Thursday, May 12, 2016

Vested interests fuelled Uttarakhand forest fires

Suman Sahai

A few days ago, I sat on the verandah of the Gene Campaign field station in Orakhan in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, watching the forests of Mukteshwar burn. It was heart-breaking to see the fire grow and spread and the flames leaping into the sky. On the mountain crest, the flames were shooting up, forming a dreadful corona. We watched helplessly but could not detect any activity to control the fire. Next day, friends who were supposed to come visiting called to say they were dog tired since all of them were up all night, trying to put out the fires that were creeping closer to their homes. The whole village was up, beating back the flames. In the mountains there is a tradition that all village people will rush to help put out forest fires.

The next day, driving down to Kathgodam to get the train, my heart sank as I realised the extent to which the forests were burning. From Mukteshwar to Kathgodam, there were patches of forest going up in smoke, all along the entire route. Somebody described them as “garlands of fire”, draping the hillside. Deadly garlands, yes. At Kathgodam station, the fires had reached almost the base of the low hills. I feared for the safety of the trains and the people.
Later, from newspapers I learnt that the fires had spread over both the Kumaon and Garhwal regions. Our district Nainital in Kumaon, as well as Tehri and Pauri in Garhwal, were apparently the worst affected. The total number of forest fires had gone up to nearly 1,100 before the interventions to control the fire began a few days ago. Once the governor stepped in to have more personnel deployed and New Delhi sent the Air Force (who else but the fauj at a time of crisis!), things began to get under control but not before a lot of damage had been done.

Losing chunks of the Mukteshwar forest has been a big blow. Avid foresters of yesteryears tell us that the Mukteshwar forest is one of the best patches of forest in the western Himalayas. It still is one of the best conserved, full of oak and rhododendron with not so much chir pine.The presence of chir pine in a predominantly oak forest is an indication of degradation. When the broad leafed trees are felled, the pine moves in. Pine trees shed their needle-like leaves copiously from the start of summer and the ground is covered with a carpet of long, resin-rich, acidic pine needles. These are the main culprits of forest fires. Because of their resin, pine needles catch fire quickly. A beedi or match tossed carelessly on the roadside can start a fire claiming entire hill sides. The damage to the gorgeous Mukteshwar forest will be assessed in the coming days but the visuals predict bad news.

After the fires have been put out and the damage assessed, questions must be asked about the capability and preparedness of the forest department. Sure, forest fires happen in summer and some fires are an annual feature but why did it take so long — according to some accounts, weeks and months — before action was taken to control the fires? Why was help not sought earlier, knowing the fragile situation of a very dry, inflammable forest floor? It has not rained since September 2015 and the Himalayan vegetation, especially in pine areas, is like tinder. All the more reason that the forest department and administration should have been on high alert, anticipating more fires than usual.

The distressing fact is that people incharge down the line have displayed callous neglect and let the jungle burn. But there is worse: Stories abound in the villages about complicity and some of these stories have been mentioned in the media. One story is that the people in the forest department set the fires deliberately because they get extra money to put out forest fires.
The other is that there is connivance between people in the forest department and the timber mafia so that forests are set on fire and, ultimately, when all is over, supposedly burnt trees in the affected blocks are auctioned off.

At this time, far more than the “burnt” trees find their way to the timber traders. The third story is about the land mafia being in cahoots with the administration to grab land for commercial purposes. When the forest is burnt down, people suggest the status of the land be changed, it’s not a forest anymore and it can be sold to those who want to build hotels and resorts. Although this time, I think people may have miscalculated the fury of the fire in the brittle dry condition of the forest and the fire ran away with all their evil plans and calculations.

And then there’s a fourth story: That those who deal in pine resin and keep resin stocks in forest depots start fires to claim compensation far in excess of what they had collected and stocked. Who knows what the truth is. Given the crazy levels of corruption in this country, any one or all of these stories could be true.

