Despite ideologically opposing the domestic cultivation of genetically modified (GM) mustard seeds, India continues to import a large quantity of genetically engineered mustard oil. In fact, edible oil has become India’s third largest import item after crude oil and gold. This baffles many. In FY15, India imported edible oil worth Rs 70,000 crore, of which 30% was GM mustard oil. When the country is indeed importing and consuming mustard oil extracted from GM mustard seeds then “the political opposition to the domestic cultivation of transgenic crops lacks conviction,” says Professor Deepak Pental, the man behind the successful development of an indigenous variety of GM mustard seed which can substantially increase India’s domestic production of mustard oil and reduce our increasing reliance on food imports. The scientific community feels that it would be impossible to feed 1.3 billion people simply by traditional (organic) farming methods, a reality which even the government acknowledges by importing genetically modified soya and mustard oil.
The current government seems sympathetic to the issue, feels Prof. Pental. He is happy to see the regular meetings of genetic engineering appraisal committee being conducted under the current dispensation. He is also happy that the Department of Biotechnology and the Ministry of Science and Technology is doing a thorough job now on biosafety appraisals. “Both these steps give me hope that the government would take the bold decision to allow the cultivation of transgenic seeds in India as we successfully did during the green revolution,” said Pental.
“Without GM technology Indian agriculture is going to collapse,” says Chengal Reddy, chief advisor to the Consortium of Indian Farmers Associations. He accuses some NGOs who, in connivance with India’s import lobbies, are deliberately sabotaging the domestic cultivation of India’s own developed GM mustard seeds. He fears that the government’s complacency would take our edible oil import bill to 1.5 lakh crore in the next five years.
Although biotech crops are increasingly gaining global acceptance, there is a fear in India that such an acceptance would give MNCs (having a bank of transgenic seeds) an easy opportunity to capture India’s seed sector. “The solution to this lies in good and effective regulation rather than fearing about an unknown fear,” says Dr Bhagirath Choudhary, founder director, South Asia Biotechnology Centre. If the Narendra Modi government is serious about ameliorating the sufferings of 5.5 million farmers engaged in mustard cultivation, then it must encourage the use of modern technological inputs among them. Such a push can help India double its domestic production of mustard to 14 million tonnes.
In fact, 2015 was celebrated as the 20th anniversary of the commercialisation of biotech crops. The experience of these 20 years confirms that biotech crops have delivered substantial agronomic, environmental, economic, health and social benefits to farmers and, increasingly, to society at large, says the paper released by South Asia Biotechnology Centre. Globally, about 2 billion hectares of land was brought under GM crops. This also made farmers richer by over $150 billion during the said period.