in India is showing negative growth. Per capita food availability is declining. We are perhaps at the beginning of a farm output crisis, even as farm politics ensures that stocks rot in FCI godowns.

GM farming is one of the most important solutions and the scare stories about Bt Cotton, the only officially permitted GM crop in India, are not reasons to stop exploring the option. We argue that in the second section, which makes the important point that area under Bt Cotton cultivation grew 400 per cent last year.

But if GM is good, why are so many people against it? Some fears are masquerades for self-interest -Europeans who subsidise non-GM farming and produce food-mountains do not want a new science to threaten their cozy arrangement.

Many other critiques are confused. They use the dominance of MNCs in GM research to question the science. But what prevents India from developing its own GM resources? We need not be like the British. Britain produced the pioneers of genetic science - remember Crick and the double helix - but it is now an antagonist of GM farming.

The British are afraid of "Frankenfood". The Indian government, as the last section of this study argues, stands accused of Franken-administration. The monster of government secrecy helps swing the debate for anti-GM lobbyists. The risks must be understood and rectified. For that, information needs to flow freely. Once that happens, the narrative about GM farming will be domesticated in India - as another achievement.