Of Biotechnology In India
By Farah Aziz &
15 May, 2007
Farah 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
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
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
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
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