Should Indian farmers use genetically modified soyabean? This question was hotly debated at a three-hour session at the International Soy Conclave organised by the Soyabean Processors Association in Indore on Saturday. The association is the largest and most influential body representing the interests of soyabean processors, growers and traders.

The speakers at the brainstorming session were scientists and activists who have been very vocal against specific kinds of genetically modified organisms.

“This is a burning question on everyone’s minds,” said DN Pathak, executive director of the Soyabean Processors Association, who backed the organisation of this particular session. Pathak had also invited representatives of biotechnological companies to present their points of view but none of them agreed to attend. “It is important to have this debate,” Pathak said.

Soyabean productivity or yield per hectare in India has been declining, even as global productivity has increased. The quality of the soyabean and subsequent meal or cakes made from crushing the bean has also declined, leading to a general fall in export volumes.

Adding to India’s concerns is the fact that genetically modified soyabean is around 20% cheaper than ordinary soyabean in the global market and that there has been a general glut of soyabean production around the world, leading to low prices everywhere.

Proponents of genetically modified soyabean contend that the technology has several benefits. For instance, a strain might be developed to be tolerant of a single herbicide such as glyphosate. This would permit farmers to use a stronger dose of the herbicide and attack more pests that might otherwise have damaged the plant.

But opponents claim that the gains are only short-term and that more studies must be conducted to alleviate concerns about the safety of genetically modified crops.

Association cautious

In India, genetically modified soyabean is a topic of regular conversation among farmer groups and industry organisations. But the Soyabean Processors Association has not so far welcomed genetically modified soyabean. In May 2016, the association even flagged the possible illegal import of GM soya seeds into India to the central government, asking it to screen all biological imports.

Two years ago, the association organised another discussion on genetically modified soyabean in Nagpur, addressed to a much smaller group of traders. There too the concerns were largely about productivity.

“We have a lot of misconceptions about GMO [genetically modified organisms] and until we listen to the experts, we will only have a superficial knowledge of it,” said Davish Jain, chairman of the association. “Industry and trade need to know how this will impact the entire system so that we can pass on this information to the users of soyabeans.”

The association is considering forming an opinion based on the results of the brainstorming session in order to present it to the government should the topic of introducing genetically modified soyabean come up.

Atul Chaturvedi speaks at another session at the conference.

At the meeting

One argument given in favour of introducing genetically modified soyabean has been the fact that productivity has shot up in the United States, Brazil and other countries that grow genetically modified soyabean, even as India’s productivity has fallen by 23% over ten years, according to data from the Soyabean Producers Association website, Siddiqui noted

“Productivity has increased in whichever countries have accepted GMO,” said Atul Chaturvedi, chief executive officer at Adani Wilmar Ltd and president at the Solvent Extractors Association, later at the conclave. “In fact, it is developed countries that are trying to prevent us from adopting these technologies and moving ahead. We should accept technologies whenever they come.”

This was also an argument he presented at the brainstorming session.

But according to Imran Siddiqui, a botanist and group leader at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad, this is not a fair comparison. The situation in India and the United States is different in terms of average acreage of land and inputs applied. But the European Union has seen a similar rise in productivity of soyabean over the same period even though 19 member countries do not allow genetically modified soyabean to be grown by its farmers. If genetically modified soyabean was the only factor for the high rise in productivity, countries growing other forms of soyabean would not match pace.

Besides, any apparent rise in productivity was also followed by a plateau, argued PC Kesavan, a radiation biologist and distinguished fellow at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, and Dilnaz Variava, a former member of a high-level expert committee on agriculture in Maharashtra. This indicated that the initial gains were from an initial wiping out of weeds or insects, which later adapted to the harmful mechanism in the plant and evolved in ways to avoid it.

“I am not against genetic modification per se, but the first generation of genetically modified organisms have essentially been problematic technology,” Siddiqui said. The first generation includes the Bt technology applied to cotton that repels insects and the herbicide tolerant varieties of maize and soyabean. “These technologies give short term gains, but the long-term costs are severe. Their limitations are now becoming apparent.”