Saturday, May 13, 2023


Suman Sahai

Faced by the vagaries of climate change and its highly damaging impact on agriculture, we need to look at ways of building resilience into our food systems and ensuring an adequate supply of food grains. Millets can be a big part of the solution.Millets as a food crop were well known in India and widely used. Many kinds of these small, nutritious grains were eaten as rice and some like ragi ( Eleucine coracana) were made into a flour and then into roti. This changed after the Green Revolution but the change was seen more in North India where millets practically disappeared from daily diets . This did not happen in the South however where millets continued to be eaten and did not get displaced by wheat.

Then an interesting development took place this year which brought back attention on millets. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN FAO) declared 2023 to be the Year of Millets. The highlighting of millets on the global platform was mooted by Dr MS Swaminathan some years ago, to focus attention on the importance of these highly nutritious grains which had ceded agricultural space to wheat and rice and fallen by the wayside after the Green Revolution. Ever since the UN FAO declaration, campuses across India are holding programs on millets. Every agriculture research station is conducting awareness programs, the better ones are doing exhibitions and demonstrations. How sorely such awareness programs are needed is seen in the near blank responses of the majority of visitors when asked what they knew about millets. Nothing.\

Why are millets important, one might ask. India is home to the largest number of hungry people in the world and sits near the bottom on the list of countries facing high levels of malnutrition. India also , like many countries in the tropical zone, is going to bear the worst brunt of climate change. This means a rocky agriculture scenario with unstable food production. Wheat, North India’s main Rabi (winter) crop is anticipated to suffer significant declines in production as temperatures rise with global warming. This becomes exceedingly critical since wheat along with rice, is the mainstay of India’s buffer stocks and its subsidized food programs. These are the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Mid Day Meal Scheme in schools, The ICDS ( Integrated Child Development Services Scheme) as well as the Annapurna and Antodaya food schemes.

Millets can play a major role in addressing these challenges to India’s food and nutrition security. That’s because millets are hardy crops with a wide adaptation window which allows them to grow in diverse agro-ecological zones. They grow in high altitudes, in low altitudes like the plains of India and almost everywhere else. They need little water and have high temperature tolerance. Rice and wheat, even maize, the main staples are not so flexible and are adapted to specific agro climatic zones.

 On top of all this, the photosynthesis system of millets is more efficient than that of wheat and rice. In scientific jargon, millets are C4 crops whereas rice and wheat are C3 crops. C4 crops have a higher water use efficiency and are productive in climatic conditions that are hot and dry. C3 crops on the other hand, suffer under hot and dry conditions and loseproductivity. That is the reason, millets will perform well under the hot and water stressed conditions brought about by climate change and will hence stabilise food production better than wheat and rice. So much for the production of food grains.

The other stellar role that millets can play is in alleviating malnutrition. This is especially relevant for states like Uttarakhand which show appalling figures for malnutrition. Millets are nutrition bombs that are loaded with vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese and several others. Finger millet, also called ragi and madua is loaded with calcium. Barnyard millet called sawa in UP and Bihar and madira in Uttarakhand, is a powerhouse of iron. These micronutrients are the key to good health and their deficiency is the main cause of under nutrition and malnutrition. Mainstreaming millets and incorporating them in family diets will go a long way in helping to improve the nutritional status of our poor. But to get there, a lot of work needs to be done.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist and founder chairperson of the Gene Campaign, a leading research and advocacy organization. She can be reached at .

Thursday, March 16, 2023


Suman Sahai

The components of the 2023-24 budget have been analysed in great detail as every year. Allocations to agriculture have not been dazzling this time . The Doubling Farmers Income program which was to achieve its spectacular goal by 2022 has failed decisively and there was no evidence of further support to this overly ambitious project. The expectation that big grants would be seen in the agriculture sector to make farmers happy before the 2024 general election was also belied. But the possibility remains open of some block buster bonanza for farmers being announced closer to the elections.

What I would have liked to see in the agriculture budget though is some allocation for farm machinery and technology to control or do away with stubble burning. Stubble refers to the lower portion of the stalk and root of the rice, wheat or any other crop that is left in the field after the top portion of the crop, which carries the food grain, has been harvested. The stubble is burnt to remove it from the field to prepare the field for the next crop.

