Whither genetic engineering technology in Indian Agriculture?
The Indian government’s flip-flopsregarding commercialization of crops developed using agricultural biotechnology, especially genetic engineering, is frustrating for innovators on the one hand and demeaning to farmers on the other, just on the assumption that farmers don’t want to cultivate such crops. Indian policy towards the use of genetically engineered (GE) crops in agriculture is a glaring example of indecisiveness and that too for a sector like agriculture which is getting challenged by climate change, soil fertility loss and invasive pests like fall armyworm, that have the potential to wipe off major crops from the agricultural ecosystem completely in a blink.
The challenges thrown by invasive pests of economically important plants are enormous, the entry of Fall Armyworm (FAW) in the country last year should be an eye-opener. The entry of FAW in the country and the speed with which it has spread,has left the stakeholders running helter-skelter for finding solutions. The chances are that by the time “Conventional” solutions may be found and implemented, it could already be late for the cultivation of the crops affected by FAW, which has a very wide host range e.g. small grains, soybean, sugarcane, maize tomato, alfalfa, peanuts, spinach, clover and several others. The cascading effect of damages caused by such pests will also be felt by allied industrieslike feed industry dependent on these crops. FAW has been moving steadily east since 2016 after its first appearance in Africa and has caused up to $3 billion-worth of damage to crops across Africa. The scientists world over agree that a combination of conventional methods focused on Integrated Pest Management strategies could be successful in the short-term; but there is a need forpest tolerant/resistant varieties and the development of such varieties through conventional means is several years away.FAWis the one pest that has shaken the stakeholders in global agricultural value chains – ranging from researchers, breeders from public, private and CGIAR centers, global leaders in seed industry, UN bodies and governments.
This is ironical that we do have the technology (genetic engineering – GE) and wherewithal with the potential to develop crops that can meet challenges like these. However, reluctance of Indian government, and several others across world, to approve commercial release of crops developed using such technologies is a frustrating for innovators, seed industry, farmers and consumers. GE has helped tackle major challenges faced by the crops globally and is evident from the fact the area under GE crops has grown from 1.7 mn hectares in 1996 to 189.6 mn hectares in 2017; withIndia contributing only to 6% area of only one GE crop, cotton. The agri scientists have successfully introduced traits such as insectresistance, herbicide tolerance, and stacksthereof, disease resistance, product qualitytraits such as anti-allergy, delayed fruitsoftening, modified oil/fatty acid content, andmany more, as well as pollination control traits.GE crops have helped farmers, industry and other stakeholders consolidate their profits.
The enormous delays in approving the commercialization of crops that have already been approved elsewhere and have been proven to be safe in India is not helping the stakeholders. A glaring example of this is the Bt brinjal- which was deregulated and commercialized in Bangladesh – via a consortium of partners from the USAID funded Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II. India, Bangladesh, and Philippines were the beneficiary countries of this project, however, Bangladesh moved ahead and India got left behind; the reasons can be debated and discussed, however, truth is that Indian farmers didn’t get the benefit of technology, when government imposed a moratorium on the commercial release of genetically-modified or Bt brinjal after the product was approved by GEAC. Even today, there is no end in sight to this deadlock. This has led to several companies, based in India, cutting down their R&D expenses with the singular aim to not develop new hybrids and GE crops and some have even closed downtheir biotechnology R&D operations.
The challenge for Indian government now is 2-folds – (a) how to incentivize private sector to develop better hybrids and (b) how to stop illegal GE seeds coming in to India. Both of these challenges can be tackled by removing moratorium and ensuring the successful commercialization of already approved crops like Bt Brinjal, GM mustard etc. and being consistent in its decisions regarding commercial release of GE crops.. Why should Indian farmers be denied of the way to protect their health from toxic chemicals and Indian consumers the pest free Brinjal? The product in Bangladesh has already benefitted farmers and consumers. It’shigh time that Indian government takes a decisive call for commercialization of the GE crops that have gone through the regulatory approvals and have been found to be safe for human, cattle and environmental health. GE crops have the potential to tackle major challenges faced by economically important crops of the country.
Though, it is good idea to conserve agriculture and environment by adopting more conventional, eco-friendly tools and techniques for crop management and production, there is need to keep in mind while framing policy direction that the crop production using conventional technologies and dwindling resources will never be enough to feed ever-increasing population of the country. While there are no adverse effect, what so ever observed in the world on these safety assessed GM products, why deny this for Indian farmers and consumers?
 ‘Growing alarm’ over Fall Armyworm advance, with cash crops ‘under attack’ across Asia. UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/03/1035071
 Integrated management of the Fall Armyworm on maize – FAO. http://www.fao.org/3/i8665en/i8665en.pdf
 ISAAA Brief 53. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops in 2017: Biotech Crop Adoption Surges as Economic Benefits Accumulate in 22 years https://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/53/download/isaaa-brief-53-2017.pdf
 “Policy Challenged’ Agri Seed Companies Cut Down R&D Spends On Hybrids, GM Crops. https://swarajyamag.com/economy/policy-challenged-agri-seed-companies-cut-down-rd-spends-on-hybrids-gm-crops
Bt eggplant improving lives in Bangladesh. https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2018/07/bt-eggplant-improving-lives-bangladesh