DPH sheet on Biotechnology in agriculture
Biotechnology- Mutant crop, angry farmers
Biotechnology in Agriculture- Innovation gone awry
Keywords: Genetic engineering, GM crops, pesticides, agriculture, farmers, gene revolution, Bt cotton, Bt crop, biotechnology, Innovation
Author: Shruti Kulkarni
Centre for Education and Documentation, Bangalore
No 7, 8th Main, 3rd Phase, Domlur, 2nd Stage, Bangalore- 560 071
Date of creation: April 2009
It's finally going to be here after much speculation-India's first genetically modified food crop, Bt Brinjal. In January this year the Union Environment Ministry gave permission for commercial cultivation of Bt brijnal and if all goes “wrong” it is likely to be introduced in the Indian market by July 2009. Brinjal has been a part of the Indian cuisine for more than 4,000 years and genetically modifying the country variety of brinjal is bound to evoke certain emotions.
Bt Brinjal is created by inserting a gene [Cry 1Ac] from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into brinjal. This is said to give the brinjal plant resistance against Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer. The Bt Brinjal, like many other GM crops, can impact health adversely. There have been no independent tests conducted by the Ministry of Health. However, several studies on Bt crops in particular and GM crops in general show that there are many potential health hazards in foods bio-engineered in this manner. GM-fed animals in various studies have shown that there are problems with growth, organ development, immune responsiveness and so on.
Taken from EFFECTS ON HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT
OF TRANSGENIC (OR GM) BT BRINJAL
by Pr. Gilles-Eric SERALINI, University of Caen, France January 2009
Prof E Haribabu, “Recently the government allowed the BT-brinjal trials. In India we have a variety of brinjals. We have the black ones, white ones, green ones, round ones, long ones but I don’t know who said that brinjal is in short supply. I think what’s happening is the company is in a great rush to sell this Bt technology to as many farmers as possible, put it into various different types of crops and to push GM product because the Company realizes that after sometime the toxin that is produced by the Bt gene will not be effective because the pests will develop resistance against this kind of toxin.”
(Prof E Haribabu is the Dean of School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad)
Efforts are underway to modify genetic configuration of several other vegetables and food crops. Since this issue is no longer restricted to laboratories and has come down to our food bowl, it is important to know where the issue stems from and what it means. This essay is an attempt to understand the history, politics, economics and a little bit of science behind biotechnology and genetically modified food crops.
What is biotechnology?
In its purest form, the term "biotechnology" refers to the use of living organisms or their products to modify human health and the human environment. Prehistoric biotechnologists did this as they used yeast cells to raise bread dough and to ferment alcoholic beverages, and bacterial cells to make cheeses and yogurts and as they bred their strong, productive animals to make even stronger and more productive offspring.
Taken from - 'What is Biotechnology?' by Pamela Peters, from Biotechnology:
A Guide To Genetic Engineering. Wm. C. Brown Publishers, Inc., 1993.
cited on 9 April 2009
“Biotechnology is the application of science and engineering principles1 to the processing of materials2 by biological agents3 to provide goods and services4.”
Taken from- Biotechnology, International Trends and Pespectives
by Alan T Bull, Geoffrey Holt, Malcolm D Lilly
History of Biotechnology
Biotechnology is not a new phenomenon and has existed for thousands of years. Plants and animals have been selectively bred for a better yield for centuries. Introduction of vaccines was also a fallout of innovations in biotechnology. Innovations in agriculture have been done for thousands of years and innovations like crop rotation fall under the purview of biotechnology in agriculture.
Dr Krishna Prasad of Sahaj Samrudha, “Biotechnology is not new. If you see our traditional practices making curd it self a biotechnology. In Coorg ( a town in the southern state of Karnataka) people make wine, which is very famous and that itself is biotechnology. If you go to rural areas they have their own concepts of biotechnology. For example the combination of wild solanum and brinjal that farmers are grafting, is a kind of tissue culture. In our agriculture, agri-rituals, there are many practices which resemble today’s gene transfer so closely.”
