India's GM snare
1.The GM snare
EXTRACT: "Of late, suppliers from these states have flooded the market with Bt cotton seeds...There is hardly any supply of non-Bt cotton seeds," says Suresh Kumar Jena, the district agriculture officer of Gunupur. (item 2)
1.The GM snare
KP Prbhakaran Nair
Down to Earth, 6 September 2008
*Measures to test GM crops for safety leave a lot to be desired
In comments bearing direct relevance for India, Prince Charles, heir to British throne, launched a scathing attack on gm crops, calling them the “biggest disaster of all time”. Indians should not be losing sleep over a statement of the British monarch-in-the-making. But if one examines development on the gm front in the country, there is certainly cause for concern.
Let us look at some incontrovertible facts which have surfaced recently. One of the most important parameters to test the safety of Bt crops is heat stability. Heat stability studies carried out on Bt protein in Bt brinjal highlight the very serious lapses on the part of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac), the watchdog of bio safety measurements of gm materials, of both plant and animal origin.
Heat stability investigation is done to demonstrate whether or not the toxic Bt protein persists after cooking.
Mahyco, the seed company in question, claims that once cooked, the Bt toxin gets destroyed. But facts prove the contrary. Bt protein is present even in non- gm brinjal before cooking. What can one surmise from this? Is it a serious slip on experimental procedure or is it that Bt brinjal and non Bt brinjal have been grown in adjacent plots without the appropriate “refuge” or safety distance in place?
There are other disturbing facts. Mahyco has been conducting field trials on Bt brinjal in West Bengal in 2007. But, the matter was never communicated to the state government. In fact, a member of the West Bengal State Agriculture Commission has taken a very serious view of this because of the inherent dangers of contaminating the traditional brinjal varieties. West Bengal’s apex agricultural university was asked to inspect the field trials conducted by Mahyco on Bt rice and Bt okra at a very late stage when the crops were ready for harvest. No meaningful data can be collected from such field trials. Most distressingly, the farmer on whose field the Bt rice was grown was never told what it was.
There was a similar case in Tamil Nadu more than two years ago when irate farmers burnt the Bt rice crop. But the most damaging fact that recently surfaced concerns the data of the investigation carried out by the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (ivr), the apex research institute of the country in Izzatnagar, Uttar Pradesh, on the question of sheep and goat mortality after grazing Bt cotton leaves. For some time now, farmers and civil societies, have been reporting on cattle mortality in Warangal district and other parts of Andhra where Bt cotton was grown.
Minutes of geac's 83rd meeting, held in April reveal that the agency's stand on the matter is replete with speculations and unscientific conclusions. For instance, it notes that “sheep death might be due to high nitrite or nitrate contents and not due to Bt toxin”. ivri, vested with the responsibility of testing for Bt toxin on test tissue samples of dead sheep says that the samples taken were “not proper”. It must be asked, if the samples taken were “not proper”, how is it that the institute tested for other parameters like nitrite and nitrate? It’s a matter of great concern that authorities vested with the crucial task of measuring bio safety of gm crops approach the subject in a ham-fisted manner and a lot of crucial data is kept away from the scrutiny of public under the garb of “commercial interest”. Equally disturbing is the National Biotechnology Regulatory Bill, which contains provisions that would prevent democratic control of genetic experiments and harm farmers and
consumers in the long run. It is so very shocking and surprising that though agriculture is a state subject, the Centre had not asked the views of states on the proposed legislation.
I am not saying that gm technology has no place in India. What I am seriously concerned about is that we don’t have a way to test the bio safety of gm crops, especially brinjal, rice, okra etc. Even Bt cotton seed when used as a feed for milking animals can be a source of human contamination through milk. Are we being pushed onto the gm bandwagon? If so, by whom?
