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Increase in crop yield, food security have no link: Scientists to MoEF
Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Akshay Kalbag, Mumbai
Over 150 scientists wrote a letter to Jayanthi Natarajan, minister of environment and forests, recently, stating their concerns about genetically modified (GM) crops and bringing to her notice the fact that the agriculture ministry is already making a case for about 56 crops of this variety, claiming that the technology is absolutely necessary for India's food security.

This was corroborated by Diliprao Deshmukh, vice-president, Maharashtra Organic Farming Federation (MOFF), a Pune-based anti-GM crop campaigner and a partner in the Coalition for a GM-Free India, which observed February 9, 2013 – the third anniversary of the moratorium on the commercial release of Bt brinjal – as Food Safety Day.

Incidentally, the moratorium was imposed when Jairam Ramesh – now the minister of rural development – was in charge of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), and the scientists and the Coalition for a GM-Free India urged Ramesh's successor Natarajan to make sure it was not lifted.

“The agriculture ministry filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that GM crops were essential for food safety, but the scientists who sought Natarajan's intervention said the Sharad Pawar-led ministry's argument is baseless. There is no link between yield increases and food security, as is evident from the data presented by various countries,” Deshmukh said.

This affidavit was filed in response to a report on GM crops by a technical committee appointed by the apex court, which had advised that GM crops be banned for a period of 10 years because of their unpredictable impact on the environment. The scientists said it also alleged that they had not undertaken adequate research to confirm the safety of GM crops.

The letter

The scientists wrote, “There are flaws in the agriculture ministry's stance that the apex court's Technical Expert Committee (TEC) had recommended a 10-year moratorium on agri-biotech research. It is a narrow definition, which considers only GM crops as agriculture biotechnology. The TEC is specific, concerned only with GM crops and trees and not about other biotechnologies.”

Responding to the argument put forth by the agriculture ministry, they added, “Many countries do not grow GM crops. In fact, the area under GM crop cultivation is merely 160 million hectare, or 3.2 per cent of the global agricultural land. Three food crops – soybean (47 per cent); maize (32 per cent) and canola (five per cent) – account for 84 per cent of the area under GM crops.”

Attempting to dissociate the issue of food production from the shortcomings of production, the letter said, “Food security is not just a problem of production, but also of distribution and access or purchasing power. Today, there are 320 million hungry Indians and paradoxically, the godowns are overflowing and the food grains are rotting.”

“In India and overseas, a majority of the hungry ironically partake on the production of food. Hunger is obviously a more multi-faceted problem than what can be solved using a particular kind of seed or chemicals,” the letter stated. The scientists recommended a number of other approaches to resolve food insecurity in India, urging MoEF to focus on agro-ecological approaches with low external inputs.

The letter summarised the experience of countries like the United States, which have commercialised the cultivation of GM food crops. It also quoted a 2011 report of the US Economic Research Service, which stated that during the year, 17.9 million households were food insecure.

“This means that an unprecedented 50.1 million people – which is roughly one in every six Americans – live in food-insecure households and that country, which began the commercial cultivation of these crops using this controversial technology more than a decade-and-a-half ago, has the largest area under GM crop cultivation,” it said.  

Anti-GM crop campaigners' stand

Kavita Kuruganti, member, Coalition for a GM-Free India, stated, “Food security is not just about yield increases, but for a majority of the country's population, it is about poverty, livelihood and access. Although we have buffer stocks, millions go hungry in India while mountains of grain rot. The agriculture ministry claims it is a supply side issue, but actually it is not.”

She called for non-transgenic solutions – such as the rice intensification programme – to increase productivity, adding that there were molecular approaches to developing newer seeds, in which India could invest instead. She also clarified that they were not opposed to research trials, but would not permit open-field trials.

“Organisms that can propagate themselves in open fields without proper safeguards in place are highly dangerous, because regulatory measures cannot be implemented strictly. As far as transgenics are concerned, they are complex and should only be tested in greenhouses with conditions simulating drought, etc.,” Kuruganti explained.

DU's ex-VC's view

At a session of the Indian Seed Congress titled Technologies for Tomorrow, Deepak Pental, Delhi University's (DU) former vice-chancellor, said, “The delay in having a good bio-safety regime is hurting transgenic research in India.” He emphasised the need for robust public private partnership (PPP) models for furthering research.

Pental also urged that a national document on germplasm be created by undertaking technology mapping for each crop. The seed industry believes that technological advancements would help the country address the issue of food security, as arable land shrinks amidst the growing demand for food.

Industry leaders stated that a uniform policy and operative mechanism needed to be introduced across the country. The other steps that needed to be taken to boost the growth of the seed sector were higher research and development and the introduction of latest and effective practices and technologies.
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