Biotechnology at the beginning of the twentieth century brought industry and agriculture together. The advent of World War II brought the manufacture of penicillin. The biotechnological focus moved to pharmaceuticals. The "cold war" years were dominated by work with microorganisms in preparation for biological warfare as well as antibiotics and fermentation processes. Biotechnology is currently being used in many areas including agriculture, food processing, and energy production and in general for the betterment of our lives. i
Genetic Engineering as we know it today
Genetic Engineering or Genetic Modification is the process of taking a gene from one organism and inserting it into the genome of another unrelated organism to give it certain new traits. Genes are the very building blocks of life responsible for an organism's characteristics, structure, growth and behaviour. They play the critical role of passing on genetic information from one generation to the other.
Taken from David Suzuki' article as appeared on http://www.iamnolabrat.com/about_GM.html; cited on 17 April 2009
Genetic Engineering has allowed manipulation of desired traits and agriculture has seen a large scale experimentation on gene modification to produce plants that are resistant to insects, weeds and plant diseases and are high yielding. It has been argued in favour of GM crops that these are required to feed the world. But do GM crops actually increase the yield?
Dr Michael Hansen, “A publication from the United States Department Agriculture Economic Research Service that came out 2 years ago, in the first decade of genetically engineered crops in the US, and the key quote is “Currently available GE crops do not increase the yield potential of hybrid variety. Infact yield may even be decreased and insect resistant genes are not the highest yielding.”
(Dr Michael is a Senior Scientist, Consumer Policy Institute, USA)
Hansen further adds, “If we look at the data between 1996 and 1998 there was about £20 million less of pesticides applied in the US in the engineered crops compared to the non-engineered counterparts. So we saved £20 million in pesticides. And then between 1999 and 2004 there was 140 million pounds more of pesticides applied on the engineered crops as compared to the non-engineered ones. This is only data since 2004, the data for 2005 and 2006 have just become available and those are actually going through the roof.”
In nature and more so in agriculture there are pests and there are predators. There is a general harmony in the ecosystem and population balance is maintained so long as there is no damage-causing human intervention. In agriculture there are primary pests that are generally taken care of by various factors including predators. There are also secondary pests that are generally harmless. In many cases after continual spray of pesticides, while primary pests were controlled, secondary pests emerged as a new menace.
Bt Cotton in India
Cotton cultivation in India covers approximately 9 million hectares which is about one fourth of the total global area of 35 million hectares under cotton. Cotton is planted by 4 million farmers and many more are involved in processing, textile manufacture and trade. Cotton is highly susceptible to more than a hundred pests. Of all the pesticide usage, 55% of pesticides are used on cotton cultivation. Pests like American Bollworm are the most serious pests of cotton in India and cause annual losses of at least US$300 million.
In 1990 efforts began to produce genetically engineered cotton resistant to bollworm and other pests. Bt cotton became the first transgenic crop to be released in India. By March 2002, at least 3 Bt cotton hybrids were given the approval for commercial cultivation. At present, 40 cotton hybrids having gene for bollworm resistance have been approved for commercial cultivation. With commercialization of Monsanto's genetically engineered Bt Cotton India has seen a spate of farmer suicides in the past more than a decade.
Hansen, “In Madhya Pradesh a survey was done in 5 villages where 22 people had symptoms after exposure to Bt cotton. Every single one of them had skin symptoms including itching, redness and eruption. About 40% had upper respiratory tract symptoms, runny nose and/or excessive sneezing. It should be pointed out that every single one of these symptoms, the skin symptoms, the eyes symptoms, the upper respiratory systems are classic allergy symptoms. In 45% of the cases there were moderate symptoms and in another 45% they were severe. The symptoms were overwhelming on the exposed parts of the body, which is just what you would expect if the exposure is happening with something that is coming in the contact with. 80% were exposed in cotton fields and 20% were exposed at home while handling it. And these symptoms increased in severity when people continued to work in the fields and when they stayed away from the Bt cotton fields, the symptoms decreased in intensity.”
“That tells you that you are reacting to something in the field. The symptoms only began in the last 2 years, which exactly coincides when the Bt crop was introduced. One of factory owners noted that most of the farmers and labourers were having skin related problems due to Bt cotton. That suggests that these Bt crops have potential adverse health affects.”
