Coming a cropper

Even Brazil and China have embraced GM crops, India must not dither

India's long-running social panic over genetically engineered agricultural crops has recently intensified. In August, a parliamentary standing committee produced a report that was highly critical of a 2009 Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC) decision to approve genetically engineered eggplant, an approval blocked for more than two years now by an edict from a former environment minister. The parliamentary committee report was delivered one day after Maharashtra had cancelled the licence of an Indian company to sell genetically engineered cotton seeds, the kind that has been grown successfully in India for a decade. Then in late October, a committee appointed by the Supreme Court, triggered by an activist PIL, recommended termination of all ongoing GM crop trials, and a 10-year moratorium on field trials of GM food crops. Last week, though, the Centre pronounced the committee's report "scientifically flawed" and urged the Supreme Court to let crop trials continue.

One of today's leading GM crop countries, Brazil, went through a surprisingly similar policy panic a decade and a half ago. In 1998 in Brazil, the government committee authorised to approve GM crop plantings — CTNBio, similar to India's GEAC — granted a formal approval to genetically engineered soybeans. But then an activist lawsuit and a federal court injunction blocked this approval — for four years. In another parallel with the Indian situation, one plaintiff in the lawsuit was the environment ministry. The questions discussed in India today are nearly identical to those that led to the early Brazilian policy paralysis over GM crops: Is the technology safe? Will small farmers be helped or harmed? Has the official approval process been corrupted by foreign corporate influence?

In Brazil, things changed with the election of President Lula da Silva in 2002. Many expected him to take an anti-GM crop stance, in keeping with the position of his left-leaning Workers' Party. Instead, he looked carefully at the technology, listened to his new minister of agriculture, and signalled the need to move ahead. In the years that followed, under Lula, Brazil emerged as second only to the United States in land area planted with GM crops. By the end of 2011, Brazil had approved for planting five different GM crops for soybeans, 17 for maize and nine for cotton. Nor were all of these Monsanto products. In September 2011, CTNBio approved a GM edible bean (resistant to a damaging plant virus) that had been developed entirely by Embrapa, Brazil's public agricultural research company.

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