The case of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in India

IMG-20170627-WA0017By Anurag Kanaujia, AcSIR-PhD Student, CSIR-NISTADS, New Delhi

For Citation: SITE4Society Brief No.3-2018
Related to SDG Goals #SDG2 (Zero Hunger) #SDG3 (Good Health and Well Being) #SDG9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) #SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production)
SITE Focus: Science, Innovation, Governance; Country Focus: India;  Sub-disciplines: Innovation Policy, Technology Management and Governance
Based on the working paper by Anurag Kanaujia, and Sujit Bhattacharya. 2017. “The Genetically Modified (GM) crop debate in India: A critical Introspection.” 15th GlobaLICS Conference. Athens, Greece. 9-11 October, 2017.



cotton boll

cotton plant, source:,_Ware_County,_GA,_US.jpg

Genetically modified (GM) varieties of plants are often touted as a revolutionary solution to food insecurity for the developing world, including India. Here, the first GM plant to be introduced was Bt cotton, a cash crop.  Bt cotton is so called because it contains the cry1Ac gene transferred from a bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. This gene is responsible for expressing a toxin that kills insect pests popularly known as bollworms, which feed on flowers of the cotton plant. Thus, whenever the insect eats any part of a Bt plant variety – the insect dies, thereby limiting losses in yields. The logic for market introduction of GM plants such as Bt cotton was put forward as follows. By switching to Bt cotton hybrids, farmers have the possibility of reducing yield loss due to pest attack, lowering pesticide spraying and saving on labour costs. As there is lower requirement of pesticides, the health hazards for humans as well as mortality due to pesticide poisoning are reduced. However, after the first few years of production of Bt cotton in 2002, controversies were triggered, over issues such as:



  1. Productivity: heterogeneous yield improvements among farmers, secondary pest infestations requiring additional pesticides, etc.
  2. Economic sustainability: Agri-biotech companies mainly Monsanto-Mahyco, which hold the patent for Bt gene use in cotton plants, were accused of charging high royalties to seed companies for the production of Bt cotton seeds. The government responded subsequently by imposing a seed price control order in 2014.
  3. Seed unavailability for non-GM cotton growers: The existing data shows that a high number of farmers in India are growing Bt cotton. As of now, Bt cotton crops accounts for more than 90% of cotton production in India and are planted in 10.8 million hectares of agricultural land.
  4. Contamination: Currently growers of Bt cotton are advised to have a border of conventional cotton as a ‘refuge’ to prevent any cross-pollination of Bt plants outside of the refuge. However, most farmers do not observe the guideline. Hence, contamination is likely to occur outside of the Bt cotton fields.
  5. Labelling and choice: Going beyond bt cotton, on a larger scale, with respect to genetically modified vegetables say tomatoes or brinjal – consumers want to exercise choice to not buy food products or vegetables based on genetically modified plant varieties. This issue could be addressed by insisting on labelling. Others go further, calling for a ban on genetically modified plant varieties as it is incompatible with their sense of ethics.

Today, according to the ISAAA, an international database, events or performance enhancing traits have been approved on two cash crops, 6 on cotton and 5 on soybean. However, there has been a lot of drama with respect to genetically modified food crops.
For instance, when application for commercial release of Bt Brinjal was submitted, there was a backlash by farmer’s collectives and activists. In response, the Ministry of environment and forest initially imposed indefinite moratorium on commercialization of Bt brinjal in 2010. But the moratorium was questioned in 2014 under the new government. Then an application for field trials of GM mustard was approved by GEAC in 2016. Again, the approval of indigenously developed GM mustard variety DMH-11 met with strong protest. This led to the reinstatement of the moratorium on field trials of GM mustard by Ministry of Environment and Forest in October 2017.

Research Question:  How are new technologies like GM food plant varieties reliant on regulations for their translation into successful market products?

