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Biotech's step back

Short-sighted view holds up GM crops

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

The recommendation by the parliamentary committee on agriculture that field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops be stopped is both a retrograde and short-sighted move. It seeks to end the application of biotechnology for the good of agriculture and, in the longer run, even the industrial and medical sectors. Regardless of the validity of its criticism of existing GM crop testing infrastructure and procedures, the panel’s report – presented to Parliament last week – oddly suggests that there have been no significant socio-economic benefits from transgenic Bt cotton to farmers, and that there are better non-GM options available for enhancing food production. There is, in fact, strong evidence of the gains accruing to farmers thanks to the cotton revolution triggered by transgenic seeds. The committee’s charge that the Bt hybrids have curtailed the farmers’ option to use non-Bt seeds, too, sounds far-fetched. After all, farmers themselves have found merit in the use of insect-protected Bt hybrids and switched over from traditional seeds en masse. There is no way the biotech industry could force its costly seeds on unwilling farmers. The availability of conventional seeds has dwindled largely in response to the erosion of their demand.

Censure of GM technology in such categorical terms by a parliamentary panel has obviously pleased the vocal anti-GM lobby, but has left the scientific community and the biotechnology industry exasperated. Huge investments, both public and private, have gone into the creation of biotechnological research and development (R&D) infrastructure in past several years. Many investors are reportedly thinking of shifting their research base elsewhere.

The losers? Indian farmers. Cultivators in the US, China and many other countries have for some time been benefiting from GM technology without impairing the environment or human and animal health. India already has a late start. Now, the parliamentary committee’s suggestions will only push it further behind. This when its resource-poor farmers are in even greater need of tailor-made crops equipped with genes that can help them withstand stressful agro-climatic conditions – including those caused by climate change – which would also ensure good returns with minimum cash inputs. Of course, such gene-altered crops, such as those carrying alien genes like Bt (borrowed from the soil bacteria Bacillus Thuringiensis) must be carefully checked and analysed. The parliamentary panel correctly suggests that a scientifically competent and adequately empowered autonomous system be instituted for hazard-evaluation, approval, regulation and monitoring of GM crops. The existing system, including the toothless Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), is too ill-equipped for this task. Ironically, the panel’s comments might only delay the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, which would put exactly such an authority in place. The well-drafted Bill, which creates considerable regulatory capacity and independence, has been pending for far too long. Instead of grandstanding on the problems with Bt crops in response to activist lobbying, parliamentarians would do well to engage with the BRAI Bill, and amend it as necessary.

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First Published: Wed, August 22 2012. 00:24 IST