Down to Earth, 6 September 2008
*Despite a ban, Bt cotton cultivation is widespread in Orissa
The recent death of 93 goats after grazing near a cotton field in Bolangir, a tribal-dominated district in Orissa, has put the authorities on alert. The field in Kuthurla village, Khaprakhol block, was reportedly under Bt cotton cultivation. The state government discourages cultivation of Bt cotton as a matter of policy.
Following the incident, the police arrested one Shankar Deep from the village for allegedly poisoning the goats by sprinkling organophosphate pesticides, a potent neurotoxin, on the field.
While postmortem findings and lab reports of soil samples are still waited, activists say the goats died after feeding on Bt cotton leaves. Officials do not rule out the possibility. “It’s difficult to identify if the crop is Bt or non-Bt after it grows big.
But the genetically modified (gm) crop is no doubt being cultivated in some parts of the district,” says Bolangir District Agriculture Officer Arun Kumar Choudhary. The incident has raised concern over extensive illegal cultivation of Bt cotton in the state.
Almost all companies trading in Bt cotton sell their seeds illegally in Orissa
Kuthurla village falls in the major cotton growing belt””parts of Bolangir, Rayagada and Kalahandi districts””in Orissa. This year, in Bolangir alone, over 21,000 hectares (ha) of land is under cotton cultivation. Choudhary says his department is trying its best to deter farmers from cultivating Bt cotton. “We conducted raids in Patnagarh and Khaprakhol blocks in July but didn’t find evidence of Bt cotton seeds... Dealers are selling clandestinely,” says Choudhary. Social activist Shiba Prasad Sahu, who visited the village soon after the incident, says farmers are hiding facts out of fear.
This correspondent, however, found that cotton growers in Rayagada district had little hesitation in admitting that they grow Bt cotton. Bhabani, a farmer in Dharapur village, Padampur block, says this year he has planted Bt cotton on his entire 8-ha field. Tulasi 4, Tulasi 9, Bani and Malika are some of the popular brands among farmers in his village. “These are free from pest infestation, so I get to save on pesticides,” says he.
Hari Sabar, a farmer from the neighbouring Gudabandh Guda village, has sown the gm seeds for the first time this year. Since he is not sure of the results he decided to play it safe: he has sown both Bt and non-Bt cotton. “If non-Bt fails to fetch a good yield, Bt will compensate for it,” he says.
Farmers in this area are aware that Bt cotton cultivation is illegal in Orissa. But they are left with little choice. Since the state government does not supply them cotton seeds, they have to depend on suppliers from neighbouring cotton-growing states””Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. "Of late, suppliers from these states have flooded the market with Bt cotton seeds...There is hardly any supply of non-Bt cotton seeds," says Suresh Kumar Jena, the district agriculture officer of Gunupur. This year, says Jena, about 60 per cent of Rayagada’s cotton fields is under Bt cotton cultivation. Though his department has set up special squads to check the cultivation, they plead helplessness. "We can't take action against the farmers since they sow only what they get," says Jena.
Voice of concern
Activists of Living Farms, an organization campaigning for organic farming in the state, during their recent visit to Rayagada found that almost all companies trading in Bt cotton seeds are illegally selling their seeds in the area. Farmers are extensively using brands such as Tulasi 4, Tulasi 117, Nuziveedu ncs 145, Nuziveedu Mallika (ncs 207), Bayer Surpass sp 504 (Dhanno), nusun Sigma of Vibha Agrotech, Swagath Seeds Brahmadev (nspl 999), Kaveri Bullet (kch 707) Varsha (Akansha 999) and Ankur-Sita Akka. The activists also heard farm labourers complaining of physical discomforts like itching and rashes while plucking Bt cotton.
They are also concerned because farmers are not adhering to biosafety protocol, which is mandatory for any gm crop cultivation. “Hardly any field under Bt cotton cultivation has a warning placard. Farmers neither plant non-Bt refugia””a must to prevent resistance among pests””on the field border nor maintain distance between the Bt and non-Bt crops grown in adjacent fields,” says Jagannath Chatterjee of Living Farm.
The organization has written to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik demanding immediate measures.