ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

9 April 2002


very interesting articles (2 & 3) from K. P. Prabhakaran Nair:
1. Bt cotton: 'Health Ministry not consulted'
2. Bt cotton: Bane or boon?
3. GM crops: Seeds of contention


1.Bt cotton: 'Health Ministry not consulted'

By Our Special Correspondent
The Hindu, April 9, 2002

NEW DELHI APRIL 8. The controversy over the recent decision to allow commercial cultivation of Bt cotton today took a new turn with the Union Health Minister, C.P. Thakur, stating that his Ministry should have been involved more before the decision was taken. "Genetically-modified products could have long-term environmental and health effects. It is essential that the Health Ministry was involved more in such decisions,'' he told The Hindu.

The Health Ministry, he said, proposed to convene soon a conference of experts drawn from agriculture, environment, food processing, science and technology and other Ministries that have a stake in the area of genetically-modified products so that there could be a deeper and more holistic debate on the issue.


2.Bt cotton: Bane or boon?

K. P. Prabhakaran Nair
The Hindu Business Line, 9th April 2002

ONCE again, New Delhi has demonstrated where its real concerns are in as much as agriculture is concerned; with the 2-3 per cent corporate farming and not the 60 per cent plus marginal and subsistence farms. First, it was the case of successive and irrational increases in the minimum support prices (MSP) for wheat and rice to please the super-rich farm lobby. New Delhi hastily approved the Bt cotton, peddled by an American multinational with its native subsidiary entrenched in the global seed business, on March 26. The final nod was given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), for the commercial cultivation of Bollgard, supposedly 'resistant' to the bollworm, an insect pest that has been the main cause of the disease and damage in cotton fields.
The day the final approval was given, a foreign TV channel relayed the heated discussion between an environmental activist and the leader of a farmers' outfit, the former decrying the decision while the latter insisting that the farmer must have the "freedom of choice". Admittedly, in a pluralist society, while individuals can be free to choose, one needs to critically assess what is at stake. Recent events in India have clearly demonstrated that it is not the police that can bring peace, but only when prejudices melt can one hope peace will dawn. That a pre-determined prejudice in favour of the Bt cotton had crystallised some time ago on half-baked scientific facts is clear when one dispassionately considers the way the clearance for the Bt cotton has been given. It would be superfluous for the GEAC to pretend that the clearance has been given subject to 'riders'; which, by their very nature, will purely be of academic interest, confined to the written word and not enforced by law.
To understand the current rush to push Bt cotton, one must go back nearly two decades of commercial cotton cultivation in India. The country now spends close to Rs 1,600 crore on cotton pest control through sprays of insecticides, which is about 50 per cent of the total spent on all crops. Cotton occupies just about 5 per cent of the country's cropped area. At the height of the so-called Green Revolution came the hybrids and cotton was no exception. However, with time came the pests as well. It was in the early 1980s that the fourth-generation synthetic pyrethroids surfaced as an 'effective' pest control measure in cotton and, as is the case with "hi-tech" agriculture, the initial success was 'spectacular'. Soon, the pests outsmarted the insecticidal sprays and cotton crops began to succumb.
The high-powered central team that probed the cotton crop failure in Northern India noted that in the last cropping season (Oct 2000-Sept 2001) the major cause for crop failure was the build-up of the bollworm in Northern India in the early part of the crop, followed by rapid succession of broods and their epidemic outbreaks from September to October. But, the team strongly recommends that the use of synthetic pyrethroids be banned, at least for three years, and that a real reprieve could be obtained only by mixing the cotton crop with others such as maize, sorghum (fodder) and bajra to encourage the multiplication of predators and parasitoids.
In other words, the central team's report clearly shows it is the cotton "monoculture"; the hallmark of the Green Revolution or the 'commodity mindset'; that is at the root of the cotton tragedy. The human toll it took in terms of farmers' suicides with failed cotton crops, starting from Andhra and spreading to Punjab, can run into thousands. Can Bt cotton salvage the cotton crop here? Consider what happened in the US, where it was first introduced in 1996.
