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Policies Toward GM Crops In India

By Robert Paarlberg
January 2001

Updated Version now published as Chapter Four in Robert Paarlberg,
The Politics of Precaution: Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries,
Johns Hopkins University Press, September 2001

("A final version of this analysis, plus parallel examinations of policy in Kenya, Brazil, and China, is to be found in Robert Paarlberg's new book, 'The Politics of Precaution: Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries,' published in September 2001 by Johns Hopkins Press.")


I. India’s GM Crop Opportunity

The Indian people are far better fed on average than in the past, but 2.7 million children still die in India every year, 60 percent of them from diseases linked to malnutrition (Sharma 1999). A leading cause of malnutrition in India is poverty, and in rural areas a leading cause of poverty is low productivity in agriculture. Of the nation’s one billion people, two thirds still gain their livelihood from farming, and seventy five percent of India’s farmers are disadvantaged, with one hectare of land or less (Swaminathan 1999). Meanwhile continued population growth continues to increase the burden on Indian agriculture year after year.

The productivity of Indian agriculture improved in the 1990s compared to the 1980s, as the annual rate of growth of value added in farming increased from 3.1 percent to 3.8 percent, or roughly twice the nation's rate of growth of population (World Bank 2000). Poorly managed government marketing policies occasionally generated embarrassing public stocks of food, including 27 million tons of surplus wheat at the end of 2000. Yet the impression of national food abundance was misleading. During the decade of the 1990s, total food grain production in India did not increase at all on a per capita basis, and 230 million Indians remained food-insecure due to persistent poverty, linked most often to the low productivity of their agricultural resources.

Solving India's poverty and hunger problems will require more than just a boost in farm productivity, of course. A number of other issues will also have to be addressed, including persistent rural illiteracy, social marginalization, landlessness, and caste or gender discrimination. Even where low farm productivity is the problem, GM crop technologies might not be the solution. On India's drylands, where farm productivity is low in part due to poor soil fertility or scant rainfall, the GM technologies currently in use provide few new options to address such problems. India’s poorest farmers are those that live in dryland areas with less than 750 mm of rainfall a year who lack an ability to irrigate their crops. Non-irrigated farming in India still accounts for 67 percent of total cultivated area, and supports 40 percent of the population, plus two thirds of the nation’s livestock. Average grain yields on non-irrigated land in India are only 0.7 to 0.8 tons per hectare, which is only one third the yield level on irrigated land (Singh and Venkateswarlu 1999). With yields on irrigated land now plateauing, India has little choice but to seek new technical solutions for its low-production farmers in dry, rainfed areas. In India 80 percent of millets and pulse crops are grown under rainfed conditions, and roughly 50 percent of rice is rainfed.

GM crops might seem an unlikely solution for farmers in hot drought-prone regions, since it has been far easier so far to engineer crops for specific resistances to pests or disease than to engineer the multi-gene traits needed to provide greater resistance to drought or heat. Yet India’s producers of dryland crops (such as sorghum, groundnut, or pigeon pea) also face severe pest and disease problems, along with problems such as drought or heat. For groundnuts and pigeonpea, crop losses to biotic stress are actually greater than losses to abiotic stress (ICRISAT 1992). Pigeonpea farmers can sometimes lose their entire crop through damage from a single insect. Pod borers attack all pulses, and viral diseases are a widespread blight on India's dryland crops. Small dryland cotton farmers in India are devastated by bollworm infestations. Together with conventional breeding programs and improved training in integrated pest management (IPM), genetic engineering might help provide solutions to these biotic stress problems facing India's poorest farmers.

Environmental protection imperatives also argue for a GM crop revolution in India. The current practices of India's poor dryland crop farmers are damaging to rural ecosystems. If GM crops could produce yield gains for these farmers, there would be less need to clear new lands in rural India, plow fragile slopes, or destroy still more habitat. If farmers had insecticidal GM crops they also might escape having to risk their own health, pollute the environment, and kill so many non-target species as they do now with conventional chemical sprays. Farm chemical use is also a rural economic welfare issue in India, where cotton farmers currently spend 16 billion rupees annually on insecticide sprays. Vegetable producers in India currently suffer a $2.5 billion loss annually to insect damage, even while spending (on tomatoes, for example) $100-$200 per hectare on insecticides (Padmanabhan 2000)

Somewhat farther into the technological future, GM crops could eventually help address some of India’s severe nutritional problems as well. Roughly 50,000 children in India go blind every year from vitamin A deficiency, while iron deficiency is a major threat to the health of women. The possibility of engineering iron-rich rice or vitamin A-rich rapeseed oil would become interesting in this context. Some traditional food crops in India that currently contain dangerous substances (neurotoxin in kesar dal, cyanide in tapioca, alfatoxins in groundnut) might also be rendered safer if genetic engineering could be used to "silence" these undesirable traits (Prakash 1999). And in a nation where refrigeration facilities are not yet abundant it might at some point be attractive to engineer fruits and vegetables less prone to spoilage. Tomato producers in India today lose 20-30 percent of their crop through postharvest spoilage.

Political leaders as well as scientists and technocrats in India have noticed these opportunities, and they now routinely endorse the potential contributions that biotechnology - including transgenic crops - might make to agricultural productivity growth and poverty reduction in the years ahead. In 1999, Dr. R. K. Pachauri, Director of India’s Tata Energy Research Institute, stated that India’s future increases in food production "would necessarily have to come from the application of biotechnology" (Pachauri 1999, p. 10). At India’s 87th Science Congress in January 2000, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee singled out information technology and biotechnology, plus "other knowledge-based sectors" as the propellers that would move India’s economy ahead in the new century. At this same meeting Dr. R. A. Mashelkar, Director General of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) specifically endorsed biotechnology in agriculture as a means to turn farmers into high-productivity "knowledge workers" (BGE 2000).

While many top leaders in India have endorsed the value of agribiotechnology in general, and while scarce treasury resources have even been allocated to promote GM crop research within India’s national agricultural research system, India’s policies toward GM crops have hardly been promotional across the board, or even permissive. It was the original intent of biotechnology policy leaders in India to pursue an essentially permissive approach toward GM crops, yet this intent has recently been frustrated. Critics of GM crops were able to work within India’s open and democratic political system to push for a precautious or even a preventive approach toward GM crops instead, especially in the area of biosafety policy. Indian biosafety authorities, somewhat like their counterparts in Brazil, ran up against forceful public criticism when they attempted to pursue a permissive approach toward the testing and release of GM crops. As of 2000 this meant that farmers in India, identical to their counterparts in Brazil and Kenya, had not yet been given official permission to plant any GM crops.