In even normal circumstances, as the cotton revolution has shown, India needs to look at harnessing all the productivity gains it can get from GM crops. Take almost any crop you like, whether food or non-food, and Indian productivity levels are vastly lower than those in other countries. In the case of rice, India's productivity is just 2.3 tonnes per hectare against the global average of 4.3 tonnes, China’s 6.5 tonnes, Australia’s 10.1 tonnes and US’s 7.5 tonnes. When you take into account the gains to be made from savings on insecticide usage, as in the case of Bt Cotton, the case for GM crops is even more compelling.
What makes GM even more important is the need for seeds that can survive the rapid changes in weather patterns. Given the wide variation in monsoon patterns, with very short periods of very intense rain, for instance, you need crops that have much shorter growth cycles. Similarly, given the increase in soil salinity, an after-effect of excessive use of underground water, there is a need for crops that can grow in relatively more saline soils. Once again, this is something GM can offer.
GM crops, like most other products such as new pharmaceutical drugs, need to be tested; to see if they interfere/contaminate other traditional crops, or result in the spread of monoculture for instance. If the tests themselves are banned, as has been suggested by a Supreme Court-appointed technical committee, we will never be able to even know if GM crops cause a problem, much less be able to find a solution. Apart from denying Indian farmers access to the latest technology, not even allowing field trials smacks of a medieval mindset. Sharad Pawar’s appeal to allow field tests is in the right direction.