Finding a solution to remove crop residues by alternative means is eminently doable and not supporting it in the budget has been a missed opportunity. The impact of stubble burning on the environment especially the air quality is colossal for the 10- 15 days that stubble is burnt post the kharif crop harvest in November- December.

The harmful smoke generated from stubble burning has become a plague not just in Delhi where it receives the most attention but in all of north India. Doctors in hospitals across regions of north India confirm that poor quality air during winter is causing great damage to the health of people , especially children. Respiratory diseases are on the rise and the elderly are highly vulnerable to the cocktail of pollutants in the smoggy, hazy air.  On a recent visit to Goa, I was shocked to find that the practice of burning crop residues in the field has reached there as well. This is likely to spread to other agriculture areas. In the absence of an alternate means of freeing the fields of the previous crop and making them ready for the next crop, clearing by setting fire to the stubble is the cheapest and easiest way available to the farmer.

It is surprising that no serious effort has been made to address this problem since simple technological interventions exist already. Much of the wheat and paddy harvest in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP is done by the Harvester Combine, a machine that cuts the top portion of the plant carrying the grain bearing  Ă«ars”.This machine leaves about 12 inches of the straw in the field . This stubble has to be removed and the economics of farming is so precarious that the farmers cannot spend extra money on labour to remove the stubble manually before planting the next crop. Farmers thus have no choice but to set fire to the stubble to clear their fields.

The easiest most straightforward solution is to modify the harvester machines to cut the stem/straw close to the ground, leaving no stubble in the field. Harvester Combines abroad have this simple feature with an addition. The same machine cuts all the straw, threshes and separates the grain and rolls up the straw into bundles. Those who have traveled abroad will have seen such bales of straw lying in the fields after the machines have removed the grain. Incorporating this feature is not rocket science and can be easily done in Indian Harvester Combines.

After years of worsening air pollution every winter, I would have liked to see some response in the budget. An incentive or subsidy can be provided to manufacturers of Harvester Combines so that they can modify their machines to cut stubble at ground level so no stubble is left to burn. This one-time subsidy would not be a large one and can be recovered over one or two harvests from the machine manufacturers. There could be many ways of doing this so that farmers are not made to bear the cost.

There is another aspect to this. When farmers have to burn the stubble, they lose in many ways. They are losing that much straw that can be used as fodder for livestock. Surplus biomass left post harvest can be used to make hard and soft boards for use in construction and furnishing interiors, packing material and a valuable product called biochar to improve soil health. But more on that next time.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist and chairperson of the research and advocacy group Gene Campaign.

The Citizen, 23 Feb 2023

Friday, January 20, 2023

UTUQAQ- Ice that Lasts Year after Year

Suman Sahai

There is a 2020  film out of Greenland called Utuqaq which translates to ‘ice that lasts year after year’, in other words permanent ice. Made by Iva Radivojevic, the film is about the Arctic ice which is now melting because of global warming. And as the ice melts, nations are scrambling to corner the ‘real estate’ that is getting uncovered as hundreds of meters thick  ice melts away thanks to the destruction that we have wrought upon this planet. The vanquished Arctic is being turned into a commercial hub and greedy prospectors are already scrounging for minerals and resources to fill the never ending demands of the voracious consumer.

As all this happens, scientists go about their business, drilling meters deep for ice samples to study what happened on Earth thousands, maybe millions of years ago, for as the sutradhar of the film says, the ice has a long memory and in it are locked the secrets of what the air contained a million years ago.

But there is so much more that this Utuqaq ice contains. It carries embedded live in its many layers, a chronicle of what the earth was like thousands and millions of years ago. Which animals roamed the land which birds flew in its skies and which worms and insects went about their business in these parts. It has the record of which plants flourished in these regions and yes…it also has  locked in its sheets of permafrost, the previously known and as yet unknown bugs that inhabited the ecosystems of the then Earth. Frozen in Utuqaq are also the bacteria and viruses that this generation of Homo sapiens has perhaps never encountered.

The world was turned on its head by the pandemic unleashed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, better known as the Corona virus. We are still not free of the Corona virus and if experts are to be believed, that serendipitous state is unlikely to return. Waiting in the wings are the bugs that were scrubbed out years ago, like smallpox and the as yet encountered viruses and bacteria, that will emerge from the destruction of once pristine ecosystems.

