Agriculture can prosper with continued R and D, not moratoriums

In the early and mid-nineties, as the Indian economy was grappling with the implications of liberalisation, a group of industrialists who felt threatened by the forces of globalisation sought a five–year ‘moratorium’ on the liberalisation process.

It was clearly a protectionist move to enable them to keep competitive forces at bay and retain their hold on the Indian consumer with their long-outdated products. The basis of their arguments was that it would give them a chance for a level playing field against global companies which had huge capital resources.

Fortunately public opinion asserted itself and the government rejected the idea of a moratorium. Some of that public opinion was led by industrialists like Ratan Tata who, far from seeking protection, insisted that Tata companies seek to be globally competitive. The benefits of that far-sightedness and vision are evident today when words like ‘Indian MNC’ and ‘Global Indian’ are part of our conversation – and with great pride.

Public memory is indeed short. Twenty years after liberalisation of the Indian economy, another equally harmful moratorium is being sought. Reports suggest that a technical experts committee of five persons appointed by the Supreme Court has recommended a ten-year moratorium on field trials of all genetically modified crops used for human consumption. This comes at a time when the world is looking at agriculture not just for food, feed and fibre but also for fuels like gasohol.

India and the world have moved a long way since the Green Revolution of the mid 1960s and ’70s. Agriculture need no more be a poor man’s inherited occupation, dependent entirely on age-old inputs and unpredictability of the rain gods.

At its best, it is now an occupation based on scientific and precision inputs. These make agriculture more predictable and manageable and give farmers more control over their acre, and their destiny. For instance, farmers are no longer dependent on saved seed from traditional varieties of crops and the uncertainties of saved seed. More than a decade ago they moved to buying fresh hybrid seeds year on year because they have realised the vigour of hybrid seed and improved farm practices in increasing yields.

With agriculture biotechnology, farmers in the world have moved several steps forward. They now access the latest scientific technologies in the seeds they sow. There are seeds that have built in protection against harmful insects. Other seeds protect the plant against herbicides and weedicides, enabling the farmer to efficiently get rid of weeds while spraying herbicides which retain a healthy crop. Yet other seeds enable crops to grow with less water, a boon in these times of climate change, erratic weather and scarce irrigation.

Stalling progress

It is this kind of progress that the technical experts committee set up by the Supreme Court seeks to stall by asking for a ten-year moratorium on research field trials of new crop technologies.

A fear of the unknown – that is what these suggestions of moratoriums really boil down to. The industrialists who sought a moratorium against liberalisation were really trying to head off an uncertain future. Those opposed to FDI in retail have resorted to similar tactics. There were similar attempts to delay the nuclear deal with the US. In all three situations – liberalisation in 1991, the nuclear deal signed with the US in 2006, and now in taking a decision on FDI in retail, the government led by Manmohan Singh has shown that moratoriums are not the answer. Decisive action and regulation is.

The year Bt cotton was approved, the BJP-led ruling coalition brought the technology to farmers, and several states – whether BJP or Congress-led, have farmed the benefits, catapulting millions of farmers, the nation, and domestic seed and textile industry forward.

Singh’s government will therefore need to get involved and resist the suggestion for yet another moratorium in introducing in plant biotechnology in Indian agriculture. Reforms in agriculture – farm credit, the dismantling of agriculture produce marketing committees, setting up of weather-proof granaries and cold chains -- have been delayed long enough.

Now, when these are sought to be remedied, brakes are sought to be put through a so-called ‘moratorium’ on scientific technology that is being used with great advantage in 60 countries around the world for planting or import purposes. Just like in other sectors, the regulatory environment in agriculture needs to keep pace with innovation and provide the checks and balances.

The recommended way forward is continuing research and adapting technologies for Indian conditions. Farmers in India should be given the freedom to choose, and an evolving regulatory mechanism to keep pace with technology and farmer progress must be put in place. We need to keep faith that the Supreme Court will surely listen to reason and sound science and reach a considered decision.

The answer to fears about new science is to study ‘best in class practices’ around the world and replicate them here, both for private companies and government research labs.
Fears must be balanced by the realisation of what our nation, our farmers, our domestic industry, would be losing if we took a retrograde step like a ten-year technology research moratorium.

(The writer is an internationally known scientist in the field of agronomy and plant genetics, and currently an adjunct professor at University of California, Davis)

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