The need for technology in agriculture is often confused with giving farmers access to genetically modified crops. Rarely is the performance of the country’s first GM crop, Bt cotton, examined under a critical lens. Instead, the backdoor entry of illegal GM seeds is gaining momentum in the name of progress and of giving farmers a choice. The absence of a strict regulation regime is sorely felt. Research on agriculture and sustainability is the need of the hour.
Since some months, the country has witnessed two farmers’ organisations launching campaigns diametrically opposed to each other. Connected with this is the debate on technology or technological advancements in the agriculture sector in India, which is practically non-existent, and farmers are certainly hardly ever consulted in this regard. The cries for newer seeds and high-tech interventions have been brought to the fore by the defiant ongoing campaign by the Shetkari Sanghatana, launched on 10 June 2019 in a village in Akola, Maharashtra, somewhat inspired by the detection of Bt brinjal in a farmer’s field in Fatehabad district, Haryana in April. The campaign is underway in various districts of Maharashtra to plant genetically modified (GM) seeds, namely Bt brinjal and herbicide-tolerant Bt (HTBt) cotton. The Sanghatana’s logic is that transgenic seeds are good for farmers as Bt brinjal uses less chemicals. It also made a representation in July to the Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, demanding “freedom of technology” for the farmers.
Another farmers’ organisation, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), while taking an opposite stand, held demonstrations in 1,423 blocks in 436 districts in 30 states in India on 8 and 9 August 2019 along with its supporters. More than 72,000 farmers submitted petitions to the district collectors, block development officers and subdivisional magistrates demanding an end to the planting of illegal seeds. The BKS president Badrinarayan Choudhary also wrote a letter on 19 August to the Prime Minister demanding action against those forces and companies that were spearheading the campaign to promote illegal GM seeds, saying that these cause a huge risk to the soil, public health, lives and environment.
Companies involved in such illegal acts should be blacklisted and evicted from the country, the BKS has demanded. It alleged that the apex regulatory body, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) was looking after the interests of these companies and that it should be dissolved and another mechanism should be put in its place for regulation. The BKS also pointed out that glyphosate
, a herbicide used for HTBt cotton, has been found to be responsible for diseases like cancer and thus, must be banned.
The Shetkari Sanghatana maintains that HTBt cotton saves the trouble of weeding, as all that the farmers have to do is to spray Roundup Ready that contains glyphosate, which kills the weeds but not the cotton plant. It, however, ignores the fact that glyphosate is at the centre of several thousand lawsuits against Bayer (which has taken over Monsanto) in the United States, by those who have fallen victim to cancer, and also that three of these lawsuits have resulted in favourable rulings for the victims.
One of the posters of the Sanghatana’s campaign says “metooGM,” with the rather literal demand for the GM seeds, even if they are not officially approved for cultivation, adding a texture of victimisation to the lot of farmers who are allegedly deprived of cutting-edge research and have to agitate for it. The debate overall has been simplified to the farmers’ need for technology that is available, but which is made inaccessible by the politics surrounding it.
Shetkari Sanghatana is an organisation whose leader, the late Sharad Joshi, supported GM technology as a way forward. Anil Ghanwat, its present head has inspired enough farmers in Maharashtra to undertake a campaign to plant illegal Bt brinjal and the HTBt cotton, which was developed by Monsanto. However, the application for approving HTBt for commercial cultivation was withdrawn by Monsanto in 2015 due to differences over the payment of royalties by the Indian seed companies for the Bt cotton. Neither is HTBt cotton banned in India, nor is it being considered for commercial cultivation. But truth has taken a backseat as the Sanghatana has been mobilising farmers to openly plant “banned” HTBt cotton and Bt brinjal.
Tests conducted on the illegal cotton planted by Sanghatana farmers have confirmed that they were HTBt cotton and 30 cases were filed by the agriculture officers under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. However, two farmers in Maharashtra went to the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court to demand the cases be quashed. In early August, the court restrained the government from proceeding against the farmers, and rightly so. The Sanghatana is treating this as a victory for the “GM Kisaan Satyagraha.”
Even if not in a campaign mode, illegal HTBt cotton has been grown in India since 2009, according to Aruna Rodrigues, petitioner in the Supreme Court against GM crops, who informed the GEAC about it and demanded action.
Some action was taken but the issue remained unresolved. In July 2019, Narendra Singh Tomar told Parliament that there were reports of illegal cultivation from Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Sixty-seven cases, 40 of them from Telangana and 20 from Maharashtra were under investigation since 2017 (Mohan 2019). These states were directed to act against illegal seeds and a large number of seed packets and loose seeds of this cotton were confiscated.
Earlier too, after many complaints, in October 2017, the Prime Minister’s Office formed a field inspection and scientific evaluation committee (FISEC) under the Department of Biotechnology in the Union Ministry of Science and Technology. Its report recommended action against companies promoting illegal seeds and the destruction of such seeds (Bera 2018). Maharashtra reportedly seized over 16,000 seed packets till April 2017 and confiscated unpacked seeds, apart from filing over 20 cases.