As global temperatures continued to rise, scientists predicted that with the thawing of the permafrost, ancient infectious agents trapped in the ice for millennia, could be released. Humans would encounter these new agents , bacteria, viruses, even others for the first time and thus have no immunity against them. Already, such events are being reported.


In a remote area of Siberia not so long ago, when the permafrost thawed, it released the frozen spores of the Anthrax bacterium into nearby water and soil and then into the food supply. This resulted in the death of thousands of reindeer and of one boy. Hundreds were hospitalized. Russian scientists studying the permafrost had predicted in 2011 when the situation with global warming began to look dire, that with permafrost melting, “the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”


In 2014 and 2015 scientists discovered two still infectious viruses from a chunk of 30,000-year-old Siberian permafrost. Although these viruses only infected amoeba, they are a harbinger of what could await us. Remember that the Corona virus first infected only bats and then somehow found its way to humans. Such discoveries are indications that other viruses like the smallpox virus, now eradicated due to extensive vaccinations, could emerge once again from thawing permafrost, as can the virus causing the Spanish flu, the earlier pandemic that took some 50 million lives worldwide.


There is in addition, informed speculation that human viruses from very early times are likely to be captured in the sheets of the Utuqaq ice. It is possible that disease causing agents, microorganisms like bacteria and virus , fungi and protozoa that coexisted with the early human populations that populated the Arctic are frozen in its soil and ice. As the Arctic ice melts and the land is exposed, these infectious agents would come into contact with humans. There are several indications that ancient humans like Neanderthals and Denisovans were plagued by bacterial and viral diseases like smallpox. There were other disease causing bugs which might have disappeared but remain frozen in the ancient soil. As temperatures rise -these bugs could come to active life and multiply, creating a dangerous source of diseases for  the current human population. This here is just one more reminder that pathogens never really go away, they just lurk around the corner waiting for a favourable situation to emerge so that they can jump back in. As the climate turbulence hurtles on, creating un-programmed and unpredictable situations, we can worry about potentially catastrophic scenarios unfolding.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist trained in genetics and chairperson of the Gene Campaign

Source: The Citizen, 16 January 2023



GM mustard is at the center of an animated discussion with the participation of a broad cross section of people including scientists and medical professionals. The reason is probably because GM mustard, unlike Bt cotton, is a food crop so it has provoked concerns and questions. This is a good sign because these new and transformative technologies must be subjected to rigorous debate and scrutiny before adoption.

So what is this GM mustard, and why is even the scientific community concerned about its relevance and safety? Technically known as DMH 11 or Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11, this is a genetically engineered crop which has used a special scientific process using the Bar-Barnase-Barstar gene system to create a hybrid mustard plant. The Bar gene confers the Herbicide Tolerant (HT) trait which makes the GM mustard  a herbicide tolerant (HT) crop.

DMH 11 is projected by its developers to be higher yielding than existing mustard varieties. This claim is challenged by mustard scientists who point out that varieties with higher yield are already in the market. Available data shows that the NON GM hybrids NDDB-DMH 1, NDDB DMH 3 and NDDB DMH 4 for instance have higher yields than the GM DMH 11.

Because of the fear that GM mustard could damage honeybees and hence honey production, the government body GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) had directed the developers of GM mustard to conduct tests on its impact on honeybees, other insect pollinators and soil microbial diversity.

But this direction was flouted in a shocking violation of government rules and permission was granted for the environmental release of GM mustard. This is not the way that risky new technologies should be adopted : by cutting corners and violating biosafety recommendations.

Even more worrying in my view is that fact that the GM mustard is a Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crop. The HT technology is designed to control weeds by spraying chemicals that kill plants. An HT crop is one in which a gene has been engineered to protect it from the herbicide. So a field of HT mustard can be sprayed with a herbicide which will kill all the surrounding biodiversity but not the HT mustard crop.

Using chemicals to control weeds in the large farms and labor deficit conditions of industrial countries may work but does this work for Indian farming ? Let’s see why not. Firstly, weeding is an income source in rural areas, especially for women. The HT trait is essentially a labour saving and hence a labour displacing trait which will deprive agriculture labour of income.

Weeds are considered a nuisance in the monoculture agricultural systems of industrial nations. Not so in India and other developing countries , many so called “weeds’’ are useful plants. Plants collected during weeding provide nutritious leafy greens, saag like bathua and chaulai for the farm family. So weeds provide food and nutrition at no cost. This access to free nutrition is one of the reasons why nutritional status is somewhat better among the rural poor than among the urban poor.

