The repeal of the three 2020 farm laws by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has disappointed crores of farmers who were looking forward to basic economic freedoms. So I wrote to him a month ago, asking for a White Paper on agriculture policy to take the reform journey forward. In a few weeks, the Swatantra Bharat Party (SBP) will issue a detailed discussion paper on agriculture.
It’s not just about economic reforms, though; India’s farmers also need technological freedom. In my letter, I asked PM Modi to lift the 2010 moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops by 16 February 2022. Since that has not happened, today I will plant insect-resistant brinjal seedlings that incorporate Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) genes on my farm to launch the ‘Feed India civil disobedience movement’ with the slogan: “biotechnology to feed India, natural farming to starve India”. I will also issue today a rationale in the form of a paper.
The SBP is committed to the health, wealth and success of all Indians. We want the food to be safe. To SBP, the fact that growing GM crops might improve farmers’ incomes is irrelevant, if food safety is compromised.
On this threshold issue, the best of India’s and the world’s scientists are on our side. Food regulators in all developed countries, not just in India, have declared GM crops to be safe. Trillions of GM-based meals have been consumed by animals and people around the world for nearly three decades: Not a single adverse effect has been identified.
In 2019, activist and farmer Lalit Bahale and I led the first Kisan Satyagraha to demand the removal of the GM moratorium. A national debate followed. As part of the debate, a question was asked in Parliament about GM food safety. On 19 July 2019, then-Bharatiya Janata Party’s Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Babul Supriyo replied: “There is no scientific evidence to prove that GM crops are unsafe”.
The case for GM food
It’s no exaggeration to say that almost all Indians have consumed GM food at some point in their lives. Every year, over 1 million tonnes of cottonseed oil from GM-based Bt cotton (which constitutes 95 per cent of the cotton grown in India) is consumed domestically without any harmful effect. Farmers in Bangladesh have been growing Bt brinjal for the past seven years and consumers have benefited.
The scientific facts are on the SBP’s side. First, the BJP government declared in Parliament that GM is safe. Second, Bt brinjal was invented in India and approved by the food regulator in 2009 after extensive trials. Third, Bt brinjal was approved by Bangladesh in 2014 and has been heavily produced and consumed since then. Fourth, Bt brinjal was approved by the Philippines in 2021.
The moral case is on our party’s side, as well. Saving children’s lives, feeding our growing population and protecting the environment constitute a moral case for GM technology. Genetically modified crops are more productive, so a smaller area of land is required, thereby reducing deforestation. They can be fortified (like Golden Rice, approved by four countries to date) to prevent millions of children from going blind and dying early. Bt varieties reduce the use of pesticides and improve farmers’ health. HT (herbicide tolerant) varieties reduce tillage, so the soil is preserved and regenerated. Drought-resistant GM varieties reduce groundwater use.
Even the economic argument is on our side. In 2020-21, India produced only 11.3 million tonnes of edible oil domestically so it had to import 13.13 million tonnes at a cost of Rs 1.17 lakh crore to meet the country’s consumption needs. Of the imports, a good proportion is a GM-based soybean and canola oil derived from HT varieties grown in countries like Argentina and Brazil. So we are paying other countries’ farmers to produce GM crops, instead of letting Indian farmers save the nation Rs 1.17 lakh crore worth of imports.
Where Modi govt is going wrong
What, then, is the obstacle? Obscurantist forces — some funded by Greenpeace and others, our home-grown Ganesha-as-cosmetic-surgery fruitcakes — continue to spread lies. But India should know and understand that these people are implicated in millions of children going blind and dying early, and the continuing malnutrition in millions of Indians.
GM mustard (it too was invented in India) was approved by India’s regulator in 2017. By now we could have been producing vast amounts of additional mustard oil had the GM moratorium not been in place. Meanwhile, China, which is suffering from similar edible oil dependency, has moved to change its GM regulations so that crops like GM corn and soybean can be more easily approved for use.
There is no limit to the obtuseness of the Modi government. Even during an ongoing shortfall of oilseeds, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has banned futures trading in soyabean, imposing a huge loss on farmers. These losses have made farmers wary about growing oilseeds, further reducing production. Futures markets are intended to stabilise prices, but SEBI is obviously a fully captured regulator. India needs honest regulators who consult widely and justify their decisions. The ignorance (and possibly corruption) of our leaders and regulators is costing us dearly.
In sum, while no party is more committed to the rule of law than ours, today I am determined to break the unjust moratorium on GM and face the consequences for doing so.
Anil Ghanwat is president, Swatantra Bharat Party, former president of Shetkari Sanghatana and member of the Supreme Court Committee on Farm Laws. He tweets @anil_ghanwat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)