After analysing over 13,361 samples, the report found illegal herbicide-tolerant cotton planted on 15% of the area in Maharashtra, Telangana, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh in 2017. The samples tested negative for all other herbicide-tolerant genes except for that of Monsanto’s MON88913. In 2017, there were an estimated 35 lakh packets of illegal HTBt cotton sold, despite the committee’s recommendations. In 2018 too, Vijay Waghmare, head of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), estimated that 12%–20% of the cotton area is planted with this illegal cotton. At least 15% of the area in Vidarbha is growing this illegal variety on which glyphosate is sprayed, even when the CICR has been warning farmers that glyphosate has long-term effects on the soil and the germination of the next crop (Menon 2018).
On 12 June 2019, the Ministry of Environment in response to a complaint from the Coalition of GM-Free India on the suspected open cultivation of Bt brinjal and HTBt cotton, asked the chief secretaries of the Maharashtra government and other states to order an investigation and verify the facts on the ground, conduct gene-specific testing of these illegal GM crops and take action to stop any illegal cultivation of GM crops.
The Question of Choice
How are these illegal seeds finding a way to the farmers and who is manufacturing them? Seizures of illegal seeds and cases filed against some companies have not stopped the availability. The seeds are sold through dealers who approach the farmers directly. Why do farmers plant these seeds? Often they do not know that the seeds are spurious, but they favour the use of HTBt because its claim to reduce the use of pesticides is gaining ground. Farmers want the next generation Bt as the two earlier Bt cotton seeds failed to restrict the pests as promised.
Often it is projected that farmers are choosing these transgenic varieties as they want new technology. In the case of Bt cotton, even before it was officially approved, farmers started using illegal varieties which appeared out of nowhere. Seeds cannot appear out of thin air—there is an illegal system which is proliferating and the government has remained unable or unwilling to get to the bottom of it. To interpret this as a choice of the farmers is not correct. In the Shetkari Sanghatana campaign, the question of choice is paramount. Ghanwat says farmers are choosing Bt brinjal and HTbt cotton as they are better varieties, defying government moratorium or evidence from other countries. The real choice, however, would be if all the cotton seeds, even desi cotton and the older straight varieties or hybrids, were available in the market, and the farmers could select. That is not the case.
No one can deny that research on seeds and their quality and making seeds available to farmers is of great importance. However, GM seeds need not be the only way out and this backdoor entry cannot be the case each time. In 2001 too, illegal Bt cotton had surfaced in about 11,000 acres in Gujarat and other parts of the country, even before the GEAC officially approved Bt cotton for commercial cultivation. A company called Navbharat Seeds was held responsible for it and orders to burn the illegal crops were issued by the high court, but not implemented. It was only in 2002 that Bt cotton was officially cleared. Since then, many other illegal seeds have surfaced in the fields, unrestrained by regulation even if they are not approved for cultivation, as in the case of both HTBt cotton and Bt brinjal.
The popular example given to support the argument that politics is responsible for the lack of access to technology is the moratorium on Bt brinjal since 2010, when the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had ordered countrywide public hearings and decided to put a hold on it, despite the GEAC’s approval. In the case of Bt cotton, the first transgenic crop to be approved in 2002, there was no debate or transparency as the field trials were conducted by the company Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Private Limited and endorsed by scientists and later the government.
There was an overwhelming demand from the farmers to reduce the cost of pesticides to be used on cotton, spent mainly for the green bollworm. Bt cotton was touted as the answer to their prayers. Those who questioned this need for a transgenic solution to the problem, where only one of the many pests of cotton would be affected, were in a minority and criticised as being anti-technology. In rain-fed cotton-growing regions like Vidarbha in Maharashtra, the farmers did not see the fine print on the Bt cotton seed packets, which said that these seeds would perform well in irrigated areas, till much later when their crops began failing. Given the fact that 60% of the cotton grown in India is rain-fed, the contradiction and bitter irony in this exercise to save the farmers from the menace of the green bollworm becomes evident, as it was not even a pest on desi cotton in India that in 1947 was grown on nearly 97% of the country.
Early records of cultivation of desi cotton (Gossypium herbaceum or Gossypium arboreum) do not indicate the presence of the green or American bollworm on desi cotton (Menon 2004). It is only after the American Gossypium hirsutum variety of cotton was used to create hybrids in India that the green bollworm became a menace, exacerbated also by the indiscriminate use of the pesticide Synthetic Pyrethroids. Soon cotton was using more than 50% of the pesticides in the country, when it was grown on 5% of the area (Puri et al 1999).
Bt cotton too developed problems and, by 2009, the pink bollworm developed resistance to it. Second generation Bollgard II cotton was introduced and within a few years, that is, by 2015, was being eaten up by the pink bollworm. In addition, for the first time, Bt cotton was attacked by secondary pests, notably the whitefly, in a big way, and the pink bollworm, which was a minor pest, assumed menacing proportions.
