Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Let biotech crops bloom November 4, 2007

Let’s begin this Sunday morning with a statement of unimpeachable reliability: India has doubled its production of cotton in the past five years. It crossed the United States last year to become the world’s second largest producer and is expected to overtake China in 2009 to become world’s number one. India’s cotton revolution is the subject of constant discussion at global agricultural forums, but in India almost no one has heard of it. Our media talks only about the suicides of cotton farmers. This is because environmental activists have been spreading disinformation and misleading the public.

Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner, who invented the dwarf varieties of wheat and helped create India’s first green revolution, predicted that science would also drive India’s second green revolution. He is turning out to be right. Biotech (Bt) or transgenic cotton is the miracle seed that resists bollworm—an insect which used to destroy a third to half of our cotton crop each year. By planting Bt cotton farmers have successfully fought the insect and delivered the highest production and exports in India’s history. Production has risen from 158 to 279 lakh bales per year from 2002 to 2006. Net income per farmer has increased by Rs 17,500 per hectare for India’s 23 lakh cotton farmers. From an importer, India has become the third largest exporting nation.

Borlaug wrote in some agony in 2002 that “the approval [of Bt cotton] has been a long, slow, painful process, effectively delayed…by the lobbying of Vandana Shiva and her crowd. Now that the door has been opened for the use of transgenic biotechnology on one crop, I hope it will soon be approved for other crops. As an enthusiastic friend of India, I have been dismayed to see it lagging behind in the approval of transgenic crops while China forges ahead”. His worst fears have come true. Five years have passed since Bt cotton’s approval. Nothing has since been approved. Farmers are anxiously waiting for biotech soya, rice, corn that are flourishing in other countries. Bt mustard was tested to death here and the inventor left India in disgust after 7 years.

The scandal is that government approval takes 18 months in China and 6 years in India. The reason is that transgenic seeds are an invention of private sector science and both government and activists distrust private seed companies. Environmentalists are hostile to these seeds on ideological grounds and delay each trial by taking the government to court. Each time they lose in court (because their case is flimsy) but policy makers and babus get scared and insist on more trials. Ministers are apathetic because there are no photo opportunities for inventions of the private sector. Thus, our second green revolution is delayed. Misguided activists, timid bureaucrats, and apathetic politicians are all conspiring to rob our farmers’ future.

It was bold leadership of C. Subramanium and Lal Bahadur Shastri that created our first green revolution in the 1960s. Had India waited for endless field trials and deliberate delays by environmentalists, it would not have happened. Fortunately, this government has vastly improved its regulatory capability in biotechnology. Now is the time for Manmohan Singh to proudly proclaim our farmers’ achievement in cotton and fast track the approval process for other miracle seeds, especially those tolerant to drought and ideally suited for our rain fed, non-irrigated areas like Vidarbha. He should tell Babus to follow China’s sensible approach and stop reinventing the wheel. Finally, he must also tell off activists (who are called eco-terrorists in some countries) to stop disseminating disinformation and diverting attention from science to suicides.


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