The plants collected during weeding that are not consumed by the family, serve as fodder for the livestock that rural families keep as additional food and income sources. India is a fodder deficit country and increasing fodder availability is one of the key concerns of the agricultural research system. Using HT crops like GM mustard and the accompanying herbicides will destroy the fodder plants that are available for free. This makes no sense at all.

In addition to the food and fodder that they provide, so called weeds are also the medicinal plants that rural families depend on for health and veterinary care. The introduction of HT crops would kill the surrounding vegetation and deprive rural communities of the medicinal plants which form the basis of indigenous healing traditions. It is well known that about 80% of rural communities across the world are dependent on medicinal plants and indigenous systems of medicine.  Destroying the vegetation around crop fields would deprive village communities of crucial health care opportunities especially when the formal system does not adequately address their health and veterinary care requirements.

Apart from this, using herbicide tolerant crops would make it impossible to do intercropping and mixed farming which is done to provide additional food and increased farm incomes. Traditionally farmers usually plant more than one crop in the field. Sugar cane for instance is interspersed with lentils or mustard and it is not uncommon to find farmers planting mustard along with wheat, to be harvested one after the other or linseed together with lentils. Mixed cropping is widely practiced, with differing combinations of crops depending on the region. Often farmers will grow crops like yams, ginger or vegetables on the bunds surrounding rice fields. Thus two or three kinds of produce are available from the field in the same season. This advantage would be lost if the package of herbicide tolerant crop varieties and herbicide use would be implemented.

Clearly, the adoption of HT technology in Indian agriculture is detrimental to our interests. The Technical Expert Committee appointed by the Supreme Court to provide expert advice on the matter of GM crops had in fact recommended a ban on the adoption of Herbicide Tolerant technology. The government must take heed.


Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist trained in genetics and chairperson of the Gene Campaign


Source: Times of India, 4 January, 2023


 Suman Sahai

There is a furore over the approval granted to India’s first food crop, GM mustard (Brassica juncea). Activists, consumers, farmers and scientists have risen in protest against the government’s approval for the environmental release of a  genetically engineered crop despite outstanding concerns.

The GM Mustard hybrid DMH 11 has been projected as a high yielding variety that will increase the production of edible oil in the country and reduce our import bill. But this claim does not appear to be substantiated by official data. Scientists of the government’s Directorate of Rapeseed-Mustard Research (DRMR) have said that there are mustard varieties in existence already that show substantially higher yield than the GM hybrid.

India is self-sufficient in mustard oil, meeting its requirement through domestic production, not imports. According to the data on import of edible oils, 2020- 2021, the maximum  import of edible oils is that of palm oil (7491 MT), soybean (2866 MT ) and sunflower (1894 MT) oil, followed by palmolein (686 MT ) and CPKO ( Crude Palm Kernel Oil (143 MT ). 

Edible oil preferences are region specific. Mustard oil is consumed largely in northern and eastern India. India produces enough to meet this need. Any surplus mustard oil would not fill the deficit, say in coconut oil in south India or groundnut oil in western India. So the argument of needing GM mustard to increase production of mustard oil through this GMO is hard to see.

What is of great concern though are violations in the regulatory process and exceptions made leading up to the approval for environmental release of GM mustard. Dr Pental developer of GM Mustard at the Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants (CGMCP) applied to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) in September 2015 for approval of environmental release of the GM  hybrid DMH 11. After evaluating the data and the many comments received from different stakeholders, GEAC, gave directions to the CGMCP to conduct further studies to assess the impact of GM mustard on honey bees and other pollinators as well as on soil health.

Thereafter follow strange and highly objectionable developments, Dr Pental wrote to the GEAC on 10 May, 2022 asking for approval of GM Mustard without conducting the tests directed by the GEAC. The GEAC referred this request to the Department of Biotechnology and Department of Agriculture Research & Education, both of who recommended that the developer may be exempted from conducting any of the required tests. Strangely, the GEAC went along with this breach in the regulatory process and gave approval to GM mustard.

So in a shocking violation of its own Rules and Guidelines, the central government granted approval for the environmental release of GM Mustard on 25 October, 2022. The required tests are now apparently to be conducted post environmental release of GM Mustard. This is a farce. The point of assessing such socio economic impacts of a GMO before granting approval is to catch any harmful impacts in time.

