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Tread cautiously

India has been home to a fierce debate surrounding the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops to the national food chain. Speaking to the media, environment minister Prakash Javadekar recently said that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that genetically-modified (GM) crops would harm the soil, human health and environment. His comments arrived in response to queries in the Rajya Sabha over the recent decision of biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee’s (GEAC) approval for experimental field trials of 12 GM crops for the purpose of generating bio-safety data.

The current administration has done a volte face, considering that it was only in August, when the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests continued to maintain the moratorium on field trials of GM crops, owing to pressure from RSS-affiliated farmers’ organisation called the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS). However, in late October, the environment ministry allowed field trials of two varieties of genetically modified (GM) brinjal and mustard. Essentially, the debate surrounding the technology is split into two. On the one hand you have those who suggest that GM crops hampers diversity in the choice of indigenous seeds, leaves the farmer disempowered and skews intellectual property rights in favour of the multinationals. On the other hand, you have those who promote the introduction of GM crops as a solution to supply-side concerns, regarding the delivery of agricultural produce to a burgeoning population. Arguments implicitly in favour of GM crops have also suggested that in
this age of economic liberalisation, a farmer needs the freedom to choose the kind of farming he wishes to pursue.

The debate, however, is not merely about the positive or negative implications of the technology. It is a debate about the nature of how such decisions are made. Decisions by these experts at GEAC have severe implications on how GM crops affect the livelihood of farmers. One needs to questions whether the common farmer has a say in technologies that severely modify his or her life livelihood.

If science exists in the realm of public knowledge, it is imperative that the implications of introducing GM crops are subject to public debate, which includes all the stakeholders. It is precisely why we must treat the protests by BKS, Vandana Shiva and other anti-GM proponents as a collective questionnaire towards the introduction of such technology. A public debate on the introduction of GM crops was conducted by the previous administration, under former minister for environment and forest Jaiarm Ramesh, who asked the Centre for Environment and Education to arrange a major colloquium on the subject by inviting all stakeholders. It would be incumbent on the current administration’s part to continue this debate, until we’ve established a safe common ground. Caution must be the order of the day, instead of definitive statements.
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