In this rather desperate scenario, farmers are quite fed up and the over 2,000 varieties of Bt cotton in the market seem superfluous. While spraying for the green bollworm may have reduced, spraying for other pests has increased. It is this background that the surge in the demand for newer seeds and the need for weedicide-resistant cotton, which is available abroad, should be seen. Even though Monsanto withdrew the application for approval of HTBt cotton in 2015, the seed found its way into farmers’ fields in 2009 itself or even earlier. This speaks volumes of our regulation regime.
Funds for Research
The need for better technology is also hampered by the meagre resources for research. In September 2018, Ramesh Chand, NITI Aayog member said at a public event that India’s public spending on agriculture research and development is not far behind the neighbouring China’s (PTI 2018). Countering that statement by Chand, Bhaskar (2018) pointed out that
"According to the Economic Survey 2017–18, the total R&D expenditure in India as percentage of GDP has been stagnant at 0.6 to 0.7 per cent in the last two decades—much lower than the US (2.8 per cent), China (2.1 per cent), South Korea (4.3 per cent) and Israel (4.2 per cent). When it comes to actual spending, Agriculture Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) data reveal that India currently spends 0.30 per cent of agriculture GDP on agricultural research, which is just half the share invested by China (0.62 per cent)."
While we talk of good technology, India barely spends enough to generate cutting-edge research. While the green revolution was considered a great leap forward, it had an adverse impact on soil and water due to the increased and often unnecessary use of fertilisers. In agriculture, technology need not be on the level of rocket science. Building on India’s own biodiversity, for instance, would have made a huge difference to the adaptability of crops. A simple thing would have been to provide good quality seeds to farmers. Even that is left to private seed companies. The NITI Aayog report (2015) notes that
"Another serious factor responsible for low use of quality seed is sale of spurious seed in the market. In order to raise productivity there is a need to supply and promote use of quality seed and also assure quality."
There is no doubt that Indian agricultural universities and institutes have come up with many popular and trusted seed varieties. India produced the first hybrid of cotton in 1970 and many straight varieties of cotton using desi varieties, which were hardy and could withstand water stress. But as the NITI Aayog report (2015) points out,
"Breakthroughs in basic and other modern sciences offer voluminous opportunities for developing transformative technologies for agriculture. However, this has not been happening in the country for a variety of reasons."
Also, there is a lack of a nuanced debate on what kind of technology the farmers want and need. The dissemination and extension of the available technologies is not up to the mark. A lot of the seed biodiversity in India has been decimated and it is only a few farmers and organisations who try to save and reuse seeds. Many organic cotton farmers grow desi cotton without chemicals. Cotton is a dryland crop and does n0t need too much fuss, this fact gets forgotten in the race to grow and develop lush hybrids.
To redress the problem of availability of good seeds, the government has proposed some initiatives under the amended New Policy on Seed Development, according to NITI Aayog (2015). It further says:
"The policy permits 100 per cent foreign direct investment under the automatic route and simplifies the procedure for inclusion of new varieties in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Seeds Scheme. The thrust is also on creating a seed bank."
While CICR in its Vision 2050 (ICAR 2015) document has advocated reducing the area under cotton and growing desi cotton as it can withstand the stress of climate change, the NITI Aayog (2015) proposes that as part of a strategy to bring a second green revolution, India must return to permitting proven and well-tested GM technologies with adequate safeguards.
GM seeds, however, may not be a progressive solution as the experience with Bt cotton has indicated. It will be obfuscating matters if one says that the lack of good seeds and sustainable cropping practices has anything to do with an unwillingness to give farmers technology. The issue is more muddled. The regulatory framework in place, at least on paper, further complicates the picture. The reasons for Bt brinjal being on hold are many. There were too many questions raised during the public hearings that took place in 2010. Pushpa Mitra Bhargava, who was the Supreme Court appointed member of the GEAC, had testified before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on GM crops in 2010 that the approval for Bt brinjal was given under pressure and adequate toxicity tests were not carried out (Ministry of Agriculture 2012).
The government and the public sector seem unable to address the fundamental issue of which seeds are best adapted for the country and how farmers can grow them sustainably. Research in the case of cotton has not built on the rich heritage of seeds and biodiversity, which is all but lost now. Focus on eradicating a single or a few of the pests has resulted in secondary pests proliferating, as the case of Bt cotton clearly shows. Instead of learning lessons from that experience, a clamour for Bt brinjal is being created when there is a moratorium on it and India is the centre of origin for brinjal. There is a need for increased investment in the agriculture sector, and extension and research in suitable technologies for the farmers, especially keeping in mind the vagaries of climate change.
By Meena Menon
ICAR (2015): Vision 2050, Nagpur: Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
Menon, M (2004): Organic Cotton: Reinventing the Wheel, Hyderabad: Kalpavriksh and Deccan Development Society.
Ministry of Agriculture (2012): Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops: Prospects and Effects, New Delhi: Lok Sabha Secretariat.
Puri, S N, K S Murthy and O P Sharma (1999): “IPM for Sustainable Cotton Production Management,” Handbook of Cotton in India, V Sundaram, A K Basu, S S Narayanan, K R Krishna Iyer and T P Rajendran (eds), Bombay: Indian Society for Cotton Improvement, pp 233–45.