Cottoning On To Biotechnology

Updated: Apr 4 2002, 05:30am hrs
Just a day before the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee gave its conditional clearance to the cultivation of Bt cotton on March 26, 2002, farmer representatives led by Sharad Joshi who formed part of the Kisan Coordination Committee threatened to launch a civil disobedience movement if the approval didnt come through. But paradoxically many in the country still believe that farmers, instead of being harbingers of change, are blocking genetically engineered seeds in India.

Nothing can be further from the truth, even though the earlier track record of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha led by Professor Nanjundaswamy set off the protest movement against Bt cotton in 1998. On March 25, 2002, however, KCC representatives from all the cotton growing states in the country like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh firmly supported the introduction of Bt cotton in the current kharif season itself.

Interestingly, tough questions then were posed to Mr Joshi and company by the journalists notably, regarding the credentials of the foreign-funded platform they were speaking from, right down to why they were pressurising GEAC to approve Bt cotton. But the farmer representatives defended themselves stating that they had the right to check out the latest technology as their cotton crops were severely affected by bollworm attacks.

Besides the farmers, industry too has welcomed the official clearance to Bt cotton. Ranged against them are the globally connected environmentalist non-governmental organisations and segments of the Indian intelligentsia who actually represent the real face of the protest movement against Bt cotton and genetically modified seeds in general. NGO activists termed the approval as a corrupt decision under the pressure of MNCs like Monsanto.

The Bt cotton saga begins way back in 1996 when the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company obtained permission to import and test genetically altered seeds obtained from Monsanto. Mahyco in which Monsanto has a 26 per cent stake got the seeds, made back crosses with local varieties and applied for permission for field trials. It got the permission but in 1998, KRRS activists burnt down trial fields in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

But such protests soon petered out. The KRRS toured Europe as part of the Inter-continental Caravan but its influence in stopping Bt cotton was limited thereafter: Direct action in Andhra and Karnataka ...didnt halt GMO seeds. A single persistent public intellectual Vandana Shiva did, but only officially and temporarily. Beneath the regulatory gaze of the state, Bt seeds were multiplying and growing, argued Professor Ron Herring in his 2001 Mary Keatinge Das lecture Promethean science, Pandoras jug: Conflicts around genetically engineered organisms in India delivered at Columbia University.

The KRRS basically self-destructed from within. Farmers elsewhere reeling from pest attacks on their cotton crops turned to an unapproved variety of Bt cotton. In September 2001, around 500 farmers in Gujarat were found to have planted the seed on 11,000 acres. Around 480-odd acres in Andhra Pradesh too had plantings of the illicit Bt cotton. The surprise is that corporate rivalries especially from Mahycos side to safeguard its intellectual property rights resulted in the governments attention being drawn to the matter.

Basically farmers voted with their ploughs to borrow an expression of Herring under the regulatory gaze of the State to force it to act speedily. And act it did: In a reversal of roles between activists and State, in an ironic replay of the cremate Monsanto campaign, Delhi (via GEAC) at first ordered that the crop be burned; all Bt cotton fiber was to be recovered from the market noted the US-based professor.

Dramatic stuff, but why did farmers vote with their ploughs They were upset that GEAC was taking its own time in approving Bt cotton. In June 2001, the agency denied permission and asked for larger trials to be done by Mahyco. Joshi termed this as a Seattle-type road block, which amounts to denying the jawans on the Northwest border automatic guns and insisting they continue with the old 303 rifles till the environment ministry .. is satisfied with the global consequences of the automatic weapons.

Clearly, any reconstruction of those events has to consider that farmers steadily mounted pressure on GEAC to approve Bt cotton. That it was Bharat that was forcing the government to act fast, despite the excited vigilance of NGOs. Nothing illustrates this resolve more firmly than Punjabs chief minister, Capt Amarinder Singh, who told he Indian Express that the infotech revolution missed Punjab, we wont let Bt pass us by.

The reason why farmers prefer Bt cotton is simple. Take for instance Punjab which produced 27 lakh bales of cotton earlier, which is down to seven lakh bales this year. When a state experiences the seventh straight failure of its cotton crop, there is bound to a broad constituency for adopting a better technology. For a technological solution that provides higher yields and lower pesticide consumption. That implies better returns.

Such is the calculus of farmers, yet there is deep-seated feeling within India that they are not rational agents. Sadly, that remains true also of global NGOs who think they can ultimately dictate what choices farmers must make. Farmers everywhere are in a bad situation over low prices. Whenever you see these crops come to market, you see a significant take-up because farmers see it as their salvation, stated Ms Doreen Stabinsky of Greenpeace to The Financial Times.

Salvation or no salvation, the decks now have been cleared for the introduction of genetically modified seeds in India. One really wonders whether all this opposition from NGOs would have been any less had an indigenous outfit like the Central Institute for Cotton Research at Nagpur given its Bt cotton seeds for trials instead of Monsanto. In all probability, it would have been less because the target really was MNCs.

GEACs belated approval finally enables India to catch up with China. The country has the worlds highest acreage under cotton but its productivity is low. As a result, India is the worlds third largest producer behind China and the US. The neighbouring country had a headstart in the introduction of Bt cotton and its R&D expenditures on plant biotechnology are also way above ours. Of course, they dont have environmentalist NGOs to contend with, but its progress truly illustrates what India can potentially do in biotech. Contrary to popular impression, Bharats role in leading the country kicking and screaming into this brave new world clearly is an important one.