Feb 6, 2014

Prime Minister ignores the facts. Openly bats for dangerously risky GM crop technology.

In the 20 years since the first GM crops was introduced in US, there is a spurt in diseases. There is certainly no evidence of a direct link but there is also no evidence that this may not be somehow linked. Why not have a scientific investigation? 

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stirred a hornet's nest when he warned against succumbing to ‘unscientific prejudices’ against genetically modified (GM) crops. Speaking at the 101st Indian Science Congress at Jammu. He claimed that biotechnology has great potential to improve yields and his government remains committed ‘to promoting the use of these new technologies for agricultural development’.

Prime Minister’s statement lauding the controversial GM technology has not come as any surprise. Two environment ministers – Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan – have been eased out in the recent past essentially because of their opposition to GM crops. Jairam Ramesh was responsible for imposing a moratorium on Bt brinjal which if approved for cultivation would have opened up flood gates for the introduction of many more GM food crops; and his successor Jayanthi Natarajan who is generally believed to have resisted industry pressures to allow field trials of GM crops.

The day after Prime Minister openly came out in support of the dangerously risky GM technology, Monsanto stocks rose by 5.45 per cent. 

The stakes are therefore very high. For the multi-billion dollar industry, India’s refusal to accept GM crops can spell a death knell. Considering that many State governments have refused permission for holding field trials of GM crops, and the swelling opposition from Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and subsequently the Supreme Court appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) the industry has been mounting pressure through the back channels. But let's first understand how true the so-called ‘scientific’ claims of the industry are; and whether GM crops are actually safe for human health and environment.

Prime Minister says that GM technology has great potential to improve yields. This has been claimed by the industry too. But the fact is that it is now 20 years since the first GM crop was introduced in the United States, and there is still no GM crop that increases crop productivity. US Department of Agriculture’s own studies show that the yields of GM corn and Soybean are less than that of conventional varieties.  Even in India, the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) Nagpur, which monitors the cotton crop, has admitted: “No significant yield advantage has been observed between 2004-2011 when area under Bt cotton increased from 5.4 to 96 per cent.”

The argument that the world needs to produce more for the growing population by the year 2050, and therefore it needs GM crops therefore does not hold true. But let’s look at it. Is there a shortage of food in the world? According to the USDA estimate for 2013, the world produced food good enough to feed 14 billion people. In other words, the world produces food for twice the existing population. The real problem lies in food wastage. Nearly 40 per cent of the food produced is wasted. In the US alone $ 165 billion worth of food is wasted, enough to meet the food requirement of the entire sub-Saharan Africa.

In India, which has close to 250 million people going to bed empty stomach, appalling hunger is not because of any shortfall in food production. In June 2013, India had a record food surplus of 82.3 million tones. It has already exported 20 million tonnes out if it, and there are plans to export another 20 million tones so as to reduce the carrying cost of stored food. Instead of increasing food production, the Food Ministry is planning to reduce food procurement and also use the huge stocks with the Food Corporation of India for commodity trading.

The promise of reduction in pesticides usage has also fallen flat. According to Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook, between 1996 and 2011, farmers in US are applying an additional 181million litres of chemical pesticides. In 2012, on an average 20 per cent more pesticides were applied by GM farmers. This is now expected to go up by 25 per cent with the introduction of the next range of GM crops which will use a cocktail of herbicides including the deadly broad-spectrum chemicals.

In Argentina, the application of chemical pesticides has risen from 34 million litres in the mid-1990s when the GM soybean crops were first introduced to more than 317 million litres in 2012, roughly a ten times increase. On an average, Argentine farmers use twice the quantity of pesticides per acre than their American counterparts. In Brazil, which has recently taken over Argentina as far as the spread of GM crops is concerned, pesticides use has gone up by 190 per cent in the past decade. 

The Chinese farmers are spraying 20 times more pesticides to control pests. In India, the story is no different. Regardless of what the industry claims, the fact remains that the usage of pesticides too has gone up in India. In 2005, Rs 649-crore worth of chemical pesticides was used on cotton in India. In 2010, when roughly 92 per cent area under cotton shifted to Bt cotton varieties, the pesticides usage in terms of value increased to Rs 880.40 crore. 

Equally more worrisome is the emergence of hard-to-kill weeds, called ‘super weeds’. Estimates show that in US over 100 million acres is now infested with super weeds. Besides using a cocktail of chemical pesticides to control it, some US States are going in for hand weeding since chemicals are no longer effective. In neighbouring Canada, more than 1 million acre is infested with super weeds. Studies show that 21 weeds have now developed resistance after GM crops came. Insects too are now developing immunity against GM crops. In India, Monsanto has already accepted that bollworm pest is becoming resistant.

With no benefits accruing as far as increasing crop yields is concerned or reducing pesticides applications and thereby protecting the human health and environment, I don’t know what promise the Prime Minister sees in GM crops. In fact, all evidence now points to an end of the era in industrial agriculture. With soils poisoned, underground water mined ruthlessly, and with the entire food chain contaminated by chemical pesticides and fertilizers leading to more greenhouse gas emissions, the focus is now shifting to ecological agriculture. 

In Andhra Pradesh, nearly 3.5 million acres today is being cultivated without the use of any chemical pesticides. Out of which, farmers do not use even fertilisers in 2.0 million acres. Production is steadily rising, pollution has come down, soil fertility is rising, farmer’s income has gone up and there are no suicides. Isn’t it a model of farming that the Prime Minister should be advocating? If it can be done in 3.5 million acres I see no reason why it cannot be practiced in 35.0 million acres? That’s where the future lies. #

Further reading: 

1. Time to sow the seeds of sustainable farming. Hindustan Times, Feb 10, 2014. http://bit.ly/1bDlyG8

2. Shifting to organic breeding. Deccan Herald. Feb 7, 2014. http://www.deccanherald.com/content/385133/shifting-organic-breeding.html


Janet Surman said...

Another excellent article, thankyou.

For simple mortals like me I urge you , please, to get the email subscription up and running without delay. I do believe there will then be more regular readers.

Pavan said...


Please keep your fight on..am big fan of your tweets and blogs. In this materialistic world, there are very few unbiased food/agriculture experts left who are fighting for true cause of sustainability..Thanks!!