In an interview with Centre for Education and Documentation, Krishna Prasad of Bangalore based NGO Sahaj Samrudha expressed his concern, “Many farmers who were growing BT cotton have committed suicide. Besides secondary pests have become a major issue now. Heliothis problem may not be there but the minor pests like Mili bug are major pests now. So farmers now have to spray to control mili bug which was never the real problem. We don't know the ill effects of Bt cotton. Already some allergy conditions are being reported.”
Hansen, “What they (farmers in a village in Peru) did is they sprayed DDT and they have to spray more and more, the insects become resistant to DDT, they switch over to more hazardous pesticides such as endosulfan. The insects become resistant to that until the system collapses and this has happened so many times that the cotton entomologist actually have names for each step in the process. Cotton is the most pesticides intensive crop and this has been known decades.”
GE crops the world over Is India's ignorance Monsanto's gain?
The world over governments of various countries are getting more conscious about the adverse impact of the GM crops. Members of the European Parliament have called for a community response to the threat posed by the introduction of “invasive alien species and alien genotype” and “to ban the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms and evaluate the potential threat to biodiversity posed by their introduction”. China has called off commercialising Bt rice.
France has banned the only GM crop being grown on its coil, a variety of Bt corn for animal feed. The UK does not grow any GM crops. Ireland, Wales and Cyprus are all slowly moving towards declaring themselves GM-free. In the US, four district courts have ruled that the US Department of Agriculture has acted illegally, for not conducting proper environmental impact assessments. US District Judge Michael Seabright also called USDA's regulatory heedlessness "arbitrary and capricious" and "an unequivocal violation of a clear congressional mandate. "
Austria and Hungary have national bans on growing any genetically modified crops. Sri Lanka imposed a ban on the import of all genetically modified foods, raw and processed and GMOs and products with effect from May 1, 2001. Japan has, in its recent legislation, set zero tolerance for imports containing unapproved GE products. Imports if found to contain unapproved GMOs will be destroyed or shipped back to origin and violators may incur penalties of up to one-year imprisonment and/ or fine. The legislation also seeks mandatory labeling for GMOs in food.
India despite of being the world's largest democracy has blatantly ignored all the anti-GM crop voices and campaigns. In a hearing of a PIL in February 2008, on Genetically Modified crops, the Chief Justice of India had stated that GM crops give higher yields and Indian government also seems to be promoting commercial cultivation of GM crops. We are the first country to undertake large-scale pre-commercial trials of Bt brinjal and Bt okra in field trials.
Indian Government has received a lot of criticism for condoning serious irregularities and safety violations by Monsanto-Mahyco with regard to Bt cotton. It has also been criticised for lack of transparency in the screening process and public debate.
Is Biotechnology bad?
All biotechnology is not bad and certain innovations have helped us live better and healthy lives. If all happens in the ambit of certain ethical codes which are strictly followed, biotechnology can be useful. The problem then has to be the unethical play by some powerful-only-profit-seeking giants.
Hansen clarifies, “ I don’t think all biotechnology is bad. The problem with genetic engineering is in the functioning of the technology itself, since we have no control over where we are inserting things. We don’t understand the process and until we do, that could be potentially hazardous. Companies such as Monsanto want to control the food chain because everybody has to eat and if they can control the seeds and they know if they can control what gets planted they can force farmers to buy from them every year. This creates a capital market, and they can make huge sums of money. So the political economy is really important, and if you can get rid of the profit motive, there is still a question for engineered crops because we don’t understand because this insertion technology is not ready for prime time.”
Krishna Prasad, “Now the companies and the scientist are talking about gene revolution since green revolution is no more effective. There is tremendous diversity in Karnataka, be it Ragi, Paddy or Vegetables, or Millets etc0. For example if you take brinjal, each village has its own variety. If you go to Hosanagar near Shimoga they grow big Brinjal which weighs nearly 2 kgs, without using a pinch of chemicals. They use their own traditional techniques of using some liquid manure. If you go to Udupi coastal region there is a special brinjal called Mattigulla, which is sacred and is offered to Lord Krishna as Naivedyam (Prasadam).”
“Now Dharwad Agriculture University scientists are introducing Bt gene in this brinjal. Tomorrow this brinjal is cross-pollinated so Bt gene is transferred to other traditional varieties, we may loose all the traditional varieties which will be contaminate. Already 169 varieties of GM crops are under trial. Just Bt Brinjal is in the pipeline and waiting to enter the market. So this is the fear, once you release it in the nature you cannot undo it. That is one problem with GM crops.”
