APPROVING GM PRODUCTS IN INDIA
Lessons from trans-Atlantic conflict between US and EU
The approval of Genetically modified crops is always a controversial proposition in India except for BT cotton that has been approved for cultivation. Few years back it was BT brinjal that was in the thick of controversy and now it is the GM mustard. GM mustard, although cleared by Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) for commercial cultivation, is still held back by the government. The top agricultural scientific hierarchy blames the “GM bashers’ for stalling the approval of GM mustard. But the things are not as simple as appears as mustard is a part of the food basket of Indian consumers and world-wide skepticism about GM exits especially in European countries. So, India must view the other countries’ perspective before going ahead.
The history of agricultural growth tells us that the world has witnessed three “Green Revolutions” so far. The first “green revolution” started in the 1930s in Europe and North America. It brought quick yield increases in maize and other temperate-climate crops with increased, intensified and effective use of fertilizers, pesticides, crop species, machinery, and farm management. The second green revolution, that was there in some of Indian provinces too, took place in the 1960s and 1970s and it passed almost the same technologies to the developing world and crops grown in the tropics. Of course, these technologies were customized to suit the local conditions by using local applied research and extension networks.
Genetically modified (GM) products especially the seeds produced by using the genetical engineering in agriculture appeared in the 1970s and was commercialized in the 1990s mainly in North America. The advocates of this technology acclaim that it will result in another enormous increase in agronomic productivity and provide qualitative improvements in the food supply. The big differences between the first two green revolutions and the potential third one is that the latter has not been received with conclusive inquisitiveness.
European Union (EU) countries have framed severe regulatory restraints on GM products, whereas the United States has opened its market to most agri-biotech applications. Most of other countries including India are struggling to find the right path.
There is a persisting skepticism about the long run negative impacts of GM technology on human, animal and plant health. Most European governments and the EU have taken the position that the precautionary principle i.e. “better safe than sorry” approach, keeping in view the presence of uncertainty about risks posed by GMOs and the prevailing GMO-skepticism among consumers and voters are sufficient reasons for a restrictive policy.
The USA claims that under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, particularly the rules enshrined in the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, requires a strong “sound science” to restrict the “like” products (Like products example is that a wheat grain is a wheat grain whether it is GM or non-GM). It means the potential importers or recipient countries must provide an irrefutable scientific evidence that a GM seed/product in question is unsafe for human or animal or plant health although it may be a ‘like’ product. Interestingly the onus is not on the GM seed/product exporting country to provide evidence that the seed/product is ‘safe’ but on the importing country to prove that seed/product is ‘unsafe’. Or in words it is the responsibility of the buyer to prove that the product is unsafe rather than on the seller to prove that it is safe. So as per US perspective, all countries must assume that any GM seed/product is perfect unless and until proved wrong. Therefore, under free trade regime agreed under WTO regulations, EU can’t restrict imports of GMs from US in the absence of “sound science” evidence. Disagreeing with US perspective, EU used all available means to restrict the import of GM seeds/products by its member countries starting with a moratorium on approval of GM crop varieties (1998-2004).
Irked by the moratorium USA, Argentina and Canada, initiated a lawsuit in the World Trade Organization against the European Union’s regulatory policy for GMs in the year 2003 claiming that the EU’s GMO policy was creating illegal trade restrictions. The WTO Dispute Settlement Panel issued a lengthy verdict in September 2006 in favour of the complainant countries and asked the EU to bring its GMO approval process in line with WTO rules.
EU changed its decision-making process even before the WTO decision and that has remained very complex till today. The risk assessment is done in close consultation with Member countries’ scientific bodies. The opinion is made accessible to the public for open consultation. As per EU regulations a Member State has the right to opt-out, prohibit or restrict the cultivation of the crop based on vide range of grounds such as environmental or agricultural policy objectives, or other compelling grounds such as town and country-planning, land use, socio-economic impacts, co-existence and public policy.
Resultantly very few agricultural biotech applications have been approved for commercialization in the EU. Cultivation of GM-crops in EU countries accounts only for a miniscule fraction of total crop area.
Other master stroke of EU to keep the GM products away was that it asked US companies to label the products they want to sell in EU as “this is GM product” fully knowing that EU consumers will hesitate to buy GM products because GM Free World Movement is very strong in Europe and there is lot of propaganda in Europe against the GM products. Interestingly US again asked EU to follow US pattern to label not the GM products but the non-GMs as US does. (This is not a GM product). But it was rejected by EU council of ministers. Consequently, the EU food processors and retailers chose to avoid rather than label GM-foods.
Despite the WTO decision and the consistent pressure from US government, EU members and other European countries have continuously avoided to accord easy approval to GM crops and other products especially products falling in the food chain. This offers important lessons to India. EU countries have advanced systems to test the safety issues related to GM crops and products. Still EU countries are skeptical and very careful about the long run health impacts of GM technologies.
Indian agricultural scientists must develop linkages with the EU research institutions and understand their perspective. Earlier we have accepted the Green Revolution technology, that of course resulted in tremendous increase in agricultural productivity and production, but not without the negative effects on the two crucial resources land and water. This time, as far as possible, we must assess holistically the long run, both positive and negative, effects of the technology which is at our doorsteps.
Author is teaching economics at University of Northern British Columbia, Canada