A report from the August 17 edition of the American Association for the Advance of Science’s journal Science titled, “Negative Report on GM Crops Shakes Government’s Food Agenda,” revealed that an Indian high-profile parliamentary panel, only a week before, recommended that GM crop “field trails under any garb should be discontinued forthwith,” and that further GM agricultural research should “only be done under strict containment.” Moreover, in a press conference after the report’s release, the panel’s chair, Basudeb Acharia, said in no uncertain terms: “India should not go in for GM food crops.”
According to the Science article’s author, Pallava Bagla, the panel’s recommendation is being regarded by some “as the death knell of the development of genetically modified food crops in India.” Dissenting interests, such as India’s chief of crop research, Swapan Dutta, a rice geneticist and deputy director at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, responded to the report by suggesting that if implemented, the panel’s recommendations would paralyze research and threaten India’s food security, and “hope for GM research in India is lost.”
The Indian government has been sending mixed signals about its commitment to agricultural GM technology. For instance, in 2002 the government approved Bt-toxin carrying cotton as the first GM commercial crop in India. Today, there are over 1100 Bt varieties of GM cotton, accounting for 93% of all the cotton sown in India. The prime minister of India himself, Manmohan Singh, voiced his support for GM crops in a recent interview with Science (24 Feb, p. 907), stating: “In due course of time,” he said “we must make use of genetic engineering technologies to increase the productivity of our agriculture.”
But, as the Science article points out, Singh’s own ministers are not towing the party line. For instance, in 2010, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh imposed a moratorium on the commercialization of Bt brinjal, a traditional Indian eggplant, even after the ministry’s scientific advisory panel had given the GM variety approval. Moreover, GM crop researchers in India were already having problems since 2011, because state governments refused to issue certificates that allow GM crop field trials to commence. Also, in the June issue of Science, environmental minister Jayanthi Natarajan was quoted as saying: “genetically modified foods have no place in ensuring India’s food security.”
While the primary justification within Indian government for supporting GM agriculture is based on the fact that it has increased production of economically important products such as cotton, which skyrocketed from .02 million hectares in 2002 to 9.33 million hectares in 2011, the latest panel’s decision was influenced by the fact that all Bt cotton grown commercially in India is derived from technology sold by the multinational food giant Monsanto, who by owning and controlling the seeds has seriously compromised India’s food sovereignty and security.
It has been estimated that 70% of India’s 1.2 billion people are farmers who have no alternative but to buy Bt cotton seed from Monsanto. Also, Monsanto relationship to India farmers is already tenuous considering it was accused of biopiracy earlier this year by India’s National Biodiversity Authority. The panel also stated “there is a connection between Bt cotton and farmer’s suicides,” as thousands of indebted farmers in India’s cotton producing regions have committed suicide in a desperate attempt to rid themselves and their families of debt.
The next step is for government ministries to digest the panel’s report and to decide if the report’s recommendations, which carry political weight but are not mandatory, will be implemented. The Science article concluded:
“If the government doesn’t make a forceful case for GM crops, Bhan says, there may be no alternative but to “stop all use of GM crop technology till it has been totally made in India.” And if Monsanto becomes “a nuisance,” he added, “it can be kicked out.”