Vandana Shiva in her book The Violence of the Green Revolution, says, “The irony of the plant and animal breeding is that it destroys the very building blocks on which the technology depends. When agricultural modernisation schemes introduce new and uniform crops into the farmers' fields, they push into extinction the diversity of local varieties.
Traditionally in India farmers save seeds for the next season. These seeds may be exchanged within the farming community. Under the GM regime farmers are prohibited from saving seeds of transgenic crops under the Intellectual Property Rights, forcing them to depend on companies like Monsanto. The kind of hegemony these practices have establishment is oppressive and tormenting for the farmers who very often cannot even afford to buy expensive seeds from the companies.i
Prof E Haribabu, “We saw a trend where research process went out of public sector institutions and became privatized. The privatized research process is often driven by profit and so on. This is where the genetically modified seed was introduced, privately produced, it is protected by patent and only Monsanto Company which introduced the Bt cotton seed was asked to give compulsory licenses to others to use this Bt gene.
Now this is an important issue, which has to be addressed because the testing of the GM crops on the environment and cattle was left to the industry. The industry obviously said we fed these residues to cattle, goats and sheep but nothing happened to them.”
Mixed up, messed up!
Many countries where GM crops have been introduced are already finding it difficult to deal with the mess created by the introduction of GM crops. Some time ago traces of GM rice was found in rice that was declared non GM. Consignments of US rice exported to many countries had to be recalled because of this. In a lecture on the Science and Politics of GM crops held in 2008 at Bangalore Dr Michael Hansen narrated how commercialisation of GM crops can easily be translated to a large scale contamination.
Dr Michael Hansen, “Over 2 years ago on August 18th, 2006, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) announced that long grain rice in the Southern US was contaminated with the other proved variety of genetically engineered rice i.e. LL601 that was developed by Aventis which is now merged with Bayer Crop Science. And the interesting thing is LL601 was never grown commercially, it was grown on a little tiny experimental plots in field test between 1999 and 2001 only for 3 years. 5 years later in 2006 they find out that all this rice when it is tested gets contaminated and a week later the European Union began mandatory testing of all US long grain rice. Japan halted long grain rice imports. Trade was impacted in more than 15 countries. This LL601 contamination in rice was found in 30 countries and remember this is grown on little tiny plots for only 3 years so it shows contamination can happen easily. 63% of the US rice imports were contaminated and were affected. This was the largest financial and marketing disaster in the history of US rice industry and the total cost has been estimated runs high as $1.28 billion.”
“What Bayer is saying is I didn’t do, somebody else did it; it is an act of God. It tried to blame farmers who had no idea that this rice was engineered. It is actually pretty insidious in my mind and it shows you how these corporations work. Even when it is clear cut that it is their own negligence they try to deny any responsibility. They blame farmers, they blame God and everybody else but themselves.”
GM or non-GM: What would you choose?
The bitter truth is, you may not even know. Once the GM crops are in the market, the authorities may or may not demand for a mandatory labeling. But would the companies label their GM crops knowing what goes into making a GM variety. Given that companies like Monsanto and Mahyco have pushed for the GMOs with ease and with support from the Indian government, it is likely that consumers will continue to be at their mercy.
Hansen, “If you do surveys in the US and you ask people whether they want mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods. 80-95% of the people answered yes. A US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) report says that when the people were explained the extent to which corn and soybeans were engineered, the word that the FDA used was that the consumers responded with “outrage” that such a large change can happen in the food system without their knowledge. The people at FDA also said why wouldn’t companies want to label. Is it because they might have something to hide or they are particularly concerned about long term health effects?”
Prof E Haribabu, “There was a Committee of USDA 'American Agriculture in the 21st Century'. One of the members said that if you label the products you are telling the consumers that it is somehow not safe to consume. They also said that the US Department of Agriculture does not make a distinction between the genetically modified food and food produced by other methods and say that it is “substantially equivalent”. So this committee said if you label a product, it might give a signal to the consumers, that somehow this product is not really safe.”
