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

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Experts urge caution on GM crops

Suman Sahai

A high-level committee chaired by T S R Subramanian was set up to examine and review six laws related to the environment. In its report submitted recently to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the committee recommended that the latest technologies be used to prepare an environmental map of the country. Despite its support for science and technology, the report has also warned that technologies should be used with caution, recognising their limitations.
As an example of how cautious use of technology is warranted, the Subramanian report cites the example of GM crops and the mindless use of science and technology in this case , with no reflection on its potential for harm. It says that the careless or 'unprepared'  introduction of GM crops presented the possibility of adverse effects on the environment  in the medium or long-term. Acknowledging that the country had no independent expert agencies (to judge the safety of GM crops), the Subramanian report urges caution upon the  Ministry of Environment and Forests in dealing with genetically modified crops. The report takes cognizance of the fact that Europe does not permit field trials of GM crops and recommends caution in the adoption of GM crops in India, saying that the small size of Indian farms would more easily facilitate genetic contamination, leading to a 'severe' adverse impact on biodiversity through gene flow.
The Subramanian report is not the only high-powered report urging vigilance and the adoption of the precautionary principle in the context of GM crops, particularly food crops. It is just the most recent of several other reports .
The Sopory  Committee Report  of 2012 was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture. Dr Sudhir Sopory, currently Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a molecular biologist by training, chaired a committee to examine the scandal surrounding the development of Bt Bikaneri Narma (BNBt) cotton, supposed to be India's first public sector Bt cotton which had to be withdrawn. 
The committee's findings raised disconcerting questions over the claims made by scientists who developed the BNBt cotton, the role of regulatory bodies, the public sector research institutions and their ethical standards. The establishments dealing with GMOs have been indicted in this report for lacking scientific expertise in GM technology, scientific deception and fraud, regulatory inefficiency and lack of monitoring and oversight. 
This indictment by the Sopory Committee was followed by the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture chaired by Sri Basudeb Acharia which has pointed out several flaws in the research and implementation of GM crops in the country. The committee specifically recommended that  the government must not allow field trials of GM crops till there is a 'strong, revamped, multi-disciplinary regulatory system' in place. The committee held that this was not the case.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee also noted several shortcomings in the functioning, composition, powers and mandate of the GEAC and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM). It recommended that the Parliamentary Committees on Science and Technology and Environment and Forests should do a comprehensive examination of the role of the regulatory agencies and report this to Parliament.
Unhappy with the evidence presented to them, the Basudeb Acharia Committee recommended that a thorough probe be conducted  into the permission given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal. It went on to add that to avoid conflict of interest in outcomes, there should be an examination by independent scientists of research reports and assessments  that the GEAC relied on to declare the Bt Brinjal biosafety data adequate and to approve it for commercial release.
And finally there is the report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) that was set up by the Supreme Court in response to a writ petition filed by Gene Campaign in 2004, asking for an overhaul of the regulatory system for GMOs and greater technical competence in the structure of the regulatory bodies. 
In its interim report of 2012 to the Supreme Court, the TEC said that “Based on the safety dossiers, the TEC has found in unambiguous terms that at present the regulatory system has major gaps and these will require rethinking, investment and relearning to fix. A deeper understanding of the process of risk assessment is needed within the regulatory system for it to meet the needs of a proper biosafety evaluation. This is not available in the country at present. It is therefore recommended that the requisite understanding be developed through consultation, collaboration and capacity building”. 
The TEC report recommended that a number of corrective measures be adopted to improve the biosafety testing and quality of regulation of GM crops. It concluded by saying that a moratorium of ten years should be imposed on field trials of GM food crops and held that this time should be adequate to restructure and operationalise a strengthened regulatory mechanism. In its final report of 2013, the TEC repeated its findings and justified the basis for coming to the conclusions that it did, which was for the government to take steps to overhaul the structure and functioning of the regulatory bodies. It reiterated its recommendation for a ten-year moratorium on the commercialisation of GM food crops.
Despite all these high-powered and competent voices demanding an improvement in the shoddy and by all accounts compromised system of regulating GM crops, neither the UPA government nor the current Modi government has thought it fit to take action. Instead, after a back and forth on the issue, the Modi government has somewhat surreptitiously allowed the field trials of GM mustard and Bt Brinjal. 
The government must make a new beginning with a review of the existing reports and hold consultations to improve the regulatory system. Much thought and many inputs have gone into defining the contours of a rigorous and a credible regulatory system that can evaluate both the scientific and socio-economic impacts of GM crops. The output of such a review will enable policymakers to take correct decisions about this new and dichotomous technology.
 Source:- The Tribune, 06 Jan. 2015