An open and transparent inquiry should be held on the devastating fires that have destroyed some 3,000 hectares of Uttarakhand’s forests, killing people, animals, birds, insects and other life forms. The biodiversity of the area has been wrecked. The leopard, deer and other wild animals have lost their homes and habitats. The birds have lost their nests with their eggs and baby chicks. The butterflies and moths have been charred and heaven knows how long all this will take to come back, if at all. The perpetrators must be punished severely. Not the village lads but the mafias and those who benefit from such disasters, for these are crimes against future generations.

The writer, chairperson of Gene Campaign, is a scientist and development activist. She can be reached at

The Asian Age, 11 May 2016

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

GM Mustard: Repeating Mistakes

Suman Sahai

An alliance of farmers organizations has recently asked the central government not to proceed any further with field trials of GM mustard. They go further and are asking for a stop to the commercialization of GM mustard. The farmer alliance has in addition demanded that the Government of Punjab recommend to the Centre that all trials of GM mustard be halted. Punjab is an important mustard growing state and its farmers do not want GM mustard. So why is the government pushing for its release, moving ahead with its field trials? If the consumers of this technology have reservations and reject the genetically modified mustard, in whose interest is the government pushing it? Increasingly, GM crops are looking less and less like products that farmers want and more and more like something that someone else wants to force them to have.

One thing is clear to anyone who knows the agriculture sector, farmers are not stupid. They know what works for them and what doesn't. They are willing to experiment, accepting and adopting what is suited to their farming and rejecting what doesn't make economic sense. Countering the push for GM crops based on the argument that it is high yielding, farmers in Punjab are pointing out that yield and productivity are not the issue, faulty government policies are the problem. They say that if proper support to crop cultivation and remunerative pricing are enforced as according to the legal framework in place, they should be, then new varieties of mustard are not required.

Safety issues can't be ignored
The commercialization of any GM food crop will of necessity have to demonstrate that it is safe for the environment and not harmful to human and animal health. This will be best achieved by sharing the results of safety testing with the public. But this is exactly what the developers of GM crops refuse to do. Requests for information on biosafety data are turned down citing that such information is ‘confidential business information'.

This is utterly ridiculous. Information about the nature of the gene construct may be classified and the innovation may constitute ‘confidential business information'. But under no circumstances can any information which could have a bearing on public health, be withheld from the public and be termed ‘confidential'. The refusal of technology providers and technology regulators to be transparent and share information with the public has led to a growing distrust of GM technology. With the passage of time even those not greatly involved with the debate on GM crops are asking why the government/ industry is hiding data if the data are clean and there is nothing to fear? The more the technology providers hide data, the greater the likelihood of the public contesting the adoption of GM technology.

Liability has to be fixed
Then there is the issue of fixing liability. In its rush to promote GM crops, government agencies have not cared about bringing in a law on liability and redress. The recent Bt cotton failure reveals what can go wrong with GM technology. In the absence of a national law on liability and redress who is going to be held responsible for the crippling losses incurred by the farmers in Punjab and Haryana ? How will liability be fixed for the failure? Under which law will Monsanto, the owner of Bt technology and the Bt genes and their partner seed companies, be held accountable for the damage caused by the failure of the Bt cotton crop?

Gene Campaign has pointed out repeatedly that adopting the new transformative technologies which scientists acknowledge have potential dangers, without a strong legal framework within which the technology should be considered for adoption, is dangerous. It is irresponsible and unethical to expose farmers and consumers, to new technologies without ensuring that they are adequately protected incase the technology fails. In other countries this has been done by enacting laws governing liability and redress so that when a technology goes wrong, the technology provider is legally liable to make good the losses and clean up the mess.

