Friday, December 9, 2005



India is a very small producer of soybean. Its crop of about three to four million tonnes is miniscule compared to the large producers. The US alone produces over 32 million tonnes of Soya per year, Argentina produces about 28 million tonnes, and there are other cultivators like Brazil which are expanding their acreage of GM Soya rapidly. Exact figures are difficult to get for Brazil since much of the soya under cultivation is illegal and no figures are available. The difference between India and the large producers is that India is the only country in the world now whose soybean crop is guaranteed to be free of genetically engineered ( GE) soya. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are major producers of soybean and they should have a say in framing the policy on what kind of soybean they would like to cultivate since the well being of a large number of their farmers who cultivate soybean, is at stake.

Seventy five percent of the 32 million tonnes of Soya in the US is genetically engineered; ninety eight percent of the soybean in Argentina is genetically engineered and it is assumed that the Brazilian soy is overwhelmingly GE soy as well. India’s entire soybean is GM free and by virtue of that fact it has an assured market in those countries that are opposed to genetically engineered foods, such as Japan and South Korea, both large consumers of soyabean. India’s soybean exports are in the vicinity of Rs 3500 crore per year. This figure is far in excess of the export earnings from Basmati rice which is approximately Rs 2000 to 2500 crores per year.

It would therefore be suicidal for India to adopt cultivation of genetically engineered soybean as the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) are promoting. It would mean the certain loss of the assured export markets that we have today. India’s USP is that it is the only country in the world that is producing 100% GM free soybean. Today all the soy that India produces is sold. Even if it were to increase its soy production several fold, all the Soya would still be sold because the international market is increasingly seeking GM free foods due to the growing rejection by consumers. Manufacturers of baby foods and convalescent foods and housewives in countries like Japan and Korea, large soy consumers, are strongly opposed to GM foods and prefer GM free Soya.

India should keep GE soybean firmly out of the country and in fact increase its cultivation of GE free soya to increase its export earnings. At the moment, the niche market for GE fee foods is growing and is likely to become the major market. It is in India’s interest to not just produce GE free soybean but also become a major producer of GE free foods.

In the case of rice, India exports not just Basmati, but non-Basmati rice as well, largely to Europe and West Asia but also to Africa. The total annual value of India’s rice export is in the vicinity of Rs. 6000 crores. The importers of Indian rice are countries where there is mounting opposition to GM foods. Indian rice enjoys assured markets today and there is a distinct upward trend in exports of both Basmati and non-basmati rice. Does it seem like an intelligent act to jeopardize this assured market and start cultivating GM rice? Who will make up for the revenue losses to the farmers that will result from countries declining the import of GM rice from India?

As against this push GM at all costs approach, it would be wise to take cognizance of the burgeoning organic sector and respond to it. The hill states have understood this simple logic. Sikkim, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Uttaranchal have decided to go organic rather than GM. The international organic market does not permit GM contamination in organic produce, so organic and GM free has to go hand in hand. This would appear to be the future that the markets are pointing to. India’s agricultural research policy must take note of this development. There would be little point in doing research on genetically engineered crops when there are no markets for it or when such an approach would jeopardize existing markets.

The Task Force on Agbiotechnology chaired by MS Swaminathan has submitted its report to the government. An important recommendation in the report is that India’s program for developing GM crops should acknowledge the reality of the market. One of the crops mentioned in the report as needing special attention, is soybean. This should be taken serious note of by the policy planners. India is a tiny producer of soybean but the crop is a foreign exchange earner because it can certify its soya to be GE free.

The overall situation with respect to genetically engineered crops in the country , is less than satisfactory. At the moment decisions on GM crops are taken in a non-transparent way, without either a risk or cost –benefit analysis and without involving farmers in the decision making process. It would be far better to conduct a broad based and transparent debate on what should constitute the nation’s policy on GM crops. It is indefensible that a country of this size and with once formidable skills, with such agricultural strengths and dependencies, is so arbitrarily planning its biotechnology agenda.