Its higher yields can be a game-changer. To allay fears, it can be commercially grown in a few areas and its effects monitored
The introduction of genetically-modified crops has invariably been mired in controversy in our country with science staying in the sidelines in the theatre of shrill noises — for and against.
The minister-inflicted moratorium on Bt brinjal seven years ago is a clear case in point. Concern about private sector control over technology was the dominant theme then.
Now that a body of scientists — the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee — under the ministry of environment has recommended commercialisation of genetically-modified (GM) mustard seed developed by a national public institution, any lingering concern over private sector dominance would be misplaced.
New Delhi must have the courage to bite the bullet and clear the introduction of technology seed for commercial use without delay. The Supreme Court too needs to lift the stay on it before growers are able to access the seed.
When commercialised, if the performance of the seed comes anywhere close to the results of field trials, it has the potential to be a game-changer for the oilseeds sector.
To be sure, our country is among the world’s largest importers of edible oil. We pay a humongous price in foreign exchange of about $10 billion (₹65,000 crore) annually to import various oils aggregating to about 14 million tonnes, representing two-third of domestic consumption demand.
Our oilseed yields have been notoriously low for over three decades (just about 1,000 kg a hectare) when other major origins have made rapid strides in output per unit of land by modernising agriculture.
There is now a dire need for us to harvest more from the same piece of land and it can be done only by creating conditions that promote higher yields, improve oil content and enhance nutritional value.
Obviously, infusion of technology in agriculture is now becoming a necessity rather than a matter of choice.
Going forward, land constraints, water shortage and climate change are sure to adversely impact Indian agriculture with the attendant risk that our import dependence may worsen and food security might be compromised.
From a food safety perspective, it must be stated that fears over GM foods are overblown.
Take our own example. Bt cotton was introduced way back in 2003 and for well over a decade, large quantities of derivative products or byproducts of GM cotton — cottonseed oil and cottonseed cake/meal — have entered our food chain, directly or indirectly.
There have been no reported cases of adverse effect on human or animal health.
To err on the side of caution, it may be desirable for the Government to examine various scenarios that may emerge in the event of any decision (for or against) and do a cost-benefit analysis of each of the scenarios. There are different dimensions of the issue that need to be examined. These include social, technological, economic, environmental and political aspects.
Popularly known as the STEEP approach, it may be an appropriate tool to test costs and benefits of a decision.
Social — Is the proposal/decision socially desirable?
Technological — Is the proposal/decision technologically feasible?
Economic — Is the proposal/decision economically viable?
Environmental — Is the proposal/decision environmentally friendly?
Political — Is the proposal/decision politically acceptable?
If the answer to each one of these questions is ‘Yes’, then one can say with reasonable certainty that the decision could prove to be right and sustainable.
Addressing the questions
One way to address some of the concerns — biosafety, environment — is to permit commercial cultivation of GM mustard in specific locations, say in a dozen districts across the growing region of western and northern India for one or two seasons.
It will generate sufficient data for scientists and policymakers; also, it will allow lead time for environment impact and other related studies.
As commercial cultivation would be restricted to a few select districts, it would facilitate effective monitoring and evaluation with the help of State governments and agricultural universities with overarching monitoring responsibility resting with the Centre. It will also allow the study of grower and consumer acceptance of the modified crop.
We should actually be accelerating technology infusion in agriculture. Information technology, biotechnology, satellite technology, nuclear agricultural technology and nanotechnology have the potential to offer solutions.
Strengthening farm production and productivity cannot brook any delay. It would of course be naïve to think GM tech is a magic bullet that will take care of all of the country’s farm-related problems. In terms of investment, as a nation we should be doing a lot more for agriculture than at present.
The apathy among policymakers in addressing agriculture-related issues including structural problems that stymie growth is most unfortunate. We need to take giant strides in different directions to boost agriculture. Surely, one of them is infusion of multiple technologies in agriculture.
The writer is an agribusiness and commodities market specialist