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GM Crops in India

GM Crops in India Is the Government

Discussion

GM Crops in India

Is the Government’s Policy Stance Justified?

KASTURI DAS

E
ven after more than a decade of its introduction, the health and environmental safety implications of transgenic orgenetically modified (GM) crops are yet tobe determined conclusively. In the backdrop of this uncertainty serious concernshave been expressed by a large segmentof scientists and environmentalists all over the world regarding the appropriateness ofcommercial cultivation of GM crops. As faras India is concerned, anxieties have been further aggravated by the inadequaciesinherent in the regulatory framework andthe lackadaisical manner of its implementation. The loopholes embedded in thebiosafety regulation in India and the grosslack of preparedness of the country to dealwith large-scale commercial application ofa potentially dangerous technology liketransgenics have been blatantly exposedwith the experience of Bt cotton – the onlyGM crop “officially” approved for commercial cultivation in this country. Theseissues have been discussed at length in thearticle by Lianchawii (EPW, September 24,2005) and the subsequent discussion byReji K Joseph (EPW, December 3, 2005).In the backdrop of the concerns expressedin the aforesaid articles, the present attempt is to analyse the appropriateness orotherwise of the policy stance taken by thegovernment of India (GoI) on the issue ofGM crops, particularly in the light of certainlatest developments.It may be recalled at the outset that eversince its introduction in March 2002, Bt cotton has always been at the centre ofcontroversy for one reason or the other.The latest one has been triggered by anunprecedented step taken by the government of Andhra Pradesh. In January 2006,a case was filed by this state governmentagainst the biotech major Monsanto underthe Monopolies and Restrictive TradePractices Act (MRTP Act) for chargingabnormally high trait values or royaltieson its Bt cotton seeds. Notably, of theRs 1,850 spent by the farmers on a 450gm packet of Monsanto’s Bollgard cottonseeds, Rs 1,250 accrues to the companyas royalty. While this has resulted in asignificant increase in the cost of cultivation of Bt cotton in India, according to theinformation revealed by the AP government, for the same 450 gm of seedsMonsanto charges (the equivalent of)Rs 108 in the US and only Rs 34 in China.It has further been pointed out that whilethe Monsanto and its subsidiaries in India charge an exorbitant price of Rs 1,850 forjust 450 gm of seeds, they pay a meagreamount of around Rs 250 to the seed growers for as much as 750 gm of seeds.

While the huge difference between seed cost1 has played a significant role in theadverse economics of Bt cotton comparedto non-Bt hybrids, a number of other factorshave also contributed to the observed poorperformance of this maiden GM crop ofIndia. It may be recalled here that theprincipal reason behind the introductionof Bt cotton in India was its purportedability to make the cotton plant resistantto bollworms – the most dreaded cotton pest of India. However, several empiricalstudies being undertaken by distinguishedcivil society organisations (like the GeneCampaign,2 Greenpeace, the Centre forSustainable Agriculture (CSA),3 Deccan Development Society (DDS),4 etc) indifferent parts of the country during thepast three years of commercial cultivationof Bt cotton in India have revealed that:

  • The bollworms are able to survive on Bt cotton.
  • Pesticide savings are not significant fromBt cotton as compared to non-Bt hybrids.
  • Yields of Bt cotton are often less than those of non-Bt hybrids.
  • The huge difference in the seed costsbetween Bt and non-Bt cotton, coupledwith the lack of satisfactory yield (andoften crop failure) from Bt and insignificantsavings in pesticide costs (from Bt cotton)have resulted in lower net profits (andoften losses) for Bt-cultivating farmers ascompared to their non-Bt counterparts.
  • The observed poor performance of Btcotton in India may be attributable to agreat extent to the inappropriateness of Bttechnology in the context of this country,if the findings from scientific researchundertaken by the Central Institute forCotton Research (CICR), Nagpur, are to bebelieved. The results from field experimentsbeing undertaken as early as 2003 by Keshav R Kranthi and others in this premiere government research organisationon eight Bt-cotton Bollgard hybrids commercially grown in India has been reported in a recent research article published in the July 25 edition of Current Science.5 Their research has clearly revealed that the Bt cotton “hybrids” beinggrown in India are inadequate for effectively controlling the bollworm, particularly beyond 110 days after sowing.

    The study has further indicated that thepoor performance of Bt cotton in controlling bollworms in this country may alsobe attributed to the fact that they are beinggrown as hybrids here, as against the truebreeding varieties, grown elsewhere in theworld, including the US, China andAustralia. It has further been pointed outthat although the Bt cotton varieties in theUS succeeds in causing 99-100 per centmortality in tobacco budworm, the majorcotton pest in the US, the same Bt technology is not likely to succeed in India wherethe major target pest is a bollworm andnot a tobacco budworm.

