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Compelling reasons why India needs agricultural biotechnology

By Shivendra Bajaj

Food security has improved around the globe over the past five years, but hunger and food insecurity still persist.

On its part, India continues to battle huge challenges with regards to its agriculture output. Despite the country’s ‘Jai-Kisaan’ clarion call since the 1960s, Indian farmers have had to surmount huge odds in their bid to eke out a respectable livelihood and feed the nation. And this is reflected in the 2016 Global Food Security Index that is not very flattering to India.

Of the 113 countries surveyed and ranked, India ranks a lowly 75th on three important parameters — affordability, availability and quality and safety. China is ranked 42nd while Sri Lanka comes in at 65th. Those below India include Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and a host of sub-Saharan countries.

The Global Food Security Index considers the core issues of affordability, availability, and quality across a set of 113 countries. The index is a dynamic quantitative and qualitative benchmarking model, constructed from 28 unique indicators, that measures these drivers of food security across both developing and developed countries.

That India should take note of this issue is relevant because we are home to almost a sixth of humanity, a significant proportion of who live in villages and are farmers. Much of the debate around agri-technology has centred on agri-biotechnology, of which GM crops is a part. I specifically highlight biotechnology because it is arguably the most promising and rapidly evolving agri-technology available today. It is also a technology well proven within India as seen with regards to the spectacular success of Bt Cotton and two billion hectares of biotech crops have been planted in 28 countries since 1996.

Given the context, 10 compelling reasons as for agri-biotechnology and GM technology to be incorporated are as below:

(i) Address Climate change: Agri-biotechnology can ensure that crops are modified to withstand higher periods of heat and drought as well as excessive water conditions that may be accelerated by climate change. This has potential in India that has grappled with droughts across many states.

(ii) Reduce India’s cooking oil imports: Just as the adoption of Bt Cotton ensured that India transitioned into a cotton exporting country (from being a net importer), switching to high yield oilseeds engineered specially for India’s semi-arid zones can help India reduce its dependence on imports while also revitalising the nation’s indigenous oilseeds economy.

(iii) Reduce dependency on pesticides: Biotechnology saves the equivalent of 521,000 pounds of pesticides each year (India’s Bt Cotton success story was enabled in part also due to a significant reduction in pesticides necessary for growing the crop; in some cases by up to 50 percent.

(iv) Address the global food challenges: Biotechnology has helped farmers grow 311.8 million tons more food in the last 15 years. Given the increased growth of global population and increased urbanisation, GM crops offer one of the promising solutions to meet the world’s food security needs in the foreseeable future. In India the proportion of farmers in India in proportion to the total population has shown a steady decline over the past 50 years. In fact the number of farmers decreased by over nine million over 10 years (between 1991-2001) according to 2013 census data.

(v) Increase yields: Productivity in GM crops has delivered gains in some cases that are 7–20% higher than conventional varieties (which are on average 33% higher than organic yields). In India for example, Bt Cotton increased yields by upto 50% in comparison to non Bt Cotton.

(vi) Increase income: 90% of the 17 million farmers who grow biotech crops are resource-poor with farms of less than 10 hectares. Studies have shown that the growth rate for biotech crops is at least three times as fast and five times as large in developing countries as in industrialised ones. These gains were due to farmers halving their insecticide requirements as well as higher yields which transformed India from a cotton importer to a major exporter. India emerged as the largest biotech cotton country in the world with an adoption rate of 95% (2016 data). India enhanced farm incomes from Bt cotton by $18.3 billion in the twelve-year period 2002 to 2014 and $1.6 billion in 2014 alone.

(vii) Farming with biotechnology is sustainable: GM crops in general need fewer field operations, such as tillage, which allows more residue to remain in the ground, sequestering more CO2 in the soil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2011, these practices were equivalent to removing 10.2 million cars from the road for one year.

(viii) Improve health and enhance nutrition: Innovations such as ‘Golden Rice’, which is enriched with vitamin A, or high oleic soybean oil are few of the examples on how nutrition can be enhanced with GM crops.

(ix) GM crops are safe to consume: Over 25 years of independent research backed by over 2,000 documented studies has shown that there is absolutely no evidence of any harm caused by GM foods since they were introduced to the market. Several international organisations such as the FAO, WHO and OECD have repeatedly confirmed the safety of the biotech crops and concluded that foods derived from biotechnology is as safe and nutritious as foods derived from other methods such as conventional and organic. It is estimated that more than three trillion meals have been served which contain products of biotech crops. That itself is the biggest testimony of the safety of biotech crops.

(x) Coexistence with current methods: GM crops coexist with conventional and organic farming. Sudies over the last decade confirm the coexistence between conventional, organic and GMO crops. The presence of biotech crops does not impact an organic farmer’s cultivation along with zero presence of health and safety concerns.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Association of the Biotech Led Enterprises- Agriculture Focus Group and this article was originally published in Deccan Herald on May 15, 2017)