Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a technology that turned India into the world’s second largest producer and a net exporter of cotton within four years since its commercialisation in 2002. The success of cotton encouraged many biotech companies to invest massive amount on research and development to replicate in other agri-commodities. Science succeeded but protests from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) led the government to put field trials of genetically modified (GM) brinjal on moratorium in 2010. Now, the government has again allowed field trials of GM brinjal and mustardseed. Ram Kaundinya, Chairman of Agricultural Group of the Association of Biotechnology led enterprises (ABLE-AG), the biotech industry body, discusses future roadmaps for biotech sector in an interview with Dilip Kumar Jha. Edited excerpts :
UPA government was not supportive, do you see field trial permissions for Bt brinjal and mustard is a good beginning by the NDA govt for biotech?
The real setback for agricultural biotechnology came in the form of the moratorium on Bt brinjal in February 2010. Since then it has been a downward slide for the technology in India. The industry’s confidence in the policy support for the technology came down dramatically after this and fresh investments slowed down considerably. We are very hopeful that the new government will support science and technology deployment in agriculture for the benefit of the farmers. We have not had any clear signal from the current government so far but we believe that the performance of the technology and the future needs of the country will make the government take a positive step in the direction of deploying agricultural biotechnology in the priority areas for the country
Why do GM crops attract a negative perception?
The negative perception is created by many activists who have their own agenda. Backed by considerable funding they have been aggressively putting out biased information and half-truths. Many myths have been spread among the common people. There is no organized voice for the cotton farmers who have got benefited by the technology in the country and hence their views are not sufficiently represented in the public domain. The views of the scientific community who have experience in developing this technology in the country are not being given attention. We need to do more in terms of public outreach and education regarding the agricultural biotechnology. This has to come from a coalition of stakeholders who are interested in responsible deployment of the technology.
Are there any risks associated with direct Bt consumption?
The world has seen consumption of a trillion meals of GM food so far. People across the globe have been consuming GM foods for the last 18 years. Europe has been importing and consuming more than 20 different GM foods. So far there is not a single instance of any negative impact on the human or animal health due to the consumption of GM foods. The regulatory process is very stringent and adequate tests are carried out before GM crops, especially food crops, are approved for cultivation. So there is no basis for the fear mongering that the activists indulge in questioning the safety of GM food crops.
Do you see commercialisation of Bt mustardseed and brinjal in the near future?
Various GM crops are under the regulatory process including the two you mentioned. We are not sure we can give any time frame for the approvals. But we are hopeful that there would be a positive movement in the evaluation and approval of some of the applications which are in the pipeline. As you know even the evaluation process has not progressed in the last four years. We certainly hope that testing and evaluation, which are parts of the research process, will be taken up immediately and the approvals will be given in due course of time based on the merits of the cases.
Which are the other crops under field trial application?
There are crops like rice, mustard, maize, castor, cabbage, brinjal, okra, pulses, tomato and others which are in the regulatory pipeline.
How will GM crops benefit farmers and consumers?
All over the world about 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted GM crops in 17.5cr hectares last year. In India itself about six million cotton farmers are benefitted in terms of reduced pesticide usage, convenience of pest control, reduced pollution, higher yields and overall improvement in profits by more than Rs 8,000 per acre. Future technologies like Water Use Efficiency (WUE) will help the farmers to grow crops with less water while Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) will help the farmers in growing crops with reduced application of nitrogenous fertilizers. Other GM traits like Yield improvement trait, herbicide tolerant trait, etc will help the farmers in managing their crops better for higher yields. On the other hand the consumers will get benefitted through reasonable prices for the agricultural products because of higher productivity and supply. There are certain output traits which will directly benefit the consumers like the foods with improved nutritional value (Vitamin A enriched rice, Oilseed crops with modified fatty acid profile, etc).
There is a claim by some of the activists that Bt cotton has failed and farmers are committing suicide. They say that non-Bt cotton is not available. What is your observation?
If 60 lakh cotton farmers are using Bt cotton for the last 12 years it is a figment of imagination to say that it is a failure. In fact it is one of the most successful technology deployments in agriculture. The country is now producing 34 million bales of cotton from about 12 m ha of cotton compared to 13 million bales produced from 9 million ha of cotton in 2002. This clearly shows the yield increases which have taken place. Cotton exports have grown to about Rs. 20,000 cr now. Regarding availability of non bt cotton seed, as per the regulatory requirement for almost 10 years the seed industry supplied non Bt cotton seed along with every packet of Bt cotton seed to the extent of 25 per cent of the volume. In other words all this non Bt cotton seed was available to the farmer. Even now the market takes care if there is a demand for a product.
Some activists say that nothing has changed since the moratorium was imposed on Bt brinjal in 2010 and hence the Government should not give permission for trials. Any take on that?
Firstly the moratorium was a very unfortunate and unwarranted act. All the data according to the regulatory requirements was generated and submitted for Bt brinjal in spite of which the moratorium was imposed. When the moratorium was imposed, the Minister of Environment and Forests asked GEAC to define the additional tests required for Bt brinjal. These tests have not been defined even now because GEAC met sporadically in the last three years. We should remove hurdles and make it a constructive process which must keep making progress. If we make a concerted action from all concerned I am sure the environment will be more enabling for the deployment of science and technology in agriculture for the benefit of Indian farmers.