Going GM

The debate over genetically modified (GM) crops in India has crossed an important stage with the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) recommending commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal. Even after the green signal, which follows years of research, tests, analysis, and discussions, the government is cautious, and rightly so, in view of the still widely held apprehensions about the environmental, public health and other implications of GM technology. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh has said that the government would hold further discussions with scientists, agricultural experts and farmers’ and consumers’ organisations before giving final clearance for Bt brinjal. The GEAC’s approval is sure to elicit still stronger opposition from various quarters and it is for the body to make public its data, details of testing methods and its decision-making process so that the entire issue becomes transparent.

Commercial production of Bt cotton in the last seven years has belied fears about its negative impact. It has boosted production and helped farmers, who have accepted it and have no complaints about it. Most of the country’s cotton acreage is under Bt cotton now. There is need for more caution in the case of a food crop. But much of the world has accepted GM crops, both food and commercial. GM foods like brinjal, tomato and cauliflower are widely used in the US, Brazil and China. Britain has also recently accepted them, though Europe is still holding out. The green revolution of the 70s has exhausted itself and the next leap in food production has to come from the use of GM crops.
Renowned agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug was a strong advocate of using gene technology to improve crop yields. Increasing food shortages, rising prices and burgeoning populations make adoption of new technologies necessary. India has to increase productivity and output at a faster pace than other countries and therefore cannot afford to let tranformational technologies to pass it by.

The legitimate questions of those who oppose GM technology need to be answered convincingly. Some of the doubts arise from ignorance, misinformation and even vested interests. There are vested interests on the other side also, represented by multinational seed corporations. In a democracy, debate and consensus that emerge from it are important in decisions that affect the lives of people. The government should expedite the process of consultation and consensus-building and take a decision at the earliest.

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