The Indian government has announced this week that they won’t be allowing field trials of Bt Brinjal, a Genetically Modified (GM) variant.
Biotechnology experts believe that this decision signals a big blow to the prospects of GM crop use in India, at least for the foreseeable future and have expressed grave concern for the advancement of crop technology in India.
Could this be India’s first major misstep in its stellar agricultural history that has boomed since the 1980s? It appears so, and the implications of this move may even hurt India’s food security.
The Resistance to GM Crops in India
India’s resistance to GM crops has been well known across the world. Bt cotton is the only GM crop currently grown in India and the government has made it clear that the Bt cotton variety has no negative impact on environment or health.
However, the government’s plans to introduce other GM varieties have been opposed by radical environmental groups and international anti-GMO lobbyists like Vandana Shiva.
The blockade of GM Mustard variety is a classic example. The GM Mustard (DMH-11), which can increase crop yields by 25–30 percent, was a variant developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) of the Indian Government.
Despite clearances from scientists (Biosafety Research Level BRL-1 tests between 2011 and 2013, and BRL-2 tests in 2014-15), the anti-GMO activists were successful in blocking the commercial use of GM Mustard.
The stance of anti-GMO activists is not necessarily reflective of the farmers in the country. Multiple reports have emerged of Farmers taking keen interest in using the GM variants. So much so that they are growing it illegally in some states. Among those grown illegally is the Bt Brinjal variant (GM eggplant).
Speaking on the benefits of the Bt brinjal, a farmer said, “I mostly grow capsicum and brinjal on my six-acre land. Every alternate day, I have to spray pesticides worth Rupees 2,000 to Rupees 3,000 on my crops… It would have been a blessing if the commercial sale of Bt brinjal had been approved.”
Facing growing demands for the Bt Brinjal variety, and after the safety approval from the top scientists in the country, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)–India’s regulatory body for GM crop use–allowed for field trials of two GM Brinjal varieties between 2020 and 2023 in eight Indian states.
However, the decision was quickly opposed by numerous groups, including political bodies and even some farmer bodies. After years of pressure from activists and far-right elements, the government has finally decided to stop the scheduled field trial of Bt Brinjal in the fields.
This is a major blow to the country which has championed agricultural innovation and productivity in the past four decades.
Forgetting the Roots and Making the Future Uncertain
It was the genetically edited crop varieties of Norman Borlaug that set this 4 decade-long green revolution into motion.
Prior to the introduction of Genetically edited Borlaug varieties (of rice, wheat and other crops), India faced famine and severe food shortages. Today it is the global leader in food production.
The GM crops are much more efficient than the Genetically edited varieties, with higher precision in gene modification, helping bring out the best characteristics in a crop.
GM crops yield higher, are resistant to diseases, withstand adverse weather, and require significantly less use of pesticides. Yet, unfortunately, anti-scientific elements have hijacked the GM entry into Indian agriculture.
For a country like India, with 1.3 billion people, it is extremely important to safeguard its food security. Besides, it is also important to make sure that farmers benefit from the time and energy they put in.
With GM crops, it has been proven that the benefits are higher for the farmers. For a nation that is embroiled in farmer unrest, the decision to ban GM crop varieties will only worsen it.
Experts Weigh In, Ask India to Reverse Decision on Ban
Dr. CS Prakash, professor of plant genetics, biotechnology and genomics at Tuskegee University, has expressed his concerns over India’s recent ban.
Rated as “100 Top Living Contributors to Biotechnology”, Dr. Prakash has served on the USDA’s Agricultural Biotechnology Advisory Committee and the Advisory Committee for the Department of Biotechnology for the government of India. He believes that the ban is a major error.
“India’s ban on field trials of GM crops is a reckless decision by the minister. It takes away a valuable scientific tool from Indian scientists that could potentially boost our farm production, cut down pesticide & fertilizer usage and develop climate-resilient crops. There is no scientific evidence of harm from the use of this tech. In fact, it has an absolute safety record. I hope the Indian scientific community would react strongly against the decision. I hope sense, reason and science will prevail and the honorable prime minister will override this decision,” said Dr. Prakash.
What is even more surprising is that India’s decision to halt GM crop trials stands in stark contrast to that of its neighbors. China and Bangladesh, for example, have approved the commercial cultivation of the GM golden rice (Provitamin A Biofortified Rice Event GR2E), a rice variety that is rich in Vitamin A. It is to be noted that both these countries have approved other GM crops as well.
Indian government’s decision to halt field-trial of Bt brinjal after its own go-ahead earlier , and in spite of safety assurance from expert lab tests, is a baffling one. It appears the decision to halt trials has been taken out of pressure from activists and not because of scientific reasons.
If India wishes to continue on its path of being a global agricultural superpower, it has to embrace GM crops at one point or another. Else, it might have to be content to see other countries sail past and might even be forced into a situation where its food security is compromised.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is a Research Contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and resides in India.