There will be 1.8 billion Indians by 2050. GM crops are the only way to feed them all

Is the outrage justified?
Is the outrage justified?
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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There’s a food crisis looming over India.

Farmers in the country currently lose some Rs50,000 crore ($5 billion) every year to pests and diseases. Droughts, coupled with a lack of irrigation facilities, are exacerbating the problem.

Prices for pulses—a category of grains that includes lentils and chickpeas, which are staples for Indians—have been rising lately. The situation may only worsen as the United Nations estimates that the country’s population, currently at 1.2 billion, will reach 1.8 billion by 2050.

Scientists already have a solution: genetically modified (GM) crops that can withstand pests and droughts. But before they can get these super plants into farmers’ hands, they will have to convince prime minister Narendra Modi’s government about the safety and cost-effectiveness of this variety.

Genetic modification in crops involves altering a seed’s DNA in order to, say, increase its resistance to pests and insects. These changes can mean a huge boost to productivity and overall food supply. In the West, GM foods are fairly common; the US, for instance, cultivates eight crops using this technology.

In India, there’s just one: Bt cotton. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that naturally produces a protein—a biological pesticide—that kills the common crop pest bollworm. It was approved for use in India in 2002, and since then has helped make the country the second-largest cotton manufacturer in the world. Today, GM seeds account for over 90% of cotton sown in India.

However, in 2015, GM cotton plants in the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana suffered an attack of the whitefly pest. The losses were massive. Farmer unions and experts even blamed the financial devastation for the increased farmer suicides in these areas, Reuters reported.

This episode has created a strong sense of negativity towards GM foods in India. Experts, however, say adopting technology that will lead to higher crop productivity is essential to feeding the growing Indian population. Currently, a food supply deficit is pushing prices up and India has been forced to import pulses and even cultivate foreign farmlands to plug the demand-supply gap.

Make your own mustard

Genetic modification could make such drastic measures unnecessary. For example, says Chengal Reddy, chief advisor to the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association, “there is research being done on genetic modification technologies that can help crops survive longer even in a drought season.”

Kiran Sharma, a biologist with the non-profit International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, has developed a new form of pigeon pea that will be pest-resistant; he predicts it can increase output by 30%, Bloomberg reported. These legumes, commonly known as tur dal, form an integral part of the Indian diet. “If you want to increase the productivity of the pigeon pea,” Sharma told Bloomberg, “then genetic engineering is the only way of doing it.”

Perhaps the most promising GM crop is a hybrid mustard that yields 25-30% more than the original seed. It was developed by a team of scientists of Delhi University. Mustard is used to make one of the most popular edible oils in India. The GM mustard seed could be a huge money saver and lower the country’s dependence on edible oil imports: In 2014-15 India imported 14.5 million tonnes of it, worth over $10 billion.

But the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), the Indian government agency responsible for approving the commercial release of GM crops, hasn’t okayed the new seed as it is unsure about the possible public health and environmental impact of GM crops.

Politicizing the science

The World Health Organization (WHO) has generally given GM crops high marks.

“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health,” the WHO guidelines note. “In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved,” the guidelines say.

According to WHO, there’s no way to make a broad statement on the health effect of GM foods; each individual product needs to be tested for safety.

Modi is well-known to have supported Bt cotton during his tenure as chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat. He also resumed field trials which were stuck in a limbo in India since 2010 due to an unofficial moratorium. The government currently is evaluating individual reports on certain crops (including the GM mustard seed), but there is no umbrella policy in place yet.

However, in India, some environmentalists have called GM crops “toxic” and hazardous to health. Some have expressed concerns their consumption could “transfer antibiotic resistance, toxicity, and allergenicity.” They argue that since genetic modification is a pretty recent technology, the effects of prolonged consumption of GM foods on human health aren’t known.

There may be a political hue to the debate in India: staunch Hindu nationalist organizations typically oppose the use of the technology, perceiving it as foreign.

“We’ll make people aware of the ill effects, especially after pest attacks devastated GM cotton crops recently,” Prabha Kelkar, the national general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) farmers’ body, told Reuters earlier in January. RSS is a Hindu nationalist group and also the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological fountainhead.

Another issue is cost. “Farmers buy the [Bt cotton] seeds, and the costs of the pesticides which they buy from the same companies are probably tenfold of what they used to pay,” Shivani Shah, a campaigner with Greenpeace, told the New York Times in 2012. “So it’s creating a system of dependency. It is a deliberate idea of increasing costs and increasing royalties—there is no intention of reducing those costs through economies of scale.” (In response, the Indian government has capped the prices of these seeds.) So while there is high productivity, overall costs for farmers, too, have increased.

It’s not certain that Bt cotton’s pricing issues would necessarily apply to other GM crops. “A key thing to understand about GM crop technologies is that they really need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis,” says Dominic Glover, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK. “It makes a difference if you are talking about a cash crop like cotton or a food crop such as brinjal [a kind of aubergine], or a trait such as insect resistance or one such as herbicide tolerance.”

Following China

One possible solution for the Indian government is to form an autonomous regulator. The GEAC is a part of the ministry of environment and forests, and isn’t “entirely independent,” the Indian Express newspaper reported in February 2016.

The review committee on genetic manipulation, which authorizes research on GM crops, is part of the department of biotechnology whose mandate is to promote the growth of the biotech industry in India—a clear conflict of interest.

India could also look at China as an example. Both countries face similar food security challenges with exponential population growth. China, though, has been using GM crops for the last two decades (pdf). Today, with just 7% of the global arable land, China feeds 22% of the world’s population. Such a boost is needed in India—and fast.

“India now doesn’t have the luxury to sit on the issue of GM,” Ashok Gulati, a farm economist and an adviser to the previous government, told Reuters in February. “It just needs to take this bold and decisive step.”

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