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November 27, 2012 | Wall Street Journal Asia

India's GM Food Hypocrisy

India has enjoyed signal successes with genetic engineering in agriculture. But today the nation's relationship with this critical biotechnology is in total disarray, the victim of activists' scaremongering and government pandering.

Delhi should know better. Following the adoption of the genetically improved varieties and intensive crop management practices of the Green Revolution, from 1960 to 2000 India's wheat yields increased more than three-fold.

During the past decade, widespread adoption of an insect-resistant, genetically engineered crop called Bt-cotton has drastically reduced the use of chemical pesticides in cotton fields, enhanced food security and improved farmers' bottom line. Economists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot estimate that Bt-cotton, which contains a bacterial protein toxic to pests, boosted India's economy by $9.4 billion from 2002 to 2010, and by $2.5 billion in 2010 alone.

Nevertheless, bureaucrats have blocked innovations in genetic engineering. During the late 1990s, regulators used the threat of fines and imprisonment to force scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute to destroy their field trial of insect-resistant eggplant, or brinjal as Indians call it. There was nothing remotely hazardous about the trial; the investigators had simply not submitted all the required paperwork.

More recently, anti-biotech groups have waged relentless war on Bt-eggplant. They have made bizarre, baseless allegations about genetically engineered crops, linking them to health problems and to economic failures that have supposedly led to mass farmer suicides, and succeeded in convincing then-Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in February 2010 to impose a temporary ban on this variety of eggplant.

These activists succeeded in further influencing the Indian government. In August, a report from a parliamentary agriculture committee parroted many of the activists' misrepresentations. It heavily criticized a 2009 regulatory decision to approve genetically engineered eggplant—a rare approval that had been won after years of bureaucratic delays.

Also in August, and again at the behest of activists, the government of Maharashtra state banned the sale and distribution of Bt-cotton seeds. The seeds are made by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company, which is a partner of the Missouri-based multinational Monsanto MON -0.42% . Maharashtra politicians said they were inferior in quality, an unreasonable charge given their enormous, proven benefits.

Anti-biotech groups have also gone to the courts to halt the testing and commercialization of genetically engineered crops. In October, a technical committee appointed by India's Supreme Court recommended a 10-year blanket ban on field trials of genetically engineered food crops. Scientists harshly criticized this recommendation, noting that the committee ignored copious data on the safety of genetically engineered crops and their promise for Indian agriculture and food production. On Nov. 9, the Supreme Court declined to accept the recommendation, pending receipt of a more comprehensive report early next year.

Such meddling from New Delhi has hurt farmers' ability to feed Indians more cheaply and reliably. Its approach to oversight turns on its head a basic tenet of regulation–that the amount of oversight an activity receives should be commensurate with the level of risk it poses. In India, crops like Bt-brinjal are crafted using precise, modern laboratory methods that essentially refine, or extend, more primitive ways to perform genetic modification.

The precision involved actually makes the product safer, as it becomes possible to introduce pieces of DNA that contain only one or a few well-characterized genes. Yet they are subjected to extensive, expensive testing and monitoring regimes—and even proposed bans. Meanwhile, exempted entirely from regulation are new plants created using cruder, less predictable breeding techniques, such as "wide-cross" hybridization, in which large numbers of genes are moved between unrelated plants.

To fully grasp the folly of this approach, consider the man-made hybrid species Triticum agropyrotriticum, which arose from the combination of bread wheat and quackgrass. The old method of hybridization involved here transfers the entire genome of quackgrass haphazardly into wheat.

This new crop could, at least in theory, pose several types of problems because it takes an established plant variety, wheat, and introduces tens of thousands of foreign genes into it. Concerns include the potential for increased invasiveness of the plant and the possibility that quackgrass-derived proteins could be toxic or allergenic for some humans.

But neither Indian regulators nor activists have evinced any concern about these possibilities. Plant varieties like T. agropyrotriticum, which harbor "transgenes" and are "genetically modified" according to any reasonable definition, are subject to no review before entering the food chain. In contrast, if a single gene from quackgrass (or any other organism) were introduced into wheat using modern genetic engineering techniques, the resulting variety would be subject to hugely expensive—and increasingly biased and politicized—regulation.

Such discrimination has several root causes. They include the political influence of environmental activists and a deep-seated distrust of industry. But this flies in the face of existing scientific consensus, if activists and bureaucrats ever bothered about that. Perhaps reason will win out in the face of such absurdities, and officials will come to their senses. Until then, the irony of India's fear and ignorance driven approach to genetic engineering is that the only Frankenstein's monster it has spawned is bureaucracy run amok.

Mr. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.