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Future Of Biotechnology In India

By Farah Aziz & Suman Sahai

15 May, 2007

arah Aziz: What is the current agricultural biotechnology scenario in India?

Suman Sahai: An untested technology is never safe to be unleashed freely. If you have a technology, there is also a need of a regulatory system to control it. This is not so in India. For years we have been witnessing the proliferation of Bt. Cotton, and the socio-economic hazards spelled by it. Illegal varieties of seeds like Navbharat seeds are entering the market without any check. The companies are fuelling that it's a great success. But we are witnessing our farmers committing suicides. Huge input costs combined with crop failures are spelling disaster. Several independent studies, NGO reports, and State governments have proved that Bt. cotton has failed very badly, at least in rain fed areas, yet there is neither any policy to check it nor any investigation going on to survey the connection between the crop failure and farmer suicides.

It can be clearly seen that biotechnology in the field of agriculture has been applied in the most experimental way in India. All those experiments that ought to have been conducted in the laboratories are now let open to be done in the fields itself. Had Bt. Cotton been tested by the university it would never have entered the open fields. The technology here has been proposed by the profit motivated companies. Without imparting any training to the farmers and undermining all reports of crop failures, the Government kept on pushing the seeds of private companies. There are as many as 62 varieties of Bt. Cotton that are approved by GEAC (Genetic Engineering Approval Committee). How can a government behave so irresponsibly that it kept on divulging an untested technology on its people?

It's an utterly confused scenario where both science and policy have been thrown to the winds. There are those who are arguing that so what if the varieties fail in a few years, why not let the farmers enjoy a few good harvests. The other argument goes that if the farmer finds out (after growing the crop and indebting himself) that the variety is not profitable, he will abandon it by himself. Both these arguments can only be made by city people. If the farmer finds out after the harvest that he has lost money and can not repay his debt, who bails him out then? And when the variety fails because the bollworm has become resistant to Bt., like the mosquitoes did to DDT, what solutions are there to offer the farmer so that he can continue growing cotton? At that time these armchair theorists are hard to find.

FA: In what ways can biotech be useful for a country like India where people are cynical of adopting a new technology especially the farmer class?

SS: Like any other technology, biotechnology is also wedged with limitations. It can not do everything. To answer this question, there is a need to delve into reasoning. Before deciding upon any technique, we have to identify the problem areas of Indian agriculture, and then judge whether they can be solved with biotechnology or not? And if yes, then how, what are the necessities, and to what limits? The most important is to identify, if the new technology has any back falls too, what are socio-economic costs? And ultimately that, whether the technique is going to benefit our marginal farmers or not? If a technology fails to address issues of our poor farmers, we don't need it at all. What agricultural problems can biotechnology solve in India? We need to ask this question to our farmers and not the corporations.

At this juncture of time in India, the agricultural problem doesn't lie at the stage of production. Even when there are 60 lakh tones of grains lying idle in the buffer stocks, India is facing hunger deaths as the people don't have the purchasing power to buy food. The PDS is returning grain to the farmers, because there is no effective demand. This is not because we have a scarcity of good varieties, but because we don't have buyers. The major problem area is that our farmers don't have a market for there produce. Farmers invest and get a healthy harvest, but don't get the price they deserve.

Gene Campaign conducted a Jan Sunwai, on March 30th with a participation of around 5000 farmers. The farmers notified their problems as high input costs, market unavailability, low market price for the produce, lack of credit, water scarcity, climatic uncertainties, low budgetary outlay, IPR, SEZ Act, lack of fertilizers and like. Where can biotechnology help in this? These problems are untamable by biotechnology.

All the more, if we have a look at numerous farmers committing suicides, a more dismal picture reveals. Farmers are killing themselves because of heavy indebtedness. The input cost of farming Bt. is 5 times as high as the organic varieties. Moreover, there is no cap on the royalty that can be demanded by the companies for the patented product. Without training, and with lack of proper irrigation along with the inbuilt problems with the variety itself (that have not been tested yet), the crop is bound to fail. And then there is no increase in the market price of the produce. Where will the farmers go then? The problems that Indian farmers face can't be solved with biotechnology, at least at this point of time. It doesn't guarantee a market!

FA: As a former member of GEAC, what are your views on the decision taken by the committee on commercialization of Bt. cotton?

SS: I was a member the of GEAC, when Bt. Debate had not taken platform. It's very unfortunate that the companies have managed to have a substantial influence on the Government. In Indonesia, Monsanto has been charged against bribing the government officials for giving them a favourable record and policy for Bt. Its not surprising that Monsanto might have tried the same trick in India as well. Many years ago, Gene Campaign with other NGOs had made a submission that the Central Vigilance Committee may kindly be asked to investigate the matter of Bt. Cotton.

It's questionable that at the one hand, Bt. is failing repeatedly, and at the other hand GEAC is approving marketing of newer and newer varieties. Even at the cost of farmer suicides! Why no review has taken place? Why no independent agency has been given charge by GEAC to go into the fields. If GEAC is the authorized agency, the responsibility lies with the GEAC itself to enquire into the situation in depth. Gene Campaign as well as other agencies are conducting surveys in this regard, why GEAC is not conducting any survey? How many more deaths does the committee want to shock its nerves?

It is their responsibility to enquire the connection between Bt. Cotton failures and farmer suicides and to find out the extent of illegal cotton seed trading, the extent of non performance of Bt, the effect on pesticide use and more. Without any such investigations, GEAC has approved 62 GE Cotton varieties in just one cotton belt of India. The number is not so high in any other country. China and United States produce several times more cotton than us. Even they don't have so many varieties.

The question is - Why is GEAC refusing to evaluate the performance of Bt. at all? When such is the case, one naturally gets skeptical about the influences on GEAC and its connections with the seed industry.

