Interview: Richard Werran, CEO of Cert ID Europe

India’s elephant beginning to charge towards sustainability

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Agriculture Gm

India’s elephant beginning to charge towards sustainability
With over 30 years in the food industry, with a third of it spent providing and promoting food safety certification with Cert ID Europe, Richard Werran knows a fair bit about genetically modified crops in sustainable agriculture.

Cert ID was formed in 1999 at the peak of food and feed industry concerns about GMOs, and the not-for-profit now provides a range of non-GMO and EU regulatory food safety certification for environmentally sustainable and socially responsible food and feed production.

As CEO of Cert ID’s Europe’s certification division with responsibility for India, as well as Europe and Australia, Werran has over the years gained a great deal of knowledge of the subcontinent’s agricultural intricacies, including political and societal attitudes towards GM.

Battle of the Brics

There is no doubt that India is a complex place, and Werran likes to compare its farming infrastructure its fellow Brics nation, Brazil.

You look at agriculture in Brazil and it’s completely different to India​,” he says. “It is a relatively younger country so farms are more widespread—some even the size of Wales—and there is a large-scale infrastructure there. The industry has developed there, and is still moving. 

India is also an agrarian country, but unlike Brazil, things haven’t changed for thousands of years. There are still thousands of farmers who inhabit a fragmented and diverse infrastructure; the majority of them have tiny plots and they are surrounded by an supply chain that is lacking​.”

While things are changing, the change hasn’t been quick, although Werran says a fast pace of growth would be detrimental. As a certification provider, he and his team follow local agrarian practices, seeing how Indian agriculture is for the most part a family business, and wholesale redevelopment would likely put thousands of families out of work.

Of course we see children working in farming, but we understand this as long as they are not involved in heavy labour and still have access to schooling. It is important to accommodate social issues in a positive way​,” he explains.

Having gained EU-recognised certification standards, he says, typical Indian agriculture will receive incremental improvements that result in a corresponding shift in practices. Europe, of course, is extremely sensitive to issues of child labour, but it is crucial for the West to take a realistic look at how things are done in India.

The Indian elephant

Werran likens the country to an elephant—it takes a long time to get going, but once it does, it moves quickly. But in food, it is moving in conflicting directions.

On one side, the country is strong in biotechnology—“Big boys’ toys, which you need if you want to dominate a region​,” as Werran puts it. The country cultivates three types of GM cotton crops; there’s also the controversial Bt Brinjal, which is currently under a shroud, and there is most likely development underway of other GM crops like canola and mustard at a trial level.

On the other, the agricultural sector understands the value of its export markets, such as Western Europe, which is not as open to GM deliveries. “Indian exporters are very astute and aware of shifting sands​,” continues Werran. “They have to ensure their products are not GM. If they pursue this direction, they can do good business. And even in the home market, there is now a law that says GM products must be labelled, but this is bringing confusion over how it will be policed and enforced​.”

Magic bullet

At this point, Werran touches on another paradox: that of commercial power versus food security. While exporters must abide by market forces—and these are largely non-GM for the EU shipments—there is an influential school of thought among politicians and scientists that genetic modification is required to provide enough food for India’s growing population.

The notion that GM is the magic bullet to feed the world is hollow, and much more can be done by adopting better practices​,” he asserts. “For example, one hectare of land will produce 3 tonnes of soy, whereas that figure is just 1 tonne in India. And this is in spite of India’s soil being very rich. If India performed seed quality testing, for example, its farmers would be able to double that 1 tonne by finding the better quality seeds​.

Indeed, there is a huge amount that can be done to improve productivity without having to resort to GM, such as low-cost, cost-effective moves like testing, education and training​.”

But Werran believes the Indian elephant is starting to gather pace and is generating speed through more affluent and informed consumers and strong business brains among its marketeers. “As a nation, India is very quick to learn and very quick to adapt. I believe that Indians can teach the world a great deal​,” he concludes.

  • Cert ID Europe is one of the stakeholders of the ProTerra Foundation, which will host a conference on sustainability and non-GM certification in Rotterdam on May 14. The conference has secured interest from some India-based companies interested in find out more about the supplying the European market. For more information, visit

Have your say: What's your take on the GM debate? Let us know in the box below.

Related topics Science GM food