By V. Ravichandran: Poongulam Village, Tamil Nadu, India
As an Indian farmer, I’m pleased to accept invitations that allow me to share my experience and help raise awareness of the benefits of GM crops.
In November, I’ll travel to Uganda from my farm in India. My mission is to describe my personal experience with GMs—and to encourage Ugandan policy makers, regulators, advocacy groups, farmers, agri input dealers and processors to trust science and support agricultural policies based on the findings of sound science rather than the demands of angry mythmongers.
This is a crucial moment for agriculture in the east African country of nearly 45 million people. Uganda stands on the verge of GM adoption. I’m hopeful that sharing my hands-on experience will persuade doubtful Ugandans that they have nothing to fear and everything to gain from GM crops.
Ugandans have debated GMOs for several years. Experts believe that the country’s farmers lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year to pests and diseases that modern biotechnology can help defeat. The biggest losses come from banana wilt but cassava, corn, sweet potatoes and other crops also suffer.
The delay in the approval of GM crops would mean loss of opportunity for the farmers and the nation.
Last year, Uganda’s parliament approved a bill that would have established protocols for the commercialization of GM crops. President Yoweri Museveni, however, has formally rejected the proposal twice, most recently in August.
By doing so, Museveni has refused to let his country’s farmers take advantage of a safe technology that has improved food security around the world. My invitation to share my experience is supported by the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Deborah R. Malac, who believes GMO adoption will help Uganda feed its people and fuel its economy.
I can understand the mindset of Uganda’s GM skeptics because I too was once a GM skeptic. In 1986, when I started to grow cotton, I did not know what GM crops were—and when I learned about them more than a decade later, I doubted that they could deliver what they promised. My opinions were shaped by the same anti-development activists who are fighting against GM in Uganda right now.
All the horrifying days we fought against bollworms prompted me to give them a try. So in 2004, I planted Bt cotton for the first time. I determined that the worst thing that would happen would just confirm my suspicions and that I’d stick with my old methods.
Then the best possible thing happened: I became a better farmer. GM changed everything. My yields went up. My cost has been reduced. I’ve never experienced and observed a more positive transformation. Today, virtually every cotton farmer in India has joined me in growing Bt cotton because it makes so much sense.
I look back at the horrifying days before Bt cotton, when we fought against bollworms and failed to stop them from destroying our crops. It makes me wonder why anybody would choose old-fashioned approaches to agriculture.
It happens all the time, of course. My own government in India won’t accept Bt brinjal and GM mustard, even though scientists and regulatory authorities have confirmed that both crops are safe and hold the potential to improve the lives of poor Indian farmers. The problem is that too many politicians continue to listen to activists with ideological agendas rather than the recommendation of their own scientific committees.
Many Indian farmers have resorted to desperate measures: They’re obtaining GM seeds from across the border and growing Bt brinjal and HT cotton illegally. As a law-abiding citizen, I don’t endorse defiance of the law, even if they disagree with it—but I understand the impulse. No one can suppress scientifically proven truths forever. These farmers have been witnessing the success of their counterparts in Bangladesh and other nations.
Perhaps our government will come to its sense. Unfortunately, we keep putting ourselves in ridiculous positions. We import enormous quantities of edible oil that’s made from GM soybeans and canola, for example, but we won’t allow our own farmers to grow the same crops that make this edible oil possible.
So my hope for Uganda is twofold. First, I will tell its farmers how Bt cotton have improved my life and encourage its politicians to do the right thing. Second, if Uganda makes a good decision and accepts GM crops, it may inspire other countries to do the same, both in Africa as well as in my native India.
Through this kind of give and take, farmers everywhere may benefit. If Ugandans can learn from my experience as an Indian farmer, perhaps in time the government of India will learn from Uganda—and the good news I’m eager to spread will come back to my home.