Today's Editorial

27 August 2017

Reconcile different 'truths'


Source: By Asheesh Navneet: Deccan Herald


The GM crop debate is back with the development of GM mustard and its approval by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). This has again intensified the conflict among supporters and detractors of Genetically Modified crop technology. As we know, Bt cotton was the first GM crop to be approved by the country’s regulatory bodies. Therefore, taking Bt cotton as the reference point, supporters and detractors of GM technology have been engaged in building two contrasting narratives.

Supporters have been showing data indicating an immense increase in cotton production in the country with the adoption of Bt cotton seeds by farmers. They argue that Bt cotton seeds have helped farmers reduce the use of chemical pesticides and thus helped them save money that they would spend on buying them. They further argue that it was not the government that approved Bt cotton initially.

Farmers started cultivating the crop illegally but the benefits from Bt cotton cultivation were so impressive that the government couldn’t do much to stop it and was compelled to fall in line by approving its commercial cultivation in 2002. According to them, farmers have the right to access high quality seeds and technologies for higher yield in agriculture. Therefore, farmers themselves chose Bt cotton seeds to earn higher income.

Detractors have, however, drawn a contrasting picture of Bt cotton cultivation in India. They argue that Bt cotton cultivation has caused damage to the environment and biodiversity of cotton crops. Today, private seed companies have flooded the market with Bt seeds, because of which other hybrid and indigenous varieties of cotton crops have become extinct. They allege that Bt cotton seeds have not helped farmers increase yields. Rather, with its adoption, farmers have gone into debt and committed suicide in increasing numbers. Further, animals have been falling sick and have even died after feeding on Bt cotton plants.

These are some of the ‘facts’ presented by stakeholders either supporting or opposing the use of GM technology in agriculture to uphold their respective stands. These stakeholders include biotechnology scientists, medical scientists, environmentalists, farmers, business groups and consumers. With the coming of GM technology, concerns related to health, environment and ownership are raised, apart from benefits of the technology. These different concerns intensified the political discourse between its proponents and opponents. In the process, new political identities got recognised, with stakeholders on either side of the GM crop divide associating with like-minded individuals and organisations to form opposing coalitions.

In the Indian context, there are four popular coalitions that have come into being to support or oppose GM crop technology. These coalitions are, the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association (CIFA) and the Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises — Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG) in support of GM crops, and the Coalition for GM-Free India and the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA) against the use of GM technology in agriculture.

Civil society groups of farmers like the Shetkari Sanghatana, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) Kisan Club, Naujawan Kisan Club, Nagarjuna Rythu Samakhya and Pratapa Rudra Farmers’ Mutually Aided Coop Credit and Marketing Federation are among the leading farmer organisations that are led by the CIFA. They demand access to modern technologies like GM crops to increase agricultural production. Similarly, to promote GM technology, biotech companies have formed the Association of Biotechnology-Led Enterprises – Agriculture Group (ABLE-AG), in which biotech companies such as Monsanto and Advanta are active members. ABLE projects itself as a not-for-profit pan-India forum representing the Indian Biotechnology sector.

On the other side, the Coalition for GM-Free India and ASHA have been campaigning and advocating for a “GM-free India”, with the aim of shifting farming towards a sustainable path. Both these organisations are coalitions of hundreds of organisations and individuals, including farmers’ groups from more than 20 states.

It can be observed that farmers are at the receiving end of the implications of GM technology and they are unaware of the future consequences of its use. They usually choose any technology to increase their crop yield so that they can improve their net income. In the process, they do not lay much store by larger concerns such as preserving the biodiversity of crops or the health of animals feeding on GM crops such as Bt cotton plants. After a decade of the introduction of Bt cotton into Indian agriculture, now only Bt cotton seeds can be found in the seed markets. Non-Bt and indigenous varieties of seeds do not exist anymore.

Multiple camps

The real political conflict is happening among the policy elites of different coalitions or alliance groups. These policy elites are savants and experts of specific areas like farming, environment, biotechnology, health and agricultural economics and, therefore, analyse GM crops from their own specific perspectives. They often come into conflict with each other on an issue related to GM crops. The coalitions or alliance groups of both pro- and anti-GM crops project themselves to be on the side of farmers and claim to be working for their benefit. These members of the two camps come up with different ‘truths’ related to GM crops to support or oppose the GM technology.

However, the specific truth reflected by a particular coalition cannot be considered to be the complete picture so far as GM crops are concerned. For example, the truth related to yield is not the full picture about GM crops. There are other truths also, like issues related to biodiversity and public health that need to be taken into account to understand the holistic picture of GM crop technology.

It is here that the role of regulatory bodies becomes critical in taking into account the voices of different stakeholders coming from different coalitions. The future of GM technology depends on finding a way in which different scientific truths can be brought together for discussions and overall analysis. Therefore, for the government, the need of the hour is to reform the regulatory bodies so that the conflicting arguments of the stakeholders can be heard, reconciled and a possible policy solution found.


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