Monday, October 20, 2014

Himalayan blunders at people’s peril

Climate studies show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. 

I left Srinagar a week before the floods. Passing by the Zero Kadal, Srinagar’s oldest bridge across the Jhelum I had remarked that the river was reduced to a nallah and if this was its appearance in the monsoon season, the health of the river was grim. Then within days the waters swelled and the Jhelum burst its banks.

Similar floods had hit Uttarakhand a year ago, in June 2013, centered around the Kedar Valley, involving the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. Heavy rain followed by flash floods caused large-scale destruction of life and property. The sad part is that in the truest sense of the expression, the disasters in Kedarnath and Kashmir were man-made. The combined effects of utter administrative failure and human greed enabling rampant, unauthorised construction across natural water channels and flood plains resulted in the devastation we saw in both places. Climate change is causing more and more extreme weather events like sudden storms and cyclones as well as cloudbursts accompanied by torrential rain and floods, but governments can prepare for these. People can be evacuated in time, relief and rescue can be planned ahead, preparations can be made to ensure availability of drinking water, food rations, medicines and clothing. All this was done by the Orissa government in preparation for Cyclone Phailin that struck the state in October 2013 so the impact of the cyclone was contained.

It’s not as though there have not been sufficient warnings about the potential for flooding in the Kashmir Valley. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in Jammu and Kashmir had noted in 2009 that construction in the low-lying areas of Srinagar, especially along the banks of the Jhelum, had blocked the discharge channels of the river. The INTACH report predicted that natural disasters in the Kashmir Valley could cause widespread devastation. Recommendations for action to mitigate the danger were submitted to the government but nothing happened.

In 2010, a study done by the Jammu and Kashmir Flood Control Department predicted a major flood that would inundate Srinagar. The government ignored the warnings of the experts because the concerned minister considered the prediction of a flood in the Jhelum needlessly alarmist. Such a position can only stem from ignorance about the Kashmir region where floods have been a recurrent feature for at least a 100 years. Praveen Swami has traced the history of flooding in Srinagar in his article in a newspaper and shown how floods have regularly visited Srinagar since 1893. Unfortunately, the lessons of earlier disasters did not make a sufficient impression on successive governments for them to do anything to protect their beautiful city and its people. In 2012, the Jammu and Kashmir office of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) again predicted that massive flooding in Jammu and Kashmir was a distinct possibility. To this too, there was no administrative response.

Construction continues unabated. Despite expert advice, hydropower stations are being built without any evaluation of vulnerability and disaster potential. The hydro power projects on the Jhelum in Ganderbal and on the Chenab in Sach Khas are both examples of haphazard construction. Uttarakhand has gone the same way and suffered for it. Some 70 hydro power projects are planned on the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. If these projects go ahead, further disasters are likely.

Granted that hindsight is always 20/20 and everyone is cleverer after the event but the warnings about flooding in the Kashmir Valley have been many and government response has not been visible. Given the heavy and sustained rains this time, flooding was perhaps inevitable but the level of devastation was not. Three days before Srinagar was flooded, the Jhelum in Anantnag had already risen alarmingly high. High enough to warn the state administration of impending trouble in Srinagar and yet the government did not act to prepare the city for the coming floods and inundation.

