The growing doubt over GM crops

Tags: Op-ed
The growing doubt over GM crops
Bloomberg
YAY OR NAY? In this 2011 file photo, workers gather dead insects in a research field of Monsanto insect-protected Genuity Roundup Ready (RR) 2 Yield soybean plants near Pirassununga, Brazil
The importance of agriculture is no secret to the country as it is the pulse of the Indian economy and also aids in alleviating poverty. The approach paper to the 12th Five Year Plan validates this when it says that “growth in agriculture is at least two to three times more effective in reducing poverty than the same magnitude of growth emanating from non-agriculture sector”. It also indicates that agriculture is an important component of faster and more inclusive sustainable growth.

Sadly, the central character of Indian agriculture, the farmer, is a pitiable picture, with the burdens of ever increasing cost of cultivation, over-dependence on industry for agricultural inputs and lack of adequate government policy support. Unfortunately for the Indian farmer, real long term sustainable solutions are a blur because the agro input industry and their cronies in the government use every opportunity to push through false solutions that are only profitable to the companies and not the farmer. One such delusional solution is the herbicide tolerant (HT) genetically modified (GM) crops marketed by multinational biotech seed companies as a one-stop shop for weed management. On the contrary, herbicide-tolerant genetically modified crops are disastrous for India’s socioeconomic framework.

What are herbicide tolerant genetically modified crops? The technology of genetic modification has been deployed to create HT crops wherein the plant develops the capability to withstand herbicide without getting destroyed. For instance, in Roundup Ready GM crops (the brand name for Monsanto’s herbicide tolerant GM crops), a gene from an agrobacterium strain CP4 (CP4 EPSPS), that is resistant to glyphosate (the chemical compound in Monsanto’s herbicide) is inserted. The over simplification of weed management with the promise of reduction of toxic herbicides by biotechnology companies which are into both, the business of the trait/seed and agro-chemicals, had attracted farmers in the North and South America. Thus, today, three fourths of the world’s GM crops are herbicide tolerant and most of the HT trait is incorporated into Monsanto’s proprietary seed sold under the brand-name of Roundup Ready GM crops. But after 16 years of the introduction of HT crops in North and South America, horrific stories of their impacts on health and environment are emerging to the surface through stories of farmers and evidence by renowned scientists. Increased usage of herbicides like glyphosate has been associated birth defects, abnormalities in vital reproductive hormones as well as cancers. It is important for the decision makers in India to listen to these experiences, as HT crops are in various stages of open field trials in the country and there is also a push to commercialise HT GM crops.

Recently Dr Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist based in the US, published a peer-reviewed study on the last 16 years of HT crops in the US. The evidences presented in this study are a strong reminder that HT GM crops and GM crops in general are no silver bullet for farmers and the agrarian crisis. Dr Benbrook also highlights that overall increase in the usage of glyphosate has played a huge role in altering the American landscape and biodiversity for the worse. This should be a wakeup call for some of our policy makers who believe that GM crops will be successful in India as they have worked for the farmers in the US! The experience of HT GM crops in America is also a reassertion of the fact that chemical based weed control is not a permanent solution. It is also uneconomical to eradicate all weeds as some of them are home to beneficial insects and there is a lot of value of weeds as food and fodder, a potential that has not been explored to the fullest and one that we will never be able to explore if we were to go down the HT GM crops route.

The government needs to focus on real solutions for the Indian farmer. In India, one of the biggest socioeconomic dangers of introduction of HT GM crops, unlike the US, is the loss of livelihoods of the poorest as the agri-workforce derives the largest number of employment days from the de-weeding. This was pointed out by the task-force on agricultural biotechnology set up by the government of India and headed by Dr MS Swaminathan, which recommended against HT GM crops in India as they will reduce employment opportunities of rural families. This was also strongly recommended by the parliamentary standing committee on agriculture, which submitted its report on GM crops in Parliament’s last session.

Given the fact we are bl­essed with diverse agro-ecological and agro-climatic conditions, hand weeding integrated with other techniques like hoeing, mulching, crop rotation and managing the spacing between crops is the right way forward for weed management. In this scenario, it is best for the government to subsidise the la­bour component of farming and provide remunerative pri­ces to farmers for their produce. These are the real solutions to weed-management in the cou­ntry rather than using technologies like HT GM crops, wh­ich destroy employment opportunities. It is to be remembered that a large section of our small, marginal farmers and la­ndless farmers, who form the majority of our farming population, also earn wages through farm labour like weeding. Promotion of technologies without keeping such socioeconomic realities in mind will only push this section of already distr­essed farmers into further misery.

Very recently, the technical expert committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court of India to look into the issue of field trials of GM crops, produced their interim report with a recommendation for a moratorium on field trials of HT GM crops, until an independent committee examines and assesses their potential impacts as well as their suitability in the Indian context. The government can no longer ignore the evidence emerging nationally and internationally on HT GM crops; they must now take action not to allow them in our country and focus on real solutions. Otherwise, tall claims of inclusive development will just remain as what they are — claims.

(The writer is a sustainable agriculture campaigner with Greenpeace India)

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