Food for thought

India’s GM debate must be fought on science alone

By Ankush Chibber

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gm crops, Genetically modified food, Genetically modified organism

India’s GM debate must be fought on science alone
India has hotly debated the use of GM crops both on a societal and political level. The discussion around the issue is at most times primal. Travel tip? You would be well advised not to use this as an ice-breaker in any of the leftist states.

As it stands today, no GM food crops are allowed in the country. Bt cotton is the only GM drop allowed in the country even as lawmakers here rejected Bt brinjal—though, as Mark Lynas also said, it would reduce insecticide applications in the field, and residues.

Lynas also said a lot more in his speech earlier this year. Yes, THAT speech.

But let’s look at another speech that did not quite get the airplay that Lynas’s did, but is still perhaps as crucial in the scheme of things. 

Speaking at the 100th Indian Science Congress in Kolkata in late January, the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, broke from the trend of keeping his silence and came out in blistering support for GM crops.

His exact words: “Complex issues, be they genetically modified food or nuclear energy or exploration of outer space, cannot be settled by faith, emotion and fear but by structured debate, analysis and enlightenment. A scientific approach and understanding of these issues are therefore as vital as our core scientific capabilities​.”

Singh was not merely echoing Lynas’ statements. He was spelling out for the first time in his two tenures his support for at least taking the first steps in evaluating GM crops, and not dismissing them by paying heed only to the fear mongering. 

He pointed to this further in the address when he said that 65% of Indians live in rural areas, and an increase in their living standards depends greatly on the growth of agricultural production and productivity.

There were some of the things to like about Singh’s speech. However, some experts contend that in one stroke, Singh has called all opposition to GM crops “unscientific​” but that would be a gross misreading of his intentions. 

In what is probably his last tenure, Singh was merely asking for the first steps to be taken towards a discussion on GM crops that is based on science and experiments. 

It also what the opposition movement to GM crops have always wanted—a discussion, But never have they asked for a debate with science at the crux of it; rather, it is political and societal consensus that has been at the centre of this demand.

Everywhere else in the world, where the GM issue has meaning, rapid strides are being made while India lags behind. Even with its reservations, China has already developed four million hectares of genetically modified crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). 

Western farmers are shedding their reticence towards GM too. According to estimates by ISAAA, year-on-year growth in biotech crops in developing countries was a formidable 11% in 2012, which was over three times that of three per cent in the developed countries. 

Countries like Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania seeded 129,071 hectares of farmland with biotech crops in 2012, up 13 per cent from the previous year. 

For now, though, the anti-GM lobby is winning in India. 

A Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee’s report in late October recommended a 10-year moratorium on field trials of Ht and Bt food crops. This was a big blow, many said, to Indian agricultural science.

Not surprisingly,  the industry, along with the Indian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the Department of Biotechnology, decided to take proceedings against the Supreme Court’s case. 

The government too came out against this decision, and the agri ministry has gone on record to implore that open field testing not be stopped.

The Supreme Court, perhaps the last vestige of common sense in a country held back by a vague and spineless administration, is now to take a decision on its own work—ostensibly to check if the committee went beyond its mandate and whether it did take into account the science used in these crops in India.

This what the anti-GM lobby needs to do. Show some common sense, come to the table, and test the science. Not continue to trade in the fears of a man (looking at you Lynas) who no longer believes in them.

Have your say: Do you agree with Ankush? Let us know in the box below.

Related topics: Policy, Food safety, South Asia

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3 comments

Denying scientific reality

Posted by Clara Thomas,

When first developed genetic engineers warned that they were not fit for consumption and should only be used for otherwise starving communities. The FDA's own scientist photographed and reported on physical abnormalities in lab animals from eating GMOs; however the U.S. population was still allowed to be guinea pigs for the biotech industry due to the self-interest protectionism within our government. Now chronic diseases are prevalent and according to an International comparison study by our Academy of Sciences we live shorter lives and are in poorer health than other wealthy peer nations. Does India really want to emulate the U.S?

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India GM

Posted by Butch Johnson,

"Opponents have never asked for a debate with science as the crux of it"? WOW@, how untrue. Opponents have been screaming for long term testing and Monsanto an others have never submitted long term tests to the FDA or EFSA. What a joke this man is? Science is what the whole debate is about, geez.

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GM Customer Choice

Posted by Faris,

I do agree with Ankush, there should be more testing of GM products, research and scientific discoveries are the lead in our modern day and should take the forefront for future genereations.

However, as long as at the end of the day the results are shared with the public and Government enforces actual non-misleading labelling of the products as "GM products" for customers to choose.

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