[JAMMU] When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cautioned against “unscientific prejudices” surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops at the Indian Science Congress (February 3-7) he couldn’t have been clearer about his government's current views on a hugely controversial issue in this majorly agricultural country.
“Our government remains committed to promoting the use of these new technologies for agriculture development,” Singh told India’s leading scientists gathered for their annual gathering.
So far, India has restricted GM crops to non-food plants, especially cotton. The policy on food crops is best exemplified by an indefinite moratorium on brinjal (also known as aubergine or egg plant) imposed in February 2010 by the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, following opposition by farmer’s groups and activists at public hearings. Ramesh's successor Jayanthi Natarajan maintained status quo, and all eyes are on the new environment minister Veerappa Moily.
Opposition to GM food crops has been voiced by at least seven Indian states, as agriculture is a state subject under India’s federal system. A parliamentary committee set up to study the issue reported in the negative in August 2012, pointing out that there were aspects to GM crops that went beyond food production such as potential damage to health and environment.
But the seed giant Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary MAHYCO that owns the patents for Bt Brinjal were not about to give up so easily, and say they have provided all safety data.
Meanwhile, in November 2013, neighbouring Bangladesh announced plans to release four varieties of Bt brinjal using technology that was put on hold in India.
Singh may just have been bowing to the inevitable, as Indian scientists, and the agriculture minister, pitch in for GM crops.
But his remarks drew the ire of GM opponents. Says Suman Sahai, convenor of the Delhi-based NGO Gene Campaign: "It would be helpful if the Prime Minister and his office would also engage with the concerns expressed by several scientists, members of civil society, farmer organisations and concerned citizens about the safety and desirability of these crops. These are not unscientific prejudices, they are most often, genuine concerns arising from a high level of familiarity with the scientific evidence of harm resulting from the consumption of GM foods. The results from feeding studies done on animals, in many parts of the world are available in the public domain and they show the risks that can be associated with eating GM foods."
GM crops had their supporters at the science congress. Amril Ahluwalia, who teaches Botany in Punjab University, told SciDev.Net: “Yes, this technology should be used. Scientists are human beings too. How can we approve something which is not safe for the humans?”
“When the population is growing fast, scientific solutions for food security have to be found out,” Ahluwalia said.
Another scientist attending the science congress, Jaya Shankar of the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bangalore, said: “Some people even think that GM crops cause impotency! Yes, lot of confusion. It is like railway-lines not meeting.”
The GM crop debate: 'It's like railway lines not meeting'