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Dogma must not trump science on GM seeds

opinionDogma must not trump science on GM seeds

The objections to GM crops are doctrinal rather than fact-based. But the Luddite groups, though microscopic in numbers, are loud, deceitful and resourceful.


Agriculture is one sector that has been not just been completely bypassed by economic reforms but also by innovations in science and technology. The reason is simple: deaf to the calls of reason and commonsense, our political masters respond only to the cry-wolf stories peddled by an assortment of activists who have waged a jihad against reforms, rationality and progress. Things have come to such a pass that farmers have started an agitation against the Luddite attitude of the authorities. They are campaigning in Maharashtra’s Akola district for the right to sow the banned herbicide-tolerant Bt (HTBT) cotton seeds.

Since few good deeds go unpunished in India, repression has been unleashed against the agitating farmers; a dozen of them have been booked by the police. The protest is being organised by the Shetkari Sanghatana. Its spokesperson, Lalit Bahale, is among the accused.

The Sanghatana was founded by the late Sharad Joshi (1935-2015). He was perhaps the only farmer leader who advocated the end of regulations in agriculture and argued that the government should get off the farmer’s back. He was for the end of socialist legislation like the Essential Services Act.

The Sanghatana is opposed to the Union government’s ban on the use of genetically modified Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton and brinjal seeds. Beginning a civil disobedience movement on 10 June, hundreds of farmers broke the law by sowing GM cotton and brinjal seeds. They violated the Rules for the Manufacture/Use/Import/Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms, Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells, 1989, under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. These rules regulate the use of GM crops in the country.

It needs to be pointed out that these rules, and the law from which they emanated, were the result of the massive lobbying carried out by anti-science activists of both the Left and the Right. The objections to GM crops are doctrinal rather than fact-based; but the Luddite groups, though microscopic in numbers, are loud, deceitful and resourceful. Therefore, despite the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Environment Ministry approving Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh did in 2010 what pusillanimous politicians usually do—succumb to the pressure of raucous activists. An indefinite moratorium was put on it. The Narendra Modi government, too, did not show much uprightness against the Luddites; it withdrew the approval of commercial cultivation of GM mustard in 2017.

Economic Survey 2018 emphasised “the need to embrace agricultural science and technology with renewed ardor”. It said, “Agricultural research will be vital in increasing yields but also in increasing reliance to all the pathologies that climate change threatens to bring in its wake…”

Expert after expert has laid stress on the greater use of technology. Survey after Economic Survey has talked about innovation, new methods in agriculture, and so on. Yet, the powers that be seem to become powerless in the face of activists’ rhetoric, which is a blend of dogma, hearsay and cantankerousness. Politicians tend to ignore evidence and agree with the activists.

Gujarat did exceptionally well in agriculture when Modi was chief minister, registering an average annual growth rate of 8%. This, according to Prominent agricultural economist Ashok Gulati (The Indian Express, 24 June), “was triggered and led by Bt cotton. And this was part of the famous Gujarat development model…”

The story recent developments are telling is not very happy. The government seems unwilling to call the bluff of anti-GM activists; its crackdown against the agitating farmers suggests only that. What the government doesn’t realise is the fact that those who want to proscribe GM seeds and foods are professional radicals who have opposed everything good that has happened in our country, whether it was the Green Revolution in the 1960s, computerisation, liberalisation, or foreign investment.

At the time of the introduction of Bt cotton in India in 2002, Joshi had said in a lecture: “It was claimed (at the time of the Green Revolution) that if we had the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and high-yielding variety of seeds, the rich will become richer and the poor will become poorer, and the Green Revolution will produce a bloody red revolution. Pandit (Jawaharlal) Nehru took extra efforts to see that the Green Revolution did not come till the end of his days. The 1965 war with Pakistan made it necessary for (the then Prime Minister) Lal Bahadur Shastri to have recourse to that technology, and he was fortunate in getting Dr C. Subramaniam as his minister for agriculture. The Green Revolution technology was introduced, and we saw the results immediately. India soon became self-sufficient in food.”

It is hoped that the government under Modi, who wants to be seen as a post- and anti-Nehruvian leader, will refuse to follow in the footsteps of Nehru, so far as the agriculture policy is concerned.

The author is a freelance journalist.


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