It is crunch time for India’s hope of growing genetically modified food crops. Will it succumb to a European-style backlash against the technology, or open the door to varieties supporters say are vital in a nation grappling with malnutrition, how to feed a rapidly growing population, and climate upheaval?
Waiting in the wings for final clearance is genetically modified mustard, developed by scientists at the University of Delhi and reported to improve yields by 25 per cent. It would cut India’s reliance on costly edible oil imports. It uses proven technology: the same three genes used to engineer the new crop are already in GM rapeseed oil in Canada, US and Australia.
On 5 October, the deadline for public feedback ended. India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) released its biosafety review in September, finding no “measurable risk, for sustained use of the technology”. It did, however, recommend monitoring the impact on honeybees.
But battle lines have been hardening between biotechnologists and environmentalists, farmers’ lobbies, and extreme right-wing organisations that support Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Will the government, yet to make a final decision, stick to its mantra about the power of technology to boost the nation?
India has been here once before. The GEAC cleared a GM eggplant in 2009, but the following year environment minister Jairam Ramesh imposed a “two-year moratorium'” – which has continued since – after public consultations, and opposition from environmentalists and farmers. He conceded that decisions on GM crops are political.
Another hurdle awaits – India’s Supreme Court is hearing a case filed by activist Aruna Rodrigues, seeking a ban on all GM crops. The head of a special technical committee appointed by the court to look into the issue, eminent molecular biologist Pushpa Bhargava, strongly opposes GM crops.
To make his point he even cites a heavily disputed European study that claimed GM crops caused cancer in rodents. But Bhargava’s main argument is that the GEAC has not released primary data on the new mustard, or indicated whether detailed protein and gene transcription analyses exist to support its conclusions.
Part of the backlash may be the result of failing to make data public before clearance of the first GM crop in India – Monsanto’s Bt cotton – and over-hyping the technology’s potential. The bollworm pest, for example, eventually developed resistance to first-generation GM cotton grown in India since 2002, and farmers found they still had to apply pesticides for other pests.
While the bulk of the science supporting GM food crops is not contentious, the argument that this technology will be a panacea for India’s malnutrition problems is. To say that this can be solved with, say, iron or vitamin A-fortified GM crops is doubtful. India’s surplus grains rot in containers, while government-subsidised food distribution and nutrition programmes have failed to reach those who desperately need them.
Hypnotised by the “emerging economic and technological superpower” image, governments have sought techno-fixes that may not really get to the root of the issues at hand.
Yes, the GM mustard verdict matters as a test of evidence over misinformed objections and India’s fledgling efforts to gain public trust by ensuring greater transparency. As an effective fix for its endemic problems, it is much less important.