Satyagraha for GM technology: Who will compensate farmers for losses?

Government’s lack of accountability on GM crops is driving farmers to commit illegality, And risk monetary fines & prison sentences.

Satyagraha for GM technology: Who will compensate farmers for losses?
Wilful planting of illegal HTBt cotton began on a 3-acre slice of Bahale’s 38-acre farm at Akoli Jahangir village, in Akola district’s Akot tehsil on June 10. (Representative image: IE)

On Saturday, June 23, Laxmikant Kauthakar, 35, called to say that he would plant illegal genetically-modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant (HT) cottonseed stacked with the bollworm-killing Bt trait the next day. He had stopped growing cotton in 2014, unable to afford manual weeding and pesticides, and switched to sugarcane and pigeon pea (tur) instead.

When reminded of the stiff penal provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, Kauthakar said, “It is not about me. There are no jobs. Business is competitive. Our children don’t want to do agriculture. They are rushing to the cities.” He said there was a shortage of labour and costs of manual weeding were high. “Whatever technology is there in the world should be available to us. This is our right.”

On Sunday, Kauthakar planted HTBt cottonseed at his farm in Adgaon Buzurg village, in Akola district’s Telhara tehsil. He and 10 others, including Lalit Patil Bahale, were booked under the Seed Act, the Environment Protection Act and sections 143 (unlawful assembly), 180 (refusal to sign statement), 188 (disobedience of public servant’s order) and 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code. Akola District Collector, Jitendra Papalkar, said the government had no issues with HTBt cotton, if approved. The seeds sown had no labels. A sample had been sent for testing to the Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur. “Who will bear responsibility if farmers suffer losses?” he asked.

Wilful planting of illegal HTBt cotton began on a 3-acre slice of Bahale’s 38-acre farm at Akoli Jahangir village, in Akola district’s Akot tehsil on June 10. The Shetkari Sanghatana, which believes in free markets and free access to agricultural biotechnology, is organising the protest planting. Bahale is a microbiologist. He had stopped growing cotton about two decades ago, after persistently losing the cotton crop to bollworms. That was before the GM Bt cotton trait was approved for cultivation in 2002. Bahale has switched to high-value horticulture.

The movement has gained traction. As of Monday, June 24, 19 farmers had lent their farms for the protest planting, including Mahadeo Khamkar of Anandwadi village in Ahmednagar’s Shrigonda tehsil, Madhusudan Hame of Shegaon (Kund) in Wardha’s Hinganghat tehsil, Nilesh Nemade of Adgaon in Akot tehsil, Baburao Appaji Golde of Revgaon in Jalna district, Akshay Mahajan of Bori village in Ralegaon tehsil of Yavatmal district, and Radheyshyam Wable of Umbra village in Hingoli.

The slogans explain why: Chor Bt nahin, hakkache Bt (Not by stealth, Bt by right) Tantragyan swatantra amchya hakkachi, nahin kunyacha bapache (Technology freedom is our right, not anybody’s patrimony).
Chor Bt nahin, Imandaar Bt (Honest Bt, not stolen Bt).

“Why do we have to go by hook or crook?” asks Anil Ghanvat, President of the Sanghatana. An agricultural science graduate, he practices farming in Ahmednagar. “This government has compelled us to be smugglers.” The Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee, set by the Department of Biotechnology in 2017 to ascertain the spread of illegal HT cotton, estimated the area covered by illegal HT cotton at 15-17% of the total. It advised that the crop be destroyed. Not wishing to risk farmers’ anger, states like Andhra Pradesh banned the sale of the herbicide Glyphosate, which spares HT cotton, but kills weeds, when sprayed.

Illegality cannot be condoned. But, what is driving farmers in droves to commit illegality, and risk monetary fines and prison sentences? The nub of the issue is the government’s lack of accountability on GM crops. If a developer has spent time and money complying with a procedure established by law, can ministers deny or stall approval merely because they do not agree with the science or it doesn’t suit their political interests? Who is responsible for losses caused to research companies, which acted in good faith, when their GM seeds are not approved for cultivation despite passing bio-safety trials and being approved by regulatory committees? Who will compensate farmers for losses or extra costs arising from being denied such technology? Shouldn’t there be a time-frame for granting of approvals? And, if public sensitivity is the issue, shouldn’t it be addressed with devices like labelling?

In February 2010, environment minister Jairam Ramesh arbitrarily imposed an indefinite moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal for cultivation. He invented a procedure not prescribed by law till then-public hearings in various cities, where shrill activists opposed to GM technology fanned fears about Bt brinjal, providing the minister an excuse to act in the “public interest.” He converted the apex Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) into an appraisal committee. In fairness, the changes should have had prospective effect, but were applied retroactively.

In doing so, Ramesh ignored the vote of 16 members of GEAC and heeded the veto of just two of them, one of whom, the late Pushpa Bhargava, was a known GM crop technology baiter and the other was a scientist in his institute. He dismissed the view of a high-level GEAC committee that had studied the objections of anti-GM activists and found them to be without merit. He ignored the long history of safe use of Bt protein in various countries. He ignored the GEAC committee’s view that stomach acids degrade the Bt protein in 30 seconds, that it breaks down upon cooking and was not detectable even in short-term digestibility studies.

Yet a series of environment ministers after him—Jayanti Natarajan, Veerappa Moily, Prakash Javadekar, Anil Madhav Dave and Harsh Vardhan—allowed the moratorium to continue. The brinjal fruit and plant spiked with Bt protein is deadly to the fruit and shoot borer; instead, farmers have been forced to douse brinjal with pesticides, which are ineffective once the borer prevents contact with them by lodging itself inside the brinjal fruit and stem. Bt technology has been used in Bangladesh for the past three years on the basis of bio-safety trials conducted in India. The number of Bangladeshi farmers growing it has risen from 20 to 27,000 and there have been no reports of any harm. Yet, Indian farmers are denied the technology and Indian consumers have to eat pesticide-laced brinjal.

Another example is the GM mustard hybrid, DMH-11, developed by a team of Delhi University scientists with (public) funding from the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) and the Department of Biotechnology. The GM technology deployed in it, to first induce male sterility and restore fertility after cross pollination, allows the efficient development of high-yielding hybrids in mustard, which is self-pollinating.

The research was first published in an international journal in 2001. Field trials began in 2002. After 15 years, in May 2017, the GEAC recommended it release for cultivation. Environment minister Anil Madhav Dave passed away before he could approve it, within days of the recommendation. His replacement, Harsh Vardhan, sat on the file, reportedly, because the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, one of 36 organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is opposed to GM technology.

In the case of HT cotton, pollen-flow studies began in 2006. Between 2008 and 2012, two levels of bio-safety research studies were conducted and the dossier was presented to GEAC in 2013. But in August 2016, the developer, Mahyco, withdrew the application for commercial release of the cottonseed because agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh had upended India’s intellectual property rights regime with curbs on retail prices and royalty payments that favoured seed companies more than farmers. Mahyco reckoned that even if HT cottonseed, combined with the insect-resistant Bt trait, were released, it would not profit from it.
“We don’t want price controls or limits on royalty,” says Ajit Narde, who heads Shetkari Sanghatana’s technology cell. Ghanvat says farmers don’t mind paying royalty for proprietary traits and market prices for seed so long as they get more than proportionate returns.

The Shetkari Sanghatana does not agree with Gandhi’s vision of self-contained villages or his disapproval of modern technology, but like him, it wants farmers to be self-reliant. It draws inspiration from his Satyagraha technique. “We see Gandhiji’s spectacles everywhere but not his vision,” said Pradyna Bapat, the Sanghatana’s leader tartly.

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.