The world as we know today stands divided on the issue of Genetic Modification of crops. One may look at this whole episode as the opening of Pandora's box. This began with companies trying to push for their pesticides and telling the farmers to spray pesticides every 10 days even if they don't see pests, as an insurance policy.
Hansen, “That spraying on the calendar basis makes no sense from an entomological or biological perspective. But it does make sense from an economic perspective because if you can get farmers to use your pesticide every 10 days you are going to sell a lot more. If you take a historical perspective the problem that these BT crops are solving is actually the problem that was created by the same companies that are trying to sell us this new technology. ”
Hansen, “24 out of 25 that are the most serious pest in agriculture in California are secondary pests i.e. the pest that were created by the overuse and misuse of insecticides and other pesticides. And these pests are now causing more than a million dollars worth of damage over the year.”
Even if the genetically modified species were resistant to pests and high yielding in the long run, would we still want to consume these knowing what goes into making them.
David Suzuki, “What if we were to insert spider genes into the genome of goats? May be the goat milk would contain spider web protein? And that’s how the whole genetic experiment began. 'The ability to introduce alien genes into a genome is an impressive technological manipulation but we remain too ignorant of how the genome works to anticipate all of the consequences, subtle or obvious, immediate or long-term, of those manipulations'.”
Krishna Prasad, “The problem is we are going against the nature. This is only in one decade that all the GM crops have entered the fields so we don’t know the impact. The green revolution and the chemical farming that was undertaken then....it took nearly 20 years to realise the impact. But here the danger is once you release a new gene into the environment you can’t undo that. That is what we need to be careful about. We already have millions of tonnes of DDT in the ecosystem.”
I am no lab rat
I am not lab rat is one of the campaigns that highlights the fact that human beings are being subjected to a mass experiment by way of GM food, whereby plants are genetically modified to include novel characteristics. One of the concerns is also that genes of sexually incompatible species are being interchanged. Spider, scorpion, toxic bacteria and even human genes are being introduced into such commonly consumed food such as brinjal, cabbage, cowpeas, okra and even rice. The idea is to make the crops toxic to pests but there hasn't been much investigate done on how these new species will affect human beings. Laboratory experiments on rats has revealed that upon being fed genetically modified food, these rats displayed symptoms of immune system damage, stunted growth, misshapen cell structures in different organs, organ damage particularly to liver and kidneys, bleeding ulcers in stomach, reduced digestive enzymes, inflamed lung tissue and higher offspring mortality.
The mistake has been committed, some of us have learnt a lesson. Now is the time for concrete, collective action to campaign against GM crops. Many countries have realised the potential threat posed by the GMOs and have taken the initiative and banned or restricted GMOs. The Indian government needs the political will to take the right decision in a democratic manner. And if such a response cannot be evoked from the government the matter should well be taken up the the civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and groups of concerned individuals.
Genetically engineered products should not be allowed in the market until they have gone through rigorous safety testing for environment and human health. Once GM food is in the market, it should not be sold without labeling.
When it comes to innovations in agriculture farmers cannot be and should not be left out. Unlike in the West, where agriculture is more mechanised, in India most of the work, from tilling, ploughing and harvesting is done manually. Scientists need to work very closely with the farmers.
Prof E Haribabu, “I think there is a great need for the scientists to talk to farmers to see, to find out for which traits they want new technological solutions, for improvement of what kind of traits they want new technological solutions, and what kind of technologies are appropriate in a given context.”
Hansen sums up the dilemma we all are facing, “The other side we are talking about a camp that has hundreds and millions and billions of dollars and it’s hard to fight that kind of power but people are doing it. Biotech companies or pharmaceuticals companies or the tobacco companies or the chemical companies, that’s the kind of long term struggles that people are involved in and I would like to add that there has been quite a number of advances made in getting toxic chemicals out of the market but new ones keep on coming in. That is a political process, which is going to have to be determined country by country.”
Sahaj Samrudha is campaigning against GM crops. Efforts like the 'I am no lab rat' campaign have also proved to be a platform for protest.
