Trained as an agricultural scientist, Devinder Sharma is an internationally recognised food policy analyst, environmentalist, writer and columnist. He has delivered nearly 100 keynote addresses at international conventions, congresses, summits and seminars in past two decades. The Week magazine profiled him as one of the 25 most valuable Indians. In this first part of the interview, he says the scientific community is simply turning a blind eye to the hazards of genetically modified rubber plants and acting more on behalf of the GM industry to the detriment of farmers.
HAZARDS OF GM CROPS
There is rising opposition to the introduction of genetically modified (GM) rubber trees, which researchers claim would help increase output and allow it to withstand adverse weather conditions.
On the campus of the government-run Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII), GM rubber trees are experimentally being grown, which some plantation owners have welcomed as a precursor to enhancing the rubber economy of Kerala, the southern region where it is generally grown.
But Davinder Sharma, renowned food policy analyst and environmentalist told Polymers & Tyre Asia (Feb-March 2011) that the prospects of GM rubber are dangerous to the environment and the rubber economy.
“Over the past few years, the introduction of GM crops has been shrouded in controversy,” he said in an interview. “In India, the moratorium on Bt brinjal in early 2010 – which if approved for commercialisation would have been the first GM food crop – has created wide awareness about the hazards of GM crops for humans, animals and the environment.”
He said the second-generation environmental impact of the First Green Revolution has led to a terrible agrarian crisis with more than 250,000 farmers committing suicide in the past 15 years. Technology failure is the reason behind mounting indebtedness that drives farmers to end their lives.
GM crops are simply an extension of the same technology approach that has led to the farm crisis in the first place.” This should be kept in mind in any debate on GM rubber, he cautioned.
Rubber is primarily a crop of Kerala and the northeast regions of the country. “Kerala, therefore, has been on the forefront of the opposition to GM crops,” he said primarily because the local government wants to retain the pristine environment in ‘God’s Own Country’ as the state is being promoted among tourists.
Moreover, the Task Force on Application of Biotechnology in Agriculture chaired by well-known agriculture scientist Prof MS Swaminathan has recommended that mega biodiversity hot-spots like the Western Ghats be preserved as a GM-Free Zone.
Kerala has also been demanding a GM-Free status, and the state government’s opposition to GM rubber research trials is therefore expected.
He said: “The tragedy is that with agricultural universities often making false and biased claims, and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) acting as rubber stamp for the biotech industry, people’s trust and confidence on GM claims has been eroded.”
Kerala government believes that there are simple and environmentally-sound alternatives available to enhance rubber productivity, and the scientific community is simply turning a blind eye and is acting more on behalf of the GM industry.
RRII has been saying that its BT rubber plant has better drought- resistance and increased environmental stress tolerance. When asked why these good attributes are being opposed, Dr Sharma said these are wild claims.
First of all, let us be very clear that drought- tolerance, salt- resistance, and plants that can bear biotic and abiotic stresses are some of the wild claims that have been made for several years now. Even the claims that GM crops increase productivity have fallen flat. There is no GM crop in the world that actually increases crop yield.”
In fact, according to the US Department of Agriculture, the productivity of GM corn and GM soybean is less than that of its normal variants. GM rubber, therefore, cannot be an exception. These claims are simply made to hoodwink the regulators and justify the need to continue with the GM crop research trials for which there is abundant money available.
Incidentally, rubber is a crop of the tropics and therefore requires continuous rainfall. It is in fact cultivated in those areas that have high rainfall. Drought is a climatic condition created by several factors, and the most important way to address it is through soil and agronomy management, including the application of manganese micro-nutrient that rubber soils are deficient in and conservation of agro-ecological systems.
Moreover, the resulting Tapping Panel Dryness (TPD) is a physiological disorder that is the outcome of wrong tapping methods, over-exploitation and is not linked to stress alone. “What we need is to develop and promote sustainable tapping systems, which fortunately many farmers are following with a great success,” Dr Sharma said.
