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Harvesting controversy with GM crops in India

Murali Krishnan
March 13, 2015

Monsanto is expected to submit final trial results for its genetically modified (GM) corn to India’s lawmakers within a year. But a commercial launch is not going to be easy. Murali Krishnan explains why.

Image: STR/AFP/Getty Images

After six years of trials in India, GM corn, not currently allowed in the country, is nearing its final phase, and Monsanto's Indian subsidiary plans to share those results with the Indian government as a new strategy for expanding crops in the country.

Seeds of doubt

The company says the corn is insect and herbicide tolerant and is expected to raise yields by up to 20 percent.

Besides corn, field trials for five other genetically modified crops - eggplant, maize, rice, chickpea and cotton - are currently being conducted in some Indian states.

"Out of 184 million hectares of corn being planted across the world, 30 percent - some 55 million hectares - is already under genetically modified technologies. Seventeen countries are deploying these technologies through their farm feeds," said Bhagirith Choudhary of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

This international non-profit, which shares the benefits of crop biotechnology with various stakeholders, says even small countries like Vietnam have approved the use of Bt and Ht corn to increase the competitiveness of their farmers.

While sections with Prime Minister Narendra Modis's government argue that allowing GM crops is critical to boost poor farm productivity in the country, farmer organizations and other lobbies oppose its introduction.

Monsanto Genmai
Monsanto corn is a source of discord around the worldImage: AFP/Getty Images

What's more, it has to convince its own conservative groups like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, both grassroots organizations - to end their opposition to the crops.

Agricultural India became self-sufficient in food grains after the launch of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, when it introduced high-yielding seed varieties and the use of fertilizer and irrigation.

The challenge now is to replicate that success in edible oils and vegetables, which are increasingly in demand.

Opposition to GMO crops

Public resistance to GMOs has been spreading in the country due to the increased prevalence of scientific evidence for the negative impact of GM crops on human health and the environment.

Opponents have expressed concerns about the manner in which seed companies are taking control of the seed sector by using their patented GM seeds.

"Companies like Monsanto and Syngenta - all companies that are involved with plant biotechnology - are indicating that this is a win-win situation and an elixir for humankind," argues Ashish Gupta from the Organic Farming Association of India.

Gupta pointed out that the socio-economic downsides like horizontal gene transfer and loss of biodiversity are pushed under the "carpet and ignored."

In 2010, India placed a moratorium on GM eggplant, fearing its effect on food safety and biodiversity. While other GM crops were not banned, the regulatory system was brought to a deadlock.

Weizen Ernte Symbolbild GVO GMO Gentechnik EU
Some say GM corn will benefit rural farmers in IndiaImage: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/M. Henning

GM crops are still under debate the world over. Though the issues under debate are usually very similar concerning costs, benefits and safety issues, the outcome of the debate differs from country to country.

With farm holdings shrinking in many parts of India and the migration of farmers to other occupations for a variety of reasons, Choudhary argues that introduction of new technologies is necessary for rural revival.

"If they cannot improve the productivity per unit area, per day sunlight, their income cannot be increased. So it is so important for countries like India that technologies be utilized," he says.

On the other hand, Ritu Singh, a member of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, does not buy the argument that increasing yields or growing production are doable methods.

"The worry for us is that we will lose all our indigenous varieties if GM comes in. There are farmers who are producing more than the other kinds of random farms while growing organic," says Singh.

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