Adoption of GM food crops

When a superior vision is accompanied by diligent experiments based on scientific principals and their understanding, technologies are developed which solve the problems of the world that we live in. However, all technologies that have been developed so far have not been adopted, and many have failed to make an impact in a way they were perceived to. This has not been because of developmental flaws or ease of operation but mostly, because of the perception of the users.

With this background, if we explore the adoption of genetically modified crop or food derived from genetically modified crops in India we will find that it makes a case study of technology adoption oversight. While the population in the Indian subcontinent has been on the rise, and there is an acute sense of insufficiency in terms of availability of ample food, providing sufficient nutrition at low cost, not only for humans but for animal stock also. And while all the possible ways of achieving superior production seem to have exhausted with agriculture being heavily dependent on fertilizers and pesticides for an increase in production and countering disease. We seem to have no hope to achieve food security, other than depending on imports.

In past different breeding techniques, involving hybridization, polyploidy, mutation breeding etc have provided some excellent varieties giving bumper output in terms of increase in production, these methods of increasing yields are also past their exploitation. The benefits have not only plateaued but have started reducing. Also, the concerns of the ill effect of pesticides to the health of consumer are causing widespread concerns.

The most exciting technique which came into force after mutation breeding was the genetic engineering to obtain desired traits. The technology is available for several crops suitably modified genetically for incorporation of desirable traits like disease and pest resistance, herbicide resistance, drought resistance, superior yields etc. The adoption of GM foods, the world over, has been sporadic, while US, Canada, Argentina, and China have adopted, Europe has a very closed door/ conservative approach towards adoption of GM food crop.

India has widespread adoption of BT cotton (genetically modified cotton). Interestingly, for GM food crop there has been much resistance to adoption of genetically modified foods. This resistance is rooted in the perception of risks factors vis-à-vis perceived benefits, the available knowledge and the trust factor among the consumers and also to a great extent on personal values of stakeholders. While the knowledge/awareness component plays a major role in addressing the issue of possible risk – incomplete knowledge can be dangerous and can derail the entire process of consensus building.

This was manifested very strongly for large scale field trials for Bt Brinjal (transgenic brinjal resistant to pests), between the years 2004 to 2009. While all biosafety studies, allergenicity studies, and toxicity studies were taken into consideration before large scale field trials were recommended. It was because of the concern raised by civil society and its representatives, that the field trials were shelved awaiting a nationwide consultation in 2010, with nothing coming out of it. While we are unable to take a decision on field trials, acceptance and use of GM foods is still a distant goal.

Like all other issues, the institutional and policy voids has resulted in the hardening of negative response from the society on the whole. The important elements for consideration could have been of better regulation of private seed companies like Monsanto, from dominating the GM research and resulting dependence on the companies for seed stock. Taking the Indian topography into consideration, this is one of the most politically intense issues to be tackled. The farmers in our countries are already living on the edge and are susceptible to exploitation from these multinational seed companies.

The important steps towards acceptance of technology would have been while operating in the socio-political system as we have discussed in brief, there is an intervention which helps in development of perceived usefulness of the technology in question; and there is a perception of ease of use, there is an attitude shift towards use in a positive format and a demonstrable intention of use then only a technology can be successfully adopted. While such variables are still missing, the GM foods will not find widespread acceptance in our country.

January 12, 2018

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