Transgenics and Indian Agriculture : Where are the benefits?

(Dr. krishan Bir Chaudhary)

A paper presented in a meeting of National Commission on Farmers on 22nd Sept.2005

In India, transgenic crops are being experimented with and even released, without a coherent approach to the whole matter. It is not clear why transgenic agriculture is considered "frontier" or indispensable by numerous agricultural research bodies both in the public sector and private sector. Given below are our strong objections to transgenic crops in Indian agriculture and the reasons for the same.

Firstly, when it comes to transgenic agriculture, it is not clear how research and commercial release priorities are being set in this country. It seems that agencies are free to choose what suits and benefits them most, rather than what farmers need.

No consultation with farmers and their organizations on whether they want GE as a technology in Indian agriculture at all is visible. There is no assessment witnessed of various options - including safer, more inexpensive and politically right decisions that would uphold farmers' interests - before zeroing in on transgenic technology as the option for a given crop or problem.

Herbicide resistance is a trait that is being worked on by many agencies, including public sector bodies! What implications would this have for the poor agricultural workers of this country, not to mention the environmental implications with increased herbicide use? Similarly, major food crops are being worked on without any thought to environmental and health repercussions! This includes our staple food, Rice.

Public monies are being spent on expensive research on crops like tobacco! How are these research priorities being set? What are the accountability systems here, given that public sector research is much more than private sector when it comes to transgenic crop experimentation in India? Also, how have agencies, especially in the public sector, zeroed in on research on transgenics, rather than research on safer, ecological alternatives? These public sector bodies shy away from even validating such ecological practices that are being adopted by farmers on the ground. They would rather spend expensive resources sitting in their laboratories and campuses developing an imprecise technology.

On top of this are complications related to IPRs which have not been worked out at all. The UAS, Dharwad has a case to illustrate where they had developed a Bt Cotton variety with a gene donated by Ford Foundation only to discover later that that gene is a proprietary technology owned by Monsanto!

Civil society verification and research shows several bio-safety violations in all such experiments - the products from field trials are allowed to enter the food chain routinely before all bio-safety tests are completed. Seeds from such field trials are routinely allowed to contaminate the other seed stock either physically or biologically, much before such crops are allowed for commercial cultivation.

The Navbharat Bt cotton fiasco would have happened in such a manner too though no detailed investigations were undertaken on the matter. Similarly, field trial permissions and seed production permissions are given and no monitoring takes place to check what happens to the seed stocks if commercial approval is not granted in the next season. There have also been instances in the past where attempts have been made for clandestine imports of GE foods into the country or when they have actually been imported.

The Soya imports into this country from countries like the US must surely be GM-contaminated - however, no permission for such imports are being sought from the GEAC nor is GEAC pro-actively stopping such imports. All of these are clear indications of the complete failure of bio-safety regulations or risk assessment procedures in the country.

Coming to the experience of Bt Cotton in India, the first transgenic crop to be commercially cultivated, there are many lessons to be learnt including the fact that the technology is very imprecise and imperfect. Government's own studies have shown that Bt Cotton, a technology imported from the US, was fit for the American conditions and their major pests rather than ours.

There has been an extremely uneven performance, predictably, of the technology on the ground - the primary claims have been belied with regard to pesticide use coming down along with bollworm incidence coming down. There are several other problems reported by farmers which need deeper investigations - this is however not being done despite repeated requests.

The country has not stopped to pause to take stock of the situation so far, before more varieties are released all the time. Worse, biosafety assessments are being done away with, with the argument that the "event" has already been approved for its bio-safety.

This is a highly questionable claim. Bt Cotton cultivation in this country has also shown all the shortcomings and lacunae in our regulatory functioning. The post-approval surveillance is extremely unscientific and erratic. The cases of falsification of actual experience on the ground point to corrupt elements entering the picture. Monsanto's bribing of several Indonesian officials for obtaining a clearance for a GE crop is well-known and is a good reminder to us about the extent the industry would go to push its markets.

The most important shortcoming in the story of Bt Cotton in India has been the lack of accountability mechanisms. Farmers who have incurred losses due to the cultivation of Bt Cotton have been left to fend for themselves while the companies involved in the commercialization are laughing all the way to the banks. Farmers' interests have definitely been shown to be the last priority in this fiasco.

Resistance management plans are non-existent and faulty where they exist. Even in a country like Australia, there is a 30% limit to Bt Cotton cultivation. Why do Indian scientists only talk about experiences from elsewhere and adverse results from their own studies, instead of doing something to influence the decisions? Is scientific research by specialist bodies like CICR meant only for academic interest?

India should also take cue from the developments across the world. Worldwide, starting from 2003, GM crops research is drying up, even in countries like the US. Companies like Bayer Crop Science have announced that they are going back to conventional breeding.

Companies are also voluntarily withdrawing products that have been in the pipeline like GM Wheat due to enormous consumer and farmer pressure against these crops. India should consider why it wants to tread a path that could be inimical to the interests of its farmers and definitely prove hazardous to its environment.

