On the very day Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked farm scientists to take technology to fields to boost agricultural output, a couple of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated organisations said they had prevailed upon his Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to put on hold decisions on field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops. If so, Mr Javadekar will have committed the same mistake that the United Progressive Alliance government had committed by placing an indefinite moratorium on Bt brinjal after assessing the opinion gathered through public hearings. Fresh freeze on GM trials will jeopardise the fate of nearly two dozen GM crops, including cereals, vegetables and fruit, which have already been approved for field testing by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in its last two meetings. About 100 more such GM crops, several of which are non-hybrid varieties that do not require freshly brought seeds every year, are in various stages of development. Huge investment, besides scientific effort, that has gone into their development will go waste.
Two key objections raised by the RSS outfits, such as Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, over GM seeds are that they contain "foreign" genes and that their commercialisation would benefit multinational companies (MNCs). It is distressing that the RSS organisations are trying to influence science policy in this government, because both these pleas are unfounded. Insect-killer Bt gene, for instance, is far from "foreign" as it is derived from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, present in local soil. The notion that the GM technology is the monopoly of MNCs is also misguided, as a large number of Indian companies and public-sector farm research bodies are also engaged in GM research. In fact, by blocking field trials, the Swadeshi lobby is primarily preventing development of indigenous GM seeds, thereby perpetuating the monopoly of MNC products.
No technical advance is risk-free. GM technology could threaten the environment and health. Its effective regulation and monitoring are imperative. Yes, the present regulatory system does not inspire confidence; and it has been weakened further by shifting the final approval powers from the GEAC to the environment minister. The need, therefore, is to completely rework regulation. Sadly, the well-written Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill lapsed with the last Lok Sabha. Instead of taking an anti-science view, the government should move forward with better regulation - and the GM seeds that have already been approved for trials should be rigorously tested for potential risk, not dumped completely.