The StarLink case is a good example of why laws on liability are important for societies wishing to go the GM route. StarLink is a genetically engineered corn hybrid which was cleared in the US as an animal feed but not as human food. In 2000 StarLink corn was detected in processed foods like taco shells. Aventis, the company that owned StarLink had to trace and buy back all the StarLink corn that had contaminated corn stocks in different parts of the US. They also had to cover the cost of cleaning and sanitizing equipment used to process corn from harvesting and cleaning to storage. It is estimated that in 2001, Aventis could have incurred a cost upto $ 1 billion to clean up the StarLink mess.

India continues to have an ad hoc approach to GM crops and those who should know better, have allowed a confrontational situation to develop. This is hardly intelligent. It would be advisable to conduct an honest dialogue about the pros and cons of GM technology and its relevance and use under Indian conditions.

Source: BioSpectrum, 16 January 2016, 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Reimagining farming

Suman Sahai

Rather than just being an avenue for food security, let agriculture generate cash surplus

I have just returned from Uttarakhand where Gene Campaign has been working on issues related to agriculture, food and nutrition for the past 14 to 15 years. The aspirations of the younger generation with respect to what they want from life are changing so rapidly that people of the older generation are most often not aware of what their children want. Indeed this is true across the country, especially in rural areas where agriculture remains the mainstay despite a growing disconnect from it. This understanding is not new. Already in 2005, a study conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) told us that 40 per cent of farmers did not want to continue in farming and would move out of it if they could find another livelihood. Ten years down the line the situation has not improved. It has only worsened. As the agrarian crisis shows no signs of dissipating, farmers are leaving agriculture in droves. In Uttarakhand, entire villages have been abandoned and the fields have not been tilled for several years.

The policy makers and scientists have, however, failed to recognise this alarming trend and have failed to take any remedial steps. Equally, they have failed to synchronise their planning with the aspirations of either the farming community or the young people living in rural areas. Let me start with the dominant narrative in the food and agriculture sector. We are still talking the language of ‘food security’ and ‘nutrition security’. Granted that the latter remains a challenge of serious dimension but in my many conversations with young farmers in Uttarakhand , Jharkhand, UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and occasionally in other states as well reveal one common theme. 

Young people want cash income from agriculture, not ‘food security’ per se. So we need to change the focus and the discourse from ‘food security’ to prosperous, well-paying farms. The younger rural youth perceives agriculture as a mug’s game. You will often hear the farmers’ sons say: “Baba, you do the farming. I am off to the city where I will at least get a steady income’. The fact is that farming does not give a steady income and more often than not, rather than an income, the net returns are negative. Why will the young want to continue to suffer like their parents?

In a consumerist society and with the onslaught of television programs and advertisements, most young people do not want to associate with agriculture as it is being practiced. They want better lives and different kinds of things for which they want cash in their pockets.
But their attitude to agriculture can change if agriculture starts generating cash incomes that can buy them the kinds of things they aspire to, a powerful motorcycle, a bigger television set, fashionable clothes and shoes, visits to the city and so on.

So my suggestion is, when government programmes try to promote agriculture, let the focus be rather more on agriculture being an avenue that can generate surplus cash rather than just food security. And change the perception about agriculture. In today’s world, perception is king!!

Start with national TV channels. Stop showing the farmer in a dhoti with a plough upon his shoulder, crushed with misery, with three worry lines furrowing his forehead. Or, looking bleakly up at the sky and waiting for the rains to set in as he sits on a piece of land that is cracked and parched from drought. This is not an image the youth (or anyone else) wants to identify with. Show the farmer as a smart young man or woman taking produce to the market, processing fruit into attractive bottles of juices and jams, operating a unit making parboiled rice and packing it into attractive packages, making dalia out of wheat , chips out of potatoes, sauce out of tomatoes, breakfast cereals out of grain mixtures. Show that agriculture makes money, and is a glamorous profession.

