A new article by Kasturi Das, a Researcher at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India, has been published on the GM Watch site.

GM Crops in India: Why Open Pandora's Box? can be found here: 1

The article looks at how the current Indian Government is planning to promote GM crops. Kasturi Das notes that a panel has been set up to formulate a National Biotechnology Policy and to put in place a single window system of clearance for transgenic products by January 2005, so as to ensure a speedy approval of GM crops.

The panel is likely to draw on the Report of the Task Force on Application of Biotechnology in Agriculture. The Task force was headed by the agricultural scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan , who is also a member of the new Government panel. However, Kasturi Das warns that the recommendations of the Swaminathan Task Force contain glaring flaws and contradictions. Kasturi Das examines these in detail.

She notes that the Task Force Report asserts, "The bottom line of our national agricultural biotechnology policy should be the economic well being of farm families, food security of the nation, health security of the consumer, protection of the environment and the security of our national and international trade in farm commodities" (Section II.1.2).

Kasturi Das warns that the proclaimed commitment towards these objectives is mere rhetoric. The actual aim is to facilitate the promotion of GM crops in the country by putting in place a regulatory and policy regime that will ensure speedy and hassle-free approval for the commercial cultivation of transgenic crops in India.

What is all the more perplexing, she says, is that in order to create enough justification for its evidently pro-GM prescriptions, the Task Force relentlessly attempts to project transgenic crops as the most appropriate means to achieve the above mentioned goals. However to date there is no concrete and conclusive evidence to show GM can fulfil any of these targets. On the contrary, Kasturi Das argues, there is a plenty of evidence, which indicates the potential regressive impact of genetic engineering in all these respects.

Here are some excerpts from the article (for the full text and references: 1 )

...[India] is the home of over 47,000 species of plants and 81,000 species of animals, making it one of the twelve mega-biodiversity countries of the world. With merely 2.4 per cent of the land area, India accounts for about 7 to 8 per of the recorded species of the earth. In fact, it is this treasure of bio-resources, which has performed a significant role in ensuring the food and livelihood security of millions of poor farming families of India.

Unfortunately, a substantial portion of this precious biodiversity has already been lost during the last four decades due to the monoculture-based Green Revolution agriculture. Hence what is really crucial is to reformulate our national agricultural policy in such a manner that preservation of the remaining biodiversity reserves is ensured.

Apparently, the Task Force also seems to recognize the importance of biodiversity conservation. However, in an attempt to marry the two inherently contradictory objectives of GM promotion on the one hand and biodiversity conservation on the other, it ends up with a disastrous proposal of reducing India into a primarily GM-cultivating country with a few pockets of "Agro-Biodiversity Sanctuaries", i.e., regions, which are very rich in biodiversity resources (Section II.7.1 & II.7.2). It is recommended by the Task Force that cultivation of GM-crops should be prohibited in these mega-biodiversity centers and hot spots of agro-biodiversity " until more data are available on the long-term impact of the introgression of transgenic material in native biodiversity". This points to the implicit recognition of the potential adverse impacts of GM crops on biodiversity by the Task Force. Why then did it not recommend a moratorium on GM cultivation throughout India, until the issue of genetic contamination of native biodiversity was resolved conclusively? Why is it necessary to convert a country so richly endowed with bio-resources in almost every nook and corner into one with only a few agro-biodiversity hot spots, and that too in such a hasty manner? There is absolutely no justification for putting the precious bio-resources of India under such potential threat just for the unfounded urgency of allowing GM cultivation. Moreover, the proposal of the Task Force of conserving biodiversity in a few pockets of the country while permitting GM cultivation elsewhere is simply absurd. Because, once large-scale cultivation of GM crops is allowed, preservation of agro-biodiversity in their "pristine purity" (as urged by the Task Force Report in Section II.7.1) even in the (proposed) earmarked "Agro-Biodiversity Sanctuaries" can no longer be guaranteed, for reasons discussed...

The Task Force has also failed miserably in dealing with the more sensitive and crucial issue of conservation of genetic diversity pertaining to rice, for which India is a 'centre of origin and diversity'. Rice being the staple food of a substantial proportion of the world population, preservation of rice biodiversity in this 'centre of origin and diversity' assumes tremendous importance not only for India but also for the food security of the world as a whole. Hence, in order to safeguard this global resource of crucial significance it is extremely important for India to completely prohibit cultivation of GM rice so that the risk of contamination of the natural rice germplasm can be ruled out entirely. The Task Force has instead come out once again with a recommendation of protecting the regions highly rich in rice genetic resources (such as the Jeypore tract of Orissa) as "Agro-Biodiversity Sanctuaries" (Section II.7.1).

