Source – Business Standard (India)
By Surinder Sud
Date – 25 Feb 2013
Website – www.business-standard.com
We must learn from other developing nations adopting biotech crops
While developing countries across the globe have fast-tracked the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops – outstripping industrialised nations – India, ironically, is dragging its feet, disregarding the admirable success of transgenic Bt cotton. With field trials of new GM crops having been put on hold, cotton is likely to remain the only gene-altered crop to be grown in India in the near future. Elsewhere, as many as 25 tailor-made gene-manipulated crops have already got regulatory approvals for commercialisation in different countries, including the developing ones.
Twenty of the 28 countries that grow gene-altered crops are developing countries. Besides, 31 others are said to have granted permission for food and feed uses of biotechnology products, thus bringing the total number of countries dealing with such products to 59.
According to estimates by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit organisation of public and private sector biotech industry, in its 2012 report, developing countries accounted for 52 per cent of the world’s total area planted under GM crops. More importantly, the year-on-year growth in biotech crops in the developing countries was a formidable 11 per cent in 2012, which was over three times that of three per cent in the developed countries. Nearly 46 per cent of the world’s biotech crop area is in five major developing countries – China, India, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa – which abound in small farms and are home to 40 per cent of the global population.
What India should take special note of is that though Europe has been known to nurture the gravest scepticism about the gene-manipulated crops and products, at least five members of the European Union (EU) have shed this cynicism and begun promoting biotech crop farming. Spain, Portugal, Czech, Slovakia and Romania seeded 129,071 hectares of farm land with biotech crops in 2012, up 13 per cent from the previous year. Spain has largest area under Bt maize, a dual purpose food and feed crop, in Europe.
On future prospects of biotech crops, ISAAA seems cautiously optimistic, pitching for modest annual gains over the already high rate of adoption in both the developing and industrial countries. Drought-tolerant maize and sugarcane, disease (late blight)-resistant potato and vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice are among those crops that may get approval for cultivation in several countries in the next few years.
It is indeed a pity that India would be deprived of such nutritious and pest- and disease-immune GM crops just for fear of misplaced adverse reaction from environmentalists and anti-GM lobbyists. The sane voices from farm scientists, and even some senior government functionaries, including Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, are drowned out by lobbyists’ outcries. What needs to be realised is that the Bt genes (derived from soil bacteriaBacillus thuringiensis) are already in the human food chain since the launch of Bt cotton in 2002-03 – through cottonseed, a key livestock feed – but has caused no substantiated health hazard among animals or human beings.
This apart, a few other developments at the global and domestic level, too, necessitate a review of India’s GM policies. At the international level, noted environmentalist Mark Lynas, who led a fairly successful campaign against GM products in Europe since the 1990s, has now taken a U-turn and expressed remorse over his role in demonising an important technological option that could benefit the environment.
Back home, the government has issued a notification making labelling of foods containing GM content mandatory from January 1 this year. Since this enables consumers to make an informed choice about whether or not to use GM products, the ban on the trials, production or import of such products becomes meaningless.
However, given that GM products, especially those involving exchange of genes among unrelated species, such as crops and soil bacteria, may not be wholly risk-free, thorough testing of these products is imperative. What is needed, therefore, is a technically competent mechanism for flawless appraisal and regulation of products, and not to inhibit the production and the use of these products. Unless the policies are revised forthwith, the investment in biotech research and development are bound to shift out of India.