Shockingly Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in the country that does not have monitoring centres to warn about rising levels in the rivers and lakes that dot this flood-prone region. A Central government proposal to set up flood monitoring stations has been pending for more than five years without the state government taking any action. The Jhelum is boxed in by urban settlements and the lakes into which excess water drains are very close to towns so there is little lead time to prepare for floods. All the more reason that a well-coordinated, efficient flood monitoring system was put in place.

Partisan politics has contributed its share to the misery in Kashmir. The state’s NDMA which should have been preparing for and managing the disaster, was rendered defunct because the Modi government had secured the resignation of eight members of the NDMA, including the chairperson because they had been appointed by the earlier United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This has cost the people of Kashmir hugely.
Climate studies clearly show that extreme rainfall events would increase over the Indian subcontinent and that the Himalayan range is particularly vulnerable. Despite these predictions, the Himalayan states are unprepared for such climate eventualities. We saw this in Uttarakhand in 2013 and now in Kashmir in 2014. Climate preparedness has to become an important part of all development planning, particularly in the susceptible mountain and coastal areas.

Political leaders and the bureaucratic machinery must be educated about climate change and its disaster potential. The lessons of Kedarnath and Kashmir are evident and they must be taken to heart by planners in the Central and state governments. There must be a comprehensive review of the development path that the country has set itself on. There will have to be radical changes in the philosophy of “growth at all costs” to ensure that the ecology is not destroyed beyond redemption. Nature has a way of hitting back when pushed beyond a point. We finally have to acknowledge that our planet has limits which must be respected if people want a secure existence.

Source: Asian Age, 11 October 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Should India permit GM foods?

We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations

Suman Sahai
Agbiotechnology is presented in many forms — the most common being that it will solve world hunger. To reinforce this claim, there is an interesting word play at work. Agbiotechnology is referred to as the ‘Evergreen Revolution’ or the 'Gene Revolution' but never genetic engineering, which is its correct name. Both Evergreen Revolution and Gene Revolution are deliberately coined terms which attempt to link Agbiotech with the Green Revolution. In the view of most political leaders and policymakers, the Green Revolution was a very positive happening that brought benefits in the form of high food production but more importantly, freedom from food imports and hence political and national sovereignty. 

The Green Revolution did in fact increase food production, principally the production of rice and wheat. It made India independent of food imports and firmed up its political spine. It ensured surplus grain that could be stored in buffer stocks to be rushed where need arose and it tried to ensure that famines were not anymore a feature of the Indian reality.
These gains were so visible that the downside, the unequal distribution of the benefits, of land and water degradation, the accompanying loss of genetic diversity and the persisting endemic hunger and poverty, could not take the shine off the Green Revolution. Because of this positive image, the promoters of Agbiotech draw semantic parallels, invoking the earlier agricultural revolution. 

The subliminal message that the spinmeisters of the Agbiotecg sector try to convey is: If the Green Revolution brought so many benefits, the Evergreen Revolution would bring all those in perpetuity. The word play has actually been quite successful. Political leaders and policymakers carry over the positive association with the Green Revolution to the Evergreen one. If the earlier version brought such benefits, the newer one (more precise, with greater possibilities, as the industry says) would surely bring even greater benefits to the farmers and the poor. Conveniently left out of this portrayal are the essential and crucial differences between the two 'revolutions'.
The Green Revolution (GR) was a publicly owned technology, belonging to the people. The research was conducted in public sector universities and research institutions with public money and created public goods to which everyone had access. There were no Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), no patents vested in multinational companies, no proprietary technologies or products. If there was ownership of the GR, it was vested in the farmer. Once the seed reached the farmers, it was theirs; they moved it where they wanted. Therefore, despite its faults, the Green Revolution addressed farmers' needs and India's food production showed an upward curve.
The Evergreen Revolution is almost the exact opposite. It is a privately owned technology. Six corporations (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Dow and BASF Plant Science) control practically the entire research and output in the field of transgenic plants. Processes and products, including research methodologies, are shackled in patents and the farmer has no say, let alone any control. The technology creates only private goods that can be accessed only at a significant cost after paying licensing fees. In the case of Bt cotton, the only GM crop cultivated in India so far, a bag of Mahyco-Monsanto's Bt cotton seed costs Rs. 1,600 as compared to around Rs 400 for superior varieties produced locally.