The Mexican experience with maize, for which Mexico is a 'centre of origin and diversity', however, indicates the grave danger of allowing cultivation of GM varieties of a particular crop in its 'centre of origin and diversity'. Mexico - the abode of the greatest diversity of cultivars and wild species of maize - has already been found to be contaminated by GE maize. A study undertaken in the USA has demonstrated that even in remote Mexican valleys local maize varieties contain genes from transgenic Bt-maize. According to Ignacio Chapella, the scientist from the University of California (USA), whose team was involved in the research, "What this means is that an entire species in its native state may soon become, in effect, genetically contaminated".

India will pave the way for a similar potential threat to the precious rice genetic resources of our country if GM cultivation of rice is allowed in any part of the nation. The Agro-biotech industry often argues that there is no danger of foreign gene flow in the case of rice because it is a self-pollinating crop and hence native rice would not accept genes from its GM counterpart. But there exists ample evidence in the scientific literature to negate this view. The outcome of a recent study undertaken by scientists at China's Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Biodiversity and Ecological Engineering and the Institute of Biodiversity Science at Fundan University on the potential for contamination of non-GE rice and wild varieties by GE rice is worth mentioning here. The findings of this research have revealed that outcrossing from GE rice is likely to impact on conventional, wild and weedy rice varieties, and that the dispersal range of rice pollen grains increases with the increase of wind speed. This and similar other studies raise serious concerns about the danger that cultivation of GE rice, if permitted in a 'centre of origin and diversity' like India, would pose for the future of genetic diversity of this vital staple crop.

Apart from "Agro-biodiversity Sanctuaries", the Task Force has come out with a recommendation of earmarking certain regions or states as "Organic Farming Zones" and keeping them free of GM crops (Section II.7.2). This proposal is again flawed because of its inherent contradictions. It should be noted here that internationally recognized organic regulations and standards..., which are aimed at guaranteeing the authenticity of organic produce, categorically exclude from the organic production system genetically engineered organisms and products containing GMOs. In fact, the very basis of genetic engineering, which depends on the search for single-factor-solutions, is fundamentally opposed to the holistic principles of organic agriculture. While organic farming relies on biodiversity and natural processes, genetic engineering poses a significant threat to these, thereby putting the viability and future of organic agriculture itself at serious issue. Hence it is overwhelmingly evident that GM contamination would endanger the future of organic food and farming.

The Task Force recommends further that the "Organic Faming Zones" should be protected from potential cross-pollination by GM crops (Section II.8), although no attempt is made to specify the procedures which would need to be undertaken to ensure such protection. Despite the theoretical assertions of the Task Force, the fact remains that if wide-spread commercial cultivation of transgenic crops is allowed in India, then organic products will be faced with the acute risk of contamination not only through cross-pollination, but also at various other stages of their life cycle including seeding, planting, harvesting, processing and transportation. order to protect India’s export markets, in the post-GM scenario, in those countries which have strict laws against import of GM crops, the Task Force emphasizes the need for putting in place a mechanism to facilitate segregation, identity preservation and certification and labelling of GM/non-GM products. It also recommends that transgenic research should not be undertaken in crops/commodities where our international trade may be affected, e.g., Basmati rice, soybean or Darjeeling Tea. (Section II.1.6).

However, given the manner in which the public opposition to GM is gaining momentum in different parts of the world, there is a real risk of India's entire food export business with various countries getting disrupted, once large scale cultivation of GM food crops is permitted in India. Because, no matter how stringent the policy measures adopted, complete segregation is virtually impossible. The Soil Association (2002) study (mentioned elsewhere) has revealed, for instance, how even in developed countries like the USA and Canada (where much more sophisticated means and huge resources are available to prevent contamination than those a developing country like India can ever afford or implement) the lack of segregation has caused major damage to exports to the EU and to a substantial proportion of exports to Asia, most notably Japan, due to market rejection. It has been observed that within a few years of the introduction of GM crops, almost the entire $300 million annual US maize exports to the EU and the $300 million annual Canadian rape exports to the EU had disappeared, while the US share of the world soya market has also declined.

The fear of rejection owing to transgenic contamination is all the higher in the case of organic products, for which consumers generally pay huge premiums (often as high as 100 per cent) just because of the perceived health and environmental benefits associated with them. The commercial significance of this niche segment of the global market becomes evident from the fact that the market for 'Certified Organic' foods has turned out, in the last decade, to be the fastest growing food sector of many developed countries, including the EU, the USA and Japan. It has further been projected to grow globally in the coming years at a stupendous rate ranging from 10-15 per cent to 25-30 per cent.

