Agri-biotechnologyAgriculture Policy

Govt’s Approval of GM Soy Meal Imports May Not Signal Change in Restrictive GM Food Crop Farming Policy

Soybean being dried in Indore. Photo by Vivian Fernandes.

To check the steep rise in the prices of poultry feed, the government has permitted the import of deoiled cakes of GM soybean without GEAC approval, saying they don’t contain “any living modified organism.” But when Suguna Foods and Godrej Agrovet wanted to import GM soymeal and DDGS (obtained from GM maize), GEAC permission was sought but denied. There is no consistency in the government’s GM agri-produce import policy, reports Vivian Fernandes.

The government permitting the import of genetically modified (GM) soymeal for the first time has kindled hope in the agri-biotechnology industry that it might permit the cultivation of GM oilseeds in the country to reduce the dependence on imported cooking oil.

On 24 August, the government allowed the import of 1.2 million tonnes of de-oiled GM soy oilcake via Petropole on the India-Bangladesh border and Nava Sheva port. The environment ministry gave its non-objection because it said the deoiled cake does “not contain any living modified organism”.

“We have imported about 10,000 tonnes of the cake,” said a purchase executive of Saguna Foods. The Coimbatore-based company with annual sales of more than $1 billion says on its website that it has over 40,000 poultry farmers across 18 states on contract to it. In all, the industry has contracted imports of about 70,000 tonnes, the executive (who asked not to be named) said.

The government has waived the usual procedures for import of the oil cake because soymeal prices had shot up to Rs 95,000 a tonne on 5 August. They were around Rs 30,000 a tonne in July-August last year.  Prices had spiked due to poor harvest and speculation. Poultry farmers had no option but to buy the costly feed.

The import window closes at end of October when the new soybean harvest is expected to soften prices.

The agri-biotechnology industry had suggested the cultivation of GM soybean as an option to reduce the dependence on imported cooking oil at a meeting at the joint secretary-level in the agriculture ministry in July, Ram Kaundinya, Director-General of the Federation of Seed Industry of India said. India produced 92 lakh tonnes of cooking oil this year. It imported 133 lakh tonnes, mainly palm oil followed by sunflower and soya oil, at a cost of about $10 billion.

Earlier this month, the government announced a mission for increasing the area and productivity of oil palm in the country to check imports. A hectare of oil palm can yield more than 4,000 kg of oil. Mustard, which has an oil content of 31-46 percent can yield 430-500 kg oil per hectare given India’s average mustard seed productivity of 1,400 kg per hectare. Soybean’s oil content is 18 percent and with a national average yield of 1,150 kg per ha, the oil yield per hectare is about 200 kg.

The apex regulator for GM crops, the GEAC, had advised the environment minister to approve the cultivation of GM mustard hybrid DMH-11 in May 2018. But ministers have not acted on the advice for ideological reasons, even though the mustard hybrid has been declared safe and was developed by a team of Delhi University scientists with public money.

GM soybean grown worldwide has both insect control and weed resistance traits. These traits do not enhance yields directly. They do it tangentially by preventing weeds from having a claim on water and fertiliser meant for crops and preventing damage by pests. The averted cost of weeding also reduces the cost of cultivation.

Public institutions like the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) will have to source the GM technology as soybean is an open pollination crop whose seed can be saved for sowing the next season. That makes it open source technology. Without being able to restrict use of the technology to only those who pay for it, the private sector will not be able to profit from it.

In the case of Bt cotton, a GM crop that India extensively grows, the insect-control trait is available only in hybrids whose seeds farmers must buy every year. That allows sellers of the technology to monetise it.

The approval given for import of GM soy deoiled cakes demolishes the arguments against the technology – that it harms human and animal health. It’s only the cakes that have the trans-genes (proteins) in them; oil does not have them.

If the government believes in consistency, it should also allow the import of dry distiller’s grain solubles (DDGS), which is what is left behind from fermented maize after alcohol is extracted from the wash. The US has been pressing India to do so (It grows mainly GM maize). Godrej Agrovet, a producer of animal feed had sought its import in 2017 but the GEAC did not give its approval.

This time GEAC approval was not even considered necessary because deoiled cakes of GM soybean do not contain “any living modified organism,” the official press release said.

Indians have been consuming GM cottonseed oil and milk produced from GM cottonseed de-oiled cakes since 2002 when the country approved Bt cotton for cultivation.

If India still wants to block the cultivation of GM soybean or GM mustard, it can cite Japan and the European Union as examples. They allow imports of feed and oil based on GM crops but not the cultivation of these crops.

(Photo of soybean – non-GM- drying in Indore by Vivan Fernandes).