With a decision to allow commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) mustard pending, a top executive of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), that has developed several GM crops, said its concern was that the government’s approach towards GM technology was “more emotion-based” than fact-based….writes Saurabh Katkurwar
“Government’s policies have been very mixed. There is no logic to the different decisions the government takes. They are more emotion-based decisions than fact-based. These are among the challenges we have,” Usha Zehr, head of the R&D Centre of Mahyco here, said.
Mahyco is the first company to introduce GM hybrids of Bt Cotton for commercial cultivation in India in 2002.
Mahyco says it has developed herbicide-tolerant, Nitrogen-use efficient and salinity-compatible GM hybrid seeds for several crops, with the main focus on brinjal, cabbage, cauliflower, okra (ladies finger), wheat and rice. Trials on some of them had been approved by state governments but it awaits the central government’s green light for field trials.
The genetically-modified mustard, DMH-11, developed by the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants at Delhi University, was recently approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, but the minister has yet to give his approval.
According to Zehr, the existing ways of regulating GM technology in India would have a negative impact on farmers and on efforts by companies to invent better products.
Mahyco Monsanto Biotech is a joint venture of Mahyco and Monsanto Investments India, which markets Bollgard and Bollgard II Bt cotton technologies to seed companies. Monsanto Investments India is an investment arm of Missouri-based US seed multinational Monsanto Company.
Zehr said that Bt Cotton had been falsely blamed for farmers’ suicide in the cotton belt of the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra when the actual reasons had to do with lack of infrastructure and credit facilities to farmers.
“Over 95 per cent of (cotton) farmers are growing Bt Cotton and they are using it because of the value they are getting. Linking social issues that existed in pre-Bt Cotton era is not right. It is not right to link Bt cotton cultivation to the social distress,” she said.
“Some of the studies I read indicate lack of infrastructure and lack of access to credit for farmer distress. Ask villagers at what rate they are borrowing money. One villager told me he was paying four per cent interest per month — so he paid 48 per cent a year to a money-lender. Farmers cannot get out of that circle because they are constantly in need. These are the major causes,” she said.
Zehr added that the facility of motorable roads and credit access will help farmers to get access to markets so they would have better options for selling their produce.
Saying pro-GM groups somewhat failed in communicating benefits of GM hybrid crops to people, Zehr added that anti-GM lobby was well organised.
“We were at fault that we were never in the business of communication. We thought our products will speak for themselves. Although farmers have adopted the (GM) technology and benefitted, the anti-technology lobby is very active. They are very organised. It is ongoing challenge to deal with them,” said Zehr, who has received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in the United States.
Reacting to claims of anti-GM activists that multinational companies wanted to control the seed market in the country, Zehr said that farmers were being deprived of best know-how using this argument.
Zehr called the ban imposed by Japan and European companies as “hypocrisy”, saying their policies in relation to GM technology were “more based on trade-related issues” than on technical acceptance.
“This is hypocrisy. They are consuming GM products. In Europe, all tomato pastes Italians use in their pasta comes from GM tomato grown in the US. Corn oil, soybean and canola that they consume have GM products. It (GM crops) is not approved in their countries for cultivation because it competes with their local farmers,” Zehr said.