Is the Reversal of the Moratorium on GM Crops Good for India?

By A. Narayanamoorthy and P. Alli

The Indian government and policymakers are debating whether or not to reverse its current moratorium on GM crops. Here, the authors argue that to solve the agrarian crisis in India and alleviate some of Indian farmers’ crushing poverty, the use of GM crops is the only way forward.

The polarised debate over genetically modified (GM) crops in India is back in the limelight. The advocates and dissenters of GM technology broke open the debate following the central government’s recent decision to lift the 10-year moratorium on all GM crops field trials. With this decision, the gene modification of more than 200 varieties of rice, wheat, maize, castor, and cotton, among other crops, will be a distant reality no more, inflicting a severe blow to the Basudeb Acharya Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and the Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee (SCTEC) which had called for a complete halt of all field trials of GM crops for a 10-year period. While the Supreme Court’s final call on the fate of GM crops is still in limbo, let us have a look as to what way this reversal will help Indian agriculture.

Demonstrating the most anti-scientific of spirits, these two committees justify their recommendation of a 10-year moratorium on three grounds. First, that it is the country’s biotechnology policy which is responsible for the ongoing agrarian crisis. Second, that this technology is bound to deprive the livelihood of the poor agricultural labourers who are mostly women and children. Third, there is a possibility that this technology can damage human health and the environment.

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Are these arguments backed by any scientific or empirical evidence? How far are these issues true? Why a moratorium now when a decade ago the technology was whole-heartedly endorsed by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and supported by the country’s policymakers? If the green revolution technology has been acceptable to all, why not GM technology which also aims to enhance our agricultural productivity in a scenario of rising population, diminishing land and depletion of water resources? How can the country ensure food security to its people and higher income to farmers if the committee put the brakes on GM technology? When the vast majority of farmers have endorsed the blending of science with traditional knowledge, why is the anti-lobby GM aggressively trying to kill technology in India? Why has it become a fashion for certain groups in our country to oppose any technological progress that accrues benefits to the farming community? How can this moratorium prohibit the entry of imported GM foods that are already flooding the Indian processed food market in the form of corn flakes, edible oils (like soya and corn oil), etc.? The policymakers must also understand that Bangladesh, a bordering country to India, has already approved the cultivation of Bt brinjal, which can simply enter into the Indian market!

Various farmers’ organizations across the country have condemned the committee’s recommendations which could affect the livelihood and income of farmers. The report targets the highly successful Bt cotton as a disaster for Indian farmers and blames it entirely for the suicide spree of Vidharba farmers in Maharashtra state. These arguments can be held as fallacious on three grounds. First, the phenomenon of suicides among the cotton farmers was prevalent during the 1990s and cannot be said as having reared its head after the introduction of GM technology in 2002. Second, although the Acharya Committee’s concern on the exorbitant price of Bt cotton seeds is a legitimate one, to shut it down completely is not the ultimate solution to this long standing issue. Further research should be undertaken towards bringing down the cost of Bt cotton seeds. If Bt cotton has failed, then why is the adoption of Bt cotton increasing? The area under Bt cotton has increased from less than one percent of India’s total cotton area of 7.60 million hectares in 2003-04, to about 95 percent of 11.24 million hectares in 2010-11. None of the agricultural technology introduced after the green revolution in agriculture has spread with this skyrocketing speed so far. Researchers from across highly reputed research institutions have documented with empirical evidence the phenomenal success of Bt cotton and its socio-economic benefits.   So why then the continuous drum beat of ‘Bt cotton has failed,’ heard in certain quarters?


The area under Bt cotton has increased from less than one percent of India’s total cotton area of 7.60 million hectares in 2003-04, to about 95 percent of 11.24 million hectares in 2010-11.

Killing Research?

In a scenario of rising consumption needs and dwindling natural resources, it is imperative that India innovates or accesses the appropriate technologies that will enhance the country’s agricultural productivity efficiently. Since the initiation of the green revolution during the mid-1960s, researchers, government and the private sector have been relentlessly working towards improving efficiency and productivity of agriculture to make the farming system more responsive to the needs of its farmers. But, the SCTEC report claims that the root cause of the ongoing agrarian crisis is due to the advent of biotechnology in agriculture. The phenomenon of the agrarian crisis needs to be viewed in a broader perspective which includes the outcome of a vicious concoction of rising farm inputs, declining direct farm credit, unviable minimum support price, depleting water table, failures of monsoon, and declining public investment in agriculture. The government’s policy fatigue is recorded as the key reason for the on-going agrarian crisis. This depressing phenomenon has been haunting the Indian farm front since the mid-1990s with no signs of respite. While the peer-reviewed studies on Bt cotton have stated that GM technology has contributed to the alleviation of poverty over a period, it seems that linking the agrarian crisis with biotechnology is a tactic of the anti-GM lobby that does not want technology to benefit the already depressed farmers.