Take a cue from the advertising the defence sector does. When they invite people to join the army, air force or navy, a smart young man in his blue-gray overalls, carrying his helmet under his arm, is shown against the backdrop of a fighter plane. The army is represented by dashing young men in spit and polish, looking ready to take on any enemy to defend the country. A woman in uniform is marching at the Republic Day parade leading a contingent. These are powerful, and attractive images. The air force doesn’t field images of mangled, crashed MiGs, nor does the army pictures of bloodied and assassinated soldiers even though that is sometimes part of their reality.

Why then do we persist in showing a miserable broken farmer, unable to feed his family, crushed by life’s adversities. Adversity is as much part of his life as are mangled planes and sunken ships to the air force and navy. But that is not what the defense sector projects.

In our work with young farmers in Uttarakhand, we have begun to talk about the great possibilities that the farm, orchard and livestock offer to make money and lead good lives. We have started training programmes in value addition of fruits, vegetables and traditional grains like millets and amaranth. We have experts give training and demonstrations in increasing the production and productivity of crops. We also talk to farmers about the importance of healthy, clean produce if they want their products to reach the market. We are introducing the concept of quality standards and the significance of meeting those standards if they want to make their products viable and competitive in the market.

We work principally with women farmers and we have organised them into Mahila Kisan Samitis. Here in Uttarakhand, as in most hill states, the women do most of the farm work. So we figured that they should claim that identity too. We don’t exclude the young men – not those who are interested. They are also included in the value addition work. The response is beginning to show. If you can show make farming and agriculture-related activities prosperous and glamorous enterprises, the younger generation will have a reason to stay on in the profession. Otherwise, they will not.

Daily News and Analysis, 5 January 2016,  

Monday, December 14, 2015

Genetically irresponsible

Suman Sahai
It is high time that people with divergent views on GM crops sat across the table with representatives of government ministries and MPs to debate which kind of GM technology, if any, would be in the interest of India’s farmers and consumers

Recent developments in the saga of genetically modified (GM) crops have begun to reveal the fault lines of this technology. Not so long ago we had the whitefly attack on the Bt cotton crop in Punjab and Haryana causing devastating losses to farmers. Now we have the chairman of the board of directors at the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) conveying NDDB’s decision not to support the development of GM mustard any further. According to a report by Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, the NDDB has already spent Rs 50 crore on research for developing GM mustard, but is now withdrawing from the project.

Both the Bt cotton episode and NDDB’s decision on GM mustard illuminate the problems inherent in radical new technologies like genetic engineering. They point out yet again that technology does not exist in a vacuum, that whereas biosafety is a key issue, it remains difficult to resolve. But apart from the vexed issue of biosafety, which is increasingly better understood even if not always complied with, is the demonstration that there are social and economic aspects to such technologies apart from the scientific ones.

The large scale failure of Bt cotton showed us that Bt technology is not what it is made out to be, a panacea for pest control. It is only a limited approach to controlling one pest that is programmed to fail in a country like India where pests are of many different kinds and usually intense in their infestations. Apart from the failure of Bt technology to do what it claims to do, that is control pests, the recent Bt cotton failure reveals another fault line. How will liability be fixed for the failure? Who is going to be held responsible for the massive losses incurred by the farmers in Punjab and Haryana? Under which law will you hold the technology providers, Monsanto in this case and their partner seed companies, liable for the damage caused by a failed technology?

Gene Campaign has been pointing out the need for a national law on liability and redress ever since GM technology became the favourite of government agencies. And scientists in public sector research institutions began to sing in chorus with policymakers who couldn’t wait to make Monsanto happy by aggressively promoting Bt technology. Monsanto owns the Bt gene and anyone who wants to use it has to pay licence fees to Monsanto.

Gene Campaign has also constantly underlined the fact that adopting a radical new technology (which scientists acknowledge has built-in dangers), without a foolproof legal framework within which the technology should be considered for adoption, was foolhardy and dangerous. It is irresponsible and unethical to expose farmers to new technologies without ensuring that they are adequately protected in case the technology fails. Countries do this by enacting laws governing liability and redress. So that when a technology goes wrong, the technology provider is legally liable to make good the losses.

