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Looking afresh at GM Crops: The wait has been long enough

Monika Koul & Ashok Bhatnagar

While the advantages of genetically modified (GM) crops have been widely studied, the Indian agricultural community has been slow to accept and adopt them. In this opinion piece, Monika Koul and Ashok Bhatnagar examine the issues that are holding back widespread usage of this promising technology, and the potential benefits that it might offer farmers. 

GM Crop Featured
Bt-cotton was introduced in India in 2002

India’s innovation ecosystem has gained a major boost in the last few years. The country is doing well in defence, navigation, nuclear energy, aviation, and space sectors. We have made remarkable progress through well-integrated and self-reliant indigenous research programs and institute-industry collaborations in various fields such as medicine, pharmacy, and drug-designing. Research in astronomy, physics, weather and climate science, and defence technology is making headlines in newspapers and is a topic of discussion in news chatrooms. However, the progress in the rural sector, especially the farming sector, has been slow.

The Economic Survey Report, 2019 suggests that the growth in agriculture and allied sectors has almost stagnated with an average increase of just under 3% in the last six years. Earnings of farmers have halved between 2016 – 17 and 2018 – 19 and non-farm wage growth has also fallen by around 4%. The contribution of agriculture to GDP has gradually come down to 15% in 2018 from 21.6% in 2001 (World Bank Data).

As per conservative estimates, pests cause annual crop losses worth more than Rs 60 thousand crores. Farmers, their families, and labour are exposed to heavy doses of pesticides and reports of cancer keep pouring in from the countryside. In fact, chromosomal aberrations have also been observed in the agricultural workers exposed to pesticides. Malnutrition among children and women are also burning issues that need immediate attention. Pesticides have also caused immense, largely undocumented harm to beneficial fauna such as bees, butterflies, birds, and bats, that pollinate plants. Microbes that fertilize the farm soil are also a casualty to pesticides, depriving crop roots of symbiotic interactions and efficient nutrient uptake. 

Climate change, erratic weather conditions, and pollution are other issues that farmers have to confront daily. Until recently, 300 districts were already under drought and there had been deficits in rainfall, despite average monsoons in the past few years. The cost of production of seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers and other farm equipment is constantly increasing. Farmers are not getting returns proportional to the costs incurred in production, sometimes forcing them to resort to suicide. Despite serious attempts made by the government in the past few years in terms of hybrid seed production, escalated MSPs (minimum support price), rural employment schemes, direct fund transfers, subsidies and loan waivers, farmers feel marginalized. 

A wide gap between rural and urban income is a cause of concern and needs to be bridged with urgency. Technological interventions including mechanized farming equipment and quality seeds that can guarantee better yield seem to be promising options and more interventions are required in this direction.

Innovations in agriculture can address the problems of food insecurity and malnutrition across the world. Golden rice with Vitamin A, Flavr Savr tomatoes with increased shelf life, Bt Corn and Bt Soy with increased pest resistance, have really added value to these crops including an increase in crop productivity and robustness to evade stress. Transgenic crops are an integral part of the Indian government’s plans (Technology Vision 2035) to boost farm productivity and for pushing investment and growth in the biotechnology sector. 

For creating transgenic crops, genes of interest that offer better yield or resistance to biotic and abiotic factors, are taken from related or unrelated organisms and inserted through recombinant DNA technology in the crop plants. Interestingly, while we are still resisting GM technology, newer developments in genome technology with higher potential, such as gene editing, have emerged. 

In India, scientists have been working for the last two decades to develop transgenic crops. A huge amount of public exchequer has been spent on research and development by agricultural institutions, industry, and academia. Genetically modified Bt cotton which has a gene from bacteria for resistance against bollworm was cleared for commercial cultivation in 2002 after 19 years of research. Bt cotton cultivation resulted in an increase in yield, better crop performance, good quality seed fibre and reduction in pesticide spraying and consequent cost savings by farmers. 

Eggplant and mustard are two more crops in waiting for approvals for commercial cultivation in India due to opposition from a section of the population. Time and again, the opponents raise issues such as gene contamination, allergenicity and toxicity associated with these crops, though there is no scientific evidence to support the claim. 

For example, GM Brinjal, a transgenic crop ready for release, was put under a moratorium. Brinjal fruits are attacked by shoot and fruit borers that reduce their productivity drastically, and the farmer uses a huge quantity of pesticides to produce the acceptable brinjal fruit without a worm inside. As a result, the good-looking brinjals that the consumer buys have unacceptable levels of pesticide residues. By contrast, the CRY gene introduced in the Bt Brinjal through transgenic technology has been shown to be safe.

Mustard is used all over the country as an oilseed, condiment, spice and vegetable crop and its oilseed cake is used as a livestock meal. Genetically modified mustard Dhara, which was developed after years of rigorous research, works both in laboratories and the field. The variety was approved by Genetically Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in May 2017 and the recommendation was to allow farmers to plant Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11). GM mustard has gone to GEAC twice for approval and no toxicity effects have been observed, as was alleged by opponents of this technology. But it is yet to reach farmers and their fields.

It is in the public interest, especially the farmers’ interest, that approvals are accelerated for GM crops that have gone through the three-tiered regulatory procedures. After passing through the modalities laid down by the Institutional Biosafety Committees and then assessed by the Research Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) in DBT, RCGM recommended these crops for approval to Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in MOEFC (Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change) for large-scale field trials. Checks for toxicity and allergenicity are carried out in specialized national laboratories and data suggests that these crops cannot cause any adverse consequence on either the biota or the environment. 

A meta-analysis of research papers comparing the economic performance of GM crops to their conventional counterparts revealed that about 80% of the studies conducted showed economic benefits of GM crops in terms of higher yield and pest resistance, including better prices for farmers’ produce. This robust analysis acts as evidence to increase public trust in this technology and helps in getting wider public acceptance.

Between the years 1996 and 2016, farm incomes have increased by 186.1 billion US dollars all over the world and 49% of these gains have gone to farmers in developed countries while 51% has gone to farmers in developing countries. 

If there are unjustified risks in adopting a particular technology, there can be substantial losses in rejecting it based on imaginary fears. Here, academia should come forward and help in guiding public perception and building confidence in the appropriate processes and products of GM technology. Academia can also play a role in innovating to stay on top of the competitive market. The conventional pipeline approach must make way for new technology to arrive without further delay, in order to improve food and nutritional security and livelihood of farmers. There should be provisions in the law to punish not only those who damage the environment but also others who oppose developmental pursuits without any technical or scientific basis. We should learn from our experiences; the wait for computer technology pushed us back 10 years in economic terms when there were protests against the then-government for bringing in computers in the service sector, out of the mistaken fear that computers would take away jobs.

GM crops and innovations to advance food and agriculture for better livelihoods is the way forward to realize DREAM 2022 so that farmers are benefitted, and the country is also able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set by United Nations by 2030. We must understand that no amount of economic support alone can replace the benefits of technology infusion in agriculture. The continued deterrence of GM technology can have serious negative consequences. For GM technology, it is now or never. How long should our farmers wait?