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GM Crop Debate Continues

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The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests recently submitted its report on “Genetically Modified Crops and Its Impact on Environment,” under the chair of Renuka Chowdhury. The observations made in the report are not very different from the earlier report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee chaired by Basudeb Acharia. Both these reports have raised a number of questions relating to the impact on biodiversity and the environment, as well as health and socio-economic conditions of farmers, that are yet to be addressed by the regulatory bodies. According to the report, the farmers have not achieved any significant socio-economic benefits as a result of the introduction of Bt cotton. On the contrary, following the capital-intensive agricultural practice, indebtedness among farmers has increased, exposing them to greater risks. The committees have, therefore, recommended taking into consideration the long-term effects of genetically modified (GM) crops on biodiversity, health and socio-economic conditions of farmers, before introducing field trials.

As far as the positions of stakeholders of GM crops are concerned, there is no consensus among them. Most of the scientists working in government institutes, or holding positions in regulatory bodies have been supporting the use of GM technology, and want field trials for other crops approved. They are of the opinion that denying, or delaying permissions for field trials by the government is equivalent to imposing restrictions on the independent conduct of science.

On the other hand, scientists working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs), or running their own NGOs, have mobilised other civil society groups to oppose government approvals of GM crop field trials. According to them, India is not ready to conduct open field trials of GM crops. They have criticised scientists in the regulatory bodies for ignoring the threat of contamination of wild or domestic varieties of other crops by the pollen from GM crops, and have criticised the regulatory bodies for failing to evaluate health-related concerns seriously.

As far as bureaucracies and ministries in the government are concerned, they need to take a political decision on the matter. However, their decisions have been highly influenced by both lobbies. For example, when the environment ministry under Jairam Ramesh during the Congress rule was set to give consent for Bt brinjal field trials in the open environment, massive protests by the civil society groups forced the ministry to issue a temporary moratorium on field trials. However, the corporate groups formed their own pro-GM lobbies to oppose the moratorium. As a result, the Prime Minister reshuffled the ministry, and the new ministry granted approval for confined field trials of few GM crops.

After the approval from the central government, the next task for the pro-GM lobbies was to influence the decisions of the state governments in their favour. It has been observed that some states like Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh have given no-objection certificates (NOCs) for the trials, while Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have banned them altogether. Many states are yet to take a decision on the matter.

As far as political parties are concerned, their stance on GM crops keeps fluctuating depending on whether they are in the government, or in a coalition with other parties. Similar behaviour can be seen among the left political parties as well. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) coalition in Kerala has been opposing the use of GM technology in agriculture. However, a rift developed within the alliance, when a Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(>M)—politburo member S Ramachandran Pillai stated that “GM seeds could be used after ensuring that they clear all the tests and prove that they will not harm the environment and living beings.” It is significant to note that Pillai has been the national president of the All India Kisan Sabha, the party’s farmers’ wing. Immediately after Pillai’s remark, the then agriculture minister of Kerala, Mullakkara Ratnakaran, had to clarify that “there has been no evidence to show that GM crops will benefit the farm sector and their use will wipe out traditional seeds.”

One aspect common to both the supporters and critics of GM technology is that they both argue in terms of the conditions of the farmers, who are the major stakeholders in the entire issue. Therefore, reforming the regulatory bodies, and encouraging dialogue between proponents and opponents of GM crops along these lines is the need of the hour. Until this is achieved, the debate will continue.

Asheesh Navneet

Bengaluru

Updated On : 6th Oct, 2017

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