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GM or organic: Where does India's future lie?

By Suman Sahai

Does it make sense for India to forego its special status as a producer of GM-free agricultural foods, lose a secure market for its produce and incomes for its farmers, and start cultivating GM crops that no one will buy? Is the future not with organic farming?

A taskforce chaired by Dr M S Swaminathan was set up to prepare a roadmap for India's agbiotechnology programme. Its report makes an important recommendation: that India's programme for developing GM (genetically modified) crops should acknowledge the realities of the market.

One of the crops mentioned in the report as needing special attention is soybean. Policy planners should take serious note of this. India is a tiny producer of soybean; its total output is around 4-5 million tonnes. All India's soybean is GM-free.

On the other hand, there is a flood of GM soybean in the world market. The US alone produces over 32 million tonnes of soy per year, 75% of which is genetically modified. Argentina produces around 28 million tonnes, 98% of which is genetically modified. And there are other cultivators like Brazil that are rapidly expanding their acreage of GM soy.

Should India start cultivating genetically modified soybean, as promoted by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)? What is a better course of action for our farmers: GM soy or non-GM soy?

At present, India's entire soybean crop is sold. Even if we were to double production, every single bean would still be sold because we are now the only country in the world from where GM-free soy can be sourced without risk of contamination. Since India does not cultivate GM soy at all it can easily certify its soybean GM-free.

Indian soy is supplied to niche markets that seek assured GM-free produce. The bulk of soybean cultivated in the world is now genetically modified, and when GM-free soy is available it is from countries that are large producers of GM soy so there are bound to be mixtures. Even in the European Union, where there was a de facto moratorium on GM foods, 25% of the soy produced is genetically modified; in Japan, where there is growing opposition to GM foods, 40% of soybean is genetically engineered. The international market is increasingly seeking GM-free foods due to growing rejection by consumers. Manufacturers of baby food and convalescent food, and housewives in countries like Japan and Korea -- large soy consumers -- strongly oppose GM foods and prefer GM-free soy.

Under these circumstances, resolutely remaining a non-GM producer of soybean best serves the interests of Indian farmers. If India were to become a producer of GM soy, it would lose its special market. Its GM soy would not be able to compete with huge producers like the US and its highly-subsidised low-cost soy.

So, does it make sense for India to forego its special status, lose a secure market for its produce and incomes for its farmers, and start cultivating GM soybean that no one will buy?

In the case of rice, India exports not just Basmati but non-Basmati rice as well, largely to Europe and West Asia but also to Africa. The total annual value of India's rice exports is in the vicinity of Rs 6,000 crore. The importers of Indian rice are countries where there is mounting opposition to GM foods. Indian rice enjoys assured markets today and there is a distinct upward trend in exports of both Basmati and non-Basmati rice. Should we jeopardise this assured market and start cultivating GM rice? Who will make up for the revenue losses to farmers that will result from countries refusing imports of GM rice from India?

As against this 'push GM at all costs' approach, it would be wise to take cognizance of the burgeoning organic sector and respond to it. The hill states have understood this simple logic. Sikkim, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Uttaranchal have decided to go organic rather than GM. The international organic market does not permit GM contamination in organic produce, so organic and GM-free has to go hand-in-hand.

This then would appear to be the future that the markets are pointing to, but India's biotech policymakers seem to be oblivious to the realities of the situation. Full of misplaced zeal and the desire to jump on the GM bandwagon at all costs, the biotech bunch are willing to play with the livelihoods of thousands of farmers by chasing a personal agenda rather that looking at the public good.

Given the ad hoc and thoughtless nature of decisions that are being taken on GM crops and foods, by a small coterie of people, it has become imperative to conduct a broad-based and transparent debate on what should constitute the nation's policy on GM crops. It is embarrassing that a country of India's size, with such agricultural strengths and dependencies, is lurching from one biotech product to another with no defined policy to guide it and no public consultations.

(Suman Sahai has a PhD in genetics. She is the Director of Gene Campaign, a leading research and advocacy organisation working on farmer and community rights, bio-resources, IPR, indigenous knowledge and GE food and crops)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2007