In Solidarity With Maharashtra Farmers: Baseless Hold On GM Crops In India Condemns Cultivators To A Lifetime Of Poverty

by Prashant Narang and Tarini Sudhakar - Feb 17, 2022 09:19 PM +05:30 IST
In Solidarity With Maharashtra Farmers: Baseless Hold On GM Crops In India Condemns Cultivators To A Lifetime Of Poverty(Centre for Civil Society)
  • Too often, innocent farmers get left behind because activists decide to push for what they think is right.

Today, farmers in Maharashtra are planting genetically modified (GM) brinjal to protest against the ban on GM crops in India. Anil Ghanwat of the Swatantra Bharat Party calls this the ‘Feed India civil disobedience movement’ with the slogan: “biotechnology to feed India, natural farming to starve India”. Nothing could be truer.

GM crops are the latest innovation that would alleviate many concerns of Indian farmers. But a small yet very vocal group prevents farmers from accessing these and condemn them to a lifetime of poverty. Restrictions on GM in India is a story that spans decades, and the institution at the centre of it all? The Supreme Court.

Fear often overwhelms logic in India, especially so when it comes to policy-making. In 2006, Aruna Rodrigues, an environmental activist, challenged the release of GM crops before the Supreme Court.

She argued that planting GM crops contaminated nearby fields and was a danger to public health. Before we get into the merits of this argument, let us ask you this: why did the Supreme Court entertain this petition when a separate regulatory framework existed for GM crops?

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), at that time known as the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, was very much operational and with a body to hear complaints. And as for Rodrigues’ claim, study after study have proven that these dangers to public health are simply not true. What GM crops do provide is increased crop yield, greater nutrition, and reduced dependence on pesticides. But did the Supreme Court take these into account? Unsurprisingly, no.

Instead of directing the complaint to the GEAC, the Court ordered field trials to continue and when completed, share information on the extent of dangers posed by GM.

But this was not enough for the petitioners.

Aruna Rodrigues and co. pushed to stop field trials altogether everywhere.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court chose not to give in, and wait for the field trials. But it also ordered GEAC to withhold all approvals till it got to hear the Union Government’s stand.

As most field trials drew to a close, the Union Government tried to get the hold on GEAC approvals lifted. But the petitioners alleged that it was “likely that there would be serious Polan Flow contamination to the plants of similar species of the neighboring fields”. But they did not mention how the GEAC had fallen short in executing its key function of ensuring safety in trials.

Falling prey to fear-mongering tactics, in May 2007, the Supreme Court laid out additional guidelines for the GEAC to ensure that neighbouring fields were not contaminated during trials. It added that GM crops that were already commercially approved should not be further genetically modified so that no further species are created by such modification. But no clear justification was given behind this instruction.

Despite this guidance for field trials, in 2012, Aruna Rodrigues contested that release of GM crops was threatening biosafety due to improper scientific examination and sought to stop all forms of GM release through imports, manufacture, and other means.

Imagine if we gave in to this argument about vaccines for COVID-19 or any other scientific innovation.

The Supreme Court once again entertained such an argument and appointed a six-member Technical Expert Committee (TEC) to look into the biosafety of GM crops. The TEC’s interim report asked for a 10-year long moratorium till the flaws in the regulatory system were addressed such as lack of fully-qualified members.

The Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation also faced a conflict of interest as it studied field trial data while sitting under the Department of Biotechnology whose core mandate is to promote biotechnology in India. Shockingly, the TEC’s final report called for an indefinite moratorium on field trials till these gaps were addressed. As of 2022, there have not been any other substantial decisions on the matter.

Countries such as Peru and Zimbabwe too have put temporary moratoriums on GM seeds and struggle with groups calling for indefinite bans. But it is worth noting that in 2020, Zimbabwe lifted the ban on imports of GM corn to avoid an impending famine.

In 2021, India did the same with GM soyameal for a brief period. If we are comfortable with such measures, what is stopping us from revisiting the approval process for GM and ensuring that we continue progressing?

In 2017, Jeevan Saini, a small farmer in Fatehabad, Haryana, bought brinjal seedlings that would not attract insects. They were seven times more expensive compared to the usual brinjal seedlings, but Saini purchased them hoping to get a good yield.

And a good yield he got, managing to recover his entire investment. So in 2018, just when he hoped to earn some profit, the government ordered Saini to destroy his entire crop on finding that it was a genetically modified version of brinjal.

Saini did not receive the promised compensation and ended up losing over 1 lakh rupees.

Who is really at fault here? Saini, a farmer who was hoping to turn a profit over his crop?

Today in Ahmednagar, 2019 in Akola, and 2017 in Fatehabad: these are key instances of farmers voicing what they really want. But in India, artificial poverty is acceptable but artificially modified crops are not.

Too often, innocent farmers get left behind because activists decide to push for what they think is right. Not allowing farmers to plant these crops without actual evidence of risks is equal to robbing farmers of their right to livelihood. Global acreage of GM crops has increased from 1.7 million ha in 1996 to 190.4 million ha in 2019, accounting for nearly 11.6 per cent of global cropland.

As of 2019, 56 per cent of global acreage under GM crops was planted by developing countries, with India being one of the front runners. When we give into unthinking bans and scaremongering tactics like those of Aruna Rodrigues and other activists, we only push Jeevan Saini, those gathered in Ahmednagar today, and 150 other million farmers of India further into poverty.

Prashant Narang and Tarini Sudhakar are researchers at Centre for Civil Society.
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