India will surpass China by early next decade as the most populous country on Earth. And it already has a ‘serious’ hunger problem, according to the 2015 Global Hunger Index of the International Food Policy Research Institute. Will there be enough food to feed the ballooning population? Where will the additional food come from?
With grain production stagnant and rapid urbanization is reducing available land, many scientists, in India and around the world, are looking to the potential of genetically engineered crops. These crops have shown to dramatically increase yields because they are grown with fewer weeds and can be engineered to resist pests.
India has already shown great success in developing and growing genetically engineered pest-resistant cotton. Since Bt cotton seeds were introduced in India in 2002, yields and farmer’s income have soared. The use of toxic pesticides has been sharply reduced, as the cotton, which contains genes from the common soil bacterium, Bacilllus thuringiensis (Bt). These genes code for an insecticide that is toxic to many worms and pest but is not hazardous to humans. Bt is widely sprayed on crops by organic farmers as a pesticide.
Bt cotton has lifted farm incomes by $18.3 billion between 2002 and 2014 and reduced insecticide applications from more than 24 sprays to only two – three sprays per season. It has been estimated that 60 percent of the benefits of Bt cotton has accrued to small farmers. As a result of the adoption of Bt cotton, India is now the largest cotton producer in the world.
One would think that the huge success of GMO cotton would have opened the floodgates to GM food crops needed to feed the booming Indian population. But that’s not what happened.
There remains a great deal of controversy in India over GE crops. Opponents of GE cotton, for example, allege that farmers have abandoned the use of “traditional” seeds and turned over control of the cotton crop to foreign multinational companies, such as Monsanto. They also claim the relatively higher price of GE cotton seeds—most farmers are pleased to pay more for the improved seed because of higher yields and lower expensive inputs, such as pesticides— have forced some farmers into debt. Opponents of GMO cotton contend that higher debt levels have been responsible for a major increase in farmer suicides.
These suicide claims have been investigated and have found to have no merit. In fact, some of the areas with the highest farmer suicide rates are those where no Bt cotton is grown. And other countries, such as France and the United States, have higher farmer suicide rates relative to the overall population. Nevertheless, the allegations of high suicide rates among Bt cotton farmers has been heavily reported in the Indian press and exploited by anti-GMO activists such as green philosopher Vandana Shiva, contributing to public skepticism towards GMOs and prevented their use in growing food crops.
The success of Bt cotton has led to the field testing of some GE food crops. Among the most promising is GM mustard seed, which may soon be approved for cultivation. A panel of government-appointed scientists recently concluded that the mustard seed “does not raise any public health or safety concerns for human beings and animals with respect to overall nutritional characteristics… It is highly unlikely to invade natural ecosystems and poses negligible risk to biodiversity and agriculture productivity.”
There is a great deal of hope in the scientific and the farming communities that this favorable report might finally break the log jam that has prevented the introduction of GE food crops. At present only GM cotton is allowed to be cultivated. There has been numerous successful field trials of other crops including, rice, corn, chickpea, pigeon pea (a legume), sugar cane, sorghum and potato. Bt Brinjal, a form of eggplant, was set for approval in 2010 but because of public concerns the government declined to allow it to be commercialized. Bt Brinjal is successfully being grown in Bangladesh.
There are reports that Bt Brinjal seeds are being smuggled into West Bengal from Bangladesh. The government has come under criticism for not approving the cultivation of Bt Brinjal.
“It is ironical that Bangladesh’s farmers are today growing Bt Brinjal that was originally developed in India and couldn’t be released here because of ideological opposition, wrote the Indian Express in an editorial. “It is time for our government… to strengthen its commitment towards advancement of agriculture through science and technology. Indian farmers have equal right to scientific solutions that would help to enhance their crop productivity, incomes and livelihoods.”
There is strong domestic opposition to growing GM food crops that is mostly led by Hindu nationalist forces in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They are of the opinion that utilizing GM technology will make the agriculture sector too dependent on foreign multinational seed companies such as Monsanto. They also allege that GM technology is hazardous to humans, biodiversity, and the environment, and have expressed skepticism about relying upon the “biased and manipulated reports of vested interests” in industry and institutions which claim GM foods are safe and present no harm to humans.
