Economic Survey backs hybrid seeds in boost for GM food

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India should look to introduce high-yielding hybrid seeds to lift its lagging farm productivity, a finance ministry report urged on Friday, in what is being seen as government support for cultivation of genetically modified food crops now banned.

Children play in a mustard field at Mohini village, about 190 km (118 miles) south of Siliguri, December 6, 2007. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/Files

Authorities are considering whether to allow commercial growing of genetically modified (GM) mustard, which uses a technology that could improve yields but draws strong opposition over fears of safety.

Some politicians have accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of trying to impose his government’s decision on farmers relating to an “unsafe and unproven technology”.

Permitting GM food crops is a big call for a country that spends tens of billions of dollars importing edible oils and other food items every year.

“Concerns about affordability of hybrids and GM seeds, environmental and ethical issues in cultivation of GM crops, risks to the food chain, disease spread and cross pollination have resulted in their nonintroduction,” the annual Economic Survey said.

“These issues needs to be debated, tested, evaluated, so that introduction of hybrids is facilitated in the next three to six months.”

The survey, released ahead of the presentation of Modi’s third annual budget on Monday, said it is important to arrest a decline in food production to ensure sustainable livelihoods for farmers and food security for India’s 1.25 billion people.

India’s farm productivity is one of the lowest in the world, in some cases even below those of poorer countries like Bangladesh. On top of that, back to back droughts have made India a net buyer of some key commodities for the first time in years.

That has brought some urgency to policy makers, who have met as many as three times this year to discuss the fate of GM mustard developed by Indian scientists, including New Delhi’s Deepak Pental.

Pental said he hoped the support from Arvind Subramanian, the government’s chief economic adviser who prepared the report, would lead to a quick decision on his mustard variety that has been on trial for more than eight years.

“The regulatory process in India needs to evolve so as to address the concerns in a way that does not come in the way adapting high yielding technologies and rapidly moving towards the world’s agro-technological frontier,” Subramanian wrote.

If a commercial launch of GM mustard is allowed, it could pave the way for other food crops such as corn varieties developed by Monsanto, in one of the world’s biggest farm markets. The company’s cotton seeds are popular in India.

China is also seeking to improve domestic food production after state-owned ChemChina agreed a $43 billion bid for Swiss seeds and pesticides group Syngenta.

Editing by Keith Weir