The most important success for genetic modification (GM) crop technology in India is Bt cotton. The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) affects most common insect pests that attack cotton (and some vegetables, notably brinjal, 98 per cent of which is pest-affected) but is harmless for most other living organisms. Cotton all over the world is extremely susceptible to pests. Farmers have traditionally used chemical pesticides to kill pests. The trouble is, most pests become immune to these chemicals soon and ever more deadly pesticides costing more and more are required in increasing quantities. These also have substantial ill-effects on other flora and fauna, including human beings. So the Bt genetic code was successfully introduced into cotton seeds, which has saved yields and costs for the farmers. Hence its popularity among farmers. Hence also the scorched earth policies of chemical manufacturers in opposing GM!
Even Jairam Ramesh, the former environment minister who placed a 10-year moratorium on testing of GM crops based largely on his own personal soundings, rightly remarked that Bt cotton has brought about a structural transformation of our cotton economy over the last decade. These new seeds, together with irrigation water (mainly from thousands of local check dams in Gujarat), have resulted in a phenomenal increase in production and farm incomes. India is now second only to China in cotton production. There are some new modifications of Bt that do well even under dry conditions. These have helped Vidarbha partly overcome the crisis in the last two or three years. All these changes need to be thoroughly analysed for their implications of support in the form of seed supply, extension advice, marketing arrangements, etc, if this trend is to be stabilised and spread to other areas.
But that is only a small part of what transgenic engineering can do. The doyen of Indian agricultural scientists, M S Swaminathan, who helped usher in the green revolution four decades ago, says that it would be possible to improve salinity tolerance of plants, enhance their ability to withstand moisture and temperature stress caused by climatic aberrations (increasingly likely in these days of global warming), improve their ability to deliver micro-nutrients to animals and people that use them as food, among other desirable outcomes. These results do not necessarily require evolving hybrids, but are not achievable through conventional breeding methods either. This is where recombinant DNA technology is handy. Markers can help deliver the desired code at the precise position in the gene sequence. “Golden rice”, which is fortified with vitamin A, and GM wheat are already being grown experimentally in China and Australia, respectively.
One major criticism of the GM scenario is that farmers would most likely have to buy fresh seeds each time. Companies like Monsanto have not helped their cause by trying to promote what they call Terminator seeds, which are sterile. They have also exercised patent rights to prohibit outside reproduction of their intellectual property, which they claim has cost them a bomb.
But not all GM seeds need be bought, in theory. So far, the effort is focused on hybrids. Most hybrids, GM or otherwise, are either sterile, or their reproductive capacity severely tapers off after the first-generation progeny, to practically negligible by the third generation. Dr Swaminathan now emphatically pleads the cause of non-hybrid seeds, which the farmers can replicate and store.
That said, it is also true that if farmers see a sufficiently large tangible benefit, they gladly pay the price for it. Hybrid tomato seeds cost upward of a few thousand rupees per hectare, 10 or more times higher than the traditional ones (which the farmer can himself grow and keep). The yields are 12-15 tonnes for traditional seeds and 35+ tonnes for hybrids, bringing in additional revenue of at least Rs 75,000 per hectare through hybrids. So the farmer happily forks out the money for the hybrid seeds each time he takes a tomato crop! The same is the case of other hybrid seeds. When Dharwad University was to release a new hybrid cotton variety in the 1980s, farmers lined up three days in advance, and some even paid as much as Rs 5 per seed in the ensuing black market.
GM seeds and crops, like any biological material, must be comprehensively tested in laboratories, farms and in consumption for several seasons before their general release. The process followed is not very different from that used by the US Food and Drug Administration for drugs, and is as fraught or safe (take your pick) as that for drugs. Despite this, the hue and cry about the GM technology is the loudest in countries where increasing numbers of people have no qualms about ever newer drugs and medical procedures that aim at providing cures for cancer or Alzheimer’s or even more hard-to-treat conditions. Why is it all right for humans to accept parts of pig livers, or bone marrow cells from others or stem cells, but not so to breed a plant with beneficial qualities such as pest resistance, salinity tolerance or ability to withstand extreme climatic conditions through gene technology?
The battle for sustained nutritional security for the entire world cannot be won by a single weapon. We need a whole arsenal of arms. Above all, we need something even more scarce and precious: the good sense to realise the worth and limitations of the tools, leading to their optimal use, and not blind dogmatism.
The last word on GM belongs to Dr Swaminathan, whom Dr Norman Borlaug had singled out for specific mention in his Nobel acceptance speech. Dr Swaminathan said in the first Verghese Kurien Memorial oration on November 27, 2012: “Can we take advantage of the beneficial aspects of the recombinant DNA technology by greater investment in public good research, as for example in the breeding of crop varieties whose seeds farmers can keep and resow, rather than concentrate only on hybrids whose seeds farmers have to buy every crop season? How can we develop institutional structure which can help allay the apprehensions of the public? The sooner we address the issues, the greater will be the opportunity for harnessing molecular genetics for sustainable food security.”
The writer taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand