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Meet Farmer Chengal Reddy: He wants us to give up the fear of GM crops

Author: P Chengal Reddy
Publication: The Times of India
Date: September 10, 2012
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/Meet-Farmer-Chengal-Reddy-He-wants-us-to-give-up-the-fear-of-GM-crops/articleshow/16327144.cms

The parliamentary committee report on genetically modified (GM) organisms is an attempt to give a quiet burial to biotechnology in India. On behalf of the farmers of India, let me say that this report totally fails to reflect farmers' aspirations, and distorts the scientific significance of biotechnology - including genetic engineering - for the national economy. Instead, it echoes persistent canards by some environmental NGOs.

 Indian farming suffers losses of up to Rs 1 lakh crore from pests and diseases annually, apart from natural calamities. Till the 1960s, India used only conventional breeding for seeds - but these traditional varieties were insufficient to feed the country, which became totally dependent on food aid from the US. Then came the Green Revolution which harnessed biotechnology. This saved India from starvation and made it a food exporter.

 But the limits of the Green Revolution technology have been reached. We now need new kinds of biotechnology, including GM crops. The govern-ment has created the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to regulate the entry of new GM crops.

 Unfortunately, the parliamentary committee's report seems to have been written for them by green activists without reference to scientists or farmers. Instead of hailing GM crops as a huge success, they are being portrayed as dangerous. This demonisation will demoralise top Indian researchers.

 Bt cotton, approved by GEAC in 2002, is one of the most successful stories of Indian agriculture after the Green Revolution. Fifty thousand hectares were planted in 2002, and by 2012 this reached 10 million hectares planted by 10 million farmers in nine states. India became the second largest producer of cotton in the world. It was a boon to Indian farmers. Yet, the parliamentary committee has swallowed NGOs' claims that this has been no use at all for farmers.

 GM crops of maize, soya, potato, sugar beet, canola, cotton and alfalfa are grown across the world. The US, Brazil, Argentina and China are massive producers. The global GM crops area increased from 4.3 million hectares in 1996 to 148 million hectares by 2010. Not a single case of any danger to human health has been reported, yet green activists keep spreading false stories about health hazards.

 Ten industrial nations and 19 developing countries are producing GM crops. Another 30 countries including EU countries - which do not grow GM crops themselves - are importing and consuming GM foods directly and indirectly.

 The EU countries that widely oppose GM crops have barely 15 million farmers, and follow double standards. They import huge quantities of cattle feed and beef from GM crop-producing countries including Brazil, so GM crops are very much in the European food chain. Besides, over 20 million European tourists visit the US and Latin America every year and happily consume GM food there with no adverse health effects. Yet, they make a huge noise in their own countries. But today, even the EU has allowed some GM crops: Spain with 76,575 hectares of Bt maize is the leader.

 China is growing Bt cotton, tomato, papaya and sweet pepper. In 2007, it gave in principle approval for Bt rice and Bt maize. As of 2010, China was cultivating 3.5 million hectares of Bt crops. All other large nations with big populations have also prioritised GM crop production and marketing because of the economic benefits and food needs of their masses. India must do the same.

 The parliamentary committee report has belittled the hard work by various ministries, the Planning Commission, private companies and the agriculture universities that evolved policies and programmes to propel biotech research to help our nation. Our eminent agriculture scientists such as Gurdev Kush, Ganesh Kishore, C S Prakash, S R Rao, Anand Kumar and Kailash Bansal - along with hundreds of other young and dedicated scientists - have dedicated their lives to this technology.

 Bt cotton was approved during the NDA rule. In the past five years, the UPA government has granted Rs 350 crore for biotech research, resulting in over 150 research projects. This has the potential to convert India into the world's largest seed producer. But this has now been dealt a setback by the report.

 If we look at future growth, India's population will rise from the present 1.2 billion to 1.8 bilion by 2050. There is already strong competition on farms for food, fuel, feed and fodder. Huge swathes of farmland are being diverted for infrastructure and urbanisation. This will only grow more acute as our population grows.

 The solution is to increase per hectare productivity, which includes resistance to pests and diseases. This is possible only with new techno-logies such as GM. We cannot let the report dampen Indian scientific morale; that would have huge adverse effects. We must enable India's 600 million small farmers to compete with farmers in the US, Brazil and China. For that, GM crops are an absolute must.

- P Chengal Reddy is secretary general,Consortium of Indian Farmers' Associations.
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