Unfortunately, it is the unsustainable tapping methods that RRII promotes that have led to the problem. The institute continues to follow the highly damaging and unsustainable tapping technology that was developed way back in 1890-91. “These technologies are still in practice because it brings benefits for the fungicide and pesticides manufacturers, and also help in the marketing of harmful stimulants,” Dr Sharma emphasised.
There are numerous safer options that are available. But unfortunately, agricultural scientists across the globe seem less interested in looking at economically viable and environmentally sustainable alternatives.
When asked to comment about the assurance that BT rubber would be used for commercial cultivation only after final approval, which might take as much as ten years or more, Dr Sharma recalled the policies regarding granting of permission to the Korean steel giant Posco to set up its manufacturing plant in the northern Indian state of Orissa.
Allowing BT rubber based on the assurance of scientists is like permitting Posco set up its steel plant in Jagatsinghpurm with 60 conditionalities. Inquiry committees set up by the Ministry of Environment & Forests have shown that even prior to the launch of the project, Posco is alleged to have concealed, fabricated facts and committed gross irregularities.
“Why I talked about Posco is because the approval for field trails for GM crops too comes with similar monitoring and evaluation conditions. In the past, there have been numerous instances when GM field trials were held without informing the farmers about the dangers and thereby seeking pre-informed consent,” Dr Sharma noted.
Several GM rice trials for instance had been uprooted and burnt by farmers’ organisations in different parts of the country primarily because the companies had not divulged what was being cultivated nor any precautions undertaken. “GM rubber research trials will not be any exception,” he said.
At a meeting called by the Kerala Chief Minister some weeks back, RRII scientists were asked about the possible biosafety, health and environmental concerns. They were also quizzed about the possible impact of the virus and bacteria gene that goes into the construct. The answer: had been: Nothing to worry. It is safe.
When asked about gene flow by honeybees, for instance, the researchers replied that there was a provision for a 50 mts buffer. And when asked whether this was sufficient, they said that they also knew that bees could travel up to 3 kms, but all “precautions” would be taken.
Further, I am appalled by the manner in which approval for field trials is granted. In case of other GM field crops under research, the approval for field studies normally extends to 100,000 acres in multi-location trials, which for all practical purposes is a de facto approval for seed multiplication. It is as good as any approval for commercialisation.”
He reminded that there is no mechanism by which adequate protection measures can be assured in such large-scale trials. In case of GM rubber, field trials are being sought in an area of 0.4 hectares each in Kerala and Maharashtra. The peculiar nature of homestead farming, and gene flow would pose an environmental- threat. GM- Free status of Western Ghats would surely be compromised.
Other reasons for the researchers to favour such experiments are that the GM rubber tree could be adapted for growing in non-traditional areas so that the country’s rubber output could be increased, which is a necessity in view of the high growth in demand for natural rubber. Reacting to this Dr Sharma said that this is indeed an interesting argument.
“Not only rubber, there is a demand for increasing area and production of several other commercial crops, including jatropha,” he said.
While some 13 million hectares is to be brought under jatropha by the end of 2011, the area under cut-flower cultivation is being increased with a lot of subsidies. Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia is inviting Omani firms for farming in India with the output exclusively shipped to foreign markets.
“All this is happening at a time when food inflation hovers in the double-digits and the government promises to increase food production to meet the growing demand,” Dr Sharma regretted.
With farm lands increasingly coming under industry, and being acquired at a rapid pace for non-farm activities, the question that needs to be asked is where will food crops be grown? Why should rubber cultivation be extended to non-traditional areas? If yes, then who will feed India?
Global food prices in 2011 have already touched a historic high, crossing the 2008 food index which led to food riots in 37 countries. Rising food prices have been among the triggers for current protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.
“Do we want public protests to happen in India? Do we want India to be standing again with a begging bowl?” he asked.
Said Dr Sharma: “I think it makes terrible sense to import rubber, if need be rather than to import food. The country’s food security cannot be sacrificed for the sake of GM rubber,” he argued.
[Continued in Part II]