As a result of this opposition, the BJP in its 2014 election manifesto took a strong stance against the introduction of GM crops even though Narendra Modi, its candidate for Prime Minister, was favorably disposed towards the commercialization of GM cotton when he was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. Opposition from Hindu nationalists though forced him to put the brakes on developing GM crops when he became Prime Minister.
There is also opposition from many anti-GMO NGOs. Greenpeace India for instance is a major campaigner against GMOs, raising a host of safety and environmental concerns:
The unpredictability and irreversibility of GE have raised a lot of questions about this technology. Moreover, studies have found that GE crops harm the environment and have a potential to risk human health. All this has resulted in a controversy across the world about the need to introduce this dangerous technology. Greenpeace in India and in several other countries entered the agriculture scenario with the campaign against the environmental release of GE or GM organisms. GE crops represent everything that is wrong with our agriculture. They perpetuate the destruction of our biodiversity and the increasing control of corporations over our food and farming.
It should be noted that mainstream scientists and ecologists challenge every one of Greenpeace’s claims. There is no evidence that GM crops are harmful to the environment and human health. Most recently, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report in May 2016 that once again reiterated the safety of consuming GMO crops. Both the Indian National Academy of Sciences and the Indian National Academy of Agricultural Sciences have also endorsed the safety of eating and the growing of GM crops.
The GMO approval system in India is in the highly politicized hands of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), which is part of the Environment Ministry. It’s responsible for approving all GM field trials. More than 20 states and territories have consistently denied permission for field trials of GM crops. The GEAC also has the power to approve the cultivation of GM crops following a review of their impact on human health and the environment. It has so far not sanctioned the growing of any GM crops other than Bt cotton.
The key to the future of growing GM crops in India may ultimately rest on the regulatory fate of GM mustard seed. The favorable scientific report on GM mustard seed does not guarantee a successful outcome. It is only the first step. The ministry is now taking comments from the general public, NGOs, farmers, and industry. They will then be reviewed before a decision is made regarding commercialization.
The Consortium of Indian Farmers Association has spoken out strongly about its benefits.
“Making genetically-modified mustard seed available to Indian farmers will have an enormous economic benefit, increasing substantially farmers’ income by as much as 50 percent,” said Chengal Reddy, an advisor to the Farmers Association. Mustard seed oil is the third most common cooking oil after palm and soybean oil. It should be noted that India does import soybean oil that has been produced from GM soybeans.
Anti-GMO activists have taken a strong stance against cultivating GMO mustard seed. The Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, for example, objected to the scientific report that vouched for the safety of GM mustard seed. It sent a letter to the Environment Minister, objecting on environmental and political grounds:
The current biosafety assessment itself appears quite inadequate in establishing the safety of a GMO’s release into the environment…Given that any environmental release of GMOs is also a release into a socio-politico-economic space the risk assessment should be beyond technical aspects and should adequately and comprehensively assess impacts that are socio-cultural-economic, and begin with a needs and alternatives assessment…As you are aware, transgenic technology is also about livelihood security, trade security, seed and food sovereignty.
It is widely believed that growing GM mustard seed is such a politically controversial and contentious topic that Prime Minister Modi will ultimately have to make the decision and that decision may hinge on whether he is willing to confront the strong opposition to GM crops among the Hindu nationalist forces within his own party.
The bureaucratic hurdles faced by GM crops and the hostile political climate has clearly undermined GM research and development at a time when India urgently needs to apply biotechnology solutions to agriculture in order to increase its food supply. This is particularly important given the continued growth of the population. By 2050, its population could be close to 1.7 billion. Without a growing food supply, India will have to import more food thus placing harsh strains on its balance of payments.
Other developments also suggest India will have to utilize GM technology in order to increase food production. These include the need to boost farm productivity at a time when farm land is disappearing as a result of spreading urbanization, to grow disease resistant crops, to curb the damage done to crops by pests, and to grow drought resistant crops which is of increasingly importance as India is impacted by climate change. In May, for instance, India baked in record high temperatures with the thermometer soaring to 123.8 degrees in Rajasthan.
Bt cotton has proved to be such a success that it seemed only a matter of time before India would pursue the commercialization of other GM crops. That unfortunately has not been the case. Instead, GM opponents have raised road blocks not based upon scientific evidence but on unsubstantiated fears. Their success in impeding the growing of GM crops hurts the still largely poor Indian people who require science based and not ideological based solutions to their food needs.
Steven E. Cerier is a freelance international economist.