Five years ago, the acceptance of genetically modified (GM) crops in India was a remote
possibility. India was a hostile place for researchers testing GM crops. The then-government banned the commercial planting of transgenic aubergine (popularly known as Brinjal) after protests from activists. But today, India has eased its stance on GM crops with increased field trials in various states. India now has the fourth largest area planted under GM crops, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
The public debates on GM crops began with the entry of BT Cotton, a genetically modified version of original cotton crop. Questions were raised about the implication of its introduction and if, later, it would enter the food chain as well. However, such adoption led to higher economic benefits for the small and marginal farmers than the cultivation of organic cotton. Since then, more than 6 million small farmers have planted 10 million hectares of BT cotton. The volume of cotton exports from India has increased by 94 times in the last decade. In a short span of 8 years, between 2002 and 2010, BT cotton generated revenue worth US $5.1 billion becoming the first GM crop to be commercial cultivated in India officially.
Today, India is the second largest producer of cotton in the world. However, before BT Cotton, India was a net importer of cotton. The boom in cotton production has dramatically changed the nature of agriculture in India and improved livelihood, economy as well as international trade.
Primarily an agrarian economy, India needs to continually increase the commercial cultivation of GM crops. Moreover, it’s scientifically proven that adoption of GM crops will improve livelihood from farming, thereby empowering almost half of the population (47% of total population is employed in agriculture) to have greater standards of living.
To improve the agricultural sector, the Indian government should be more liberal and give Bt Brinjal a leeway for commercial cultivation. First developed in India, Bt Brinjal is a genetically modified crop that includes genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills fruit and shoots harmful pests when it ingests the plant. It does not need any pesticide spraying and its presence is harmless to humans and animals.
However, five years ago, the then-environment minister placed a moratorium on the commercial release of Bt Brinjal, putting the Indian agriculture sector back by decades. The decision was hardly backed by any conclusive scientific evidences. In fact, tests conducted by various researchers in favour of commercialising Bt Brinjal were ignored.
Similarly, India, today imports 60% of its total edible oil requirement at an annual cost of $10 billion. If it engages in the cultivation of GM mustard, yield of which is 20-30% higher than the natural variety, the dependence on import of edible oil will come down as well as economically benefit lakhs of farmers across the country.
To meet self-sufficiency in food, India needs to evolve, develop and accept the technology that would reap economic benefits for its farmers. With growing urbanisation, the only way to increase agricultural production is introducing genetic engineering in agriculture as a sustainable way forward. It is highly important to get past invalid biases relating to GM crops and accept them as a solution to gaining food security in the country.