Column: The GM crop myopia

Written by Vivian Fernandes | Updated: Dec 4 2013, 02:44am hrs
Intrigued that Bt cotton was being blamed for farmers suicides when more than 90% of Indias cotton acreage was under the genetically-modified crop, this author visited Vidarbha, supposedly the epicentre of farmers suicides, in October to find out for himself.

Not only was there no clamour against Bt cotton, I was surprised to hear a farmer admit casually on his own in the course of a conversation that he was growing Bt cotton that has been genetically programmed to be resistant to herbicide, even though such a variety has not been approved for commercial use in India, and an application for permission to do so is pending with the regulators since March.

The well-off and politically-connected farmer in Yavatmal, who wishes not to be identified, soon showed me proof: weeds in a field sprayed with the herbicide were wilting while cotton plants were swaying in photosynthetic delight at the plight of their former tormentors.

The farmer says he had sown six acres with this variety. He was doing this for the second year in a row. If the government does not give permission for new technology, we must adopt it by stealth or agitation to send a message, he said. According to him (not independently confirmed), about 60,000 packets, enough to cover as many acres, had been sold in Hinganghat, Warora, Wani and Rajura talukas of Maharashtras Wardha, Chandrapur and Yavatmal districts. They had been smuggled in by Gujarat dealers from Argentina and the US, he said.

This episode takes one back to 2001 when Navbharat Seeds sold unapproved Bt cottonseed a few months before Mahyco, the Indian affiliate of the US seed MNC Monsanto, could bring the approved version into the market. The central government ordered the pirated crop to be burnt, but the Gujarat government did not oblige, fearing the wrath of farmers.

One cannot approve of the freelance action of farmers, but can they be blamed if government and lawmakers play political games disregarding scientific opinion Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh turned the approval process for Bt brinjal into a spectator sport with countrywide public hearings, where the sane voice of science was drowned by the clangour of NGOs, resulting in an indefinite moratorium on trials of genetically-modified crops. The present environment minister has gone along. Farmers are rebelling by planting pirated herbicide-resistant Bt cotton. They cannot afford the cost of manual de-weeding, or bear the output loss that results when labour is unavailable when needed.

Support for Bt cotton, whose gene is toxic to boll-infesting weevils, is overwhelming. It now covers 93% of cotton acreage. Indias cotton output during this time has risen from 86 lakh bales to 352 lakh bales. From being an importer, India has become the second-largest exporter of cotton. Yet journalists like P Sainath of The Hindu, and lawmakers like the Marxist (and reflexively anti-American) Basudeb Acharya, chairman of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, denounce Bt cotton and, by extension, all genetically-engineered crops.

Of the dozen farmers that this author met, not one opposed Bt cotton. Some had as little as three acres, other were big farmers with 50 acres under cotton. The sample is not large enough to conclude that support for Bt cotton is unanimous. But it is certainly enough to puncture Acharyas assertion, after the Parliamentary Committees visit to Vidarbha last year, that village folks were vociferous in voicing their disapproval of the virtues of Bt cotton and wanted to revert back (sic) to non Bt cotton.

Some of the farmers I met were growing soyabean too, which opponents of Bt cotton see as a vote against it. But soya is also not immune to uncertainty. Those lured by high prices last year are staring at losses this year because of prolonged rains. Crop failure in general, and not any particular crop, should be indicted for farmer suicides. Within a same area in Vidarbha, I found farmers having dissimilar crop experiences because of varying soil conditions and water availability.

As for the suicides, an analysis of 15 years of national crime data shows that housewives as a group have the greatest propensity perhaps because of relentless domestic shocks. And while West Bengal leads in both the number and rate of suicides (would Acharya blame Communism), more farmers tend to kill themselves in Maharashtra. There, the number of farmer suicides tripled to 3,337 in the 17 years to 2011. But the rate per lakh has tapered from a peak of 4.6 in 2002 (when Bt cotton was introduced) to a tad less than 3 per lakh in 2011. This tapering has coincided with a dramatic expansion in Bt cotton area.

If Vidarbha has a high rate of suicides, the state government must take much of the blame. Roads are in a state of disrepair and irrigation facilities are lacking, making agriculture so much more uncertain. In villages like Bothbodan, which claims 17 suicides in two years (unverified), there is little social capital either. The cemented access road was dotted with excrement on either side, making it unwalkable. If toilets are unaffordable, cannot residents relieve themselves in field trenches The streets were rivulets of sewage water. Even hope in such infernal living conditions cannot be genetically-engineered.

Bt cotton, which derives its prefix from a soil bacterium whose gene it is spiked with to render it toxic to the bollworm weevil, was approved a decade ago amidst stiff opposition from environmentalists, though farmers were driven to desperation by the high cost of pesticide sprays.

The author was previously economic policy editor with CNBC-TV18