C Kameswara Rao

Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education

Bangalore, India


Presently, Bt cotton containing the Cry 1 Ac gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is the only commercialized genetically engineered (GE) crop in India.  As per a report on the ‘Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops:2008’ published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, the cultivation of Bt cotton in India has increased from 0.5 mill ha in 2002 to 7.6 mill ha in 2008, which strongly indicates that the Indian farmers have ignored the activist noises and accepted the technology for its benefits.  In the period from 2002 to 2008, Indian Bt cotton scenario changed rapidly in terms of the number of Bt farmers, approved hybrids (three to about 150), transgenic events (one to five) and seed companies (one to over 30).  During this period, farmer profits increased between 50 to 110 per cent, yield increased between 30 to 60 per cent and the pesticide use reduced by over 50 per cent, benefitting about five million resource poor farmers.    The country has greatly enhanced its cotton production and export.


The antitech activists have now sensed the loss of their protracted battle against Bt cotton, and shifted the focus to Bt brinjal (aubergine, egg plant) and other GE vegetable crops.  Bt brinjal containing the same Bt gene Cry 1 Ac as in cotton is developed against the shoot and fruit borer of brinjal that causes enormous losses both to the farmer and the consumer.  Bt brinjal is awaiting the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for commercial release.  If Bt brinjal is successful and finds favour with the farmers and the consumers, several other Bt crops now in advanced stages of development would be commercialized and the major battle to prevent GE food crops from becoming an important component in the Indian agriculture would be lost.


The activist groups have filed two ‘Writ Petitions’ (WP) in the Supreme Court of India (SCI), demanding a moratorium against the development of GE crops.  The activists intend to halt the regulatory process, so that this will preclude commercial release, not just for the period of moratorium if sanctioned by the SCI but several years after it was lifted later.  They also insist on implementation of regulatory tests, designed by one of their science faces, which was said to take some 20 years to complete, so that the process of GE crop development in India would be halted for over a quarter of a century.  In either case it would be a death knell for GE crops in India which is certainly against the interests of the country.


The stand of the activists smacks of double standards, as they have not been visibly against biotechnology in pharmaceutical or other industries which constitute an influential segment. 


Fortunately, the SCI has adopted a balanced view and earlier permitted field trials of certain GE crops.  During the hearing of the WPs on April 29, 2009, the Bench observed that ‘GM seeds could possibly be a means to eradicate hunger and poverty. Poverty is probably more dangerous than the side effects of GM seeds’. 


On the submission by the Petitioners, the SCI Bench suggested an intense working of the existing regulatory regime and asked the Government to consider setting up of a National Centre for Assessment of GMOs.  The Government rightly replied that ‘there are already several laboratories set up in various Universities (and research institutions) which are doing research work on GM’.  Over a dozen public sector and other institutions are involved in biosafety evaluation of GE crops, supervised by the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) before the GEAC takes the final decisions on the open field trials and commercialization.  It is impossible for any single centre to handle the entire biosafety regulatory process as it requires diverse areas of expertise.


The Petitioners seem to have also suggested constituting an expert committee on lines of a 1997 Committee for the regulation of hazardous wastes constituted on the orders of the SCI, but this is superfluous and wholly irrelevant to GE crops. 


Activists also constitute political pressure groups as politicians consider them as vote banks. Obviously disappointed with the results of their anti-GM campaigns, which have not so far yielded the desired results, the activists sought the support of the political parties, taking advantage of the recent general elections.    As reported widely in the Indian Press on April 30, 2009, except for the Congress party, the leading member of the outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, all the other parties fell in and expressed anti-GE sentiments in their election manifestoes.    The political parties might have considered it expedient to accede to the activist demands in return for electoral support.  In an extremely volatile electoral situation where no party was confident of its poll prospects, the chances of coming to power and to be bound to a pre-poll promise were bleak. The statements of the political parties do not sound total opposition, but that GE crops would not be allowed ‘without full scientific data on long term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers’, as the Bharathiya Janatha Party, the lead member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) proclaimed.  This implies the lack of scientific data on the safety of GE crops in development, which is not true and reflects the ignorance or deliberate indifference of these parties to the biosafety regulatory process in India which is among the very stringent regimes in the world.  Then how long is a ‘long term’?  Even now biosafety evaluation takes a minimum of nine years, which is actually longer than necessary.  The major objective of current procedures of biosafety evaluation is to ensure that GE products are safe to the consumers and the environment.  How does one assess long term impact on consumers directly?  Some parties demand labeling of GE foods, which is not a bad idea even if it is difficult to implement in a country dominated by scientific illiterates, which includes the activists, the politicians and the media. 


The Communist parties are more retrogressive.  The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist; CPI M-L) said that no GE crops should be introduced and field trials should be halted immediately.  The Communist Party of India (CPI) wanted a moratorium on GE crops and favours organic farming, which would take the country backwards by some 50 years.  Both the Communist Party of India (Marxist; CPM) and CPI would scrap the India-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, if they come to power, which is a dream, when they lost their position as pressure groups which they enjoyed with the UPA Government, till the show down on the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement last year and now totally out of reckoning.   The Indian Communist parties seem to forget how strongly China, the life spring of their ideology, is committed to GE in agriculture to a great advantage, which for no valid reason the leftists want India to lose. 


The miniscule regional parties in Tamil Nadu joined the chorus of ‘no GE crops’, reflecting localized ignorance.


The glaring dishonesty of the political parties lies in that they have been coalition partners in the earlier NDA Government or the outgoing UPA Government or both, and under the Principle of Collective Responsibility of the Cabinet or as supporting partners of the respective coalitions, they have been a party to promoting research and development of GE crops in the country for over a decade.  For political gains they now sing a different tune. 


By providence all the parties that declared an anti-GE stand lost in the elections (of course not for that reason) taking the wind out of their stated opposition to GE crops.  In the reconstituted UPA Government Agriculture stays with the same Minister who supported modern agricultural biotechnology.  The Ministers for Science and Technology, Environment and Forests, Health and Family Welfare, and Commerce and Industries, concerned with biotechnology in one or the other way, are all from the Congress party, giving hope for a continued promotion of GE crops, though it is difficult to predict the swing of the political pendulum to the other side. 


For one thing, soon the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) Bill will sail safe through the Parliament to become a Law, which will inspire public, political, professional and media confidence.   The NBRA will also convince the SCI against imposing a moratorium on GE crops.  But the activists would continue their tirade even after losing, so long as funding would be available. 


A country’s science policy should be framed by its scientific fraternity and managed jointly by the relevant scientific institutions and the appropriate departments of the Government but not by vested interest that uses junk science to pursue inept politics, often with support from foreign agencies.  The new Government should ensure this.


July 7, 2009