Indian government still undecided on New GM crop

Mintec Global
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India is still undecided on genetically engineered or genetically modified organism (GM) crops despite the regulatory authority — Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — giving the environmental clearance for GM brinjal and mustard, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN) report has said.

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Similarly, neighbouring Pakistan has so far approved only GM cotton, while regulatory uncertainty has resulted in life science firms not seeking approval for any other crop, GAIN’s annual report on agricultural biotechnology said.

Addressing food concerns

On the other hand, Bangladesh, another neighbour, has “demonstrated a willingness” to adopt and implement a modern agricultural policy framework, including biotechnology, to address the country’s food security concerns, the report said.

Like Pakistan, India has approved only Bt cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis) biotech crop for commercial cultivation. However, import of soyabean and canola oils derived from GM soyabean and canola, besides some food ingredients from microbial biotechnology, has been allowed.

In August this year, the Indian government allowed the import of 12 million tonnes of crushed and de-oiled soyabean cakes (soyameal) derived from GM soyabean. However, the Indian Commerce Ministry has been dragging its feet in clarifying that crushed soyabean de-oiled cakes are equivalent to soyabean meal.

This has, on the other hand, opened up the possibility of providing market access for distillers’ dried grains with solubles that are obtained from GM corn.

No new GM crop since 2009

India hasn’t got any new GM crops since 2009 after the Supreme court declared a 10-year moratorium on genetically modified crops. Though the moratorium has ended, no new GM crop has been approved.

Though the Centre has said field trials of GM crops can be carried out if the concerned State governments permit them, many life science firms have not come forward in view of the politics involved in it. Companies feel that if they begin field trials, on any change in the government in the State where the events are held, the new government can ban or stop it.

Since research and development (R&D) requires huge expenditure, the companies are not willing to take any risk. This has also led to some of the firms shutting their R&D operations in India.

Bt makes up 95% of cotton area

India approved the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) variety of GM cotton in 2002 mainly since many growers began cultivating it illegally at the start of 2000. Growers saw Bt cotton, which makes up 95 per cent of the area under cotton currently, as the response to low yield of the traditional varieties.

The introduction of Bt cotton saw India’s cotton production zoom from around 175 million bales (170 kg each) to 390 million bales in 2013-14. Since then, cotton yield has dropped, affecting production. Over the last two seasons, production has stagnated in the 350-360 million bales region.

This was mainly on the yield rising to 566 kg per hectare in 2013-14 and then dropping to around 450 kg over the last few years. This year, however, the Committee on Cotton Production and Consumption has estimated the yield higher at 510 kg.

Since the yield has dropped as the cotton varieties have lost their potency, growers have begun planting herbicide-tolerant Bt (HTBt) cotton, which helps to tackle weeds on farms with the plant being immune to herbicides, illegally, as the Center is yet to approve its cultivation.

Tortuous’ progress

The USDA said in the GAIN report that illegal HTBt cotton makes up 15-20 per cent of the total area under cotton. According to cotton industry sources, India is at least five generations behind with regard to introducing a new Bt variety of cotton.

The report said a domestically developed GM mustard variety was developed by the Delhi University but its progress has been “tortuous”. On May 11, 2017, the GEAC asked the Ministry of Environment and Forest to give environmental clearance for the mustard variety.

Following protests from anti-GM lobbies, the Ministry put on hold the permission pending further review and returned the proposal to the GEAC. However, the regulatory authority said all stakeholders’ concerns had been addressed while giving environmental clearance.

But it asked the university to study the impact on honeybees and other pollinators. The studies have been completed but there has been no progress since, the report said.

Creating uncertainty

The USDA said the ruling National Democratic Alliance is indecisive on approving GM crops. “The existing policy environment creates significant uncertainty and discourages investment in agricultural biotechnology research and development in India,” it said.

If the Centre approves GE crops in the near future, besides Bt brinjal and GM mustard, three more crops — HTBt cotton, herbicide tolerant corn and another brinjal variety — could also be cleared. However, most of the firms that had sought clearance have withdrawn their applications, leaving biotechnology R&D in India in a limbo.

With regard to Pakistan, the USDA said the lack of a fully operational agricultural biotechnology framework created an uncertain trading environment for imports of GM-based products. It also discouraged technology providers from investing in Pakistan’s cotton and food crops.

In Pakistan, too, Bt cotton makes up 95 per cent of the total area under cotton. Currently, only research on GM cotton is being carried out.

In 2019, Islamabad stopped research and development of GM corn, saying production of the traditional varieties was ample to meet the country’s demand.

Dhaka playing a positive role

As regards Bangladesh, the USDA report said Dhaka is trying to play a positive role in the advance of modern biotechnology. Research and trials of new genetically modified varieties of rice, potato, brinjal, tomato, wheat and cotton are being carried out.

GM rice research has been widened to develop climate-smart varieties, though the regulatory process for clearing such events is “at times inefficient” with major delays in approving certain GM varieties.

The GAIN report said Bt brinjal was an example of Bangladesh’s success in adopting modern agricultural biotechnology, with over 65,000 farmers cultivating the vegetable.

Farmer acceptability of the Bt variety has steadily increased since it was commercially introduced eight years ago with farmers getting increased returns and yields.

This has encouraged scientists and policymakers to opt for more GM crops, including saline-tolerant, and iron and zinc-enriched rice, blast-resistant wheat and late blight-resistant potato. Farmers are also awaiting the approval for “Golden rice” which is pending.

The USDA said there was a pause in the political community to modern biotechnology that is widely accepted in Bangladesh’s academic and research communities.

Transparent, science-based, and efficient bio safety laws and regulations will enable the Bangladesh government to safely conduct biotechnology R&D. It will encourage the industry to invest in development in plant varieties that are able to resist pest attacks and diseases, the reports said, adding that the regulatory system in Dhaka is modernizing, though it has a long way to go.

Source: The Hindu Business

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