Other organisations and campaigns
2. http://www.greetraditional varietynpeace.org/international/campaigns/genetic-engineering GE rice campaign by Greenpeace, URL-http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/genetic-engineering/hands-off-our-rice/hands-off-our-rice
3. The Campaign- Grassroots Political Action, URL- http://www.thecampaign.org/ (United States)
4. GM Free Karnataka, URL-http://gmfreekarnataka.wordpress.com/
5. Living Farms, URL-http://www.living-farms.org/site/action/campaigns/108-gmo-campaign
Type of sheet
Source of information
People interviewed/ lectures attended
1. Dr Michael Hansen, The Science and Politics of GE crops, held at Bangalore in 2008
2. Dr Krishna Prasad, Sahaj Samrudha, Bangalore
3. Excerpts of talks by Prof E Haribabu, Dr Balasubramanian at Knowledge in Society Debates, Roundtable Conference, January 5, 2009, Hyderabad
2. The Violence of the Green Revolution by Vandana Shiva
3. Biotechnology, International Trends and Pespectives by Alan T Bull, Geoffrey Holt, Malcolm D Lilly
5. Dancing With Frankenstein by ARUNA RODRIGUES, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 12, Dated Mar 29, 2008 6. WORLDWIDE INITIATIVES AGAINST GMOs, URL: http://www.safe2use.com/ca-ipm/01-05-17b.htm; cited on April 18 2009 7. Bt cotton or Organic cotton? by Suman Sahai
8. http://www.genecampaign.org/Publication/Article/BT%20Cotton/Bt-cotton-or-organic-cotton.html 9. http://kicsforum.net/kics/KD/000-1stpage-knowledge-debates.html 10. Chronology of Bt Cotton in India, India Resource Center, March 25, 2002, URL-http://www.indiaresource.org/issues/agbiotech/2003/chronologyofbt.html' cited on 18 April 2009 11. Bt Cotton: Seeds of Discontent by Meena Menon and Nityanand Jayaraman, India Resource Center
March 25, 2002 URL-http://www.indiaresource.org/issues/agbiotech/2003/chronologyofbt.html' cited on 18 April 2009 12. Bt Cotton in India, A statur Report by Asia Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology; URL-http://www.parc.gov.pk/bt_cotton.pdf
India is seen as the new R & D capital of intellectual coolies. R & D is not seen as any notion of collective experimentation and diversity and plurality have been ignored.
But the point I would like to briefly suggest here is that an alternative reading of Indian science is possible and it should be engaged with if you want to imbue many of these things with alternative meanings.
There have been traditions of collective experimentation.
we have the Gandhian idea and the Khadi movement, trying to suggest an alternative view point led by civil society where society is not conforming, but trying to engage practitioners in the collective experimentation exercise.
Sheshadri’s work on bio-technology --unfortunately he passed away much earlier than, what might have been an extremely interesting promise. It seemed to suggest a totally different kind of contract between civil society the state and the private sector, a model of public-private partnership which perhaps needs revisiting. I would probably suggest that the science policy can be a death knell for creativity and diversity, especially because of the undemocratic and non-participatory processes that exist in India.
I just take a very quick example of the System of the Rice Intensification (SRI). The fact that the system of Rice Intensification was outside civil society( it was a grassroots innovation, emerging from civil society, had no official kind of sanction and hence there was no policy to promote it,) allowed for tremendous diversity amongst the different kinds of states.
Esha: how farmers in the western Indian state of Gujarat, not only appropriate, modify and employ the global knowledge of genetically modified bio-technology, but in order to do that they also develop not only certain kind of social networks and social spaces but also a whole discourse.
in the western Indian state of Gujarat, BT cotton seeds were introduced two years before the official Monsanto patented BT cotton seeds were introduced. This happened through the illegal route. Dr. D.B.Desai of Navbharat Company reportedly stole a handful of BT cotton male seeds from the Monsanto Company . That became a basis upon which massive cultivation of BT cotton in Gujarat happened ,as I said, much before the Monsanto seeds were introduced. Thus, even after the Monsanto seeds were officially introduced, BT cotton was a very popular mode of cultivation in Gujarat.
Now, officially 39 varieties of seeds have been released by the Indian Government -- not only the original seed which had CRY1 AB gene, but the second series of BT cotton seed which has CRY1 EB gene, which has been known by farmers as CRY2 gene. The CRY3 gene is regularly rumoured. So you can see that the CRY has been very popular among Gujarat farmers.