In the case of the NDDB withdrawing support for Deepak Pental’s GM mustard, there is a clear realisation on the part of NDDB that adopting a technology has social and economic implications. Here it is not a case of whether the science is clean or not, it could be either. The question here is whether tagging the GM label is going to benefit NDDB’s product line or hurt it.

The NDDB board probably realised that linking GM mustard with all its controversies to one of their more successful products, cold pressed natural mustard oil, was like shooting themselves in the foot. The NDDB needs GM mustard like it needs a hole in the head. There is sufficient mustard being produced in the country and the NDDB is selling its mustard oil very successfully. Why would it want to hang an albatross around the neck of a product that was flying off the shelves anyway?

What advantage could GM mustard possibly bring the NDDB or the consumer? It would not be cheaper, it would not be more nutritious or have better keeping qualities and it would look the same as the natural mustard oil. On the other hand, “tainted” with the GM label, many consumers were likely to back off, affected by the awareness that GM products could be unsafe. The NDDB gains nothing from getting linked to the GM brand, it could lose a lot.

Owing to the last few years of discussion on the pros and cons of GM technology, and the hotly debated question of the safety of GM foods, there is far greater consumer awareness about the issue now than there was a few years ago. In addition to this, the refusal of technology regulators to be transparent and share information with the public has led to increasing distrust of GM technology and a greater likelihood of the public contesting its adoption.

Against this backdrop, an effective advocacy campaign by activists succeeded in showing the NDDB that supporting research on GM mustard and hence linking it with their popular Dhara brand of mustard oil could put a question mark on the latter’s market acceptance. The NDDB seems to have realised that it made absolutely no sense to martyr the Dhara brand. So it disassociated itself from research on GM mustard and discontinued its support.

For too long policymakers related to agriculture and food have insisted on hearing just one voice, that of the providers of GM technology and the scientists who have blindly pushed for it as the answer to all of India’s agriculture problems. Perhaps activists have sometimes been more shrill than necessary, but they have always attempted to highlight public concerns. It is high time that people with divergent views on GM crops sat across the table with representatives of government ministries and members of Parliament to debate which kind of GM technology, if any, would be in the interest of India’s farmers and consumers.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sowing Poverty

Suman Sahai

The whitefly attack that has devastated the cotton crop in parts of Punjab and Haryana and caused heavy losses to farmers was a disaster that was waiting to happen. Estimates say that some 8 lakh hectare of standing cotton has been destroyed causing damage worth crores of rupees, which has hit farmers hard.

This disaster was waiting to happen because Bt cotton, touted by its developers as a solution sent directly from heaven and lapped up by policy makers who should have known better, and probably did, is not a panacea for controlling pests and disease. It is a technology with a limited approach: to kill a pest called the bollworm for a restricted period of time. After the restricted period, the bollworm will become resistant to the Bt toxin and not be affected by it. When this happens, the Bt technology will fail to control the bollworm and the Bt cotton crop will become vulnerable.

This breakdown of Bt technology had already begun to happen some years ago. Monsanto brought in its Bt cotton called Bollgard I to India and all the seed companies rushed to fatten Monsanto’s bank account by queuing up to license the Bollgard I to incorporate into Indian cotton hybrids. The first phase of the Bt cotton, Bollgard I, began to fray at the edges when the bollworm began to develop resistance to it. After this Monsanto has introduced Bollgard II which has two Bt genes, to make up for the loss of efficacy of the one gene Bollgard I, to control the pest.

But apart from the limited effectiveness of Bt toxin to control bollworm for any sustained length of time, there is the fact that Bt toxin fails to attack several other pests of cotton. And these are many, like the whitefly and other sucking pests like aphids, jassids, mirids etc. Then there are fungal  wilts and bugs like mealy bugs which had destroyed the cotton crop in Punjab some years ago.

