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India may pay a huge price for adopting GM crops. Here's why

Sourjya Bhowmick | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

When genetically modified (GM) crops were introduced in India in the 1990s, they caused much excitement. Initially, the crops yielded bumper harvests, seemingly confirming the assertions of their advocates that an agricultural revolution was nigh.

Two decades on, GM crops are causing huge losses to farmers, not least because their USP has turned out faulty - they aren't immune to weather changes or pests as they were touted to be. The harm has been especially severe to the Indian farmers growing cotton, over 90% of which is now genetically modified.

Also read - Can GM Sugarcane really make a difference in drought-hit areas?

Yet, the latest economic survey of the Narendra Modi regime has advocated greater use of "GM technology for agricultural progress and increase in crop productivity per unit area".

"Since the commercialisation of Bt cotton in 2002, yields rose from 300 kg per hectare to 523 kg per hectare in 2014", Minister of State for Agriculture Sanjeev Balyan said early this month.

Accordingly, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee recently cleared a dozen new varieties of GM crops for field trials - cotton, castor, wheat, sugarcane, rice, maize, groundnut, potato, sorghum, brinjal, mustard and chickpea.

Seeding a disaster?

India showed interest in GM crops as early as the 1980s. But the first offer for commercialisation was accepted in 1996 when Monsanto introduced its technology through a joint venture with the Indian firm Mahyco. In 1997-98, Monsanto started field trials of Bt cotton, although illegally. Six years later, Bt cotton was commercially grown.

By 2005, nearly 1.3 million hectares of farmland were under the cultivation of GM crops. At least 12 multinational and a few domestic corporations are invested in the business of GM crops and associated technology.

GM crops have divided opinion in India since before their introduction. Those in favour of the crops argue they help reduce the use of pesticides, increase production and, thereby, exports. That's, such crops are not only ecology-friendly, they are economically advantageous as well.

Bt cotton increased crop yield from 300 kg per hectare in 2002 to 523 kg in 2014: Sanjeev Balyan

The critics argue that GM crops threaten India's ecology and biodiversity, make pests more resistant, and are too expensive for farmers. As for their supposed economic benefit, they argue that "corporatisation of agriculture" under the terms of international trade "will never be favourable to Indian farmers".

Recent studies seem to support the critics. According to media reports, this year alone, Bt cotton cultivated on 56,000 hectares across seven districts of Karnataka has failed. This loss has again shown that GM crops aren't really immune to weather changes as they are peddled to be. Indeed, not only in India, weather changes have led to failure of Bt cotton in China as well. In the United States, GM soyabean crop has suffered damage due to unusually hot weather.

It's well documented that since the advent of Bt cotton, farmer suicides in the cotton-producing belt of Vidarbha have increased significantly.

Still, the Modi regime has dismissed concerns about the potential dangers of GM crops declaring there is no scientific evidence that they would harm soil, human health or the environment.

More in Catch - Cotton farmer suicides: Punjab has been here before and not learnt

First published: 28 May 2016, 9:26 IST
Sourjya Bhowmick @sourjyabhowmick

Born and raised in Kolkata, Sourjya is all about the numbers. He uses data to contextualise stories on a broad range of topics. Formerly with the Hindustan Times and IndiaSpend, any time not spent researching and writing is spent reading non-fiction and tackling his unending collection of films. An alumnus of Presidency College, Kolkata, he has a post-grad degree in Political Science from Calcutta University and was actively involved in student politics. He's a fan of Tintin comics, Germany's football team, Mohun Bagan and Old Monk.