Some Urgent Considerations on Genetically Modified Crops and Food Security: Neha Saigal
This is a guest post by NEHA SAIGAL: The Budget Session is upon us and we might be witness to one of UPA’s most ambitious flagship programmes, the National Food Security Bill (NFSB), becoming a reality. So it seems like Food Security is the flavour of this session with President, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, reiterating UPA 2’s commitment to food security in his maiden speech at the start of the Budget Session.
But this commitment comes under serious question when one of the responsible agencies of the Government dilutes the issue of food security and further misleads the debate on an important issue like hunger and malnutrition. I am referring to the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) under Sharad Pawar mindlessly promoting GM crops as a solution to food security.
Sharad Pawar has, on more than one occasion, voiced the faulty argument that GM is needed to feed India’s growing population. This was overly emphasised by the Ministry on behalf of the Union of India in its affidavit to the Supreme Court in the PIL of GMOs[i]. This narrow minded and false argument put forth by the MoA is unfortunately the same approach put forward by global biotech companies and their cronies to promote controversial GM technology in food and farming, overlooking the obvious risks with Genetically Modified (GM) crops and at the same time trivialising the debate on food security in India.
INDIAN PARADOX OF EXCESS PRODUCTION AND INCREASING STARVATION
A logical understanding of what constitutes food security and the food production situation in India will paint a clearer picture as to why GM is no silver bullet to food security and not much more than a very expensive distraction.
The MoA along with the promoters of GM crops have advocated the need for GM crops to increase production and feed India’s growing population. But an analysis of the food grain production confirms the Indian paradox of excess production and increasing starvation. The Economic Survey 2013 presented a day before the budget suggests that production has improved remarkably growing twice as fast as the population. It has also noted that the food grain production was at a record high of 259.32 million tonnes in 2011-12. Apart from food grain production India is also ranked 1st in the world in fresh fruit, milk and pulses production and 2nd in terms of production of fresh vegetables. So clearly India need not be in a hurry to adopt risky technology like GM crops to increase production and this was also pointed out by the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture.
GM CROPS DO NOT FIT THE BILL OF FOOD SECURITY
If one were insistent to go down the path of the need for increased production through increased yield, one would fin again that GM crops have failed to show any increase in yield in the nearly two decades of their existence. There has been no GM crop developed anywhere in the world to increase yield. The Bt cotton experience back home and a look at government statistics only confirms this and further raises many a question on the sustainability to Indian farming. The insignificant increase in yield when Bt cotton area touched 96% was also accepted by the Planning Commission of India in its draft of the 12th year plan. Further, Bt cotton has only added to the burden of agrarian distress of the small, marginal and landless farm families who also are highly food insecure.
GM crops are controversial world over and do not fit the pillars of food security defined by credible agencies like the WHO. Apart from the monopolistic control of seeds, control of our food systems by seed companies and cost of high cultivation for farmers, there is growing scientific evidence on the health and environmental risks of GM crops. Therefore GM crops do not pass the food safety criterion which is very vital to food security.
MOCKERY OF FOOD SECURITY AND IGNORANCE TO PUBLIC OPPOSITION OF GM CROPS
Hunger and malnutrition is a vital issue for a country like India and every citizen is concerned that half the children in this country are underweight and a third of them are born malnourished. What is worrying is a mockery of such an important and complex issue by Sharad Pawar and the biotech giants by offering simplistic techno-fixes like GM crops.
“On the eve of the budget session to voice their opposition, 17 Greenpeace activists occupied the FCI godown in Delhi to challenge Sharad Pawar on this mindless, unfounded promotion of GM crops for food security. While 12 of these young activists were detained for 12 hours by the police, as are many activists in this country for expressing dissent with the State on several issues.”
The Government’s effort to ignore public opposition has been ongoing with the debate on GM crops in the country; it cannot be the case anymore as the opposition has become stronger and diverse over the last few months. From the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture to the high profile scientific Technical Expert Committee[ii] appointed by the Supreme Court, has recommended to tread cautiously down the path of GM crops. Very recently 150 scientists from around the country have also expressed their displeasure at the unscientific advocacy of GM crops by the MoA for food security.[iii]
CAN THE AAM ADMI PIN THEIR HOPE ON MoEF?
There is enough evidence and many alternatives if one wants to seriously consider India’s farming to be sustainable and to ensure that every Indian has the access to available food. But the Agriculture Minister’s relentless attitude to introduce GM into food and farming can make anyone wonder whether this is due to vested interests and not public interest. Unfortunately this attitude seems to be the representation of the Government of India in important judicial arenas like in the PIL filed in the Supreme Court on GMOs.
It is only obvious that the aam admi is left confused and angry by the cruel joke played the Government where on one hand they talk about their commitment to bring in a National Food Security Bill and on the other they want to open the flood gates to risky GM crops and allow multi-national biotech companies to take over our food and farming system, destroying the livelihood of the poorest farmer in this country and paving the path for food insecurity for the next many future generations.
In this situation with a schizophrenic government and profit hungry biotech companies, is there anyone that the aam admi can pin their hope on? The history of GM crops has shown the Ministry of Environment under Mr Jairam Ramesh stand up for public interest and declared a moratorium on Bt Brinjal at that time.
Can we expect the same from Smt Jayanthi Natrajan, the current Minister of Environment and also the decision maker on GM crops in India to intervene so that the MoA does not lead the country down the dangerous path of GM crops under the fallacy that it is a need for food security?
This question cannot be left unanswered. Smt Jayanthi Natrajan needs to take a stand sooner than later.
(Neha Saigal is a sustainable agriculture campaigner with Greenpeace India.)