Nagpur, Jan. 27: Sharad Pawar has said it is an irony that some countries selling India edible oil extracted from genetically modified soybean are supporting the anti-GM lobbies here.
Pawar’s support for GM technology is well known but this is the first time he has suggested that anti-GM voices in the country received external backing.
The Union agriculture minister made the reference first yesterday during his address to the members of the Vidarbha Economic Development Council, a voluntary industry group, and repeated it this morning during an interaction with journalists in Nagpur.
“We are the biggest importer of edible oil,” Pawar said. “Our import bill is about Rs 60,000 crore. Barring some Southeast Asian countries which sell us palm oil, a major component of that bill is driven by imports of edible oil extracted from GM soybean from countries such as the United States.”
“I find it alarming,” he said on Saturday, “that the same countries, including America, which export edible oil of GM soy, support the anti-GM organisations here.”
Today, Pawar suggested that such lobbies received funding from the very countries that supply GM soy oil to India.
“It is improper,” he said, “to oppose the use of technology here while it is bringing benefits to farmers of those countries which see India as a market of their edible oil.”
The UPA has several times linked foreign funding to agencies opposed to its policies. Last year, against the backdrop of the Kudankulam nuclear plant protests, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said that public opposition to India’s nuclear power programme appeared to be driven by US-based non-government organisations that were oblivious to the country’s increasing energy needs.
Pawar did not name any organisation or platform receiving foreign funding specifically for opposing GM crops. Nor did he cite any instance to support his views.
Pawar’s remark was in the context of stiff opposition to GM technology, which he said was crucial to address food security.
India has so far permitted the commercial use of only GM seeds in cotton. Field trials in over 70 crops, including vegetables and food grain, have been allowed.
“I read about the opposition (to genetic modification) in the newspapers,” Pawar said, “but farmers have adopted the technology whole-heartedly in the case of cotton.”
The NCP chief supported the view that India needs to push GM technology in the straight line or desi varieties instead of hybrid seeds. In the former case, seeds can be reused, while in case of a cross breed between desi varieties that results in hybrids, seeds need to be purchased from the market every year. Understandably, the private sector does not invest in GM cotton seed in straight line varieties, which are re-usable.
In this case, the public sector is the only hope for farmers and Pawar assured them that the government is encouraging genetic modification in straight line varieties of crops.
But public sector agencies involved in the project has been mired in controversy.
Recently an expert committee probing a scandal relating to India’s first public sector-developed GM cotton indicted the scientists involved for foul play.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which oversaw the project, admitted last year that the Bikaneri Narma-Bt (BN-Bt) cotton contained not an “indigenously” created gene sequence as claimed but a gene patented by US firm Monsanto.
The committee had also indicted the ICAR for scientific, institutional and ethical failure.
Pawar said the curiosity of the new generation farmers to adopt new technologies was a “good sign.” He said the sector is beset with many challenges, one of them being making the rain-fed small farms viable.
The way forward, he said, for rain-dependent regions like Vidarbha, was to go for minor local-sector irrigation. “Every village should save and conserve rainwater in its vicinity and use drip-irrigation.”
The water consumption is considerably reduced in drip irrigation where water trickles to the roots of plants through a network of tubes The minister also said the country was taking giant strides in food grain cultivation and states like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — and not the northern states that are called the granaries of India — are leading in productivity.
Last year, Chhatisgarh received an award from the Centre for highest rice production and Madhya Pradesh excelled for wheat cultivation.
Pawar said his ministry has suggested several changes to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the UPA’s flagship programme, to allow water conservation, digging of wells and bore-wells, and even sowing operations to be included in the works.
“That will address the issue of labour crunch being faced by farmers all over India,” he said. A farmer may be asked to share 50 per cent of the cost while MGNREGA could fund the remaining 50 per cent of his sowing operations. The proposal will need to be endorsed by other parties, he said.