Frustrated socialists have demonized GM crops without any scientific basis. The technology will prevail in the end, but in India, as it always happens, it will take a long time.
Biotechnology in agriculture must rank second to only nuclear technology as a science that has been the unfair victim of wholesale frontal attack from the liberal left. Ironically, this group has no qualms about upholding the global scientific consensus on climate change, but refutes the scientific consensus on the safety and utility of GM crops in agriculture. They have carried out such a well-orchestrated protest movement against GM crops that there is hardly any politician worth his/ her salt willing to show some spine to stand up for what is scientifically valid.
Even some scientists have buckled under pressure from the left and joined the bandwagon. India has been fertile ground for environmental activists for the past three decades and NGOs like Greenpeace and its cohorts to play havoc with the nation’s development. Commercialization of GM crops has come to a grinding halt for almost five years. NGOs started protesting against GM crops around the mid-2000s, and gradually started politicizing it by propagating falsehoods, wanton misinformation and disinformation campaigns. The former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh took full advantage of this NGO movement to cultivate a political “constituency” he never had. It also served him to satisfy his party president whose penchant for NGOs is well-known.
Most NGOs and public activists are either left-leaning or left-of-centre members of the World Social Forum (WSF), which is opposed to the free market economy. As such, anti-tech activists treat GM crops as an imperialist tool of the industrialized West to dominate the South and make its citizens slaves of technology. They insist that by deploying modern biotechnology, western multinationals will take over the food chain, and bind countries in technological slavery in perpetuity. They argue that by adopting modern biotechnology, developing nations will lose their food sovereignty and food security.
More than the safety and utility of GM crops, it is these kinds of social and political issues that they market to brainwash Indian politicians who are either all too gullible or have their own cynical agendas. The report of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture headed by Basudeb Acharia, a former Marxist MP, was completely one-sided, dictated by Greenpeace and other anti-GM activists. There have been umpteen internationally reputed scientific academies that have given a clean chit about the safety and utility of GM crops, none of which found a mention in the report, which was completely shorn of scientific rationale.
Similarly, Jairam Ramesh had willingly acquiesced to a standard NGO line that he preferred public sector domination in agricultural biotechnology, and not the private sector. This kind of political argument smacks of staid socialistic thinking, which had pushed India into the derisively termed “Hindu rate of growth” for decades. Ramesh turned out to be a highly opportunistic politician who had started appreciating the economic liberalization of Manmohan Singh, but quickly turned coat to cozy up to the environmental activist community. He partnered with Aruna Rodrigues, the lead petitioner in the Supreme Court case against his own ministry, to populate the court’s expert panel with known anti-GM scientists, and engineered a negative report on GM crops.
He egregiously intervened in the decision of his ministry’s statutory committee, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), and even changed its name to an “appraisal” committee to make sure that the final decision making rested in his own hands. He completely dismissed the nation’s Inter-Academy Report on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) at the behest of the anti-technology NGOs. Then, by conducting a seven-city political circus dubbed “public consultations”, he completed the job of politicizing the GM issue.
Scientific issues cannot be decided by popular vote, but by experimental and empirical evidence. In fact, even the Supreme Court said that scientific and technological issues be left to experts. But Jairam Ramesh ignored the scientific community if it did not suit his political convenience. Ramesh turned GM crops into a tar baby which no one has been able to touch in five years.
The current incumbent Prakash Javadekar has tried his best to infuse scientific rationale into the debate and it is rumoured that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Javadekar to arrange meetings of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM) with scientists to resolve the GM issue.
According to scientists who attended those meetings, BKS and SJM representatives relented somewhat and were willing to back down on their opposition to GM crops. But the moment this was reported in the media, BKS and SJM issued press statements completely denying any change of heart, and said no scientist had satisfied their concerns. BJP-ruled Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have recently given No Objection Certificates for field testing of GM crops, but Gujarat has not, although there is news of it changing its stance.
This kind of political flip-flops has dogged the GM issue for over a decade. Meanwhile, illegal GM crops are being grown all over the country, which no one has bothered to investigate. Bangladesh approved the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal against opposition from its local NGOs. Even Indian NGOs went to campaign against Bt brinjal in Bangladesh and demanded that the Indian government intervene in Bangladesh’s decision. At the behest of an anti-GM NGO, Jairam Ramesh ordered all developers of Bt brinjal seeds to turn over their stocks to National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), which is another stupid idea as no one his right mind would completely trust a third party like NBPGR to hand over all seeds. As a result, illegal Bt brinjal seeds and seeds smuggled in from Bangladesh are in full bloom in India.
No Indian farmer will allow himself to be denied the benefits of a new seed. He will obtain it by hook or crook as he has always done. The irony of all such impractical and useless regulations is that it forces the introduction of technology by stealth, which sometimes can be truly injurious to the farmer and the environment. GM seeds have entered into commerce by stealth in many countries and India leads by example, thanks to the agitations by NGOs and politicians who dance to their tunes.
But it is not just NGOs and politicians who have played a cunning and damaging role. There are a handful of “scientists” who lent their support to these NGOs, and one of them is Dr Pushpa M. Bhargava, a man who has neither the scientific expertise nor the experience to talk about GM crops. He praised Jairam as a national hero for clamping down on Bt brinjal.
NGOs have submitted several petitions to the government signed by these “scientists” and Ayurvedic doctors, most of whom have dubious track records. This is tragic, and the most insidious form of fooling the public and gullible politicians.
The NGOs’ grouse is that after the fall of the Soviet Union, they lost all support for their socialistic ideas, and it became very difficult to stand up to the lone standing superpower, the United States. They had their own worldview of creating a socialist world, but could neither prevent nor come to terms with the collapse of socialism. They have come to hate the World Economic Forum (WEF), and to oppose it, started the WSF that meets every year, usually in Brazil (In 2004, it was held in Mumbai). But, no one hears about it from the media.
In order to hurt the progress of economic liberalization, they now use every trick that they can lay their hands on to hurt the US. Many socialistic countries of Europe partner with these NGOs. It is a new kind of Cold War between Europe and USA.
In fact, the EU funds many NGOs to export agitation to Third World countries against USA. Europe is the epicentre of anti-GM activism. Most of these NGOs partner with Indian grassroots NGOs to fight against GM crops in India. Otherwise, there is really no chance for Indian NGOs to raise money for their anti-tech activism. Anti-biotech protests are now a multimillion dollar, multinational protest industry.
For many Indian NGOs, funding is crucial for their survival, and they will fight for any paymaster whether they believe in the cause or not. One of the common characteristics of these NGOs is their common hatred for USA and whatever it stands for. If it comes from USA, even if it’s good for them, they object. A former Communist Finance Minister of Kerala declared point-blank that GM means Monsanto and Monsanto means GM, so, safe or unsafe, we don’t want it. Kerala has the dubious honour of declaring itself to be the only “GMO-free” state in the country, thanks to the anti-tech activists. Kerala should introspect as to how it is going to keep itself “GMO-free” when GMO will be growing all over the country.
GM crops technology cannot be wished away. It will prevail in the end, but in India, as it always happens, it will take a long time.