Monday, February 10, 2014

Time to sow the seeds of sustainable farming

  • 10 Feb 2014
  • Hindustan Times (Jaipur)
  • Devinder Sharma Devinder Sharma is a food policy analyst The views expressed by the author are personal

With no yield advantage and no reduction in pesticide applications, the PM’s espousal of GM crops is misplaced

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stirred up a hornet’s nest when he warned against succumbing to ‘unscientific prejudices’ against genetically modified (GM) crops. Speaking at the 101st Indian Science Congress in Jammu, he claimed that biotechnology has great potential to improve yields and his government remains committed “to promoting the use of these new technologies for agricultural development”.
It is 20 years now since the first GM crop was introduced in the United States. Let me make it very clear that no GM crops that increase yield have been developed so far. The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) studies show that the yields of GM corn and soybean are less than that of conventional varieties. Even in India, the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, has admitted: “No significant yield advantage has been observed between 20042011 when area under Bt cotton increased from 5.4% to 96%”.
The argument that GM crops are needed to produce more for the growing population, therefore, does not hold true. According to the USDA estimates for 2013, the world produced food enough to feed 14 billion people, twice the existing population. The real problem lies in combating food wastage. Nearly 40% of the food produced is wasted. In the US alone $165-billion worth food is wasted, enough to feed the entire sub-Saharan Africa.
In India, which has close to 250 million people going to bed on an empty stomach, hunger is not an outcome of any shortfall in food production. In June 2013, India had a record food surplus of 82.3 million tonnes. It has already exported 20 million tonnes and there are plans to export more. The real problem lies in access and distribution.
Now let us look at the promise of reduction in pesticides usage. Between 1996 and 2011, farmers in the US applied an additional 181 million litres of chemical pesticides. In 2012, on an average 20% more pesticides were applied by GM farmers. In Argentina, the application of chemical pesticides has risen from 34 million litres in the mid-1990s when the GM soybean crops were first introduced to more than 317 million litres in 2012, roughly a ten-fold increase. In Brazil, which has recently overtaken Argentina as far as the spread of GM crops is concerned, pesticide use has gone up by 190% in the past decade.
Chinese farmers are spraying 20 times more pesticides. In India, the story is no different. Regardless of what the industry claims, the usage of pesticides too has gone up in India. In 2005, chemical pesticides worth ` 649-crore were used on cotton in India. In 2010, when roughly 92% area under cotton shifted to Bt cotton varieties, the pesticide usage in terms of value increased to ` 880.40 crore.
Equally more worrisome is the emergence of hard-to-kill weeds, called ‘super weeds’. Estimates show that in the US over 100 million acres are now infested with super weeds. In Canada, more than 1 million acres are infested with super weeds. Studies show that 21 weeds have now developed resistance after GM crops came in. More and more insects are also developing resistance to GM crops.
With no benefits accruing to increasing crop yields and reducing pesticide applications and thereby protecting human health and environment, I don’t know what promise the prime minister sees in GM crops. On the other hand, with soils poisoned, underground water mined ruthlessly, and with the entire food chain contaminated by chemical pesticides and fertilisers leading to more greenhouse gas emissions, the focus is now shifting globally to sustainable agriculture.
In Andhra Pradesh, nearly 3.5 million acres today are being cultivated without the use of any chemical pesticides. Of this, farmers do not use even chemical fertilisers in about 2.0 million acres. Production is steadily rising, pollution has come down, soil fertility is rising, farmers’ income has gone up, their health expenses have come down by 40%, and there are no suicides. Moreover, such kinds of ecological agriculture do not add to global warming. It also provides safe and healthy food to consumers. Isn’t this a model of sustainable farming that the prime minister should be advocating?

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