Thursday, February 5, 2015

Maharashtra’s nod for GM crops field trails: Is the expert committee toeing industry line?

By Devinder Sharma, Food & Trade Policy Analyst                                                      
Wed, Feb 4, 2015  
It is not a coincidence. The State-level expert committee headed by nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar, which gave clearance for field testing five genetically modified (GM) crops in Maharashtra, did so while releasing a report on ‘Global Status of Biotech Crops’ by the international GM industry lobby group, ISAAA.

I don’t see any reason why an expert committee should be releasing a publication of the GM industry. Unless it is representing the biotech industry’s commercial interests, the Anil Kakodkar committee has no business to be officially releasing an industry annual report. The conflict of interest is clearly visible. I wonder if the expert committee will also release an excellent report by Coalition for GM Free India, which has a foreword from the eminent agricultural scientist Dr M S Swaminathan, entitled: “Compilation of scientific studies on the adverse impacts of GM crops on human health and environment.” This report is a compilation of more than 400 scientific studies.

Maharashtra has given a ‘no-objection certificate’ for field trials of GM varieties of five crops – rice, brinjal, maize, chickpea and cotton. This approval comes at a time when most States have refused to permit field trails.

The ISAAA report states that in 2014 the total area globally under GM crops was 181.5 million hectares. But what it doesn’t say is that area under GM crops is hardly 3.5 per cent of the total global cultivable area. 

Nevertheless, what surprises me is the urgency to push for field trials of the controversial GM crops in Maharashtra at a time when the serial death dance on the farm continues unabated in the Vidharbha and Marathwada regions. Farmers are dying not because of any lack of technology or improved farming practices but because of the declining farm incomes. This year alone, some studies estimate that the crash in global commodity prices has resulted in a loss of Rs 12,000-crores to cotton and soybean farmers, much of it in Maharashtra. With States failing to provide a bailout package, what do you expect the farmers to do?

A study by the Mahatma Phule Agricultural University, Rahuri in Maharashtra clearly shows that between 1996 and 2013, farmers cultivating sorghum, green gram, wheat, and sunflower were paid 35 to 70 per cent less than the cost of cultivation. Accordingly, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) at which the State government procures has only enabled cotton, soybean, paddy, groundnut, pigeon pea and chickpea farmers to recover 45 to 72 per cent of the cost they had incurred. Agriculture continues to be a loss making proposition.

Maharashtra’s agricultural crisis therefore pertains to falling farm incomes. But Maharashtra appears more interested instead in adding on to the profits of the agribusiness and seed companies. Agribusiness giant Monsanto’s stocks jumped 18 per cent on Monday after reports of GM crops possible introduction sunk in.  

Interestingly, the reason being given for approving the field trials of GM rice is testing for drought tolerance and nitrogen availability. What is not being told is that no GM crop variety has been able to withstand the epic drought that has hit California and Texas provinces in USA. Farmers have abandoned farming in these two provinces, and water smuggling is on the rise. Only traditional crop varieties have survived the US drought.

Similarly, the general argument that I hear very often is that the world needs to produce more for the growing population by the year 2050, and therefore it needs GM crops. But let’s look at it. Is there a shortage of food? In India, which has close to 250 million people going to bed empty stomach, appalling hunger is not because of any shortfall in food production. In June 2013, India had a record food surplus of 82.3 million tones. It exported close to 42 million tonnes in the two years 2012-13 and 2013-14. The entire effort now is to reduce the quantity of grain in storage and thereby reduce the carrying cost of stored food. Instead of increasing food production, the Food Ministry is planning to reduce food procurement and also use the huge stocks with the Food Corporation of India for commodity trading.

The promise of reduction in pesticides usage has also fallen flat. Maharashtra’s approval for GM crops is primarily justified on the need to reduce pesticides usage. It quotes the success of Bt cotton, which occupies 95 per cent of the area under cotton, as an example. But what is kept hidden is that despite almost the total cotton area being under Bt varieties in India, the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) estimates show that the pesticides usage has also gone up. Between 2008 and 2010, pesticides use had gone up from almost Rs 600-crore to Rs 800 crore.

It is therefore high time to rethink whether GM crops will be of any help or end up aggravating the present crisis. Maharashtra needs to revisit the approval for GM crop field trails. It also needs to disband (and reconstitute the expert committee) whose interests clearly align with the commercial interests of the GM companies.


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