Indian regulators must seize the opportunity now that 107 Nobel laureates have signed a letter calling on Greenpeace, a multinational environmental NGO and its supporters to "cease and desist" in its campaign against genetically-modified (GM) crops.
The laureates have also urged governments to reject their opposition to Vitamin-A fortified GM rice in particular and GM crops in general.
The signatories say "scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production."
So rigorous are the bio-safety trials of GM crops that conventionally-bred foods like peanuts, to which some people are allergic, may not have passed the same tests.
The Nobel Prize winners say "there has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity."
They have vowed "to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace's actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology."
Yet we find Indian political leaders lending a ready ear to the anti-GM activists. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar will not allow GM trials. Kerala is opposed. Maharashtra suspended them after Devendra Fadnavis took over as chief minister. Andhra used to be supportive but not anymore. Telangana has vetoed trials. Rajasthan turned hostile after the BJP's Vasundhara Raje formed the government. The same is the case with Haryana.
Gujarat allows trials of GM cotton. Delhi permits all GM trials, but only in the fields of Indian Agrcultural Research Institute. Only Punjab is open.
Even our regulators indulge the activists. At their urgings, the previous government scuttled the cultivation of Bt brinjal, which Bangladesh has approved on the basis of Indian bio-safety data. Now the activists are targeting GM mustard developed with public money by a team led by Delhi University geneticist Deepak Pental.
Pental's product uses the same technology as Canada has deployed since the 1990s. In trials Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11, as it is called, has yielded 28 percent more over Varuna, a high-yielding variety.
There has been little technological breakthrough in oilseeds. Between 1980-81 and 1993-94, India followed an import substitution policy. High tariff walls ensured that production doubled to 21 million tonnes during this period. Average yields doubled from 532 kg per ha to 1,037 kg per ha. Since then they have barely budged. In 2013-14, they hit a peak of 1,168 kg/ha. In 1994, imports were freely allowed at a duty of 65 percent. Currently, the tariff is 20 percent for refined edible oil. The import bill was $10.62 billion in 2014-15.
The activists want to keep India GM free. They forget that the world is not. In 2015, 179.6 million hectares were planted with GM crops in 28 countries according to ISAAA, a GM crop advocacy group founded by Norman Borlaug, who initiated the Green Revolution.
GM technology can improve India's food security and raise farmers'incomes. The insecticide resistance trait implanted in Bt cotton and Bt brinjal if allowed to be used against pod borers in pigeonpea (arhar) and chickpea can raise output by a third, according to CLL Gowda, a former deputy director-general of Icrisat, a Hyderabad-based international crop research institute.
Both Icrisat and Assam Agricultural University have developed such varieties.
There is no option other than GM technology to kill stem borers that chew rice panicles and turn them into what are called white ear buds, says Ashok Kumar Singh, head of genetics at Indian Agricultural Research Institute. It is also the only remedy for sap-sucking tiny brown plant hoppers that infest the lower stems of rice plants and dry them up within a span of two or three days, he says.
Vitamin-A fortified Golden Rice would save millions of Indian children from blindness. Cotton tolerant to new-age herbicides could bring down the cost of cultivation as manual weeding is quite expensive and labour is not available when needed. GM maize could boost India's productivity as it has that of the United States. This would be true of GM soybean as well.
Currently, 16 GM crops are undergoing trials. It is difficult to hazard a guess as to when they will crop over to farmers' fields.
Political hostility and regulatory ambivalence is turning young talent away from agricultural bio-technology. Companies like BASF, Monsanto and Mahyco India have pruned their research staff, as commodity prices have fallen globally and they see little chance of Indian approvals in sight, or of returns on sunk investments.
Both leftists and right-wingers fear foreign-produced agri-science for ideological reasons. But as Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subsramanian warned in May, if India does not produce its own, its dependence on imported science will increase in the long run.
(Vivian Fernandes is editor of www.smartindianagriculture.in. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org))