Although organic agriculture is still at a budding stage in India, the country has already managed to make its presence felt in the export markets for a number of organic products (e.g. tea, rice, wheat, spices, coffee, pulses, fruits & vegetables etc.). In the case of organic tea, for instance, with one third of the world's total production, India has not only qualified as the largest producer but also the largest exporter, the lion's share of which is organic Darjeeling tea. Given that a huge proportion of agricultural farms in India are 'organic by default', there is a tremendous potential for India to increase its share manifold in the flourishing global organic markets in future. But once a pro-GM regime is adopted, Indian organic products will be confronted with genuine risks of contamination and as a result India may end up losing even that share of the global organic market, which it has already managed to capture, leave aside any prospect of further increments. In this context, the aforementioned Soil Association study (2002) has exposed how GM contamination has caused the loss of nearly the whole organic oilseed rape sector in the province of Saskatchewan in Canada. Many organic and other GM-free maize farmers were found to have either lost their sales or have received lower prices because of contamination. The potential cost of such lost sales or reduced prices were estimated to be over $90 million (£60 million) annually.

It may be recalled at this juncture that in the EU, which is not only one of the principal trading partners of India, but also the world's largest importer of agricultural products from the developing countries as a whole, public opinion against GM products is growing stronger and this trend is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Public resentment against GM has started showing up even in the USA itself...

As mentioned earlier, the Task Force has emphasized that one of the prime thrusts of the proposed National Biotechnology Policy should be "the economic well-being of farm families". The same 'farmer first' principle has been resonating in the voice of the Union Science and Technology Minister Mr. Kapil Sibal, when he has expressed the intention of the UPA Government "to have a biotech policy as quickly as possible to supply to the farmers pest-resistant and drought-resistant seeds with high nutritional values". However, there exist ample grounds to suggest that promotion of GM crops may end up worsening the economic conditions of the numerous small and marginal farmers of India rather than improving them.

...thousands of controlled trials of GM soya have shown significantly decreased yields of 5 to 10 per cent, and in some locations, even 12 to 20 per cent compared with non-GM soya. Similar reductions in yield have also been reported in Britain for GM winter oilseed rape and sugar beet in field trials. Several studies in India have also revealed the disastrous performance of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt-cotton in different parts of India during the first two years (2002-03 and 2003-04), notwithstanding the relentless efforts on the part of Monsanto to refute these findings.

This year, however, Monsanto's claims have found support from the Central Government itself. The Union Minister of Agriculture Mr. Sharad Pawar has gone on records to declare that Monsanto's Bt-cotton has been a significant contributor to India's record cotton production this season (which is expected to be as high as 20 million bales this year, as against the average of 16-17 million bales), by boosting production by 20 percent in areas it was sown. Mr. Pawar has further mentioned how the higher yield and better cotton quality derived from Bt-cotton is encouraging the UPA Government to look at other GM crops.

While Mr. Pawar is all-praise about Monsanto, one nevertheless comes across a number of news reports confirming the failure of Bt-cotton yet again this year (implying it has failed for the third year in a row) in various parts of the country. It is reported that Bt-Cotton farmers in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh have faced losses in the majority of the areas where it has been grown. Similar losses have been faced by farmers from other districts of Andhra like Kurnool, Guntur, Mahaboobnagar, Karimnagar, Adilabad etc. Notably, the Agriculture Minister of Andhra Pradesh, K. Raghuveera Reddy himself has announced that there is prima facie evidence to indicate that Mech-184 Bt-cottonseed sold by Mahyco-Monsanto, has failed in Warangal district, where it was sown on about 25,000 acres of land. Warangal has recently seen hundreds of outraged farmers going on the rampage. They raided shops and imprisoned seed company employees, demanding compensation ranging from Rs. 10,000/- to Rs. 25,000/- per acre for the losses incurred in lieu of the Bt-cotton that they had sown. In another incident, about two hundred farmers of Phanidam village in Guntur district (of Andhra Pradesh) went to the extent of taking into custody the District Manager of Monsanto and eight Agriculture Department officials demanding compensation (of Rs.15, 000 per acre for about 20 acres) for the Bt-Cotton seed that had failed to germinate properly leading to poor yield...

Another major thrust area underscored by the Task Force Report is "food security of the nation" (Section II.1.2). Notably, Mr. Kapil Sibal has also declared that the bottom line of the upcoming Biotech Policy would be to boost yields and production of food grains so as to feed the growing population of the country in the years to come. For the sake of argument, even if it is assumed that GM crops will help to boost the yield of Indian agriculture, will it guarantee two square meals for the entire population of India? The answer is an emphatic 'No'. Because, if physical availability of adequate food grains, or rather its non-availability, had been the only constraint, then a substantial chunk of the present population of this country would not have been deprived of their basic right to adequate food when the Government granaries are overflowing with surplus food grains. The principal constraint in realizing the right to adequate food in India is economic accessibility or affordability, and not physical availability. Given this state of affairs, when the Government preaches about promoting GM crops on the grounds of feeding the growing population of the country, one can't help being skeptical!

