An expert panel appointed by the Supreme Court has suggested a 10-year moratorium on field trials for genetically modified (GM) crops, ending prospects of their cultivation in the foreseeable future. Chengal Reddy, secretary general of the Consortium of Indian Farmers’ Associations , has protested that this goes dead against the interest of farmers who need the higher yields and lower pesticide use of GM crops. Indian consumers too will gain from higher production and less pesticide in their food.
Activists portray GM crops as Frankenfoods , as dangerous monsters. Chengal Reddy points out that GM crops have been safely cultivated and eaten across the world for decades. The US is a litigation-happy country where lawyers launch class suits if there is even the slightest evidence of harm to citizens, yet none has brought a class suit against GM foods that are routinely eaten there.
The most widely grown GM crops, maize and soybeans, are eaten directly and used for extracting cooking oil. Above all, they are used as animal feed, penetrating the whole meat and dairy chain. Yet no evidence of harm has surfaced . Why call them monster foods?
Reddy’s court submission says that GM crops are grown over 160 million hectares in 29 countries, and imported by countries (including European ones) that don’t grow them. He says 300 million Americans, 1,350 million Chinese , 280 million Brazilians and millions elsewhere regularly eat GM foods, directly and indirectly. Why then should they be presumed to be dangerous for Indians? How is this a matter for expert committees or courts?
Europeans have voiced major fears about GM foods. Yet even Europe permits GM maize cultivation. It imports GM soymeal and maize as animal feed. Millions of Europeans visit the US and South America and eat GM foods there, without getting poisoned.
Three million Indians have become US citizens, and millions more go to the US for tourism and business. Supreme Court judges and MPs go to the US. Sonia Gandhi has gone there for treatment . Nobody holds back on the ground that they will be eating monster food in the US. How then can activists claim that GM foods are inherently dangerous and must not be cultivated in India without all sorts of clearances that are unnecessary for other crops?
An elementary principle of justice is that you must be presumed innocent till proved guilty. Indian activists want the courts to view GM crops as guilty until proven innocent. This is the logic of their proposed elaborate screening procedures, including a 10-year moratorium.
Activists argue that even if GM crops have not been proved dangerous so far, they may be in the future, and then it will be too late, so extremely careful screening is needed. This is like saying that some Muslims may be terrorists , so all Muslims must be subjected to the most extreme screening. Without extreme screening, it might prove too late to stop some actual terrorists, but can that be an argument for treating all Muslims as dangerous?
Reddy says conventional agricultural technologies have limitations and cannot solve complex problems that genetic engineering can. He is appalled that eminent Indian agricultural scientists who have guided biotech development for two decades are being put in the dock by activists and supposed “experts.” He is astonished that the court has not consulted farmers’ groups like his own.
Activists strongly opposed BT cotton in India, and published bogus reports claiming that the crop had failed in the field. But farmers soon learned from experience that BT cotton was very profitable, and 30 million rushed to adopt it. In consequence, India’s cotton production doubled and exports zoomed, even while using much less pesticide.
Activists and some supposed experts have the gall to claim that BT cotton has not benefited farmers at all, only the seed companies. This is the desperate mendacity of false prophets. It is an insult to farmers to say that they are so stupid as to go wholesale for a new technology that yields them no income. Punjab farmers lease land at Rs 30,000 per acre to grow BT cotton. Would they do so if it was unprofitable?
Finally, why is the Supreme Court in this at all? Some governments across the world have okayed GM crops and others not, but nowhere has this become a judicial issue. The Supreme Court allows public interest litigation in order to give voice to poor, powerless folk, and ensure fundamental rights. But anti-GM activists represent powerful , well-connected lobbies. US courts would dismiss as laughable the notion that GM foods violate fundamental rights of Americans. India’s Supreme Court should follow suit.