India’s journey from a food deficient and famine-affected country towards self-sufficiency and further to become one of the top net producers and exporters in the world has been remarkable. However, the average yield per hectare is much less in India compared to the US, Europe, and China, and has a great potential to improve on this front, considering the favourable conditions like tropical climate, varieties of soils, different geographical regions, etc. While our food production surged up, the average farmer in India remained poor.
Among the many solutions that address both productivity and farmers’ incomes, Genetically Modified (GM) crops technology is a prominent one. GM crop technology comes with a multitude of benefits. For instance, Bt cotton, which is currently the only GM crop that is legal in India, has increased farmers’ income and has also improved the yields, making India one of the largest exporters of cotton in the world. It has also reduced the amount of pesticides used, thus reducing the input costs as well as making a positive impact on the environment.
However, GM crop technology is also mired in multiple controversies. The recent incidents of Kisan Satyagraha by Shetkari Sanghatana in Akola, Maharashtra and the uprooting of Bt Brinjal planted by a Haryana farmer bring out the need to understand if these concerns are based on scientific evidence or unfounded assumptions and fears.
One of the foremost fears about GM crops is their impact on the health and well-being. Anti-GMO activists claim that GM crops cause diseases like diabetes, heart attack, cancer, etc. However, a group of Indian scientists came together in this article in Current Science Journal to present various perspectives of GM crop technology and they emphasize that there has been no conclusive evidence of any harmful effects on health. GM crops have been in use in countries like Canada and the US for many years now, and there has been no such evidence so far relating GM crops to any particular disease. In India, almost 90 percent of cotton is of GM variety, and these GM cotton seeds are also fed to the cows. Till date, there have been no incidents of negative impact of GM crops on cows or of such cow’s milk on humans. A recent study published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal about the health effects of feeding GM crops to livestock corroborates the same.
Another reservation about GM crops comes from the fact that most of the GM crops are produced and sold by a few big multinational companies like Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont, etc. which currently have almost a monopoly on GM technology. Hence, the popular narrative associates GM technology to these companies instead of assessing the benefits of the technology independently. This is the reason for the wide belief that the farmers who demand access to the GM technology are considered being ‘misled’ or ‘cheated’, whereas the truth is that they are well aware of what they are asking for.
The effects of GM crops on the environment is one more major concern. Agriculture itself is proven to be one of the chief sources of greenhouse gases and hence is one of the reasons for global warming. But the environmental activists are not suggesting that we should stop cultivating crops totally, are they? Neither are they arguing against water subsidy, which is one of the main reasons for reducing underground water levels. Ironically, Bt Brinjal and GM Mustard crops, in spite of being cleared by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for no harmful effects on the environment, are banned in the country based on their protests. Unfortunately, the campaign to support GM crops by 129 Nobel Laureates could not be as persuasive as the fear psychosis led by the anti-GM activists.
That said, the author is not suggesting that everyone should now welcome GM crops with open arms and ignore all their doubts. The concerns about uncertainties in future are understandable. But imposing blanket moratoriums based on protests take away a huge opportunity to solve the future food security problems on a global scale while hampering any further technological innovations. We need to arrive at plausible solutions like rigorous and transparent methods of testing the technology, labeling of GM products to ensure consumer awareness and a healthy debate based on reports published by institutions like the US National Academy of Sciences, African Academy of Sciences and Indian National Science Academy.
What we need today is the independence of farmers to choose which technology serves them the best in improving their yields and income, independence of consumers to make an informed choice of an agricultural product and independence of institutions and agritech companies to carry out research and trials in a regulated manner.