The seed belongs to the company, which strictly controls its movement. With the development of the popularly termed ‘terminator’ or sterile seed technology, the farmer is reduced to a helpless consumer, not a partner as in the case of the GR. The Evergreen Revolution has in its 20 years, not yet produced a crop variety that has any direct connection to hunger and nutritional needs. The most prevalent crops remain corn, soya, cotton and canola and the dominant traits are herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Despite its other faults, the Green Revolution was able to put out a number of crop varieties in a short span of time that enabled direct yield increases, which brought immediate benefits to farmers. That in short is the contrast between the two revolutions, so assiduously camouflaged by the Agbiotech spinmeisters. 

India had participated enthusiastically in the Green Revolution and is on its way to equally enthusiastically embrace the Gene Revolution or Agbiotechnology. Yet there is little debate in the country on whether any lessons have been learnt from the Green Revolution. There is even less debate between policymakers and other stakeholders on whether GM crops are relevant to Indian agriculture and if so, what path we should adopt.

There is no consultation with the public or any sharing of information about GM research and trials, as is done in almost all countries that are implementing GM technology. The Department of Biotechnology has promoted research projects randomly without any assessment of farmers' needs and the best way to fulfil them. Civil society has been uneasy with the lack of transparency and the lack of competence in regulatory bodies; the media is largely uninformed and political leaders remain unaware of the direction this new and controversial technology is taking in India and have no say in determining what it should or should not do. 

This is not the way to adopt a new technology, especially one that comes with a string of compulsory regulations. GM technology must follow specific prescribed procedures and be tested stringently. What kind of GM technology should India adopt? Should it permit GM foods or should it ban them like Europe, Africa and many other countries have done? What should our policy be on GM food crops and non-food crops? We must frame an intelligent policy after widespread consultations with a range of stakeholders. The process should be inclusive and transparent, allowing a range of expertise and insights to be brought into the decision-making process. And we should abide by the consensus view.

The writer is the founder of a research and advocacy organisation, Gene Campaign

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


The health impacts of these changes is not very  clear, but the changes in the family of genes related to immunity and sugar metabolism detected in these babies, now teenagers, may put them at a greater risk to develop asthma, diabetes or obesity.
Canadian researchers report that the number of days an expectant mother was deprived of electricity during Quebec's Ice Storm (1998) predicts the epigenetic profile of her child. Scientists from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University have detected a distinctive signature in the DNA of children born in the aftermath of the massive Quebec ice storm.
Five months after the event, researchers recruited women who had been pregnant during the disaster and assessed their degrees of hardship and distress in a study called Project Ice Storm. Thirteen years later, the researchers found that DNA within the T cells of 36 children showed distinctive patterns in DNA methylation.
The scientists published their study (“DNA Methylation Signatures Triggered by Prenatal Maternal Stress Exposure to a Natural Disaster: Project Ice Storm”) in PLOS One.
“Prenatal maternal objective hardship was correlated with DNA methylation levels in 1,675 CGs affiliated with 957 genes predominantly related to immune function; maternal subjective distress was uncorrelated,” wrote the investigators. “DNA methylation changes in SCG5 and LTA, both highly correlated with maternal objective stress, were comparable in T cells, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), and saliva cells.”
The team concluded for the first time that maternal hardship predicted the degree of methylation of DNA in the T cells. The epigenetic signature plays a role in the way the genes express themselves. This study is also the first to show that it is the objective stress exposure (such as days without electricity) and not the degree of emotional distress in pregnant women that causes long-lasting changes in the epigenome of their babies.