War in India's rice fields
War in rice fields: To GM or not to GM
Commodity Online, 5 October 2007
NEW DELHI: India's rice fields are witnessing a strange battle now - a fight of the traditional versus the modern.
While the genetically modified (GM) crops represent the modern, the age old methods and seeds of the common Indian farmer stand for the traditional side.
The war recently took an ugly turn when farmers in Haryana and Tamil Nadu destroyed the filed trial plots of the GM rice. The farmers were protesting against the sly move to introduce the genetically modified rice variety into the country. These experimental rice fields were being monitored by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) on behalf of the American agro-business firm Monsanto.The campaign against the GM rice got a shot in the arm a few weeks ago following the decision of certain European Union countries to ban the import of American rice, fearing contamination by the GM rice strain Liberty Line (LL-601). In fact, it was the detection of few grains of GM rice in the American rice consignments that forced the EU countries to suspend the trading in American rice. As a result of this, the world’s largest rice importer Ebro Puleva stopped trading in the US grown rice.
Indian farmers who campaign against the GM rice trials celebrated their first victory recently following the Union commerce ministry’s decision to tell Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) not to approve field trials of GM crops in Basmati rice growing states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and western Uttar Pradesh.
The decision was taken at a meeting convened by the commerce ministry. The meeting was attended by chairman of Agricultural and Processed Food Export Development Authority (Apeda), Sashi Sareen of Export Inspection Council of India, advisor to the department of biotechnology KK Tripathi and representatives of the All India Rice Exporters Association (Airea).
The meeting also decided to ask GEAC not to approve field trials of GM crops in all the 60 agri-export zones (AEZs). Apeda has been asked to submit a detailed list of the 60 AEZs.
Explaining the reason, Airea sources said Airea is neither against nor in favour of GM crops. The main concern is maintaining the country's export prospects. Recently when the US and Chinese rice were contaminated with GM trace, major importing countries refused rice consignments from these two countries. India does not want such a situation to occur here.
Airea also suggested a transparent and scientific procedure for such field trials and that the GM crop field trials should be conducted under a validated event-specific protocol and in a transparent manner. It also said the trials should be conducted by a lead scientist whose details should be disclosed.
According to scientists, GM rice supporters may argue that since rice is a self-pollinated crop, genetic contamination is excluded. But genes travel to related plots on their own which is called gene flow. In 1966, gene flow was discovered to be much more common than it was previously thought. The process of putting alien genes into plants and animals to favour certain traits or confer resistance is, at best, an inexact science, with unpredictable consequences. Genes don’t necessarily control a single trait, argue experts.
The EU countries' decision to stop importing American grown rice could be utilised by the Indian rice exporters. The EU countries used to import about 300,000 tonnes of rice from the USA to meet a part of its annual requirement running up to 12,000,00 tonnes. And the rice of Indian and Pakistani origin imported by the EU countries used to account for around 3,00,000 tonnes.
Indian exporters of Basmati rice who have already established a presence in the EU countries hope to boost their export by expanding their portfolios to include non-basmati rice varieties. Pakistan and Thailand are the other major exporters of rice to the EU countries. And in terms of quality and price, Indian rice has certain advantages over its Asian competitors.
Meanwhile, with a view to step up rice production to meet the needs of a fast-growing population, India is laying special emphasis on increasing the area under hybrid rice cultivation. Currently, over a million hectares of land is under hybrid rice in India. But in China around 15-million hectares are under hybrid rice cultivation.
Navadanaya, a New Delhi-based NGO, has together with farmers from nine Indian states developed a register documenting over 2,000 indigenous rice varieties. According to Navadanya, the genetically modified rice strains are not only costly to cultivate but also are a poor match to the native strains in fighting pests, diseases and environmental fluctuations. Several indigenous rice strains adopted by the Indian farmers can withstand extremes of climatic conditions, survive submergence for a fortnight and even withstand salinity with a high degree of success.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is planning to embrace the GM-regime in a big way. Last week, Kausar Abdullah, member Planning Commission on Agriculture, revealed that efforts were underway for approval of all BT (Bio-technology) varieties as soon as possible to adopt them in an organised manner for cultivation all over the country.