The reality is that the incidence of pests and disease in warm tropical countries like India is often more intense than in the cold temperate countries. Tropical countries are rich in biodiversity, including the biodiversity of insects and fungi that are plant pests. Not only is the range of pests large, their density is greater too. Per unit area, one is likely to find a larger number of pests in the warm, humid conditions of the tropics than in the colder temperate zones. A single point pest control intervention as in the case of Bt technology which is designed to target a single pest, is not likely to effectively protect crops in India, which is home to a wide range of agricultural pests and diseases.

The inefficiency of Bt technology as a pest control strategy shows up not only in bollworm becoming resistant but more critically, in the emergence of secondary pests which attack cotton and are not affected by Bt toxin. In China Bt cotton began to become economically unviable a few years after its introduction. At first farmers were able to cut costs by reducing pesticide use but after a few years, the density of mirids, another pest of cotton and one unaffected by Bt toxin, had become so high that farmers were spraying over 20 times in a cropping season. This not only negated any environmental benefits from lower pesticide use but raised the input costs so much that Bt cotton farmers were losing money and suffering serious losses.

So, Bt cotton which was presented as a crop that would make huge profits for farmers because it would reduce their input costs  by slashing their pesticide use,  and be a boon for the environment , is now a pesticide guzzling crop. Farmers are incurring heavy costs for pesticides after paying over four times the price of normal seed for the Bt cotton seed .

As it turns out, the cultivation of Bt cotton which is genetically engineered to poison its main pest the bollworm, has led to the phenomenon of secondary pests like white fly and mirid bugs becoming major cotton pests. A 10-year study in the cotton belt of China found that mirid bugs have proliferated and filled the space created by removing the major pest of cotton by the Bt technology.

Mirid bug infestation in Bt cotton fields is also found in India especially in the southern states since at least 2006. It has assumed epidemic proportions in the region around Coimbatore and is rampant throughout Karnataka.

Mirid bugs  are spreading in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Instead of controlling the spread of Bt cotton and urgently introducing well known IPM strategies to control white fly and mirids, the government looks on and allows Monsanto to keep raking in money at the cost of farmers.

The rate of proliferation of secondary pests like mirids is directly correlated to the increase in cotton acreage. The larger the exposure of bollworm to Bt toxin in Bt cotton and the faster they die in the initial phases, the more rapidly secondary pests proliferate. After a while the bollworm become resistant and do not die and the secondary pests have already become active.
The farmer loses on both fronts. Secondary pests like mirids, aphids etc can be as damaging as bollworm. Sometimes they can be even more damaging and can reduce cotton yields by up to 50% if not controlled by intensive spraying. What is worse, the sucking pests are not as specific to cotton as bollworm and can move to other hosts. When they flourish, they move to other crops like vegetables, fruits and cereals and cause damage there.

It is clear that both the technology providers and the government have failed the farmers. Scientists know the dynamic relationship of pests and disease and should have cautioned the government against an expensive, single point approach like Bt technology. So it is difficult to understand why the government went into overdrive to promote a technology that has such obvious drawbacks.  Not only have government agencies pushed aggressively for Monsanto’s Bt crops (one only has to look at the deliberations of the GM regulatory bodies like the GEAC), they have also failed to enforce appropriate safeguards and safety regimes  to protect the farmers and potential consumers from the negative impacts of GM crops.

Monsanto, the owner of the Bt gene, and the cotton seed companies that have been dishing out Bt cotton indiscriminately must be made to pay compensation to the farmers who have lost their crops and their incomes. Indian laws provide for such compensation to farmers when the seed fails. The government must come out on the side of farmers and bring the seed companies to book by enforcing the payment of compensation.

The author is a scientist who heads Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation

DNA, Thursday, 12 November 2015



Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The skewed pulses story

Suman Sahai

Many years ago, when I was doing my Ph.D. in genetics at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi, I did my research on mung and urad daal, unlike most of my compatriots who did their research either on wheat, rice and maize, or on vegetables. Pulses was a neglected field of research then, as it is now. It was a crop of the marginal areas then and it continues to be so even today. This is baffling for a country where most people eat some form of daal every day.

