GM crops: Sowing seeds of disaster

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While achieving food security, decision makers in India should not get distracted by techno-fixes like GM crops which are promoted by global biotech seed companies as a silver bullet. They are nothing but a threat to nation’s seed sovereignty and food security, warns Rajesh Krishnan.

The debate and controversy around GM crops and, more precisely about environmental release of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) started 41 years ago around the time the first GMO was developed in an American lab. The debate initiated in the scientific circles spread out to all sections of the society, as here was a technology that had the potential to impact each one of us. The unpredictability of the consequences as well as the uncontrollability of the GMOs, which some call as a living technology, once left out in the environment was the main concern. The scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of GM crops to human health, environment and society has been growing ever since. A recently published compilation of such studies gives abstracts of more than 400 peer reviewed scientific papers. What also emerged out was the potential of this technology to facilitate the patenting of life forms which was permitted for the first time in the history by the US Supreme Court in 1980.

The possibility of patenting and owning life forms, thereby ensuring continuous exclusive rights and profits from seeds, the most important input in agriculture, was precisely the reason why the agri business got interested in this technology. It is thanks to GM crops that Monsanto, the agrochemical giant has become the largest seed company in the world.

Bt cotton- It’s high time we learn lessons

Nothing explains better the absolute monopoly that this technology can provide to its developer like the cotton seed situation in India. Almost 95 percent of our land under cotton is now covered by Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis) cotton and of this almost 100 percent use Monsanto’s licensed Bt cotton. One should also remember that all this happened in a span of less than 12 years. Not only is the company earning thousands of crores in royalty but also is in a position to decide on what varieties can be grown in our country. It is also a dangerous situation that if the company decides to stop licensing of this technology then there is hardly any non Bt cotton seed left in the private or public sector seed providers in our country to be given to our farmers. Infact even the planning commission of India in its 12th five year plan highlights this concern of monopoly.

On one side we have lost our cotton seed sovereignty to an American company and on the other, this magic wand of a technology as it was claimed to be has miserably failed to help our cotton farmer come out of the distress that he/she is in. Last years’ National Crime Records Bureau figures show that two out of every three farmer suicide of the total 13,754 reported were from the major cotton growing states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. It is also important to note that the stagnancy in growth of yield despite wide spread adoption of Bt cotton has been acknowledged by the previous government. In fact, in a 10 year review of 2002, the year in which Bt cotton was approved for commercial cultivation, done by Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, notes that, “Cotton Advisory Board data show cotton yield increased by about 60 percent in three years between 2002 to 2004 when the area under Bt cotton was a meager 5.6 percent and non Bt area was 94.4 percent. The yields did not increase significantly more than the pre Bt era even until 2011 when the Bt cotton area touched 96 percent.2 The experience so far also shows that the reduction in pesticide usage in cotton cultivation, the raison d’être for bringing Bt cotton itself hasn’t happened. The 10-year independent analysis shows that the only cotton growing state where pesticide usage has gone down during the 2002-2012 period is Andhra Pradesh and that is due to the successful Non pesticide Management (NPM) programme that has spread out to lakhs of hectares there during this period. Interestingly a long term analysis by the CICR says that the bollworm attacks which Bt toxin in Bt cotton was supposed to counter had comedown drastically starting from the year 2000 itself where as, commercial cultivation of Bt cotton started only in 2002 and spread to a significant area only by 2005-6, which leaves one with a question of what exactly was Bt cotton then for? Infact Jairam Ramesh famously called Bt cotton a solution looking for a problem.

Public sector agri research or Trojan Horse?

At this juncture it is also important to talk about the public sector efforts to bring out GM cotton. To annul the fears of people about foreign corporations taking absolute control of our cotton seed market Indian Council of Agriculture (ICAR) brought out the much touted Bt Bikaneri narma/the first public sector GM crop reaching commercialisation in India. It was released in 2008 only to be recalled back in a year’s time following complaints that it contained the Monsanto’s Bt gene. An investigation done by a high level committee constituted by the ICAR later on came up with startling facts that the Bt Bikaneri narma was possibly contaminated by Monsanto gene during the field trial stage itself, a secret known and discussed by those in charge of ICAR as early as 2005.3 But they decided to keep quiet. Infact many feel that public sector research besides being influenced by the private sector has also become Trojan horses for them.

