The European Union's decision to allow the member countries to take their own decision about testing and commercializing GM crops in their own countries is a very positive move. This is a big step forward in the large scale evaluation and possible adoption of GM crops in Europe.
This step has been over due for some time and will help each country to take decisions that are best suited to them.
While this is a welcome, it does not mean that GM crops and foods have been absent in Europe. GM Corn crop has been grown in five European countries including Spain in more than one lakh hectares every year. Recently GM Potato called Amloflora was approved for cultivation in Ireland. So, GM crop cultivation is not new to Europe. But the latest decision will help in possible opening up of markets for a widespread cultivation of GM crops in Europe.
GM foods have been consumed in large volumes in Europe for many years. European Food Safety Authority website shows a list of more than 20 different GM traits in cotton, corn, canola, soybean and sugar beet which are approved for import and consumption in Europe. These approvals are given after a thorough assessment of the safety of GM foods to human and animal health. This means that the safety of GM foods has not been under question. Europe has been importing GM foods as required.
Then why has EU been denying approvals for cultivation of GM crops on a large scale in Europe? There could have been many reasons all of which may not be fully based on science. There could be other considerations as well.
Please also keep in mind the fact that Europe has been continuously allowing trials of GM crops although there has been an apparent reluctance to approve them for commercialization. This is quite contrary to the Indian situation where trials have been going very slow for the last four years. Between 2002 and 2014 EU has allowed field trials in several crops like Maize, Potato, Sugar Beet, Cotton, Poplars, Flax, Rice, Wheat, Strawberry, Plum and others with different traits like Bt, Glyphosate tolerance, Starch improvement, etc. More than 900 GM trials have been conducted in Europe during this period. These all are approved open field trials under the category called 'Deliberate release into the environment of plants GMOs for any purposes other than placing on the market (experimental releases)'.
This is an important lesson for India. Countries do not stop testing GM crops. Testing is the only method of understanding science and technology better.
The regulatory process in India is very stringent and is on par with the best processes around the world. However, improving the regulatory process is a continuous process. Efforts are being taken by the Government to strengthen the regulatory process further.
India has adequate safeguards in bio-safety and food safety already built into the existing system. Only after thorough testing at different stages with great care and regulatory oversight, GM crops are authorized for commercial cultivation.
As per Indian regulatory system for GM crops, all the risks associated with open field testing are carefully evaluated before such approvals are given. Considerable data is generated about various safety and performance aspects of the technology in the laboratories and green houses for at least 4 years before they are allowed for restricted open field trials in protected experimental fields of Universities (called BRL1 trials) after which they are allowed to be tested in farmers fields (BRL2 trials).
There are many GM traits available in the GM space which could be of great use to India in the coming years in its effort to fight drought, salinity, high fertiliser use, improving agricultural productivity and so on. The country is going to face serious shortage of pulses and oilseeds in the next 10-15 years as we try to meet the changing food habits of our increasing population. We are going to see a serious shortage of farm labour which will demand technologies that can work with less labour force. We will keep having less and less water to grow our crops in future. Cultivating Paddy using large volume of water as a weed management mechanism, will shortly become a luxury that we cannot afford. We need to find different ways of cultivating paddy and using other technologies to control weeds, while using the water to grow other crops. GM can help us in all these areas with input traits like herbicide tolerance.
There are output traits which enhance the grain quality of crops in terms of nutrition. Golden Rice is one example. There are healthy oils in soybean and other crops with GM technology. There are also traits that enhance the nutrition value of corn which will help the animal feed industry.
It is in our national interest to keep testing and using GM technology in critical areas of importance for the country where other technologies would not give effective results in the medium term. We need to identify the critical crops and traits that will require GM technology and pursue them with vigour. There is a need for large scale public education on the technology so that misconceptions being spread by vested interests are clarified in common man's mind. Let us adopt science and eliminate fiction.