We have, for decades, been importing large quantities of pulses to satisfy our daal requirements. In this way, we have boosted the agriculture of all those countries from where we have imported pulses and have helped to shore up the incomes of their farmers while neglecting our own. What sense does this make?

The story of pulse imports unfolds every year. As I write, 5,000 tonnes of pulses have already been imported from Australia, Myanmar and Tanzania and a sum of Rs 2,600 crore has gone from India to these countries. Another 2,000 tonnes of pulses have been ordered and the government has decided to import yet another 3,000 tonnes of daal out of which 2,000 is arhar or pigeon pea and the remaining 1,000 is urad. Since there is a dearth of pulses in the international market, the prices are high. Australia has been a regular supplier of daal and we also import from Tanzania and Myanmar.

Tired of waiting for policy support and incentives of the kind that the elite rice and wheat crops receive, farmers have practically stopped cultivating this protein-rich, nutritious crop. Instead of spending money towards incentivising cultivation of pulses, and other legumes, governments have chosen the approach of importing pulses from abroad.

Even more bizarre decisions have been taken. Instead of promoting home-grown daal, agriculture ministers like Balram Jakhar and Sharad Pawar, lobbied for contract farming of pulses in Africa, Latin America and Myanmar. The plan was to buy back the pulses produced by the farmers from these regions.

At the same time, we will push down the potential of our own farmers and keep wasting scarce forex. A perpetual scarcity coupled with unscrupulous hoarders keeps daal prices high in domestic markets. With daal prices hovering over Rs 100 per kg and reaching as high as Rs 180 to Rs 200 per kg, this daily staple of Indian diet has been out of the middle classes’ reach for several years.  

Pulses have traditionally been cultivated by resource-poor farmers in rain-fed regions and, that too, in marginal areas. It is ironic that such a high-value crop — both from the point of view of nutrition as well as value — should be given such low priority in government policy. It is clear that in order to change the situation, there will have to be major investments in research on a range of legume crops and not just a few easy ones like the chickpea variety.

Pulses demonstrate a great diversity in both production and consumer preferences. Hence, there is regional specialisation in pulse production. So, the boosting of production must happen for all varieties of pulses. Unfortunately, however, research in pulses continues to be ignored with very poor funding. It is not surprising, therefore, that there have been no breakthroughs in pulse production. It’s quite shocking that on the pulses front, things have not really changed much from the time that I was a student.

Even the new genie of agricultural research, the biotechnology boom that guzzles funds, has carefully stayed away from doing anything for this crop. Despite all its rhetoric about solving India’s problems of hunger Agbiotech remains miles away from pulses, confining itself to crops that have already demonstrated remarkable performance with conventional breeding and don’t need any exotic input like Bt genes.

Solving our daal scarcity is no rocket science. We need to support our farmers in resource-starved belts and give them research breakthroughs coupled with the subsidies provided to prosperous farmers of India’s wheat and rice belts. This will incentivise farmers to become significant producers of pulses and there will be enough daal in the country at affordable prices. Then we can preserve our foreign exchange instead of spending it on imports from Australia, Myanmar and Tanzania.

The writer is a scientist who heads Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation.
She can be reached at and

Deccan Chronicle | Suman Sahai | November 02, 2015


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

We do not have the competence to play around with GM foods

To Bt or not to Bt? The debate rages again with the government lifting an 18-month freeze and clearing field trials of 13 genetically modified food crops, including the contentious mustard and brinjal. Suman Sahai, winner of the prestigious Norman Borlaug Award, heads Gene Campaign, an NGO working for sustainable agriculture. Here, the geneticist tells Jayashree Nandi why India is not ready for GM foods.

Are we prepared for field trials of GM crops?