This could also be seen in the case of Bt Brinjal, the first GM food crop that came up for commercial approval. While the Bt Brinjal was developed using Monsanto’s proprietary Bt gene by Mahyco as part of an International programme coordinated by the United States Agency for International Development and United States Department of Agriculture, it also included three Indian institutions, the Indian Vegetable Research Institution, Varanasi, The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore and the University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad. Besides giving away the Indian varieties of Brinjal which they had in their University germplasms these ‘eminent’ public research institutions also had signed on an MoU (memorandum of understanding) with Mahyco permitting the company to decide on the commercial aspects of the Bt Brinjal varieties developed using our germplasm. While Monsanto and Mahyco have been dragged to the court by the National Biodiversity Authority for biopiracy, the role of our public sector institutions which are supposed to be custodians of our germplasms also need to be looked at. It is unfortunate that instead of promoting such agriculture technologies that help the farm communities and the nation itself maintain the control of our seed heritage and diversity, these institutions funded by our public, are giving away our seed sovereignty to multinational seed corporations for god knows what.

Thankfully in the case of Bt Brinjal an alert civil society, a strong scientific advise against it along with 13 state governments opposing its commercialisation could persuade the then Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh to take what he called a decision responsive to society and responsible to science and put commercialisation of Bt Brinjal under an indefinite moratorium.

But the fiascos with Bt cotton and Bt Brinjal has unfortunately not stopped our public sector agriculture science research from moving away from a technology that puts our country, its farming, citizens health as well as environmental sustainability at risk. Unless the agenda of agriculture policies change from a paradigm that are resource destructive and which facilitates corporate control over agriculture to those that helps ecological sustainability, economic viability and social justice, such risky technologies will continue to be pursued by our research institutions.

The good news is that such technologies exist. A classic example for the real alternative to synthetic pesticides for pest management is the Non Pesticide Management (NPM) programme in the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh which has spread over to 40 lakh acres and across crops.5 While there is hardly any counter to the effectiveness of the NPM practice in managing pests and bringing monetary benefits to farmers and safe food for consumers, the programme is yet to be promoted by the agriculture ministry in our country, ICAR or even the state agriculture department. Instead all these institutions are going whole hog promoting unsustainable technologies like GM crops and especially Bt crops which are just an extension of the chemical pesticide-based approach to pest management, leaving one wondering where do our priorities lie.

Will GM crops provide food security?

Nothing could be far from the truth that techno-fixes like GM crops could provide food security for our country or any country in the world. A letter by 156 Indian scientists to the previous government gives the reason why.6 The experiences from the few countries that grow GM crops (like USA, Brazil and Argentine) shows that the food security situation in these countries haven’t improved as opposed to other countries like Peru, Venezuela and closer home Bangladesh, where there is commercial cultivation of GM crops. Besides this one also needs to realise that so far there is no GM crop that has been modified to increase yield as a character. Moreover food security is also about food safety which GM crops are threatening.

Our country seems to live with the paradox of mountains of grains and millions of hungry, once again proving the point that increasing production and productivity is not going to solve the issue of poverty or malnutrition. Our food grain production has been breaking records for four consecutive years with this year’s figures climbing up to 268 million tonnes. It is established that a multipronged approach which includes :

  • the promotion of sustainable food production systems,
  • efficient food distribution and
  • ensuring livelihood security of citizens

is the way forward for our country to be food secure, now and in future.

India as a nation is struggling with the big question to achieve food security with a growing population and the already starving millions. It is important that our decision makers do not get distracted by techno-fixes like GM crops which are promoted by global biotech seed companies as a silver bullet.

The voices cautioning against the hurry to embrace GM technology in the recent past included the parliamentary standing committee on agriculture and the Technical Expert Committee set up by the Supreme Court. One hopes that the new government in place will heed to these voices of reason and concern and steer clear of risky technologies in agriculture like GM crops, to ensure that the seed sovereignty and food security of the nation is not compromised, now or in future.


Rajesh-Krishnan

Rajesh Krishnan

The writer is a practicing farmer with an educational background in Biotechnology and Ecology. He is also currently the Convenor of the Coalition for a GM Free India, a large network of concerned organisations and individuals across India fighting to keep our food, farms and environment free from GMOs.

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