ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

6 April 2002


An article appeared in the Economic Times, New Delhi a few days back titled: Beware of Bio-fundamentalists". It was a response to another article from Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign. The Economic Times today (April 6) carries Devinder Sharma's rejoinder. Both articles are given below.

The third item below is on the British-backed Vision 2020 project in Andhra Pradesh. It includes comment from Christian Aid that they fear a calamity if the project proceeds.

1. Beware of bio-fundamentalists
2. Pushing Farmers into a Death Trap
3. $170-million British grant? No thanks, say Indian farmers


1. Beware of bio-fundamentalists

Economic Times, APRIL 03, 2002

SO the bio-fundamentalists are at it again, digging for worms in the cotton crop this time.

Yesterday I woke up to Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign ranting on this page against multinational seed breeder Monsanto for introducing a pest-resistant seed that promises to double output and make India the world's largest cotton producer.

For well over a decade now, we've been quite used to the protestations of bio-fundamentalists against genetic doctoring of God's gifts. So their fulmination no longer surprises, even when, at times, their approach to modern science and commerce sounds plain stupid.

Ms Sahai claims that genetically modified cotton seeds are good for big farmers in the US, but bad for small farmers in India, because Monsanto will not allow them to steal its seeds.

She also suspects that Monsanto's cotton seeds may not live up to their potential in hot and humid India. Unlike Ms Sahai, I am no geneticist.

But common sense makes me respect the integrity of hundreds of small farmers who prefer suicide to lynching money lenders when faced with a crop failure.

To encourage them to steal, actually amounts to playing with the self-respect of our humble farmers. I also wonder why Monsanto should spend money on marketing seeds that do not work in India.

I would rather value its commercial judgement in developing a seed variety that earns huge profits here. And profit, to me, is not a dirty word.

For the record, Indians grow cotton over nine million hectares of land, accounting for the world's largest area under production. But the yield, at 300 kg per hectare against a global average of 650 kg, is among the world's lowest.

The fundamentalists won't tell us how productivity could get worse if the farmers grew pest-resistant cotton. For years now, we've read reports about hundreds of cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab ending their lives in desperation because they grew cotton that did not fetch them enough cash.

Why did that happen? Because pests, called American bollworm, chewed up most of their crop. Now, and ironically, for the first time, an American company is offering a choice that will not only help our farmers survive the vagaries of nature, but allow them to prosper.

And the fundamentalists have problem with that. That problem, I suspect, is not because the seed variety in question is genetically doctored, but because of who sells that seed.

And in this case, the provider of quality seeds happens to be American with an eye to future profit. No doubt, Monsanto, rather its Indian partner, Mahyco of Maharashtra, will make money selling those seeds.

But so will our farmers once they start growing a better crop than what they have been used to so far.

For close to five years now, farmers in Punjab, nearly 70 per cent of whom belong to small and marginal groups, have been growing bumper wheat from a single hybrid seed variety - 343 - on 85 to 87 per cent of the area under wheat cultivation.

This seed variety has been developed by the state-run Punjab Agricultural University which has done pioneering research on several varieties of GM crop.

Over the years, this genetically modified, disease resistant wheat has also become hugely popular with farmers in neighbouring Haryana, UP and Rajasthan.

Now, as with all lab-to-land transfers, over dependence on 343 can create a potential problem. No one can predict when pests will mutate and chew up the entire wheat crop across Punjab's farmlands.

Should that happen there will be no stopping the farmers from running to desperation. Yet, wonder why our bio-fundamentalists don't raise an alarm.

There are two reasons for this. One, the farmers are too comfortable growing the crop, and making money; they have no time for moral-hazard questions.

Two, the seeds, having been developed at a state-run lab, have come to the farmers for almost free and is, therefore, not "stained" by profit incentive.

Now, we have a part-American private enterprise seeking to make a pile in return for bringing prosperity to our cotton farmers. And it doesn't believe in free lunch. But our fundamentalists will have nothing of that.

And it doesn't matter to them that our farmers are not seeking their sahayta (help).

Is Suman Sahai listening?


2. Bt cotton: Pushing Farmers into a Death Trap

By Devinder Sharma
From: Economic Times, New Delhi; April 6, 2002

Thank you very much, Shubhrangshu Roy. You have established what I have been saying for quite long: "economic journalists are the most ill-read people. You can easily take them for a ride". Your reaction "Beware of bio-fundamentalists" (ET, April 3, 2002) only explains why the editorials in newspapers are hollow and meaningless.

Like you, a radio journalist asked me the other day: "Isn’t it like sending a soldier to the battle front and then ask him not to use the latest sophisticated assault rifle?" He was referring to the Government’s initial decision to burn down the illegally grown genetically modified cotton on some 10,000 acres of farmland in the Gujarat State.

"It will certainly be tragic to deprive a soldier of the latest weapon. But it will be more sinister and criminal to provide the soldier with an AK-47 gun and then deliberately make him step onto a ‘booby’ trap," I replied, adding that Bt cotton - containing a gene from a soil-borne bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) - is an attractive biological trap, more potent than the toxin it produces that kills the dreaded bollworm pest. Experience has conclusively shown that gullible cotton growers have been continuously pushed over the past few decades into "a vicious circle of poison". The only difference being that the "chemical treadmill" is now being replaced with a more dangerous and hitherto unknown "biological treadmill".