Cotton is of course a legacy of the Green Revolution and BT cotton-a GM legacy
somewhere the GM cultivation is ipart of the path-dependent trajectory followed by the practices in the late 19th century which was the introduction of American varieties of cotton, and then by introducing the Green revolution varieties which were the hybrid crosses of the American varieties. Thus the unpredictability of two issues of warmth and water has determined the whole technological trajectory in a verycentral way.
The question of who can cultivate BT cotton and cotton is also related to the access to land . This is historically determined in Gujarat, where the community of upper caste Patel and the Thakur farmers historically had access to good quality cultivable land in Gujarat. Cotton being a high-risk crop is only cultivated in a certain quality of land which is largely owned by Patels and Thakurs. Having established that the crop bio-technologies have been chosen, shaped, modified, appropriated, and perpetuated by those who hold social power in Gujarat, I want to quickly touch upon: what kind of social networks and discourses that farmers employ and the cognitive frameworks. In Gujarat, Dr. D.B. Desai (reportedly) crossed the Monsanto patented Bt male seeds with female of local hybrid varieties called GujCot8 and that became a popular variety which was called Navbharat 151 and for almost two-three years that’s the variety that was cultivated. But recently farmers by their own claim (and I have tried to ascertain this through other sources also) that they have developed independently 60 to 70 different varieties by crossing BT male with a number of local hybrid female varieties. Now how this happens? Usually this type of breeding in any institutional context would have taken 10 to 20 years whereas you could see that this experimentation that farmers have conducted has happened in a very short period of time which is say three-four years. In three to four years, farmers have developed number of varieties, cultivated them, abandoned them, created new varieties. Now what is emerging in Gujarat is a scenario where there are different territorial spaces in Gujarat and also in Punjab ( Gujarat largely supplies BT cotton seeds to Punjab). There has been a territorial division among the different varieties, that means certain territories prefer certain varieties than the other territories. I will spare you the detail of which territory prefers which varieties.
The question is that in what way is this knowledge being produced. Breeding first of all requires more than just the knowledge of the local varieties, where they are suitable etc. There is this hastened and fastened track of experimentation . I also found that there is a common language of solidarity and communitarian spirit in 50 kms of the area where much of this experimentation is happening which is around Gandhinagar district in Mandsa Taluk (block). This is where a number of seed industries are located. You will be really surprised the kind of language you repeatedly hear by almost all farmers living in a50 km radius. I repeatedly heard from the farmers is that they claimed that the 'new varieties' which they have developed are indigenous varieties. They called them “swadeshi” varieties.There is this common language that binds them together and which kind of justifies their actions. And by doing that I don’t think that they really wanted to counter the monopoly of the multinational companies. But this was the means by which they wanted to overcome the constraint that the regulatory mechanism had put. The varieties they developed were illegal varieties and were not allowed to be cultivated. And also there was the whole question of patent and intellectual property rights.
This powerful group of farmers argued with the Chief Minister that these were Swadeshi varieties, indigenous varieties, and the Chief Minister allowed these varieties to be cultivated within Gujarat. These varieties are not allowed to be exported outside of Gujarat but this nevertheless happen. This is the one discourse which they very powerfully and very effectively generated politically in order to get their way. I expected them to question the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) because their interest seem to be in conflict with IPR regime. On the contrary, during two of my visits, in 2004 and in 2007, they did not challenge the intellectual property rights regime. In fact, they said that patents was the right way to go ahead. However they created this alternative discourse of claiming these varieties were their own varieties and hence their own knowledge and hence they had the right to cultivate them as they wish. They say that, in fact we are doing a favor to the government by not asking any IPR on what we have developed.
So, one way in which power sort of operates is by creating common discourse by networks, by speaking the same language and generating a very powerful discourse in order to find spaces in which these people can claim access to certain kind of knowledge which normally they don’t have access to.
I also had this extensive discussions with them about what the BT cotton is doing to the water problem in Gujarat and also to the cultivable land. The ground water in Gujarat is available at 1000 feet and it has by now gone to 1200 ft down. In fact much of Gujarat can be described as “a dark zone”which means ground water level gone into a level that it can never be raised or it will take a very long time to raise. And when I discussed with them about the unsustainable practices that the BT cotton cultivation was supporting, I was told that "Well, this will last for one generation and that’s the time frame that we are thinking about; because by that time it will become a completely ‘unlivable’ area and our generation would have been dead" - in their own words, in their own acknowledgment .
