Bangladesh is now set to commercially produce Bt jute and potato, after its success with Bt brinjal.
Farmers in India might just jump on to the bandwagon if serious attention is not given to the debate on GM crops.
With farm distress being a reality, the Modi government cannot afford to look the other way, despite shouts in favour of natural farming methods.
After having taken the lead in growing Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) or genetically-modified (GM) brinjal,`neighbouring Bangladesh is set to commercially produce GM potato and jute soon. Potato News Today website that the National Seed Board of Bangladesh has given its approval for commercial cultivation of these crops.
This development comes on the heels of India grappling with the issue of genetically-modified or Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) brinjal being grown illegally in parts like Haryana. The problem for India is its porous borders and it is likely that GM potato and jute, in particular, could find takers in India.
The issue for India is that since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, research on GM crops, food and non-food, have come to a halt. One of the problems faced by the government is the opposition to GM crops from right-wing groups like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. In July 2013, a technical expert committee (TEC) had recommended an indefinite moratorium on holding field trials of GM crops. It, in fact, amended its earlier recommendation of a 10-year moratorium.
The TEC recommendation on moratorium on GM field trials came after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Manmohan Singh announced an indefinite moratorium on cultivating Bt brinjal until individual scientific studies establish the safety of the product and its long-term impact on human health and environment.
The problem is, with a moratorium in force and research and development coming to a halt, there is no way to know the efficacy or harm in growing a GM crop. One major challenge for Indian authorities once commercial production of GM jute begins in Bangladesh will be how to stop it from entering India.
GM jute is a high-yielding variety. With Indian jute growers looking for various ways to enhance their income, they would be looking for the GM variety as it had happened with GM cotton. Should the authorities look the other way when these growers cultivate unauthorised varieties?
A proof of the problem cropping up anytime now is the of farmers owing allegiance to the Shetkari Sanghatana group to grow Bt brinjal and herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton, both yet to be officially approved for cultivation in India.
Sanjeev Sabhlok, who quit the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) to float Swarna Bharat Party, in a in Times of India, says that Bt brinjal is 100 per cent safe. He says that huge amounts of animal meals and human meals containing GM crops have been consumed since 1995 and there has been no single instance of an adverse effect.
Sabhlok says that Bangladesh confirmed human safety of Bt brinjal before giving regulatory approval. He quotes noted agricultural research scientists T M Manjunath and K S Mohan who conducted over 2,000 studies to confirm the safety of genetically-modified organisms to say there is nothing to fear about GM food.
Talk of GM or Bt crops evokes passion in India from all sides, including non-governmental organisations which led protests against Bt brinjal. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee now only has powers to given for field trial or cultivation of a GM crop. This brings us to the TEC report submitted to the Supreme Court. A casual look at its is clear that the recommendations have not been objectively reviewed yet by the authorities.
The first recommendation of the TEC was to address a huge gap in the regulatory system. It has mooted the setting up of a secretariat of dedicated scientists with area expertise on bio-safety. The TEC said India could seek the help of Norway in setting up such a system that would have sub-committees on human and animal health, environment, agro-economics, socio-economics etc. Norway, the committee said, had successfully integrated socio-economic considerations into GMO regulation.
The TEC mooted specific sites to be designated for conducting confined field trials and a sufficient mechanism to monitor them. The sites, which should be used only for GM crops, can be within Indian Council for Agricultural Research or State agricultural universities.
Concluding that herbicide-tolerant crops could lead to adverse impact on sustainable agriculture, the committee said such crops were unsuitable in the Indian context. The TEC recommended that a GM crop should not be released in the area of its origin. This means, if the basic crop that is genetically modified is sourced from, say, Pollachi in Tamil Nadu, then the GM variety should not be released there since it puts the native and cultural traits of the variety at risk.
More importantly, the TEC also insisted on the need for additional safety tests of GM crops based on long-term feeding studies for assessing chronic and inter-generation toxicity. The committee, probably referring to the controversial study of French molecular biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini said studies on GM crop need to include chronic exposure testing for food safety.
(In September 2012, Seralini published his findings in Food and Chemical Toxicology that reported increased in tumours of rats after they were fed with GM and herbicide tolerant corn for two years. But the findings were disputed by scientists, who said too few rats were studied to obtain scientific data and Sprague Dawley rats used were vulnerable to developing high rates of tumours. The paper was retracted by the journal in November 2013.)
The spirit of TEC recommendations was to have a regulatory body that would probe all possible angles before a GM crop is allowed for field trial or commercial cultivation, besides seeking to conduct more tests, especially on food safety. It also wants the testing facilities improved and proper examination of GM crops safety data.
The TEC hasn’t recommended a moratorium on the ground that GM crop is unsafe. Its recommendations are on the grounds that data is inadequate and that long-term results of food safety, especially on issues such as toxicity, are required.
The developments in Bangladesh will likely put pressure on the Indian authorities. It is also likely that other farmers could now come out openly demanding permission to cultivate crops of their choice, much like what the Shetkari Sanghatana members are threatening to do. In its second innings, the Modi government would do well to restructure the GEAC and order for proper and scientific testing and research of GM crops.