Environmentalists have made the world well aware of the arguments against using genetic modification to create varieties of cops that are disease resistant and produce higher yields. And yet, if the truth be known, we are all eating products that have been modified in one form or another - even if only through 'natural selection'.
Now a row has broken out in India over the use of genetic techniques to improve cotton yields - of vital importance to the country's textile industry. Cotton output in India has fallen far behind that of its competitors in world markets and one local association in particular is vociferous in its demands to examine the whole situation.
India must wake up to the benefits of new technologies, including biotechnology, to avoid getting in "productivity trap" in a ruthlessly competitive post-WTO world, says East India Cotton Association (EICA) president Suresh A Kotak (director-e News, Wednesday 31 October).
"In the ruthlessly competitive post-WTO world, unless the country makes full use of newer technologies, it will find itself in a 'productivity trap' and cannot hope to come out of it", Mr Kotak says in a statement.
With its dismal low productivity and out-of-world parity mill gate prices, the cotton user industry currently finds its hands tied behind its back even before the start of the race to win a significant share of the world textile trade.
"EICA has been emphasising time and again the imperative need to cross the yield barrier and bring down the production cost to cool down the overheated cotton economy", stresses Mr Kotak.
Responding to the recent reports of large-scale cultivation of alleged genetically modified (transgenic) cotton in Gujarat and the government's demand for destroying the crop because of environmental concerns, Mr Kotak says: "The core issue that should really disturb us is not the controversy that has been stirred up, which we consider symptomatic and technical, but where do we stand in the actual utilisation of biotechnology for the benefit of the cotton economy in general and our farmers in particular.
"The moot point is whether our farmers have been deprived of the much needed access to modern technology.
"In the current case of farmers growing transgenic cotton, it is not clear whether it has been established that the cotton raised is transgenic or hybrid. If it is the latter, no legal provision appears to have been violated. The best approach would seem to be to conduct a survey and study to provide an independent and objective assessment".
Following this, the law should have the final word prior to any decisive action. "In no circumstances should the farmer be deprived of his returns, either now or in future", stated Mr Kotak.
Also, because agriculture is the responsibility of the state, the state itself needs to be more vigilant, Mr Kotak feels. "The country can ill afford to allow delays in procedural formalities or institutional shortcomings to deprive the farmers of their legitimate earnings or to stifle the economic advancement of the country", he says.
According to Mr Kotak, after pioneering hybrid cotton in the mid-'80s and after a decade of experimentation in transgenic cotton research, India is now caught up in controversy while China has moved further ahead.
Both India and China began research into transgenic cotton during the early 1990s. However, during this period, China has brought in a million hectares, or a fourth of its total cotton area, under different transgenic cotton varieties, but "we find ourselves mired in avoidable controversies", says Mr Kotak.
The disparity between China and India, he believes, is not really a reflection on Indian scientists, but on the government's cavalier approach to matters of vital concern to farmers and to the growth of the country's agricultural economy overall.
According to Mr Kotak, during 1980s and 1990s, India had made a spectacular breakthrough in cotton production by pioneering hybrid technology and bringing as much as 40 per cent of its total cotton areas under hybrids - a feat unmatched by any other country.
This momentum has since been lost. Cotton production has declined, productivity has reached a plateau, if not reduced, and the country is now stuck with an average yield of 293 kg lint per hectare against a world average of 605 kg and China's 1,096 kg.
Hybrid technology appears to have exhausted its potential, Mr Kotak believes. And he argues that India now has to turn to newer and more potent tools like biotechnology.
"Even the world-renowned agricultural scientist and Unesco eco-technology professor, MS Swaminathan, has said that genetic technologies can help improve crops in more precise and faster ways than the traditional Mendelian methods", Mr Kotak adds.
Chinese studies have revealed that transgenic cottons reduce the cost of plant protection by 82 per cent and raise the net returns of farmers by 19-24 per cent.
The over-riding importance of transgenic cotton to India lies in its bollworm resistance, Mr Kotak points out, because this pest eats about 15-20 per cent of cotton on an average every year. In a year of serious outbreak, the loss may rise above 30 per cent.
"If biotechnology can help to circumvent this huge loss, India should commit to it, taking all precautions advocated by scientists", Mr Kotak concludes.