Biotechnology has helped farmers grow 311.8 million tons more food in the last 15 years. Given the growth of global population, genetically re-engineered crops offer one of the most promising solutions to meet the world’s food security needs in the foreseeable future. In India, the proportion of farmers in India in proportion to the total population has shown a steady decline over the past 50 years. In fact the number of farmers decreased by over 9 million over 10 years (Between 1991-2001) according to 2013 census data. Much of this decrease has been linked to the reduced economic viability of farming.
Agri-biotechnology can ensure that crops are modified to withstand higher periods of heat and drought or deal with excessive water and other conditions that have been accelerated or brought on by climate change. This has enormous potential in India that has grappled with successive droughts across many states.
For the past 17 years, millions of farmers in approximately 30 countries have grown 1.7 billion hectares of GM crops. These have enabled farmers improve incomes and help meet rising food demand as populations grow. Bt technology has helped India to treble its cotton output and has generated economic benefits for farmers valued at US$16.7 billion in the twelve year period 2002-2013 and US$2.1 billion in 2013 alone.
Equally importantly, crop biotechnology has helped significantly reduce greenhouse emissions from agricultural practices. This results from less fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from reduced tillage with GM crops. In 2014, this was equivalent to removing 22.4 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or equal to removing 10 million cars from the road for one year. Crop biotechnology has also reduced pesticide spraying (1996-2014) by 581 million kg globally. This is roughly equal to the total amount of pesticides used in China for over a year. This helped decrease the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on the area planted to biotech crops by 18.5%.
One of the smallest countries in the world and our South Asian neighbor Bangladesh approved its first GM food crop, Bt brinjal in October 2013. Bt brinjal has helped bring financial opportunity to poor farmers in the country, and has also drastically decreased farmer exposure to pesticides on food crops by 70 to 90 percent.
Pending approval from the environment ministry, India seems to be at the cusp of introducing its first genetically modified food crop GM Mustard in semi-arid areas of the country. Developed indigenously under the aegis of Delhi University by Dr. Deepak Pental, one of India’s leading biotechnologists, GM Mustard promises 25 per cent higher yield than the best hybrid varieties in the fields. The 20-25 per cent higher yield comes without using a single extra grain of fertilizer or an extra drop of water. If this hybrid is grown in just one million hectares of the total six million hectares on which mustard is grown, farmers could potentially earn an estimated Rs.500 crores in one year.
As far as safety of GM foods is concerned, it should be noted that genetically modified food has been consumed for over two decades across the world and not even a single case of adverse effect has been reported.In India, field trials on GM crops conducted by seed companies, government agencies or agri-universities have to adhere to stringent safety and performance standards laid down by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee and other regulatory agencies. Throughout field trial evaluations, GMO crops are subject to strict regulatory oversight.
Earth’s population has more than doubled since 1960, and the UN estimates it will reach 9.7 billion by 2050.The future of food is linked to ensuring food security within the context of climate change and reducing arable land. This is not possible without introducing new a technology among which genetically modified crops continues to be the poster boy. Humans have been “genetically modifying” plants and animals for thousands of years. Genetic engineering does much the same thing—discovering and introducing genes that yield desired traits—but in a faster and more accurate way than selective breeding. Going forward genetic modification can enable significant improvements in agriculture. Plants could be engineered to produce more nutrients while also being more resilient to climate change, and even to protect the environment instead of just reducing agriculture’s impact on it. The possibilities are endless.
- Dr Shivendra Bajaj