The Bt cotton derives its name because of the transfer of a gene from a naturally-occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the cotton plant cell through what is known as recombinant gene technology, a part of the whole biotechnological process. It is a biochemical fusion between an organism of plant origin and another of animal origin and the introduced gene triggers an enzymatic reaction that blocks protein digestion in the gut of the bollworm when it feeds on the cotton plant. In earlier times, direct sprays of the bacterial broth were resorted to. However, after the fusion technique was perfected, the genetically engineered cotton plant started to behave as though it created its own insecticide. The commercial exploitation started in 1997 and a review of field data from the US shows that the question of decreasing or eliminating insecticidal sprays; as the American MNC is now claiming through its Indian subsidiary; is an open one and there is nothing to suggest that cotton farmers can totally dispense with insecticidal sprays to eliminate the bollworm.
More damaging are the environmental consequences, and "vertical gene transfer" is the biggest risk for the sustainable use of transgenic crops in the developing world. Non-target plants will definitely acquire pest resistance due to pollen transfer from the Bt cotton, and insects feeding on non-toxic plants in the neighbourhood will be affected and a dramatic change in the insect population, beneficial and predatory, which is required to maintain a natural balance in the ecosystem, will be brought about.
More important, the acquisition of insect resistance or herbicide tolerance by wild plants in the neighbourhood of Bt cotton cultivation could dramatically change their population dynamics and vastly increase their invasive potential resulting in the spread of superweeds. Such considerations apply to viral and fungal diseases.
This is a serious issue for developing countries where the control of invasive plants is a major problem for subsistence farmers and will have serious implications for ecosystems of global importance.
The risk of vertical gene transfer for many crop species is more serious for developing countries than for industrialised countries as wild relatives are often common in developing countries as the crop species originate there.
Against this background, the most important rider specified by the GEAC Chairman that farmers growing Bt cotton provide a non-Bt cotton crop as "refuge" in a space of 2.5-3.5 metres all around, irrespective of the farmer's holding size, is nothing but scientific absurdity because such provisions will be purely impractical to implement in small farmers' holdings, where subsistence farmers struggle with 1-2 acre plots, unlike the "cotton landlords" who have at their command hundreds of acres.
So, the protagonists of the Bt cotton eliminate India's small cotton farmers to cater to the big ones, which the MNC considers lucrative.
The MNC subsidiary's claim that Bt cotton cultivation will enhance the income of farmers by about Rs 10,000 per hectare is exaggerated because the gene use restriction technique (GURT); the production of lethal proteins in the seed at the time of maturity; will render the seed harvested from one season sterile for use in the following season, which, in effect, will tie up the farmer to the MNC producing the costly seed.
The pecuniary benefits accruing to the MNC from the exclusive rights for the sale of Bt cotton would be colossal.
With such huge investments in R&D in agriculture; investments in India are comparable with that in China and Brazil among developing countries; we could not come up with our own Bt cotton and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has cut a sorry figure by peddling not its own wares, but someone else's! Now that a decision, however faulty, has
been taken in such haste, rendering a great pecuniary benefit to an MNC (the day following the GEAC decision, the parent MNC's scrip rose 8 per cent!) and unnecessarily imperilling our environmental integrity. The Government needs to ensure the following:
 Fool-proof bio-safety measures that pre-empt the possibility of any vertical gene transfer.
 A mid-term evaluation by independent teams of experts drawn from ICAR, agricultural universities, ministries of health, environment and forest, and commerce on the environmental integrity and economic viability of the Bt cotton. Enforcement by panchayats is not enough.
 The outcome of the above should be compared with the findings of the central team looking into the bollworm problem and the efficacy of the integrated pest management (IPM) programme that is being followed in many places.
 The lacunae in the data presented by the MNC and its Indian subsidiary on the viability of Bt cotton is that an organisation promoting its product also assumed the role as its monitor for the product's viability. This is a form of monopolistic restrictive practice (MRP) and should be dispensed with totally.
 Finally, the GEAC clearance does not automatically guarantee that governmental approval should follow. Any new agricultural technology should go through a gestation period of at least three years. ICAR's involvement in the Bt cotton project was only for a year.
If the GEAC cannot go back on its decision, it should only be provisional subject to revocation, as the decision, by its very nature, is a watershed in India's agricultural history and generations of Indians to come must not be made to pay a heavy price in terms of its soil, environment and economics. There is no denying that agriculture is, and will continue to be, India's lifeline.
(The author is a senior fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.)
Copyright: 1995 - 2002 The Hindu Business Line