    However, in spite of having such clearcut scientific evidence, regarding the inadequacies and inappropriateness of Bt technology in the context of India, the GeneticEngineering Approval Committee (GEAC),the country’s apex body for approving GMcrops, has not taken any initiative whatsoever to stall its commercial cultivation altogether. Instead, during April-May 2005,the GEAC granted fresh approval for commercial cultivation of Bt cotton in the north Indian states of Punjab, Rajasthan andHaryana. Sanction has also been given for13 new varieties of Bt cotton hybrids.Furthermore, except for Andhra Pradesh,approval has been renewed in all the otherfive states, which were already under Btcotton cultivation since 2002.

    While on the one hand, the GEAC has continued to promote Bt cotton, on theother, efforts are on at the highest levelof policy-making in New Delhi to put inplace a full-fledged policy framework, inthe form of the (draft) ‘National Biotechnology Development Strategy’,6 in order to provide a big push for the proliferation of(not only Bt cotton but all) transgeniccrops in the country in future.

    A close scrutiny of the draft biotechstrategy document clearly reveals that itis aimed at speeding up the process ofapprovals for commercial cultivation oftransgenic crops in the future, withouteven taking care of their environmentaland health safety aspects adequately.7

    Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

    While the gross regulatory failure observedin the case of Bt cotton underscores the necessity of putting in place a more rigorous and accountable regulatory framework for governing the commercial release and cultivation of GM crops, thedraft policy document instead proposes theestablishment of an independent NationalBiotechnology Regulatory Authority asthe single window clearance body, withthe aim of speeding up the approval oftransgenic crops. This is indeed a uniqueproposal, given the fact that such a singletier approval system does not exist elsewhere. Even the US has a three-tier systemfor approval of transgenic crops.

    Notably, an attempt has been made bythe powers that be in the aforesaid policyframework to push through the transgenicagro-technology on the pretext of achieving a number of noble objectives, such as,increase in agricultural yield, economicwell-being of farm families, food securityof the nation, security of national andinternational trade in farm commodities, etc.8 This, despite the fact that the credentials of GM technology in terms of fulfilling these crucial objectives have not yetbeen proved conclusively. On the contrary,there is a plethora of evidence, whichindicates the potential regressive impact ofgenetic engineering in all these respects.9

    As far as yield is concerned, severalempirical studies in India have revealedpoorer performance of Bt cotton comparedto their non-Bt counterparts. A similardismal performance of GM crops on theyield front has been observed elsewherein the world too. On the basis of an extensive review of relevant scientific and other evidence relating to the performanceof genetic engineering, an IndependentScience Panel Report,10 published in 2003concluded, “The consistent finding fromindependent research and on-farm surveyssince 1999 is that GM crops have failedto deliver the promised benefits of significantly increasing yields…”.

    Given the lack of satisfactory yields,along with the high costs of GM seeds andother costs of cultivation, there exist amplegrounds to apprehend that the promotionof GM crops may end up worsening theeconomic conditions of numerous small and marginal farmers of India, rather thanimproving them. This, in fact, has alreadybeen proved to be true in case of Bt cottonin different parts of India (especially inAndhra Pradesh), where cultivation of thisGM crop has resulted in grave financiallosses and suffering to thousands of farmers,often forcing them to commit suicide.

    Coming to the question of food security,even if it is assumed, for the sake of argument, that GM crops will help to boostthe yield of Indian agriculture, will it guarantee two square meals for the entirepopulation of the country? Perhaps not.Because, the principal constraint in realisingthe right to adequate food in India iseconomic accessibility or affordability, andnot physical availability.11 Moreover, there is every possibility that the monoculturebased GM technology, by endangering thebiodiversity of India, may end up threatening the livelihood a large section of theagrarian community of the country, stillpractising traditional/organic farming.

    Another major source of anxiety surrounding transgenic crops is the threat ofcontamination of non-GM crops by theirGM counterparts. Given the ground realities of agricultural conditions prevailingin India, segregation of GM and non-GMcrops and implementation of the rigoroussystem of “identity preservation” (IP) and“traceability” would be virtually impossible to implement in a situation of coexistence of GM and non-GM agriculture.12 Hence, farmers would not actuallybe in a position to exercise their freedomof practising (non-GM) agricultural technology of their own choice.

