Is GM Crop in India Headed the US Clean Tech Way?

It’s a sad year for agri-tech in India. Exactly a decade after the first genetically modified (GM) crop, Bt Cotton, was introduced in the country, the technology itself is being threatened. It’s riskier than conventional breeding no doubt but it doesn’t deserve to be put in the cold storage for 10 years as the Supreme Court is contemplating. The sorry state of affairs of GM technology resembles what’s happening to clean-tech in the US– a few bad moves and the whole programme is tarnished.

Last week a Supreme Court-appointed scientific panel recommended that India impose a 10-year moratorium on open field trials of GM crops. It is important to recall that even when Jairam Ramesh imposed a moratorium on the release of Bt Brinjal in February 2010, he did not stop field trials of other crops, either from public institutions or private companies.

In May this year, the Supreme Court appointed a six-member panel of scientists to advise it on a case where some GM opponents, including activist Aruna Rodrigues, have challenged release of GM crops in India. Ironically, this panel’s recommendations come after the prime minister’s Scientific Advisory Council (SAC) on October 9 batted strongly for GM technology in the country. The SAC report warned: “…the current debate, unfortunately, is demoralizing and isolating our scientists in the sector whose skills have been built with painstaking effort and large investment.”

In August, a parliamentary committee on agriculture came out with a damning report, which hinted, (by way of quoting officials), at the hurried way in which some approvals were given by the government agencies.

Agreed, the approvals may not have been given in the most rightful manner. It is also not transparent, at least as transparent as it should be. And this was pointed out to me a few years ago by none other than a senior Monsanto official. But focusing on flaws will not serve the purpose.

Weren’t the last two years, since the first moratorium by Jairam Ramesh, enough to put a more stringent, trustworthy regulatory system in place?  The Biotech Regulatory Authority Bill, which will give India an independent watchdog, is gathering dust in the Parliament. Okay, many will argue that they have objection to the draft Bill itself. Then debate it in the Parliament; for country’s sake, don’t ignore it. As DBT secretary MK Bhan says,India needs a regulator even if it rejects GM crops. There are many biotech products entering the market.

The whole episode has come to such a frustrating point that a team of 65 independent agriculture and social scientists from 20 countries have now written to the Indian Prime Minister. Their appeal:  “As independent agricultural economists and political scientists with substantial research experience in the field of GM crop impacts we are well aware of the contentious public debate in India and elsewhere. For many years, anti-GM groups have tried to challenge the available evidence on Bt cotton benefits for smallholder farmers in India. But these claims by anti-GM groups are unsubstantiated. We are therefore very surprised that these claims are now reproduced in a high-level parliamentary panel report, while the large number of peer-reviewed scientific studies is completely ignored.”

As for the claim that GM cotton has not benefited the country, there are several reports that prove otherwise. I’d cite just one figure: A comprehensive study (2003-2010) by N Chandrasekhara Rao of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, shows that the rural Indian economy gained Rs 75,000 crore from the introduction of Bt Cotton in this period.

Now for farmers’ suicide being linked to Bt cotton: there’s no denying that. But the reason is not the technology. The answer lies in two key issues. One, indiscriminate use of Bt hybrids. Second, it is explained by the step that the Maharashtra agriculture department took in August. It banned Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB) from carrying out any trade in cotton seed in the state. MMB is a joint venture of Mahyco (aMaharashtra based see company), the Maharasthra govt and Monsanto Holdings.

The seed of today’s GM controversy also lies in the trade – artificial shortages are created which jack up prices, forcing farmers to pay more for the seeds which many times are of inferior quality. A source (who’s worked in one of the largest seed companies in India) tells me that the place to start investigation into the painful story that Bt cotton is today turning into is the seed distribution network in the country – how it is controlled and manipulated.

A lot of mistrust on this technology would have been mitigated if the Indian Council of Agricultural Research had come out with some good hybrid seeds. Fact is, it hasn’t.  Similarly, if in the last 10 years, Indian government (including DBT, ministry of agriculture, and environment) had set up a monitoring system whereby they could independently judge how the Bt seeds were performing in the field, this call for a blanket ban wouldn’t have crossed activists’ minds. Today our system relies on industry data for assessing if pests have developed resistance to one generation of Bt cotton or not. Was it not known to the researchers that resistance would develop, sooner rather than later?

The adoption rate of Bt cotton has been much faster than their management rate, or the reaction time of the true custodians of agriculture. This brings me to the comparison with clean tech I made earlier. In a very thought provoking piece New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks says, “The biggest blow to green tech has come from the marketplace itself.”

While Brook’s piece is a must read, the key takeaway for me is: “Government planners should not be betting on what technologies will develop fastest. They should certainly not be betting on individual companies.” (By the way, I was stunned to learn that net worth of Al Gore, when he demitted office in 2001, was ~$2 million; today it is $100 million.)

What is the price India may have to pay for not being vigilant? Dump a technology that holds enormous potential. All eyes are on the Supreme Court which begins hearing on October 29.







14 comments to “Is GM Crop in India Headed the US Clean Tech Way?”

You can leave a reply or Trackback this post.
  1. Technology is to favor the users, it may farmers or consumers, as it is directly concerned with health, more research is needed on the health hazards .