Prof. Haribabu: A clarification. Esha said that in 2007 the BT-cotton fields were infested with Bollworm. What the farmers did was that they left out nature in the scheme of faith. I think the Bollworms developed resistance against toxins that is put in to the Bt cotton crop. Once they develop resistance, these toxins does not work on them. It is the same as mosquitoes developing resistance against DDT. That is why companies which are selling BT cotton seed are in a great hurry to sell their technology, because they know that after sometime this toxin will not work against the pests.
my own work on BT where I have kept understanding farmers’ perception of science on the forefront and there I found certain unqualified support to science - something considered as inherently good and that is because this is a group of farmer which has benefited in the last 100 years by the state support of science through Green Revolution, and even before that. Hence their interest has been taken care of and they don’t have reason to be skeptical about science.
about farmer’s perception of science. In Andhra Pradesh there was a study done by an anthropologist and it was also published “De-skilling of farmers”. How modern science has deskilled the farmers. So in all these studies I feel the researcher’s perceptions are influencing the outcome more than what the farmer feels. I can also share my experiences. I have worked in institutions and with farmers. My understanding is Science is not objective. You take positions and from that position you try to push your ideas and then what mainstream thinks is often seen as a neutral thing and then all other views are taken as positions but what mainstream takes is also a position and that’s what is happening with the GM at the whole GM debate.
Whenever the science issues are bought up, people ask for data and what data? Data as I understand what mainstream understands, but data as mainstream understands has to be produced by mainstream only. What others produce is not accepted. So question is not about not having science. It’s having science technology debates brought in. For example if you look at in the last 3-4 years including Gujarat there are several reports about animal deaths happening, and animal abortions happening in Gujarat. It has become a real serious issue in Gujarat. Skin allergies that have developed in farmers and yield reduction and even Indian Agricultural Research Institution has published a paper on that, yield reduction is happening but it is not accepted in the main stream even after the data is produced. So I feel science is no more a science today. it has become a business. So old theories of understanding science and ethics have to change.
Shiv: Can I respond to you? Time vs. effort if you look at the interviews in India, time was spatialized. It is very interesting. If you talk to all of the Ministers of Gujarat after the BT Cotton affair they said “risk is a security problem”. Security is a State problem. So it’s very interesting how this is constructed. It’s not just a deferring. Time gets spatialzed and responsibilities get distributed. I think the narratives are multiple. Though you are right about civil society now having to engage with some of these questions. But we have to engage with not one anthropology but a variety of anthropologies, each of which demands a different kind of politics.
Participant: Talking about BT Cotton and risk, what I feel is that the risk is segmental in nature that means it is not homogeneous. The thing is I have come from Guntur district where cotton is one of the best crops in this district. What I feel is that most of farmers opt for cotton cultivation because they have seen that cotton is the best investment method, what I feel is the nature of risk is also different from farmer to farmer, that might be one of the reasons for why people are ready to take the risk.
The NAPCC--mission focuses on the “Use of Biotechnology”. As the Action Plan states –
“Biotechnology applications in agriculture relate to several themes, including drought proofing, taking advantage of elevated CO2 concentrations, increased yields and increased resistance to disease as pests. Priority areas include :
v Use of genetic engineering to convert C-3 crops to the more carbon responsive C-4 crops to achieve greater photosynthetic efficient for obtaining increased productivity at higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or to sustain thermal stresses.
v Development of crops with better water and nitrogen use efficiency which may result in reduced emissions of greenhouse gases or greater tolerance to drought or submergence or salinity
v Development of nutritional strategies for managing heat stress in dairy animals to prevent nutrient deficiencies leading to low milk yield and productivity.”
Genetic engineering will not create drought resistant or flood resistance. Plants with this traits bred by farmers over millennia will be used to add GM traits like herbicide resistant and Bt. Toxins. Corporations are patenting the entire genoma of drought resistant, flood resistant and salt resistant varieties. This is the latest form of biopiracy, which will rob vulnerable communities of their adaption capacity to climate change.
Meeting the needs of the poor?