Genetically modified (GM) seeds have emerged as a powerful new technology promising high productivity and lower use of fertilizers, weedicides and pesticides in the last one to two decades and have gained increasing acceptance among farmers around the world.
They are likely to play increasingly important role in addressing many of the current problems in agriculture. The most important and so far the only example of this technology in India has been Bt cotton.
Adoption of Bt cotton in India started in year 2002 and the area under it expanded rapidly reaching 11.6 million hectares or 95% of the total cotton acreage by 2014. The peak yield prior to the introduction of Bt cotton, reached in 1996-97, was 265 kg/ha. But the yields declined steadily thereafter, reaching 186 kg/ha in 2001-02.
After Bt cottonseeds were introduced in 2002, yields rose continuously and touched a new peak of 532 kg/ha in 2013-14. Cotton farmers in the three largest cotton-growing states, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat in that order, experienced large gains. It is a fair assertion that the success in cotton has made an important contribution to the success of agriculture in general in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.
Between 2001 and 2010, Bt cotton helped reduce the use of insecticides by more than fifty per cent.
It has been argued that credit for the rise in the yields cannot be given to Bt cottonseeds since increases in yields predate their spread. Until 2005-06, Bt cotton had come to cover only a little more than one-tenth of the total cotton acreage. This is too small to account for the rise in yield from 186 kg/ha in 2001-02 to 362 kg/ha in 2005-06.
While partially valid, this argument misses two points.
First, when Bt cotton was introduced, cotton yields had been rapidly declining. Even if it may not account for the bulk of the rise in yields to 362 kg/ha by 2005-06, Bt cotton played a critical role in reversing the trend and surely contributed to the rise in the yield on the margin.
Second, Bt cotton spread rapidly from 2006-07 onwards. In 2006-07, nearly two-fifths of cotton acreage had come under Bt cotton and the share rose to 95% in 2014. This spread demonstrates that farmers saw a significant opportunity in Bt cotton even as the productivity of the existing varieties may have been simultaneously rising.
More importantly, with the trend growth rate under the conventional varieties in the prior decades being much lower, it is inconceivable that yields under those varieties could have reached as high as 499 kg/ha.
The success of Bt cotton in India and many more GM seeds elsewhere in the world testifies to the potential of GM technology in giving a major boost to productivity in agriculture. Nevertheless, GM seeds and technologies have remained controversial in India and other countries.
Thirteen years have passed since the introduction of Bt cotton and no scientific evidence of detrimental effects on either Bt cotton users or other crops located in the vicinity of Bt cotton farmers has been produced. But India has not introduced any new GM seeds.
In 2010, after all of the relevant official bodies had cleared Bt brinjal, the environment ministry blocked its introduction. Many traditional varieties of brinjal require the application of pesticides every third or fourth day, which results in significant pesticide residue on it when it reaches the consumer. Bt Brinjal would have considerably alleviated this problem by mitigating the need for pesticide use.
A serious adverse effect of the publicity and actions against GM technology has been the loss of interest on the part of students and researchers to opt for biotechnology. The success of Bt cotton had given new impetus to the study of this field at postgraduate and doctoral levels in the State Agricultural Universities and ICAR institutions. But the Supreme Court decision to implement a moratorium on field trials for 10 years on all GM research has had a chilling effect on the study of biotechnology. This too needs to be rectified.
Objections to GM technologies are based on the twin fears that they may harm humans consuming the resulting produce and they may have adverse effects on biodiversity. But no compelling evidence supporting either of these fears has emerged more than two decades after the original introduction of GM foods in 1994.
On the contrary, GM technology has proven useful in curtailing the use of pesticide and insecticide in combating pests and diseases.
In the Indian context, it also offers the prospects of making crops tolerant to drought, salinity and other abiotic stresses. The fortification of grains and edible oils with vitamin A and modified fatty acid profile are some examples of upstream benefits to consumers.
The United States has reaped these benefited for at least one and half decades. Recently, even India has been importing and consuming canola oil made from GM rapeseed with no adverse health effects reported to-date. A consultation was held with scientists, farmers and a journalist.
Scientists uniformly argued that with proper regulation GM technologies were safe and promised to significantly raise productivity in a variety of crops. Farmers uniformly protested being deprived of a technology that promised to give them higher yields and therefore better lives to their children. They specifically noted the necessity of frequent doses of pesticides to preserve the conventional brinjal varieties from catching insects.
The journalist offered arguments against the technologies but they did not persuade the scientists and farmers present during the consultation. A public letter by two scientists addressed to Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog also noted, “World’s leading scientific bodies like the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK’s Royal Society, the German Risk Assessment Agency, the European Academy of Science, the Canadian Royal Society, the New Zealand Royal Society, and India’s seven science academies have declared GM crops safe. Innumerable scientific associations and regulatory bodies have all concluded that GM crops are safe and economically beneficial, based on hundreds of independent economic assessment studies published in the best scientific publications that undergo rigorous peer review.”
As a part of its strategy to bring a Second Green Revolution, India must return to permitting proven and well-tested GM technologies with adequate safeguards. Additionally, India urgently needs technological breakthrough in oilseeds and pulses. Our dependence on imports for meeting domestic demand for edible oils has risen to 70 per cent.
Even if India doubles its current level of oilseed production, the import dependence will remain at 40 per cent level. The situation is worse in pulses. Per capita intake and availability of pulses in the country has declined to two third since early 1960s. During the 50 years between 1964-65 and 2014-15, per capita production of pulses declined from 25 kg to 13.6 kg. Even imports, which constitute about one fifth of domestic demand, have failed to arrest decline in the availability of pulses in the country.
It will be worthwhile to explore the possibility of GM technology in raising oilseeds and pulses output as conventional technologies have not helped in raising output to keep pace with country’s requirements. It should not be forgotten that high yielding varieties of seeds had been the key to the first Green Revolution.
Recognizing the general sensitivity to permitting multinationals to sell GM seeds, it may be prudent for the government to proceed with domestically sourced GM seeds only.
Luckily, Indian scientists and institutions have been active and successful in this area. A large number of India sourced candidates for field trials and eventual commercialization already exist.