    Even if it was assumed for the sake of argument that IP was possible to implementin India, the excessive operational costsinvolved in the implementation processwould make agriculture such an expensiveactivity that it would be out of the reach ofmost of (small and marginal) farmers of thecountry. Moreover, even after investing hugemoney for IP, the non-GM farmers wouldstill be confronted with the acute risk of rejection or loss of premium prices (moreso in case of “certified organic” products)in the export as well as domestic marketsowing to the high possibility of contamination from GM crops. Hence, Indian agricultural exports may also turn out to be avulnerable and risky venture in a situationwhere GM and non-GM crops coexist.

    However, in case India refrains from paving the way for the further promotionof transgenic crops, it may be in an advantageous position on the external tradefront, if the current global market trendsare anything to go by. The markets forcertified organic foods in various developed countries, for instance, have beenprojected to grow in the coming years ata stupendous rate ranging from 10-15 percent to 25-30 per cent. With public opinionagainst GM crops gaining increasingmomentum in different parts of the world(including in some major trading partnersof India like the EU, Japan or even the US),global market prospects are likely to getincreasingly better in the future for anynon-GM agricultural product and not onlyfor ‘certified organic’ produce.

    To sum it up, there is not enough economic justification to pave the way for the cultivation of transgenic crops in India.Hence, instead of taking recourse to GMcrops – whose environmental and foodsafety implications have not yet been provedconclusively anywhere in the world – asthe only means to bring about a “secondgreen revolution”, a prudent approach on the part of policy-makers in India at thisjuncture would be to put a moratorium onthe further commercial cultivation of transgenic crops in the country.

    EPW

    Email: kasturi_cal@yahoo.com

    Notes

    1 The cost of Bt cotton seeds is three to four times higher than that of non-Bt hybrids of cotton.

    2 See Suman Sahai and Shakeelur Rehman, ‘Bt Cotton Performance 2003-04: Fields Swamped with Illegal Variants’, 2004, availableat www.genecampaign.org.

    3 See www.csa-india.org for various studies onBt cotton.

    4 See Abdul Qayum and Kiran Sakkhari, ‘BtCotton in Andhra Pradesh: A Three-Year Assessment’, Deccan Development Society, AndhraPradesh Coalition in Defence of Diversity andPermaculture Association of India, 2005.

    5 See K R Kranthi, S Naidu, C S Dhawad, A Tatwawadi, K Mate, E Patil, A A Bharose, G T Behere, R M Wadaskar and S Kranthi, ‘Temporal and Intra-plant Variability ofCry1Ac Expression in Bt-cotton and ItsInfluence on the Survival of the Cotton Bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera (Hübner),Noctuidae: Lepidoptera)’, Current Science, Vol 89, No 2, July 25, 2005, pp 291-98.

    6 After release by the science and technologyminister Kapil Sibal, on April 1, 2005 the draft‘National Biotechnology DevelopmentStrategy’ was kept in the public domain byputting it on the department of biotechnology(DBT) website for the next six weeks. The lastdate for receiving the feedback from the publicwas May 16, 2005. According to an announcement made by Sibal, the draft was supposedto be finalised after all the suggestions hadbeen reviewed. The finalisation is still awaited.

    7 For details see Agriculture Today, ‘The National Biotechnology Policy: Need for a RadicalOverhaul’, June 2005, pp 5-8.

    8 See ‘Report of the Task Force on Applicationof Biotechnology in Agriculture’ submitted tothe union ministry of agriculture in May 2004by M S Swaminathan, chairman, Task Forceon Agricultural Biotechnology, available athttp://agricoop.nic.in/TaskForce/tf.htm.Notably, the draft ‘National BiotechnologyDevelopment Strategy’ has accepted all therecommendations of the aforesaid task force while formulating the policy framework foragro-biotech.

    9 For details see Kasturi Das, ‘GM Crops in India:Why Open Pandora’s Box’, 2004, available athttp://www.eldis.org/cf/search/disp/docdisplay.cfm?doc=DOC17560&resource=f1.

    10 Independent Science Panel, ‘The Case for aGM-Free Sustainable World’, published byInstitute of Science in Society, London andThird World Network, Malaysia, 2003.

    11 Kaushik Ranjan Bandyopadhyay, ‘The Right toAdequate Food’, The Hindu, February 10, 2003.

    12 For details see Suman Sahai, ‘Can Gm and Non-Gm Crops be Segregated in India: Is Coexistence Possible?’ 2005, available at http://www.gmwatch.org/p1temp.asp?pid=53&page=1.

    Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

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