  2. check out Food incorporated – its a documentary on genetically modified seeds

    • Dinesh Narayanan says: -#2

      Dear Varun, Food Inc, directed by Robert Kinner and narrated by Michael Pollan, is on corporate farming and industrial production of food, mainly meat and poultry. It is not focussed on GM seeds.

  3. A good assessment of the current situation, but two points do not reflect reality:

    “It’s riskier than conventional breeding no doubt” – really? Conventional breeding e.g. includes mutagenesis in which a target crop’s genome is changed randomly and without any control or direction; those plants that survive the treatment and show interesting traits are simply kept for further breeding. Compare that to genetic engineering where the scientists have a much clearer idea of where they want to go and how they are getting there. (Plus GM crops are subjected to safety assessments, whereas crops that result from mutation breeding are simply release without further ado.)

    “for farmers’ suicide being linked to Bt cotton: there’s no denying that” – really? Scientific analyses of the data show no such link, and a recent study even found that suicide is no more prevalent among farmers than among other groups and that is is even more prevalent among the more educated population strata (and not poor smallholders).

    • JJ: Thanks for your feedback. Let me clarify the two points you have raised.

      1) Risky nature of GM: While I agree that conventional breeding esp one that involves forced hybridization by cell fusion or mutagenesis are far less regulated or studied when compared to GM crops, what I was referring to here is the common perception that the introduction of a ‘foreign’ gene, by way of a ‘foreign’ technique, into plants is harmful. (Comments below provide the proof.) It’s a new technology (at least in India), and it needs to be watched carefully, for a long period of time. That’s about it. The fact that big seed companies have acted either irresponsibly or in secrecy (as I showed in this article last year, the opposition to it is growing.

      2) As for suicide deaths being linked to GM, I meant that higher death rates are reported from cotton growing regions. So there is indeed a link but it’s not related to GM technology. I have provided a link to a good interview with one of the best cotton scientists in the country, KR Kranti. He explains how availability of 1000+ brands of GM hybrids and the absence straight GM varieties (which China has handled well through it’s public research system) have created problems for the farmers. In short, it’s a regulatory failure.

  4. I cannot help but feel the pain of Indian farmers and consumers. The only winner in this transaction will be the multinational seed companies – the farmers will buy costlier seeds, the consumer will be exposed to health hazards. It is common knowledge that the GM crops are prone to the attacks by secondary pests and very often leads to environmental contamination through gene flow. I am not totally against the use of GM crops, but the decision makers have to remain awake to the possibility of exponential assimilation of the side effects in the entier food chain.

  5. Dear Ms. Singh,

    I don’t know about your technical, educational or professional experience or education in agriculture, but I have one request…if you could please delve a bit more into understanding the issues you are writing, I guess it would serve your purpose instead of just superficially glossing through the topics and giving an expert’s advice/opinion. It’s not a rocket science actually! Even an uneducated home-maker can make out whether the GM technology is good for her family or not – she just need to give time to understand ! Please !

    • Siddharth: I am not giving any expert advice, nor do I wish to give a tutorial on this in a blog post. I have provided a few links, particularly one on indiscriminate use of the technology, which is very insightful. I think the essence of this post is: let’s not abandon the technology, regulate it adequately, stringently, and let the public sector research system study it more effectively. By putting a moratorium for 10 years, it won’t be attractive enough even to be taken up in the labs. And that to my mind would be tragic.

      • Seema, Completely agree with you. Look forward for insights on this

      • Seema,

        One more correction, it was not Mahyco Monsanto Biotech which got banned. You might like to check the facts and correct accordingly.

        • Yogesh: Thank you for your feedback. Since it’s August news, I checked with old media reports and most newspapers/magazines have used MMB and Mahyco almost interchangeably. So I used MMB. If you can direct me to any credible source that says otherwise, please do and I will correct it here.

          To quote TOI Nagpur: “The office of Director of Inputs and Quality Control (DIQC) under state agriculture ministry has banned Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB) from selling Bt cotton seeds in the entire state. The Pune-based DIQC is the licensing authority for seeds sale.”

          • You are right, I have read reports where Mahyco and MMB have been used interchangeably. The right source of information is the Department of Agriculture, Maharaashtra Government at Pune.

  6. Chandrashekhar Ranade says: -#1

    This is an excellent article. The article raises an important question about ICAR’s efforts in the traditional breeding programs. And indeed, if the traditional breeding programs, supported by the public sector, are not coming out with promising technologies, why not give some freedom to scientists and business people to focus on the modern technologies promoted by the private sector. A day is not far away when the modern bio technology development will be in fields of progressive farmers, just the way the mainframe technology was decentralized into PCs and all those who were against automation in India and elsewhere gave up their protests of the sixties and seventies.

  7. As a consumer I am really happy with the committee’s report to the Supreme Court. A` moratorium on this technology was indeed necessary , especially here, where regulators have always failed and people suffer the consequences of it. It was interesting to read about monsanto officials comment in your article . We can not take any more risk , especially in food . We are already eating a lot of poison through our food. Right to food has become meaningless in this context. What we actually want now is Right to safe food! I believe biotech industry people also need safe food .

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published.