Inside India’s genetic crop battlefield9 min read . Updated: 20 Jun 2019, 11:49 PM IST
By resisting GM technology in farming, India risks falling behind the rest of the world on crop yields, shelf life
Fatehabad/New Delhi: There is nothing remarkable about Jeevan Saini. He is one among millions of marginal agriculturalists trying to eke out a living from farming in India. He grows a basket of crops—rice, wheat, vegetables and cotton—on six acres of leased land in Nathwan village of Haryana’s Fatehabad district. He has crop loans of ₹2 lakh.
Yet a brinjal crop that Saini planted on a half-acre plot in 2017 landed him in the middle of a controversy in April this year. After a tip-off, some farm activists found that the brinjal growing in Saini’s field was actually a genetically modified (GM) variant, banned under the law. What followed took Saini by surprise.
Officials descended in large numbers to investigate, as did people supporting biotech crops. After a test by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), Delhi, confirmed the presence of GM traits in early May, officials from the Haryana agriculture department forced Saini to uproot the crop. He was told “isme jahar hain... isse cancer phailta hain (this is poisonous and causes cancer)". Saini received no compensation for his loss—rent of land, cost of raising the saplings and lost harvest—estimated at over ₹1 lakh.
Saini cannot fathom the controversy around his brinjal which appeared shinier than usual. But that was not the reason why he purchased the saplings from a local trader. The brinjals required fewer sprays of pesticide to keep the dreaded fruit and shoot borer pest at bay, he was told. Compared to regular ones which require one spray on every alternate day, Saini could do with one spray once in two to three weeks, saving about ₹750 for each day of spraying. A fully matured brinjal available in the markets usually is sprayed more than 30 times with pesticides, depending on agro-climatic conditions.
The crop has disappeared from Saini’s field but law enforcement agencies are tracking him closely. Last week, he travelled with officials of the to a place called Dabwali along the Punjab-Haryana border to search for the trader who sold him the saplings two years ago. Saini could not find the man but instead noticed the same (suspected) GM varieties were retailing in local markets. “I asked (the officers) if this is available in the market, why are you preventing me from growing (GM) brinjal?"
Under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, growing GM crops that are not approved by the government can lead to a five-years jail term and a hefty ₹1 lakh fine. Yet, despite his ordeal, Saini says he will plant the GM variety again if he lays hands on the saplings, driven by his need to cut costs. Another farmer from Haryana’s Sirsa district, Amar Singh Saini, whose brinjal crop on a 5-acre plot was also uprooted, said he will stay away. “I am too poor to risk losing any more money."
On June 10, Akot in Maharashtra’s Akola district was witness to a public event where farmers belonging to the Shetkari Sanghatana defied the law to plant unapproved herbicide tolerant (HT) GM cotton—which helps in weed control leading to lower labour costs—protesting against “the government’s apathy and indecisiveness" in approving new technology in agriculture. The farmer’s organization termed the event a satyagraha—a non-violent civil disobedience deployed by Mahatma Gandhi during India’s independence struggle—much to the discomfort of the opponents of transgenic technology who in 2016 organized a ‘Sarson Satyagraha’ to pressurize the government not to allow commercial cultivation of GM mustard.
According to the report of a high-level committee submitted to the government in 2018, nearly 15% of cotton grown in India—across Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat— could be illegal HT cotton, Mint had reported in July last year. Why are thousands of farmers cultivating HT cotton? According to a 2011 study by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the monetary benefits to farmers who use this technology range between ₹2,800 and ₹5,000 per hectare due to lower labour costs and improved yields.
The current set of events—from farmers taking to illegal GM brinjal in Haryana to those openly growing unapproved Bt cotton in Maharashtra—point to a unique trait of farmers. They are eager to test out new crops and technologies, even at the risk of facing legal action, to find ways to cut costs. “We would like to abide by the law but have no choice but to defy it," said Ajit Narde, a farmer and head of the technology cell at the Shetkari Sanghatana. “We are finding it difficult to compete with farmers at a global level who have access to latest technology in crops like cotton and soybean."
On 12 June, India’s biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the environment ministry, wrote to the chief secretary of Maharashtra to take immediate steps to identify and stop cultivation of unapproved GM crops. The high-level committee’s report in 2018 had similar suggestions to destroy illegal seeds. However, it also noted that farmers are using “HT cotton for one-two years and are satisfied with the technology which is less labour intensive and hence is cost beneficial"—a classic case of indecisiveness.
The government’s dithering attitude on GM crops has often led to regulatory failure, and nothing captures this better than how India’s first GM crop, Bt cotton, received clearance for commercial cultivation 17 years ago, catapulting India from being a net importer to among the top growers and exporters of cotton.