One of the grave concerns of the Indian farmers has been the spiraling cost of agriculture labourers. Finding it difficult to cope up with the rising labour costs which occupy a major portion of their cost of cultivation, any technology that saves on labour will definitely be endorsed by farmers whole-heartedly. This is what the researchers are attempting to do with the science of biotechnology. However, with the SCTEC spelling out a 10-year moratorium on field-testing of GM crops, the country’s progress towards this goal is now in jeopardy. It seems the committee is unaware of the ground realities of Indian agriculture, which is witnessing a dwindling agricultural productivity, and the only way to feed its teeming millions is to blend science with existing knowledge. If these recommendations are accepted by the highest authority, how can the country’s agricultural scientists carry out serious transgenic breeding without evaluating the agronomic performance in open field conditions? If all trials are performed only in contained laboratories, then it is as good as killing research. Who will benefit by the laboratories’ research?


Debates on Bt Cotton

With the significant increase in productivity of cotton from 191 kg/ha in 2002-03 to about 500 kg/ha in 2010-11, Bt technology has dramatically transformed cotton production in India. But it is being attacked by several anti-technology activists who are using false and unfounded allegations to question the desire to have access to better technology. One prominent false claim is that Bt cotton has caused crop failures and mass suicides in India. In a number of areas related to cotton crop failures – the science of Bt, farmers’ experiences on the ground, positions taken by the anti-GM lobby on transgenic and spurious seeds – voices, research and outcomes are fiercely contested without any sound empirical evidence. There remains no clarity as to what is really going on. However, the triumph of Bt cotton is unquestionable based on a number of academic, peer-reviewed studies by an array of researchers across the country. These studies have pointed out that since the introduction of Bt cotton, India’s cotton yield increased tremendously, with a drastic increase in the farmers’ income as well. If Bt cotton had failed, then the farmers would not have increasingly adopted it and the acreage under Bt cotton would not have virtually increased. The fact that more than 95 percent of cotton-growing areas of the country is planted with Bt cotton by thousands of cotton farmers in the country, resulting in savings of about 40 percent of total chemical insecticides, has not been recognized either by the committee’s report nor by the anti-GM lobby. Is the reduction of pesticides consumption not good for the environment? How can the committee overlook such realities and come out with such a moratorium, which could seriously hamper the cotton production of the country?

The area under Bt cotton has increased from less than one percent of India’s total cotton area of 7.60 million hectares in 2003-04, to about 95 percent of 11.24 million hectares in 2010-11.

We must understand where we are today in terms of the adoption of GM technology in the world. GM crops, both food and non-food, were grown by farmers in about 134 million hectares in 25 countries as of 2009. The countries that have ever faced food security problems are fast adopting this technology today, as they understand its significance. India is in dire need of GM technology in agriculture, not only for improving the pathetic condition of the farmers, but also to protect the food security of the country on a sustainable basis. No doubt the concerns related to the cost of seed and safety regulations must be addressed by a well-designed panel of scientists and regulatory agencies. It is also equally important to get the perceptions of farmers while making any drastic decisions, as the technology is developed for them. Feeding on the fears and prejudices based on anecdotal evidence is dangerous to India’s agricultural growth as well as its research. Policymakers should be congratulated for acting swiftly in reverting the moratorium on GM crops research, thus allowing scientific benefits to percolate down through society. When science is employed in every sector, why prevent it in the agriculture sector?


About the Authors

Dr. A. Narayanamoorthy is NABARD Chair Professor and head of the Department of Economics and Rural Development, Alagappa University, Tamil Nadu, India. He specializes in irrigation economics and policy issues of Indian agriculture and has been widely published in international and national journals. He is a recipient of the prestigious Professor Ramesh Chandra Agrawal Award of excellence awarded for the outstanding contribution in the field of agricultural economics by the Indian Society of Agricultural Economics, Mumbai.

Dr. P. Alli is currently working as Assistant Professor in the Economics Division, Vellore Institute of Technology University, Tamil Nadu, India. In collaboration with Dr. A. Narayanamoorthy, she has produced credible research papers in prestigious journals including the Indian Journal of Agriculture Economics, besides being a regular contributor to some premier national dailies, such as The Business Line, The Financial Express and Deccan Chronicle.