9 Feb 2010

India's retreat on GM crops is a step backwards

India has announced deferring the commercial cultivation of what would have been its first genetically modified crop due to 'safety concerns.' The BBC reported that 'Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said more studies were needed to ensure genetically modified aubergines were safe for consumers and the environment.' Far from being a sound decision based on scientific evidence, this is another significant capitulation to the precautionary principle that will hinder India's ability to maximise food production to meet the demands of its fast-growing population.

Indeed, Mr Ramesh did not produce any evidence to suggest any harmful effects of GM crops, instead declaring "Public sentiment is negative. It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach." In accordance with the impossible demands of the precautionary principle, Ramesh put "any cultivation of GM vegetables in India on hold indefinitely." Indefinitely here might easily mean 'never' as the precautionary principle sets up conditions that are logically impossible to satisfy.

The GM crop in discussion, a variety of aubergine known as BT brinjal, has undergone field trials since 2008 and received approval from government scientists in 2009. Ramesh's decision dispenses with the results of the scientific studies and elevates the prejudices of environmentalists and 'public sentiment' over the significant benefits that such a crop can yield. 'Public sentiment' is a very suspicious category, this is hardly the opinion of the poor toilers of India but the opinion of a highly-vocal minority of middle class amateur environmentalists and professional alarmists.

To understand the real necessity of GM technology in India, one needs to appreciate the fact that India is not only the world's second largest country by population but also one of the densest. Land is very precious in India, and with the rapid urbanisation of its cities agricultural production needs to increase significantly to meet the needs of its population. GM crops are not only more efficient and productive than traditional crops but they are also more resistant to pests. Depending on varieties, it uses less water, land and fertilisers. GM could help India not only feed its population but increase its agricultural exports.

At one level, GM crops expose the hypocrisy of environmentalists, it could be argued that such crops are actually better for the environment than traditional crops. GM crops free up land and use less resources meaning overall efficiency savings in energy and resources. Certain varieties can be designed to be richer in vitamins and more nutritious. There are significant environmental and health benefits that can be obtained from GM crops, yet environmentalists still oppose them on principle. They are less concerned about the quality of life of India's population than they are about keeping nature intact.

This is of course a delusion. Hardly any plant or domesticated animal type can be described as 'natural', human beings have been modifying them for thousands of years through animal husbandry and agriculture. The result is a larger population that lives longer and healthier. GM crops are only the next step in this process, it is not fundamentally different to traditional forms of husbandry and breeding except in that it is faster and much more precise. The objection to GM crops has no basis in science, it is purely an ill-informed rejection of innovation based on irrational fears.

The fact that Mahyco, the Indian company that developed the GM crop, is a partner Monsanto will also generate a lot of lazy criticism from armchair revolutionaries who will claim that this is a way to exploit Indian farmers by making them dependant on an expensive seed variety. This objection is not only misguided but ignorant of even the most basic economic principles. The company can sell its seeds only if they are competitive with traditional varieties, once the price exceeds that level, there will be no incentive for anyone to buy it. There is a general mistrust of big companies as if they are in themselves a Bad Thing. No doubt there will be thousands of people tweeting their disapproval on their locally-produced iPhones that are not manufactured by a multi-national corporation.

India's government should have been bolder in standing up to so called 'public sentiment' and championed GM crops, which surely it must know is a necessity not a luxury for India. Of course proper tests and experiments should be carried out, but the precautionary principle should be set aside because it is an irrational proposition that does not allow for progress. Simply stated, the precautionary principle says that even if there is no evidence so far that GM crops are not harmful, we cannot know for sure that there will be no harmful effect at any point in the future. This dispenses with the scientific method altogether and establishes conditions that are impossible to satisfy. Had humanity adopted the precautionary principle from the beginning, we would still be living in caves, debating whether to harness fire or keep eating our food raw.

It's ironic that the same people who insist that we should accept the science unquestioningly in the case of climate change will be the first to challenge the science in this case. Of the hundreds of trials carried out on GM crops all over the world, not a single case of harmful effect has been established. Yet, the precautionary principle over-rides the results of all such trials on the basis of a highly-suspect attitude to risk-taking and progress that is inherently conservative and reactionary in outlook. India's government has missed an opportunity to take a bold step forward by succumbing to the tyranny of the precautionary principle and fashionable prejudice against progress.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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