Empowering Farmers, Nurturing Autonomy: Non-GM Breeding for Agricultural Self-Reliance

The ongoing discussion in India centers on the choice between adopting genetically modified (GM) and non-GM corn varieties.

Nowadays, Corn has become a prized commodity for Indian farmers due to its versatile applications. The government, in parallel, is championing corn as an alternative fuel source, capable of being blended with Ethanol.

With corn being a significant component of livestock feed, there is an imperative to bolster corn production in India. Advocates of GM Corn argue that its promotion is the sole solution to meet the surging demand for corn in India.

With ethanol producers fiercely vying for maize supplies, the poultry industry, heavily reliant on maize for feed, has urged the Union Government to permit the import of genetically modified maize and soy meal. Furthermore, it advocates for the introduction of high-yielding GM seeds to enhance productivity nationwide.

While supporters claim that genetically modified crops can solve immediate farming problems, closer examination uncovers many worries that need to be carefully thought about. GM corn does not directly augment yields; rather, it tackles short-term pest-related issues, providing a temporary boost to productivity.

However, is GM Corn the exclusive remedy for India’s maize demand surge? Before hastily endorsing it as the sole option, ought we not to assess past experiences, such as that of BT cotton in India? GM Cotton was introduced in India in the 2002-03 season, and by 2007-08, nearly 90% of cotton farms in India were under GM Cotton.

 Afterward, the typical amount of cotton harvested dropped by 23%, going from 554 kilograms per hectare in the fiscal year 2008 to 429 kilograms per hectare in the fiscal year 2024 (an estimated figure). In stark contrast, Bangladesh witnessed a remarkable surge in cotton yield during this period, from 263 Kgs/ha to 737 Kgs/ha.

The adoption of Hybrid BT cotton in India has led to a yield plateau, escalating production costs, and diminished productivity, resulting in decreased farmer revenues, correlated with heightened farmer distress. The rationale behind this decline remains unclear. In European countries, governments are promoting non-GM corn and have banned GM Corn. While GM seeds offer traits like pest resistance and herbicide tolerance, they often entail higher costs and uncertainties regarding market acceptance.

 Non-GM maize presents an alternative that reduces reliance on expensive GM technology, potentially enhancing the economic viability of farming operations. European countries, in particular, impose stringent regulations on GM crops, creating lucrative opportunities for farmers producing non-GM maize.

Moreover, niche markets seeking natural or organic products often favour non-GM maize, enabling farmers to cater to specialized consumer demands and command premium prices. In an era where food transparency and traceability are paramount, non-GM status serves as a selling point for farmers, enhancing their market competitiveness.

Recently, Mexico has also decided to ban genetically modified corn, as reported in the news. According to an article published by Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a project of MakeWay Charitable Society, Mexico’s restrictions on GM corn aim to safeguard the integrity of native corn from GM contamination and to protect human health. the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network is a large network of farmers and environmental groups that has been monitoring the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for over 15 years. As per them, their research continues to uncover indicators of potential harm to humans from consuming GM insect-resistant corn.

Most GM corn plants are genetically modified to kill insect pests, expressing a toxin from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), known to harm the guts of specific types of insects but not others. Farmers have long utilized Bt as a spray to combat pests, but the Bt toxins in GM crops differ in structure, function, and biological effects. Indeed, peer-reviewed studies across the scientific literature persistently find that Bt toxins in GM plants can harm insects (spiders, wasps, ladybugs, and lacewings, for example) that are not the intended targets.

India is excelling in Maize production while maintaining non-GM status. Many districts in Andhra Pradesh & Bihar that cultivate non-GM corn match the yield of US GM corn at ~10 tons/ha. If other corn-growing areas in India emulate the agronomical practices of Andhra Pradesh, all-India corn production would reach 65 million tons from the present 33 million tons. There is no imperative to introduce GM corn in India to cater to the burgeoning needs of the poultry and fuel sectors (ethanol). India’s maize production growth rate far surpasses the global average.

To conclude, we should prioritize the welfare of our farmers and explore avenues to enhance their economic conditions, while also safeguarding our biodiversity, environment, and human health. Therefore, it is prudent to exercise caution while promoting GM corn in India, although we possess the capability to attain self-sufficiency by promoting hybrid non-GM seeds.

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