In the years preceding its approval, Bt cotton was grown illegally in Gujarat, and the GEAC had ordered that the crop fields be burnt. India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was the chief minister of Gujarat at that time refused to comply. Bt cotton was finally approved since it had spread too far and wide. The regulatory failure lends credence to those who oppose GM crops and argue that seed companies often take a convoluted route—first spread the seeds illegally and then hasten regulatory approval.
The regulatory failure has not only created a deep distrust among the naysayers about GM technology but has also potentially exposed farmers and consumers to untested technology. The case of GM brinjal is particularly worrying. The test report by NBPGR confirmed that the samples from Haryana are genetically modified but did not have Mahyco’s cry1Ac transgene or the cry1Fa developed by the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology, Delhi, implying the GM seeds used by farmers might have not even entered the regulatory pipeline—it could have come straight from the lab to the field.
Similarly, farmers in Maharashtra are now growing HT Bt cotton using seeds of dubious quality despite paying a steeper price—about ₹1,200 per packet compared to ₹730 for normal Bt cotton.
“When they use unapproved seeds, not only will farmers not have any recourse in case of crop failure, such usage also breaches environmental and health safety of consumers," said Kavitha Kuruganthi from the Coalition for a GM-Free India. “If Mahyco’s transgene was not found in the Haryana brinjal sample, we have a greater breach of biosecurity... This shows that no GM crop developing institution is safe and dependable in terms of following the prescribed biosafety norms. That is why we have been demanding that the liability (in case of a leakage) has to be fixed on the event owner."
The Green Revolution in the 1960s was vehemently opposed more or less by the same crowd that is opposing biotechnology right now, the founder of Shetkari Sanghatana, the late Sharad Joshi, a proponent of free access to markets and technology for farmers, said in a lecture following the introduction of Bt cotton in India in 2002.
“It was claimed that if we had the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and high-yielding variety of seeds, the rich will become richer and the poor will become poorer, and the Green Revolution will produce a bloody red revolution. Pandit (Jawaharlal)Nehru took extra efforts to see that the Green Revolution did not come till the end of his days. The 1965 war with Pakistan made it necessary for (then prime minister) Lal Bahadur Shastri to have recourse to that technology, and he was fortunate in getting Dr C. Subramaniam as his minister for agriculture. The Green Revolution technology was introduced, and we saw the results immediately. India soon became self-sufficient in food," Joshi had said then.
At the policy level, India’s indecisiveness on biotechnology has gained legendary proportions. Regulatory clearances have been withdrawn on political rather than scientific considerations. In 2010, after the GEAC cleared Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh placed an indefinite moratorium on it. Similarly, the approval of commercial cultivation of GM mustard was withdrawn in 2017. Among scientists, it is a common refrain that biotech has no future in India.
Several companies like Mahyco (in 2016) and DowDuPont (in 2018) withdrew their applications for introducing new varieties of transgenic cotton and corn, respectively, that were pending before the GEAC. This followed the price control on GM cotton introduced by the agriculture ministry in 2016 which capped royalties payable to technology developers—which diluted India’s intellectual property rights regime as well.
It is not surprising that farmers are aware of new technologies while the government has deployed delaying tactics, careful not to displease anyone from either the left or the right, said Deepak Pental, geneticist and former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, who developed the publicly funded GM mustard DMH-11. “The left is opposed to GM since they are against corporatization while the (religious) right want to take agriculture to pre-1900 levels," he said.
The right, represented by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (a sister organization of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), and left-leaning anti-GM organism activists, in fact, have often come together on the issue. The agriculture ministry, on its part, hasn’t shied from promoting obscure methods like Yogik kheti at the Krishi Unnati Mela in Delhi, an annual event to showcase new technology in agriculture.
“We have 60-odd agriculture universities and 100-plus public institutions doing agriculture research, and if they are not going to engage with new developments, they should be shut down," Pental said, adding that India is de-skilling itself by not taking up either fundamental or applied research. “You need technology in space, military, telecom, medicines but you don’t need technology in agriculture... What is happening is atrociously ridiculous."
The approval for transgenic mustard developed by Pental, for instance, has effectively come to a standstill. DMH-11 received a clearance from the technical committee of the GEAC in May 2017 but then environment minister Harsh Vardhan referred it back to the GEAC which in March 2018 sought additional field trials on its impact on honeybees and other pollinators. “We will be happy to do the trials but the permissions come so late... We are asked to go the states (to get permission for trials) when (the) GEAC should be doing it. The technology developer is the most abused person in the current system," Pental said.
By resisting genetic engineering technologies, India risks falling behind the rest of the world where scientists are deploying gene editing tools to improve yields, disease resistance and shelf life of crops. “A suit of gene editing technologies like CRISPR, TALENs will find no place in India if the policy paralysis continues on GM technologies in brinjal, mustard and cotton," said Bhagirath Choudhary, director at the Delhi-based South Asia Biotechnology Centre.