Motivation for Research Questions: An important annual India policy document is the ‘Economic Survey’. An analysis of its stance towards GM plants, indicates that even prior to the Modi Government, i.e. in 2013, policy makers felt that there is a need to explore new technologies for sustainable agriculture. This view is further reiterated in a more recent document (2017) by NITI Aayog outlining national plans for agricultural development over the next three years. In turn, GM crop advocates interpret such policy documents as support for GM varieties, further pointing to the need of increasing population and declining arable land resources to strengthen their arguments.
However this stance has not translated into any fruitful technological or institutional development. Indeed, the state of government approval of GM varieties is not public information. While prior consultation of the government website, Indian genetically modified organisms resource information system ( gave information on the number of GM plant varieties awaiting approval, even the website is offline as on Feb 22, 2018.
Thus, debate on GM crops continues as a struggle to evaluate Costs, Benefits and Safety of GM seeds vis-à-vis conventional seeds in diverse farmer contexts in terms of farm land size, usage of mechanical equipment, access to water and usage of agro-chemicals.
This is of deep concern, because the development of regulatory environment for biotechnology based plants in the agricultural sector of India  has implications on the trade-offs to be considered between farmer sustainability, environmental sustainability and preferences of the sections of consumers and sections of farmers for organic or conventional chemical intensive farming or GM crop farming.

Methodology Used: “Close reading of literature was undertaken to capture the various dimensions of the debate on GM food crops in general with particular reference to India. The literature included research papers, policy documents of the government, reports of committees, newspaper clippings and websites. Newspaper reports served as important source while developing the timeline of events and shifting policy positions. Indian GMO research information system (IGMORIS) ( maintained by department of biotechnology, is a very useful resource for accessing biotechnology regulations and GM crop field trial data. The website was consulted to develop illustrations and tables by the authors.”


The author has conducted focused primary study approach (semi-structured interviews) to draw upon the salient aspects of the debate and provide an empirical basis to the arguments. Subject experts from Kanpur (2016); farmer collective from Uttar Pradesh in Allahabad (2015); and government officials at Punjab (2016). The importance of social capital (trust), information asymmetry, different viewpoints among scientists and interpretations (interpretive flexibility), approach (positivistic, constructivist approach), regulation, governance were some of the key issues that were explored in the primary survey.




Main findings:  Revisiting the debate on GM food crops in India has underscored some critical gaps in regulation that remain unresolved. IMAG0445At the outset, the policy landscape for GM crop adoption is shaped by the perspectives of different groups. The main stakeholders are agri-biotech firms, seed firms, farmers and farmer groups, scientific experts, government agencies, and civil society. Evidently, each actor has their own knowledge of the science and understanding of the technology along with their own set of beliefs and doubts. The present work involved interviewing essentially the actors who have no vested interests to promote GM varieties – namely the scientists, farmer collectives and civil society organisations.

  1. Opposing discourse groups: The interviews revealed three types of discourses. First, one supporting adoption of GM plants with caution, and second supporting adoption without caution. Both these views can be called as positivism based on expected immediate performance improvement. The third group calls for rejection of technology based on the concept of precautionary principle. The precautionary principle advocates that whenever there is scientific uncertainty on the safety of an economic decision for the long term, it is better to refrain from applying it until the long term impacts are well understood.
  2. Confusing regulation: According to interviews with experts, most do not understand the regulation. It is very difficult also to attempt to understand it as it involves regularly following 3 ministries and 6 different agencies with many overlapping functions. There is insufficient information about the regulatory mechanisms in place for assessment of new varieties and policy interventions to retrofit with the prevailing sentiments. Further, even the given information on the assessment and approval procedures are not clear.
  3. Gaps in regulation: For example there is no regulation to protect against contamination. Only voluntary guidelines on planting conventional cotton around Bt cotton, which need not be followed.
  4. Institutional gap: There is no institutional mechanism which allows for the participation and consensus building on GM policy through dialogue between all stakeholders. The absence of farmer groups is especially of concern.


Policy Recommendations: In the light of the above, the present work advocates the following three milestones as first steps to close the gaps in existing regulatory system.
Milestone 1: Strengthen the agriculture outreach system to help the users of technology i.e. farmers to understand the nature of Bt technology, how to maximize production from it and the benefits of observing compliance.
Milestone 2: Allow new research in GM crop development under closed and controlled conditions in order to discover the ultimate effects of technology and reduce uncertainty on impact on environment and human health.
Milestone 3: Involve representatives of the different stakeholders in assessment and evaluation processes, in order to develop consensus on a policy direction for future investment in the technology.


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