Let us look at the situation worldwide - In 2004, the biotech industry and their allies celebrated the ninth consecutive year of expansion of genetically modified (GM) crops. The estimated global area of approved GM crops was 81 million hectares in 22 countries.

Corn and soya, the two most widely grown GE crops are grown mostly for animal feed or enter the human food chain mostly as minor ingredients or derivatives. The GM industry would like to tell us that it has delivered benefits to consumers and society at large through more affordable food, feed and fiber with less pesticide usage.

It is difficult to imagine how such benefits have been achieved given that more than 70% of the global area under GM crops is devoted to Monsanto's Roundup Ready herbicide-tolerant crops. Even yield increase claims are questionable since studies from the US show that yields were suppressed with crops like RR Soybean cultivars. Other studies from North America on Roundup Ready Soy and Bt Maize found that the returns from these crops essentially equaled those of non-GE varieties.

The social costs of displacement of small farmers and agricultural workers from their farming are well documented and enormous. In Argentina, the situation is quite dramatic as 60000 farms went out of business while the area of Roundup Ready Soybean almost tripled.

In countries like Brazil, GM soybean-led deforestation of the Amazon forests is also well-documented. These developments only point out towards the very hollow impact assessment studies and risk assessment studies that are taken up before the introduction of the technology. Often, such studies are not taken up at all and India cannot be allowed to go the same way. Please note that there are strong reasons as to why only 22 countries in the world have so far approved GM crop cultivation.

The environmental costs of the transgenic technology in agriculture are irreversible and unaffordable. Degradation of soils, loss of sustainable farming practices, loss of biodiversity, huge monocultures to the detriment of the sustainability of resources, impact on other living organisms, increase in secondary pests' damage to the crops etc. have all been well-documented. Equally well-documented are the positive impacts of many sustainable agriculture practices which are non-pesticidal and non-GE.

The use of chemicals has only increased after the introduction of GE-led agriculture in countries like the US. In 2004, farmers sprayed an average 4.7% more pesticides on GE crops than on identifical conventional crops. In the case of herbicide resistant crops, the usage of herbicide goes up and in the case of insect-resistance crops, insects are known to adapt themselves given the enormous selection pressure on them which once again translates itself into higher chemical use for their control.

The increase in chemical usage not only has environmental implications in terms of groundwater contamination, super-weeds etc., but also raises important questions on food safety.

Coming to the much-forwarded principle of co-existence of GM and conventional crops, regulators and scientists should understand that co- existence is an impossibility in India. Experiences from world over including the Mexican maize contamination case are an illustration. "Adventitious presence" or contamination of conventional seed with biotechnology traits is a known phenomenon which has adverse environmental and economic implications.

In a country where there are millions of small holdings right next to each other and where traditional seed exchange systems are vibrant to this day, both genetic and physical contamination of seed stocks is inevitable. Failure of regulation is more than well-established in the case of a non-food crop like Cotton. The disaster waiting to happen if GM technology is introduced in food crops cannot be overstated.

GM foods are known to cause a variety of human health problems. There are numerous studies on GM tomato, GM potato, GM corn, GM soy and other crops which show that these foods constitute a definite hazard to health. Monsanto's secret GM Maize study findings also point to the same facts. There is also the issue of antibiotic resistance building up through GM crops.

There can be no easy management solutions to these issues. In developed countries too, segregation was known to have failed as the Starlink corn contamination case reveals. Many long term human health impacts might not even start showing in the health assessment studies being taken up right now. How can India afford to tread this path, when it has agreed to enshrine the Precautionary Principle when it signed up to the Cartagena Protocol? How can the precautionary principle guide us for international trade decisions but not when it comes to domestic production and trade decisions?

Has India begun assessing the possibilities of market rejection for its agricultural products if it opts for GE any further? Many large companies in the mainstream food industry already have a non-GE policy in response to consumer demand in many countries in the West. What will be the economic implications for Indian farmers of such market rejection? What kind of an analysis is available for the farmers so that they can make an informed choice on the matter?

The organic food industry, which has a great potential for growth will definitely be closed to us by our pro-GE decisions and this will once again mean a great economic loss to Indian farmers. Organic farmers have their own rights which need to be protected too. In Canada, a class action suit is under way demanding lost organic canola profits due to contamination. Similarly, Germany has a law that makes farmers who plant GE crops liable for contamination of other crops.

Many other countries in Asia are treading cautiously and have moratoriums, or bans, or pro-active organic farming policies in addition to strict labeling regimes for regulation of their agriculture and food industry. India however seems to be moving in a very ad-hoc and anti-farmer manner in this regard.

India often talks about emulating the USA without considering that the social and agro-ecological conditions are vastly different between the countries, not to mention the regulatory mechanisms. India has to evolve solutions for its agriculture indigenously and an enormous number of successful alternatives to various situations exist with the farmers themselves in various pockets of the country.

It is time that the agricultural research establishment, the agricultural education establishment as well the agricultural policy-makers first look at these options before chasing technologies that are unsustainable and anti-farmer.



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