3. GM crops: Seeds of contention

K. P. Prabhakaran Nair
Hindu Business Line, March 22 2002
NEW Delhi is clearly wavering over a clear-cut policy on genetically modified crops (GM crops). With biodiversity poaching in the garb of "documentation" and "research", even by supposedly "eminent" dramatis personae on the one hand, and the impatient peddling of their wares by multinational and transnational companies (MNCs and TNCs) on the other, it is just not the economic future of India that is being threatened but also its environmental integrity, with far reaching implications on the generations to come.
An American MNC operating in India recently announced that it was ready with a GM mustard seed for commercial cultivation. The International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), principally funded by the US, also recently announced that a GM groundnut was available for commercial exploitation. Another US-based MNC has been peddling a GM cotton, "Bollgard", supposedly resistant to cotton boll-worm. Since there was public pressure against this company, a deviously named cotton variety "Navbharat" (the Bollgard in disguise) was clandestinely distributed to cotton farmers in Gujarat for widespread cultivation. That New Delhi had to instruct the Gujarat Government to burn the cotton fields ploughed with the Navbharat seed to save face speaks volumes on the kind of machinations that go on, even in research, which must be above manoeuvring and manipulation.
With the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) giving the go-ahead for the Bollgard, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) must be pleased. It may only be a matter of weeks before the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) gives the green signal for Bollard's mass cultivation by cotton farmers, or rather, the cotton `landlords' who have hundreds of acres in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, etc, and not the tiny one-acre subsistence farmers who cannot afford the costly seed.
The situation the country now faces with regard to GM crops is exactly the same India faced almost four decades ago when the country went in for the large-scale cultivation of the "miracle" wheat varieties imported from the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Research (CIMMYT) in Mexico, again lavishly funded and promoted by US interests.
What followed was the so-called Green Revolution;  a "high input technology" that hastened the disappearance of our biodiversity. The groundwater in Punjab and Haryana is no more potable. Kattampilly in Kerala's Kannur district is testimony to a failed Green Revolution. Kerala's "rice bowl", Kuttanad and Palakkad, have been so doused with poisonous chemicals that even dreaded diseases such as Japanese encephalitis have raised their ugly head. A year ago in Wayanad, millions of fish died because of the copper-based fungicide Furadan, sprayed in pepper gardens to control the wilt disease.
Meanwhile, the just-released report "Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Agroecosystem", jointly authored by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute and the World Research Institute, points to the pitfalls of high input technology. If the messiahs of the Green Revolution spoke of the "ship-to-mouth" food situation in India, then as a justification for the large-scale adoption of the Mexican wheat and the Filipino rice varieties, the same people, in another garb, are now prodding India to take to GM crops because, as the MNCs say, only through this technology will world hunger be banished. What the Green Revolution achieved was to enormously enrich the 2-3 per cent wheat and rice farmers of Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and, to an extent, Andhra Pradesh, leaving the vast majority of subsistence farmers in the lurch. The growing suicides among farmers in various parts of India lend testimony to this failed hi-tech agriculture;  the hallmark of the Green Revolution. If indeed the Green Revolution has not touched the vast majority of Indian farmers, what guarantee is there that the GM technology will benefit all and not just exploited by super-rich farmers?
It is curious that both the MNCs and those with a new-found interest in GM crops speak on the same wavelength as did the agricultural bureaucracy more than four decades ago to push the so-called Green Revolution. Then, as now, the plea concerned hungry Indians. Yet, the numbers of the hungry has only increased. Consider the statistics. In the pre-Green Revolution phase, India produced about 50 million tonnes of foodgrains. Now the output is around 200 million tonnes; almost a four-fold jump. But, in the same period, the population grew from a mere 10 crore to more than 100 crore now;  more than a ten-fold increase!
Between 1992-93 and 1999-2000, the "reforms" period, food production rose 13.41 per cent, roughly 1.68 per cent per annum, while the population grew at around 2 per cent per annum, clearly setting in motion the Malthusian theory of population growth outstripping food production. In the case of rice, from 1991 to 1999 the average intake was around 200 gm per person per day. In 1991 it was 209.1 gm. In wheat the annual increase was just 2.1 per cent. For coarse cereals, the poor man's food, the decline was 20.8 per cent, and for pulses, the poor man's protein supplement, the decline was 20.5 per cent. So, where has the Green Revolution taken us?
A common refrain of the agricultural fraternity; past and present; is that food per se is scarce, only its inaccessibility is the problem; the paradox of vast stocks of food co-existing with widespread hunger. But the most valid question is that if food production has increased so substantially, would food be as dear to us as it is today? The Green Revolution leading to a "food surplus" situation will be exposed for what it is, especially if the NDA Government dispenses with the Minimum Support Price (MSP) which, at the behest of the farm lobby with political clout, simply mopped up the excess grain from the grain rich farmers at exorbitant prices;  an exercise in pure political chicanery. Given the population size and production at around 200 million tonnes (of which more than 50 million tonnes are pulses and coarse grains), the staples, rice and wheat, availability is about 350 gm per person per day which is only 70 per cent of the minimum requirement of 500 gm as stipulated by the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.
The way out

So, where does all this leave us? If GM technology is part of the larger question of environmental integrity, then we must address the entire question and not with the ambivalence we now show. Several decades from now, the country may blame the ills on the agricultural front on GM crops for horizontal gene transfers, vanishing biodiversity, and the breakdown of the country's floral base. It is important to remember that in the last four decades many native varieties of crops have disappeared, but which are also staging a come back. Rice is a classic example, and Palakkad, Kerala's rice bowl, is a test case.
The increasing number of rice farmers committing suicide indicates that the cost of production can no longer keep up with the cost of produce. The ‘miracle’ IR rice varieties (originating in the Philippine-based International Rice Research Institute) produces little in the absence of liberal doses of chemical fertilisers and costly pesticides. Not the local Thavalakannan and Chenkazhama;  the latter have much better cooking qualities than IR 8, IR20, IR36, IR50, etc. It is the "commodity mindset" that is pushing for food security as an external factor to sustainable food production.
The 'gene revolution' seems set to go the way of the Green Revolution where corporate agriculture and its cohorts will hold sway over the average Indian. The philosopher-thinker Santayana said: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to re-live it". How true of the present day Indians who do not seem to know where they are going.
(The author is a senior fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.)

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