...It may be recalled here that the majority of Indian farmers are still practicing traditional/organic farming techniques. It is these farmers who have acted as the custodians of biodiversity even in this era of chemical-intensive agriculture. The rich treasure of biodiversity resources of India has in turn played a vital role in ensuring the food and livelihood security for this section of the farming population. There is every the possibility that monoculture-based GM technology, by endangering the biodiversity of India, may end up threatening the livelihood of this lion's share of the agrarian community of India. Against this backdrop, it is indeed surprising that the Task Force Report, which overtly votes for the promotion of GM crops in India, also calls for fostering of "diversified farming systems" and preaches that "Research and extension systems should be sensitive to the biodiversity conservation and socio-economic contexts of our farming systems" (Section II.4). Such blatant contradictions can hardly be overlooked!

...The Task Force further emphasizes the importance of developing public awareness regarding the potential benefits and risks associated with application of genetic engineering in agriculture and suggests several means to achieve this end. While the importance of developing public opinion on such a crucial issue cannot be overemphasized, it will be of no use if wide spread cultivation of GM crops is allowed even before the general public gets a chance to grasp the complexities of issues involved. Given that genetic engineering poses genuine risks for the public, the right policy approach should be to first provide the public with all the relevant knowledge and information regarding GM crops in an 'unbiased' manner (which in itself is going to be a formidable task to carry out in a country of over one billion population) and then allowing them to decide the fate of GM crops in India (through public debate or some other means), rather than first taking a decision and then making an effort to manipulate public opinion in its favour.

How will the government ensure the security of national trade in farm products (one of the objectives mentioned in Section II.1.2 of the Task Force Report), if public opinion becomes increasingly hostile to GM crops? Who will compensate the small farmers cultivating GM crops if their products face rejection in the national markets as well?

...To sum up, the above discussion clearly reveals that promotion of GM crops runs the real risks of jeopardizing the achievement of each of the proposed objectives (of the upcoming National Biotech Policy on agriculture) highlighted in the Swaminathan Task Force Report, e.g., the economic well being of farm families, food security of the nation, health security of the consumer, protection of the environment and the security of our national and international trade in farm commodities. Given the multiplicity of risks involved, can India really afford to adopt a pro-GM approach just for the sake of a technological upgrading of agriculture or to make agriculture seem attractive to the youth? Unfortunately, that is what the Task Force recommends India to do! Because, as it says, "
our human population is predominantly young" and "Youth can be attracted and retained in farming only if farming becomes intellectually satisfying and economically rewarding" (Section II.1). Even if one goes by such flimsy logic, the question that still remains is whether genetic engineering is the only option that satisfies these criteria!

...It is true that with four decades having passed after the advent of the Green Revolution, Indian agriculture has now reached a decisive stage where the urgency of another breakthrough cannot be overemphasized. But the prime culprit behind the present crisis of declining yield and increasing farmers' distress is the chemical-intensive farming techniques, which have resulted in massive degradation of the environment and have gradually made Indian agriculture unsustainable. Promotion of genetic engineering at this crucial juncture would be like entering further into the blind alley that leads to further degradation of the environment, increased plight of the farmers and enhanced risks for everybody.

It is not genetic engineering but more sustainable alternatives like organic agriculture that can pull Indian agriculture out of the current predicament. Given that the lion's share of cultivable land of India is still under chemical-free farming, organic agriculture has an immense prospect to flourish here. If the age-old knowledge of the farmers in these natural farming belts were supplemented by the modern scientific techniques of organic agriculture, dramatic results could be accomplished! The remarkable success of the programmes initiated by the Deccan Development Society (an Indian NGO) in the semi arid Medak District of Andhra Pradesh, is a perfect example of how biodiversity-based organic/traditional farming practices could uplift the poorest of the poor from a stage of distress to that of food security, as well as food sovereignty, while at the same time preserving and enhancing the environmental resources and biodiversity. Organic agriculture has already started sowing such seeds of success in different parts of India with little or no assistance on part of the governments. One should not forget that the Green Revolution technology had the sponsorship of the entire government machinery and infrastructure to do wonders in India. Had there been a similar support system behind organic agricultureit might have done even bigger miracles! Who knows?

for the full text and references: