Coming a cropper
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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.
Partly thanks to the strong performance of these crops, Brazil's total grain production has now increased from 97 million tonnes in 2002 to 160 million tonnes in 2011, with an annual growth rate of 5.3 per cent. Alas, Indian agriculture has not done this well. The Indian agricultural sector enjoyed an impressive annual growth rate of 4.4 per cent in the 1980s, but growth slowed to 2.8 per cent in 1991-98, and then to just 0.6 per cent in 1999-2009. And today the only crop doing well in India is cotton, not by coincidence the only GM crop regulators have been allowed to approve. Average cotton yields in India have nearly doubled since Bt cotton was approved in 2002. Of course, even this demonstrable success with GM cotton is now under political attack from activist groups spreading unsubstantiated stories about sheep deaths and increased farmer suicides. When the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) examined the reports of farmer suicides in 2008, it found "no evidence", from the available data, of such incidents increasing in India since the introduction of Bt cotton.
Brazil's initial hesitation over GM crops came at a time when the technology was still new, so it can be understood as caution. India's hesitation today is more difficult to excuse, given the scientific consensus that has now formed even in Europe over the safety of the technology. Activists don't want Indians to know, but the most prestigious science academies in Europe including the Royal Society, the British Medical Association, the Union of the German Academies of Science and Humanities, the French Academy of Sciences, and the French Academy of Medicine concluded 10 years ago, in a series of statements published between 2002 and 2004, that there was no evidence of any new risk to either human health or to the environment from any of the GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the market so far. Activists also don't want Indians to know that in 2010, the EU's directorate-general for research found that "biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than eg conventional plant breeding technologies".
Indians should also know that China is moving forward with GM crops. China has been planting GM cotton since 1997, and currently, an estimated 71 per cent of its total cotton area is planted with GM seeds. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) estimates that up to 7 million small cotton farmers in China have already increased their income by approximately $220 per hectare, largely thanks to a 60 per cent reduction in the need to spray insecticides. More recently in 2009, China's biosafety regulators also approved both GM rice and a variety of GM maize. China has also approved and successfully grown GM papaya, and even GM poplar trees, improved for insect resistance. China doesn't panic over foreign corporate influence; it has developed GM rice, maize, and cotton within its own public sector institutions, using public resources.
Does India really want to turn its back on this new agricultural revolution? Farmers are still 58 per cent of the workforce in India; if the activist disinformation campaign against GM crops wins, these farmers will lose. Farmers planting GM crops in Brazil and China will continue to prosper so will those in the US, Argentina, Canada, Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay, Australia, Philippines, Mexico, Chile, and elsewhere while India's farmers will fall further and further behind.
Paarlberg is the B. F. Johnson professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of 'Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa'