The Kisan Satyagraha shows that Indian farmers understand their needs, and are willing to seize the opportunities that come their way, in the form of new technologies and new markets. The Bt experience reconfirms that farmers’ grasp of the ground reality is far better than that of the political leaders who claim to protect them, or the many social activists who claim to care for them.
Over the past one month, the Kisan Satyagraha in Maharashtra has firmly placed the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops from farmers’ fields onto the political agenda. The only question that remains is whether these crops will enter the market legally, safely and profitably? Or will GM seeds enter our markets illegally, without any security or safety, and leave in its wake windfall profits for the unscrupulous producers of seed, while many honest farmers and businesses face the prospect of ruin due to uncertain quality of seeds.
The saga of HTBt cotton
The herbicide tolerant (HT) Bt cotton seeds are not approved by the regulatory agencies in India. Yet, in 2017, a team from the Department of Biotechnology found that around 15% of the cotton being grown in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana had the HT gene. At least a few lakh farmers have surreptitiously tried out the unapproved HTBt cotton. They have even named it to be “chor Bt”! This is the largest field trial of a GM crop possible.
Bt cotton incorporates a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium that makes the plant resistant to bollworm. Traditionally, cotton fields, including Bt cotton, require weeding, which is a labour-intensive, time-consuming and a costly exercise. The new HT characteristic makes the plant tolerant to herbicides, enabling farmers to spray herbicides to quickly and cheaply eliminate the weeds that compete with the plants for soil nutrients and moisture.
The Kisan Satyagraha was launched in Akoli Jahangir, a remote village in the Akot taluka of Akola district, Maharashtra. A farmer, Lalit Patil Bahale, symbolically sowed the seeds of HTBt cotton on a two-acre field in his own farm, on June 10, 2019.
Lalit Bahale decided to publicly sow the seeds of his own choice on his own field, and at his own risk, despite the uncertain origins of HTBt seeds. Lalit wanted to turn “chor Bt” into “hakkache Bt,” underscoring farmers’ “right to Bt.”
It was a brave act of a lone farmer, born out of utter frustration at the stranglehold of regulations that have tied up Indian farmers and restricted his access not just to seeds, but denied access to new technologies and the wider markets as well. The thousand-odd farmers gathered in Akoli Jahangir village shared Lalit’s frustration.
It has turned out to be Indian farmers coming out party! With the monsoon finally arriving, the instances of a similar satyagraha by farmers have spread rapidly.
History repeats itself
Lalit Bahale is an activist of the Shetkari Sanghatana, and also its national spokesperson. His family farms about 60 acres of land, and they have not grown cotton for quite a few years now because of rising labour costs, having shifted their emphasis from field crops to orchards.
Shetkari Sanghatana is the farmers’ organisation founded by late Sharad Anantrao Joshi in 1979. Between 2000 and 2002, Joshi led the farmers to a heroic struggle for the first and only GM crop so far approved in India, Bt cotton.
Lalit Bahale was among the thousands of volunteers from Maharashtra who had gone to defend their fellow farmers in Gujarat who had been planting the then unapproved Bt cotton. The government had ordered the illegal crops to be destroyed, but the prospect of large-scale civil disobedience deterred the state from taking any action. Within months, Bt cotton was approved at the end of March 2002, and the rest is history. Today, well over 90% of cotton in India is genetically modified, with the Bt gene being incorporated into hundreds of varieties that are locally relevant.
The regulatory maze
Powered by Bt cotton, over the past decade, India has emerged among the world’s top producers, and exporters. In fact, cotton is the most successful crop in India, since the Green Revolution.
Across the world, a dozen GM crops have been approved, and hundreds of millions of people, including Indians, have been eating these for a decade or two, without any adverse impact on human or animal health. In fact, millions of cattle in India feed on seeds from GM cotton, which have proved beneficial for dairy animals.
Yet, 20 years later, the mindset of the government in India and the regulatory environment has remained unchanged. For ten years, two successive governments—irrespective of political ideology—have failed to approve any new generation of Bt cotton. While Indian farmers are stuck with the second-generation Bt cotton approved in 2006—and its yield stagnating in the recent years—the world has moved on to the fourth- and fifth-generation Bt cotton. Today, 60% of the cotton grown in the world is estimated to be HTBt.
Despite being the same protein Cry1Ac used in Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, Indian regulators have attempted to reinvent the wheel. The Bt gene has also been used in other edible crops such as soya and maize, in the US and other countries, for over a decade. Yet Bt brinjal in India became perhaps the most rigorously tested vegetable ever. And even after it was recommended by the regulatory body, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), in 2009, the political leadership has continued to abdicate its responsibility and imposed an indefinite moratorium.
However, Bangladesh approved the same Bt brinjal in 2013, and around 50,000 farmers have adopted it so far. Last year, the GEAC asked Bangladesh for data on the performance of Bt brinjal in their country. Bt protein has proved to be an effective defence against the fruit and shoot borer, which poses a very serious threat to the brinjal crop. But there are other sucking pests as well, for which farmers still need to use some pesticides, and adopt other practices.
The gene is out of the bottle
The Kisan Satyagraha shows that Indian farmers understand their needs, and are willing to seize the opportunities that come their way, in the form of new technologies and new markets. The experience reconfirms that farmers’ grasp of the ground reality is far better than that of the political leaders who claim to protect them, or the many social activists who claim to care for them.
The genie is out of the bottle! Farmers want to enjoy the same freedom to choose the gene in their crops, just as every other sector of the economy chooses the technology of its choice.
(This is the first of a two-part series.)