FA: What are your views on introducing GM rice in India?

SS : Rice is the staple food crop and India is the centre of its origin. This means that the greatest number of rice and related genes are found in India. Particularly in the Jeypore tract of Orissa, and the swathe cutting across Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, as well as in the North eastern tract which constitutes the major gene pool. Centers of Origin are considered high-risk areas for introducing GE crops because if the foreign genes contained in the GE variety are to move into the natural gene pool, the results may be potentially catastrophic. Mexico, Center of Origin and diversity for corn, has a clear-cut policy and has imposed a ban on the cultivation and research of GE corn to safeguard the natural gene pool. Similarly, Peru has banned genetic engineering in potato and China has followed path for Soya.

Basmati is the premium agricultural product of India and has high export value. Introduction of genetic modification in rice, specifically in Basmati, as has been proposed by our Department of Bio Technology is not only fraught with huge economic losses to India in particular, but also with possible permanent loss of variety to the entire world. There is no point why India should allow GE in rice.

FA: How can India increase its production without increasing the acreage to feed its growing masses?

SS: There are several reforms yet to be done in the field of agriculture, to cater to the agrarian crisis. Budget outlay for Agriculture in every Five Year plan needs to be increased. There is a need to reduce the input costs and increase the market price for agricultural produce. Level of effective demand has to be increased and cheap credit facilities are to be made available to the farmers. There should be a proper system to address the issue of water scarcity. Conservation of Agro Bio-Diversity in Gene and Seed banks is also important. Diversion of farm land to other commercial activities like SEZs should be scraped. Investments should be made to restore soil health. Agriculture should be diversified with introduction of new high yielding varieties. The agenda on land reform should be completed at the earliest.

FA: Are there any health hazards also because of the new technique on life stock as well as human beings? Any examples?

SS: Of course, there are health hazards reported from India as well as other countries. There are reports of cattle deaths after they have grazed on the Bt. fields. There are reports of skin irritations and optical infections (including the reddening and watering of eyes) from the Bt. farmers. There are reports of complete crop failures in cases of field sharing with Bt. or if the crop is grown on the same field subsequent to Bt. There have been reports against soybean from Latin America.

FA: Is there a flaw in the technology itself or the implementation of the technology? What do you think?

SS: There are a number of flaws in the implementation of the technology. The alien technology has been implemented without any prior training to our farmers. No field trials were done before marketing the seed. There was a need to educate the farmers about the 20% refuge (unsown area) which was a completely unknown phenomenon to ordinary farming. GEAC didn't conduct any test for technical competence or otherwise for the new variety. The most skeptical is the fact that there has been a complete lack of transparency in the implementation process. Gene campaign dropped many applications under RTI to do the bio-safety evaluation of the variety, but the department of biotechnology refused to give any details.

FA: How do you differentiate between the use of GM technology by a developed and a developing country?

SS : It is not about the level of development. It is about the specific problems of farming that a particular country is facing. If we want A, and biotechnology is providing Z, its no use for us!

FA : The response to Bt. has been inconsistent. Unlike India, farmers in China are welcoming the technology, what's your comment on that?

SS: China has kept a price cap on the level of royalty that a company may demand against the patented seed and China doesn't allow hybridization of Bt. India doesn't have any such policy, without which the farmers are left vulnerable to exploitation. Also, India is the only country which has allowed hybridization of Bt. Cotton which means that the farmer has to buy from the market at the inflated prices every time. In India, GEAC has allowed Monsanto to make expensive Bt Cotton hybrids. So the farmer has to purchase it from the company every time with as much royalty surcharge as the breeder wants. The difference lies in the policy that is being adopted.

FA: What effects can Genetic engineering have on natural biodiversity?

SS: We don't exactly know what may happen, because we have not performed any tests for the results. No studies have been conducted to detect the phenomenon of gene flow. We have not studied the impact, we don't know, if using a particular GM seed may induce gene silencing. There may be a possibility that the original variety gets extinct, due to gene contamination through pollination. If Bt. is lethal to the bollworm, or a particular weed, it may be lethal to some of the beneficial insects, worms and weeds.

FA: Is there actually a possibility like second green revolution? If yes, then is it achievable, solely depending on the organic farming?

SS : It's a myth that second green revolution has its faith bound with Genetic Engineering only. Organic farming is a more sustainable mode of cultivation as compared to GE. The input costs are lesser, and most of all our farmers are trained for that. We need to put labour in organic farming, for which we are rewarded; we don't have to put money. Our natural USP is organic farming, which has a market of 50 billion US$ and could be very well exploited.

If there is a trouble shooting, organic farming has its remedy, and there are no irreversible damages. The crunch is irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, markets, and credit. We need to sort out these problems to breakthrough a second green revolution. From the point of view soil health, chemical load, and health hazards organic is the answer, most of all, it is promising. There are many time tested organic high yielding varieties. We will have to come out of this mendacity that organic farming is an obsolete mode. We have to save our biodiversity for a sustainable mode of farming, and organic farming is the only answer to that.

Dr. Suman Sahai, who has had a distinguished scientific career in the field of genetics, was honored with the 2004 Borlaug Award for her outstanding contribution to agriculture and the environment. She was appointed Knight of the Golden Ark (Netherlands) in 2001 for establishing Gene Campaign and generating awareness about issues related to genetic resources and trade.
Dr Sahai is currently chairing the Planning Commission Task Force on Agro biodiversity and Genetically Engineered Organisms. She is a member of the National Biodiversity Board and serves on the Research Advisory Committees of national scientific institutions, the high-powered National Commission on International Trade, the Expert Committee on Biotechnology Policy and the Bioethics Committee of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

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