US opposes India's initiative on labelling of GM foods (28/8/2006)

Given that major trading partners of the US have GM labelling, eg all the countries of the European Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand (and even GM-producing Canada allows labelling on a voluntary basis), this US move sounds like an attack on the perceived political weakness of India. Certainly the Indian government seems desperate to curry favour with the US, with whom it recently entered a nukes and ag deal which includes the promotion of GMOs.

US opposes India's initiative on labelling of GM foods
Financial Express, August 28 2006

NEW DELHI, AUG 27: The US has raised concerns over India's plans to formulate labelling norms for genetically modified (GM) foods at the WTO committee on technical barriers to trade.

US has urged India to rather resolve the issue through a dialogue between the regulatory specialists of both the countries. It said that both the countries believe in biotechnology as an important tool for enchancing farm growth and hinted at the recent US-India accord on agricultural research and education.

US believes that GM foods are "substantially equivalent" to their non-GM counterparts and any attempt to segregrate and label GM foods would amount to "trade restrictive measures." It has said that India should notify its decision for labelling of GM foods before the WTO panel also as a sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures since it involves "approval for biotechnology".

The new India's Foreign Trade Policy (FTP) had made labelling mandatory for imported GM products and also prescribed penalty for imports of unlabelled GM products. Accordingly, the health ministry took up the onus of finalising the details of labelling norms. The ministry has recently set up a taskforce for the purpose.

As the detailed guidelines for labelling are yet to be finalised, the directorate-general of foreign trade has deferred its decision to insist on labelling till March 31, 2007.

Apart from labelling, is the issue of allowing its imports. As per the existing law, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is the only authorised body to approve import, production and sale of any GM product. So far the only GM crop approved in the country for commercial use is Bt cotton.

US has questioned India's approval process for GM products and said: "The scope of the 1989 Rules under the 1986 Environment Protection Act is vague and appears to be broader than any other existing regulatory system in the world for biotechnology products." It has questioned the rational for such broad product coverage and measures.

The US has sought clarification for use of GM material in industrial production. It has asked whether the GEAC's recent approval process for import of GM soyaoil would be the same for other imported GM products and whether there would be a testing regime for imported GM products. It has also asked whether the law would be same for the domestically produced GM products like Bt cotton seed cakes used as animal feed.

Farmlands need to be conserved
Financial Express, August 28 2006

There is a rising trend for sale of farm lands to fulfill the objectives of rapid urbanisation and for several development projects. Many state governments are acquiring prime farm lands and leasing them out to the private sector for setting up projects. There can be no objection to real development needs, but consequences of the sale of prime farm lands for non-agricultural purposes need to be carefully weighed in light of the country’s food security.

Our food production, though on increase, has not been able to keep in pace with the rate of growth of our population. The net per capita availability of food items has shown a declining trend. The per capita net availability of cereals per day has fallen from 458.1 gm in 2002 to 407.1 gm in 2003. The net per capita availability of pulses per day has fallen from 35.4 gm to 29.1 gm, according to government data. Since 1951, the per capita availability of foodgrains has increased with the increase in production. At times, the increases were in spurts and so also the declines. But the recent declining trend in per capita availability of grains is a major cause of concern.

In terms of increase in productivity of various agricultural crops, this had taken place with the ushering of the Green Revolution (GR) in the country. But the GR had subsequent negative fallouts resulting in sharp declines in factor productivity. The chemical agriculture introduced as a result of the GR resulted in excessive tillage of soil, degradation of soil due to excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, depletion of groundwater table, pollution of environment and health hazards created due to use of chemical pesticides. The overall decline in factor productivity has resulted in deceleration in agricultural growth.

The yield per hectare of various crops, which marked a significant increase in the Green Revolution days, has not shown further increase. The productivity of most crops are still lower than that in China, let alone the developed world. Hopes for increasing productivity through transgenic technology seems remote, given the controversy surrounding GM crops related to health and environment hazards. So far, the claims of developed GM crops are for insect and herbicide-resistance and not for increasing productivity. Thus the country faces a challenging task of continuing to ensure food and nutritional security. In such a situation, it would not be advisable to encourage sale of prime farm lands for non-farming uses.

The alternate way is to use some identified wastelands for non-agricultural purposes. The ministry for rural development has done an excellent job in identifying these wastelands in the country. The identification has been done through physical verification and remote-sensing. The Wasteland Atlas-2003 (WA) has identified 5,52,692.26 sq km of wastelands, accounting for 17.45% of the total geographical area of the country.

Land is administered by concerned state governments. It would be better for the state government to take possession of some of these wastelands for development projects to be initiated either by them or by the corporate sector. But there are some wastelands like the waterlogged or marshy ones, lands with saline and alkaline soil, land without scrub, lands abandoned due to shifting cultivation, degraded forest lands and degraded pastures. These lands can be brought back to agriculture or used for afforestation and hence their reuse for cultivation or forestry should be given the first priority. The paper and pulp industry can also use some of these lands.

There are some wastelands on account of mining operations and industrial use. The WA has identified 1421.72 sq km wasteland due to mining operation and another 555.63 sq km due to industrial use. Some of these can be taken up for development projects as the area has already been developed on account of mining and industrial operations.

Of course, the state governments may face the problem of earmarking wastelands for development projects as many of them may be located at remote places. The viability of development projects also needs to be ensured at these locations. But if development projects are initiated in remote areas, it may result in new growth centres. The daunting task is, therefore, to weigh food security vis-a-vis development.

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