May 22, 2015


GM crops in India: A cautious but hopeful road towards legalisation



India is currently the fourth biggest producer of genetically-modified (GM) crops in the world, thanks to local cultivations of GM cotton which have expanded significantly over a period of time.


Although the spot positions the country just behind the US, Brazil and Argentina, Bt cotton, a product of Monsanto, is the only GM crop permitted by the country.


The official prerogative still rests with more than 20 states and territories to autonomously prohibit GM field trials, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.


Opponents against GMOs frequently emphasize the potential threat against the environment and human health. Additionally, there were concerns over the conflicts of interest among Indian regulators and inadequate measures to monitor field trials.


Indian farmers were especially worried about affected livelihoods due to the proliferation of seed technologies owned by major corporations, according to Glenn Stone, an environmental anthropologist at Washington University in Missouri, US.


Eventually, protests broke out in 2010, leading to a ban on transgenic aubergine (brinjal). Still, the government refused to budge on the legalization of GM cotton.


Later, in July 2014, Prakash Javadekar, India's environment minister, was met by unhappy representatives from outfits affiliated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist NGO, over the permission of GM field trials. Despite claims by the representatives that those trials had been suspended, the government said that no action was taken.


Deepak Sharma, the head of national media for RSS-linked Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), delivered an ultimatum to the government, demanding that all clearances of GM field trials be revoked by June 26 this year.


"If the government still decides to go ahead with it, we will protest countrywide and decide our way ahead," Sharma warned.


Supporters and opponents are, however, unanimous that better biotech regulations are needed. 


GM crops are expected to play a pivotal role in expanding India's biotechnology industry and farm productivity, based on plans by the National Democratic Alliance whose head, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, currently leads the country.


With the potential of developing higher-yield crops, GMOs could help bolster the country's agricultural production in feeding a burgeoning population. The crops are also able to resist well against pests or withstand droughts and harsh environments, Govindarajan Padmanaban, the former director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, said.


Moreover, approvals of GM crops will be considered by the ministry of environment and forests on a cautious case-to-case basis.


 "There is opposition to field trials of GM crops and that is (why) ministry has been trying to evolve consensus on the issue," an unnamed senior official said. "…it does not mean that there is a ban on clearing field trials."


Meanwhile, trials for crops, including bio-engineered rice, cotton, corn, mustard, brinjal and chickpea, were given the nod in eight Indian states closely aligned with PM Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).


India's recent warming up to GM crops will attract international attentions since implications from this receptiveness relates to the controversy of employing GMOs in developing countries, according to Dominic Glover, an agricultural socio-economist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK.


However, even as the government recognises the importance of GMOs, it has been perceived to be rather reserved in joining honest debates about the advantages and drawbacks of GMOs, in addition to details of permitted field trials.


Lately, the administration was hit by an opprobrium for freezing bank accounts belonging to the Indian branch of activist group, Greenpeace. A leaked official report stated that group's campaigning was upsetting India's development.


Also of concern are the highly discreet meetings of the country's Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), described by a retired biologist to be "shocking and absurd". The body, an element of the environment ministry, approved about 80 experimental field trials between March and July last year, but has not posted meeting details on its website recently.


Officials from the environment ministry reasoned that the move was to avoid controversy.

Video >

Follow Us