The public discourse on genetically modified technologies is often clouded by politics, delusional activism and fear-mongering. The matters that must be decided by evidence-based science are sought to be hijacked by alarmist ideologies that manufacture fear to block the introduction of new technologies.
Such misplaced campaigns will deprive farmers of the benefits of modern scientific research. With the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) recommending commercial cultivation of genetically modified mustard, India is now on the threshold of having its first GM food crop. The final decision now rests with the government. If approved, the transgenic mustard could be a game changer for India in terms of boosting production and productivity of the oilseed and reducing dependence on import of edible oil. The GM mustard, developed by a public-funded Delhi University team, has been put through extensive safety trials. The 26-member GEAC, the top technical body, went an extra mile by putting the report of safety studies in public domain for review.
This was done keeping in view the fate of Bt brinjal, which was cleared by the GEAC in 2010 but was subsequently rejected by then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh bowing to pressure from environmental groups. In 2004, India allowed commercial cultivation of GM cotton, a non-food crop, and it now accounts for over 90% of the harvest. Its rapid adoption has helped the country move from a net importer to a large exporter. This can be replicated in oilseeds as well. Currently, over two-thirds of domestic edible oil requirement, amounting to over 14 million tonnes, is imported at an annual cost of Rs 65,000 crore. A large chunk is coming from Argentina and Brazil, which allow GM technology in soybean and canola.
It’s time science was given its fair due in policy making as the country cannot afford to miss technological revolutions because of misplaced and irrational fears. Farmers deserve the benefits of modern biotechnology to improve yields and nutritional value of food crops. The sceptics often question the safety of GM crops but it should be noted that over two decades of consumption of foods derived from transgenic seeds across the world has not led to a single case of illness. The NDA government needs to bite the bullet and take a bold decision to allow cultivation of transgenic food crops in the interests of farmers.
The challenge before the government is to take the opponents—representing the Right and Left ends of the political spectrum—on board and convince them that the GM foods are safe as they pass through a stringent regulatory process that is transparent and science-based. The fears that transgenic plants could contaminate natural habitats are found to be irrational and overblown.