At the outset, I would like to ask the government how has anything changed since the moratorium on Bt brinjal imposed by Jairam Ramesh in 2010? Our biosafety (prevention of risks associated with biotechnology processes) competence has not improved at all. Why are we going back and forth on giving permissions for trials when all the committees on GM crops have said we are not technically competent yet? 
The process of allowing Bt brinjal was halted because the scientific community was not able to make a case for it. Then, in 2012, Basudev Acharya's Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture report also concluded that we are not prepared. How can the government disregard the parliamentary committee completely? 
The other question is who asked for GM crops. Is it the farmers or consumers? After China, India is the biggest producer of brinjal and we have no insurmountable problems with it.

What is the difficulty in ensuring best practices are followed in these trials?

They are all procedural and understood, except nobody follows them. Take the trials of Bt rice conducted in Jharkhand in 2004. We found that one of the farms was in the midst of the farmers' fields. No signboard, no fencing, no containment of any sort. One farmer put in charge of it had been threshing the produce and may have even eaten it. Later we found volunteer plants (those that grow on their own) had come up on the farm. We sent them for testing and of course they were GM.

When we informed the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) that Jharkhand has the highest genetic diversity of rice and such lapses contaminate everything, they sent us a showcause notice for entering the field instead of taking action against shoddy trials.

We need officials trained in genetics who can understand the biosafety data. We have none. Australia, New Zealand, Norway are countries have invested a lot in infrastructure for biosafety testing. India should send its scientists there to be trained.

What are the problems with crops that are being put under trial?

Both brinjal and mustard are cross-pollinating plants, so the consequences will be no single, non-GM mustard or brinjal left. Some say you can segregate, but have we managed to segregate Bt cotton? It has gone everywhere. We are not facing up to the truth. Eastern India is very vulnerable because there is a lot of brinjal diversity there.

Uniformity of biodiversity will have its own environmental implications. There is a well-known phenomenon called gene silencing. Very often plants altered genetically don't survive because you have interrupted the natural process. Those that do survive, certain genes may stop expressing. What can get silenced we have no idea. Yet we are ready to risk the entire germplasm.

Brinjal belongs to the Solanaceae family. It's the family of not just tomato, chilli and potato but also datura (angel's trumpets) and belladona. These are some of the most toxic plants. We can't fool around with this family. Natural toxins can be reconstituted; therefore safety testing should be rigorous and long. Why are we short-circuiting the biosafety process?

But Bt cotton is perceived to be a great success.

In 2002-03, we conducted the first evaluation of Bt cotton in Andhra and Vidarbha and found it had failed. It's clear that Bt cotton does much better in irrigated areas than in rain-fed areas. There is a claim that India has become the largest exporter of Bt cotton — that's not because productivity has increased but because the area covered by the crop has. It's the same story in Latin America with soyabean.

What is the impact on farmers?

Any technology the country is trying to adopt should be evaluated from the lens of the small farmer, or you will polarize farming communities even further. GM technology is expensive. Rain-fed farmers have suffered. Almost 80% of our farmers are very resource poor.

There is a thriving industry of spurious Bt cotton seeds because the original ones are not affordable. Non-GM seeds have disappeared.

How does the consumer ascertain if GM foods are safe?

We don't have a law on labelling GM foods. When we shove genes into chromosomes, the natural process is altered and new proteins are formed. That's why in GM we always test for toxicity and allergenicity to see if anything produced is poisonous or could cause allergies. This is why we need biosafety testing. Serious health impacts of GM foods have been documented. Consider the disappearance of monarch butterflies. The lacewing, which is its food, is eating GM pollen and the monarch's disappearance has been linked to that.

Are Indians already eating imported GM food?

We are consuming refined GM soya oil. We are also importing a lot of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is all GM corn. HFCS is also unhealthy and associated with metabolic disturbances. I suspect we may be consuming GM soya meal in some biscuits or soups.

Source: -Times of India, 02 Nov. 2014