But then you will say that a majority of cotton growers are happy with the standing crop even if the seed was clandestinely supplied, so what’s your problem? You are very right. This is exactly what had happened when the fourth generation pesticides synthetic pyrethroids were introduced in the country less than 20 years ago. And since then over 10,000 cotton growers have committed suicide.

Who will be responsible if and when thousands of cotton growers again take the fatal route once the insect develops resistance to the Bt gene? Will the secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), who speaks as if she is on the board of Monsanto, be held responsible for the resulting deaths? After all, suicides by thousands of farmers resulting from the targeted pest developing immunity against the chemical or the gene are not "collateral" damage?

The jubilation that was expressed by cotton farmers in the early 1980s when the synthetic pyrethroids were introduced in the cotton growing areas throughout the country did not last long. For first two or three years, farmers were visibly happy. The chemical killed almost everything, including bollworm. The euphoria, however, was short-lived. The insect gradually began to develop resistance and in the next few years while the number of costly and environment-unfriendly sprays increased, so did the resistance against the chemical. In 1987, Andhra Pradesh recorded 37 suicides by cotton growers from crop failures, all result of the chemical equation going wrong, and forcing the farmers into mounting debt. Unable to withstand the humiliation that comes along with increased debt, these farmers drank the same pesticide that was unable to kill the insect.

In Punjab alone, as chief minister Amarinder Singh stated, more than 600 cotton growers had committed suicide last year. Who is responsible for these deaths? If Punjab had not introduced synthetic pyrethroids in mid-1980s, and had instead gone for integrated pest management, hundreds of farmers would have escaped sure death. No scientific institution, no chemical industry and no chief minister have been held accountable for arguably the greatest man made human disaster to have struck independent India.

The same arguments, the same rhetoric, and the same vested interests are desperately pushing in genetically engineered crops as the ultimate savior of the farming community. No one has questioned, not even the Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC), as to how many more thousand farmers need to be sacrificed at the altar of development? Who is responsible for the families of those farmers who end their life abruptly as victims of commercial agriculture? After all, thousands of farmers ending their lives is not a small price for scientific experimentation.

And for your kind information, Punjab agricultural University’s wheat variety - 343 - is not genetically modified. If you do not even know the basic difference between GM crops, hybrids and improved varieties, don’t you think the better option is to first undertake an introductory course in agriculture before forcing the readers of your esteemed daily to tolerate your stupid analysis?

(Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst. Among his recent works include two books GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap)


3. $170-million British grant? No thanks, say Indian farmers

They say the aid for helping Andhra Pradesh state to set up large-scale mechanised farms growing genetically modified crops would hurt small farmers
by Alfred Lee, The Straits Times (Singapore) April 4, 2002 Thursday

A British government grant of [pounds]65-million (S$170 million) to fund farming development in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh (AP) will throw millions of farmers out of work, MPs in London have been told. The massive grant is being given to the state government to consolidate small farms into large ones, buy huge machines to sow and harvest crops, introduce new pesticides to promote the growth of produce and to start the growing of genetically-modified (GM) crops. But the funding for the project, known as Vision 2020, from Britain's Department for International Development (DFID), has provoked fury from farmers and international charities. A delegation of farmers and agricultural scientists from the Indian state has flown to London and has already met scores of MPs, demanding that the grant be cancelled. The powerful environmental and human rights organisations Greenpeace, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth and the Small Farms Alliance are supporting the farmers. The Institute of Development Studies and the International Institute for Environment are also supporting the campaign by the farmers' delegation against British interference in 'traditional' and 'family' farming in the huge, but poor Indian state. Delegation leader P.V. Satheesh told The Straits Times: 'Vision 2020 is an aid package for big farmers and corporations who supply machines, pesticides and who want to promote untested GM crops. 'The British grant will result in huge corporation-owned farms, instead of hundreds of small ones which give a livelihood and jobs to millions of peasant farmers and their families. 'These farmers will be thrown off their land and in AP, there is no other work for them.'

Anjamma, a woman farmer who is a member of the Indian delegation, works 1.6ha of land with her seven children, two bullocks and eight buffaloes in Andhra Pradesh. She said: 'If Britain wants to give money, it should come to the farmers directly. 'That way we can keep our land, make farms more fertile, buy more seed and become completely self-sufficient. 'Instead, this is being denied to us in the name of modernisation.'

Ms Elizabeth Stuart of Christian Aid told The Straits Times: 'The British-funded project will mean the number of people making their living from the land in AP will fall from 70 per cent of the population to 40 per cent. 'This is a drop in the number of farmers of 20 million over the next 20 years. 'The vast majority will have no way of finding alternative income. We fear a calamity.'

Greenpeace said: 'There are widespread concerns among the people about possible dangers of pesticides. Britain is sanctioning the growth of GM crops, even though their safety has not been proved.'

A DFID spokesman told The Straits Times: 'Vision 2020 is going ahead after lengthy and detailed discussions with the government of AP. 'Our aim is to take farmers out of the poverty they and their families have been in for centuries. 'The only way to do so is by modernisation, commercial consolidation of farms and the introduction of up-to-date farming methods, including the use of pesticides and machines and GM crops.'

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