A Amarender Reddy
GEAC’s Recommendation and the Promise of DMH-11
The government’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) has recommended the environmental release of transgenic Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) for testing in farmers’ field crops and seed production. If testing in the fields gives greater yield and other intended benefits and without negative implications, the mustard hybrid could be permitted for wider commercial cultivation across India.
The DMH-11 showed 30-35% higher yield than local varieties in laboratory tests. Another add-on is herbicide tolerance, which facilitates herbicide use to remove weeds from the fields instead of manual weeding, it reduces labour and costs and directly contributes to farmers’ incomes in the light of widespread labour scarcity. The DMH-11 has already passed multi-location tests. However, it still needs to cross hurdles such as the opposition from anti-GMO activists, field tests under farm conditions and clearing of apprehensions about its effect on honeybees and other pollinators.
Scientific Perspective on GMO Crops
Scientific community is arguing for the commercial release of GM-mustard by citing evidence that there are no adverse environmental impacts reported so far in any country where they are cultivating GMOs since the last 20 years. Still, if some gaps in evidence exist, they can be identified and data can be generated through controlled labs or experiments. However, stopping the opportunity to use a new technology for the farmers to increase their incomes based on unsubstantiated opinions is not good for a progressive society.
The argument that GMO crops increase herbicide use which affects the environment is not tenable. In India, herbicide use is one of the least among all countries.
The argument that with the adoption of herbicide tolerance GMO crop, use of women labour in weeding will reduce is a regressive one, as history suggests that any technology starting from the steam engine, typewriter, computers to the latest Artificial Intelligence displaces people in old employment and re-employ them in new and more remunerative employment. For example, the introduction of washing machines during the 1940s replaced domestic women workers, then after women started working in offices with more wages rather than stuck up as domestic workers. So, the argument of introduction of herbicide-tolerant varieties reduces women’s labour use is invalid.
Scientific policy-making should be solely based on valid evidence, scientific merit and adherence to rules and regulations established under the law. It should not be driven by a stand either for or against GM crops. If the procedures and regulations related to GMOs are not mature enough, then they have to be rectified so that there should not be any ambiguity. Empowering and strengthening of regulatory frameworks and agencies like GEAC can reduce the scope of hijacking of public opinion by unfounded beliefs by anyone.
The regulatory framework should not be influenced by opinions of activists who many times don’t have correct scientific understanding as these are highly technical subjects and many times beyond the understanding of the general public.
During the past 20 years, anti-GMO activists have been campaigning to halt the commercial release of GM crops on the grounds of environmental and food safety, if it continues there is a danger of halting GMO research efforts in all crops, which ultimately limit farmers opportunities to increase crop productivity and incomes by using scientific advancement. The policy paralysis on GMO crops, also halted introduction of GMO crops in several other crops, although the technology is already available in labs in crops like chickpea and pigeon pea, where there is huge potential to increase farmers in dryland and resource-poor conditions.
India has been importing nearly eight million tonnes of GM oils and consuming them for the past 15 years, but not giving opportunities for our farmers to cultivate the same. Recently, Australia has given its approval for commercial cultivation of Indian GM mustard with the sole purpose of importing it into India.
Another unfounded fear propagated by anti-GMO activists is that with GM technology, entire seed production will go into the hands of multinationals. It is not the question of who produces the seed, if private companies supply quality seed at a reasonable price when compared to public agencies, they should be welcomed and farmers will benefit. The government has to focus on seed industry regulation and development to ensure the availability of quality seed at affordable prices rather than try to be in the business of seed production.
Empowering Indian Agriculture with Technology
India has to move out of this confusing state as soon as possible and create an enabling environment for all stakeholders to move forward for testing in fields, generating and validating data to release and make available the best technology in the world to reach farmers. This is a huge task and cannot be handled without an empowered regulatory body. It requires coordination between private and public agencies and also the community.
The starting point should be the creation of a consortium of all stakeholders such as the department of agriculture, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, farmers’ organisations and private seed companies to coordinate and oversee various activities starting from increasing awareness and scientific temper, pool proof procedures and guidelines at each stage, large-scale commercialisation in mission mode. Foremost is the task of allaying the fears surrounding GM crops so that everyone can be part of this scientific advancement without any ambiguity.
Once varieties are approved for commercial release, institutional arrangements for large-scale seed production and distribution with the coexistence of private and public agencies should be the priority for wider adoption by the farmers. Over the years, India has developed a vast network of scientific institutions, seed production and distribution systems to meet any challenge of large-scale adoption of technology.
Busting myths relating to food and environmental safety of GM crops is vital for avoiding a repeat of the experience of Bt brinjal in 2009-10 and GM mustard in 2016-17 and now. In 2009, Bt brinjal was recommended by the GEAC for commercialisation, but kept under a moratorium until now due to various pressures, while in 2013, the same technology was commercialised successfully in Bangladesh. Similarly, GM mustard was also approved by the GEAC in 2016 but got stalled for similar reasons and the tussle is not yet resolved.
Indian agriculture and farmers deserve to adopt more advanced scientific products and modern technologies in agriculture to make India more export-competitive and enhance farmers’ income.
The article was first published in the Hindustan Times as Policy paralysis in GMO crops.
Read more by the author: M.S. Swaminathan: A Legacy of Food Security and Sustainability
Posted by Reet Lath, Research Intern at IMPRI.