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Hurdles Dog GM Research in India

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GM research firms look abroad as tighter norms threaten at home….. writes Vivian Fernandes  

While India has climbed 30 rungs in the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business ladder and Moody’s has raised the country’s credit rating because of its reform push, for the agri-biotechnology industry the degree of difficulty has increased to such an extent that even home-bred companies are either relocating or expanding their research presence abroad.

“We have increased our activity in the Philippines so that we do not lose out completely,” said Vikram S. Shriram, Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of DCM Shriram, a Delhi-based company which does crop research in Hyderabad through Shriram Bioseed. “We are doing research in GM (genetic modification) traits, drought resistance, salinity tolerance, nitrogen-use efficiency and heat tolerance. But these are long-term projects,” he said in an interview.

Last month, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company or Mahyco said it is relocating its researchers engaged in genetic modification of plants to Vietnam, Zimbabwe and Tanzania because of regulatory headwinds here. The company, based in Jalna, Maharashtra, is an Indian pioneer in GM technology. But unsure of the security of its intellectual property in India, it withdrew its application for approval of herbicide-tolerant cotton in July last year.

In 2010, it was not allowed to introduce insect-resistant Bt brinjal, despite winning a regulatory recommendation for cultivation, because of the Environment Minister’s veto — and gave the technology to Bangladesh which was welcoming, despite stiff opposition from anti-GM activists.

But the government’s attitude in this field will ultimately affect more Indian companies. Multinational corporations operate in multiple geographies and can take business and research elsewhere if they are thwarted in India. This will put them at an advantage as and when there is a change in India’s policy on GM crops.

“But our R&D core is here; our lab is here, our farmers are here,” says Vikram Shriram.

Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan’s inaction on the regulator’s recommendation in May to allow cultivation of a GM mustard hybrid produced by a team of Delhi University scientists may end up curdling the mood among many agri-biotech companies. Additionally, the Agriculture Ministry’s December 2015 notification to cap retail price and trait fee of Bt cotton has worsened the situation.

“I think trait-value capping is absolutely wrong,” says Ajay S. Shriram, Chairman and Senior Managing Director of DCM Shriram. “We want to move to the world stage as a country open for business and what are we doing? Who is objecting? Not the farmer or the consumer, but a set of people for what reason we do not know,” he says.

The DCM group is rooted in India’s cultural ethos and is known for its annual Ramlila show in Delhi and patronage of the arts. Ajay Shriram says the government is wrong in playing the nationalist versus multinational game. “MNC unfortunately is a dirty word without any rational thinking behind it. Look at the products they are bringing in? Where have they done something negative to the country?” he asks.

In his view, India must emulate China, which in May last year, bought Syngenta, a Swiss company with a strong portfolio of patented herbicides, pesticides and GM crop traits, for $43 billion. When the government does not allow farmers to get desirable technologies legally, they will resort to illegality — the widespread cultivation of cotton genetically engineered for tolerance to herbicides being an example.

“While herbicide tolerance is there, the genetics is not strong or the germination is less. Ultimately the farmer will lose out. In a matter of 2-3 years, farmers will realise a branded certified product is worth investing in,” said Vikram Shriram.

The brothers say silo thinking must be avoided for the good of Indian agriculture. Private companies, government agencies, agricultural universities and research institutions must work together to prolong the life of useful technologies. They cite Gujarat’s success in controlling pink bollworm’s resistance to Bt cotton and suggest that Maharashtra must adopt its neighbour’s strategy.

There are reports that about half of Vidarbha’s cotton has been affected by pink bollworms, with the incidence being a high 70 percent in Yavatmal district. Only a technology-tolerant regime can presume to meet such contingencies, when nature plays truant.