Another problematic aspect of the GM mustard is the fact that it is essentially a Herbicide Tolerant (HT) crop. This fact has been pushed under the carpet highlighting instead a supposed yield advantage. The government’s defence is strange, saying that  since this HT GM Mustard is not labelled as an HT crop for commercial release, it cannot be called an HT crop even if it carries the HT trait ! But the government has taken cognizance of the HT trait by proscribing herbicide use and threatening to penalize farmers if they do use herbicides with the HT GM Mustard.! All this makes very curious reading.

Gene Campaign’s PIL of 2004 on GMOs followed by another by Rodriguez in 2005 led to the Supreme Court to appoint a Technical Expert Committee (TEC)  to provide recommendations in the matter of GM crops. The government has stated that all the recommendations of the TEC have been followed. This is clearly not the case as we see in the case of GM Mustard which carries the HT trait.

On HT technology, the TEC recommends “In view of the concerns bearing on health, environmental, and socioeconomic considerations, a moratorium on field trials of herbicide tolerant (HT) crops…. until an independent committee comprising experts and stakeholders has examined and assessed the potential impact of HT- technology and its suitability in the Indian context.”

Once GM Mustard is released into the environment and its impacts are felt, it will be too late to do anything or recall/reverse the damage. And it is almost certain that the Herbicide Tolerant (HT) trait will be passed on via pollinators to Non-GM Mustard thereby contaminating the gene pool of Brassica juncea, the special Indian Mustard.

The HT trait is highly undesirable for Indian agriculture as we see. Herbicide use destroys all the vegetation in and around the field where the HT crop is cultivated. It therefore destroys the biodiversity that is used by the rural community in many ways.

In India, this biodiversity is not considered useless, as it is in the west. These so called "weeds" provide leafy green vegetables and many kinds of saag like chaulai and bathua that provide valuable nutrition to poor rural families; they also provide green fodder for livestock kept by rural households. Such "weeds" are also the medicinal plants that traditional healers use in the treatment of human and animal diseases.

HT crops are clearly not in India’s interest. But what is truly alarming is the violations of Rules and this slipshod method of approving GM crops


*Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist trained in Genetics

Source: Asian Age, 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Climate v Industrialists: Cyclones, Locusts and Covid are Only the Beginning

 Our most powerful institutions seem to have a death wish
First we had cyclone Amphan on the east coast, then cyclone Nisarg on the west coast within weeks. Not so long ago we had cyclone Hudhud pounding Vishakhapatnam. Hudud came with such force and fury that after finishing with the coast it swept 2,000 km inland to collide with the Himalayan range and trigger avalanches there.

Along with these disasters we are having a locust attack, for the first time in 30 years. Locust swarms have streamed in from neighbouring Pakistan and are active in Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, mowing down 50,000 hectares of crops and creating a possible food crisis even as we try to survive the COVID19 pandemic.

So is there a common thread running through these disasters? There is: it’s climate change.

The world has been talking about global warming and climate change for years. Scientific evidence has been pouring in for the last 35 years showing us how pollution, deforestation and the large-scale stripping of the Earth’s biodiversity cover is causing the planet to get warmer.

Scientists have also been predicting for at least a quarter of a century that global warming would bring greater climate turbulence like extreme weather events. A spate of hurricanes, cyclones, bushfires and forest fires due to extreme heat and floods in parched deserts was forecast, and it is happening right before our eyes now.

Global warming has caused ocean temperatures to rise with a concurrent increase in the intensity of the strongest storms over recent decades. The strongest cyclones have now become more common across the world and scientists project that climate change will continue to make the strongest cyclones even more powerful.

In Asia and India in the past few years we have seen a higher frequency of post-monsoon tropical cyclones over the Arabian Sea, but disturbingly we now also see an increase in cyclonic trends in the pre-monsoon season as well. The cyclones Hudud, Amphan and Nisarg bear testimony to this trend.

And what do locusts have to do with climate change? If you join the climate dots, there is a clear link between the current locust outbreak and the unusual storm and rainfall activity around East Africa which is the traditional breeding ground of locusts:

The Arabian Peninsula witnessed a series of exceptionally severe cyclones in 2018 and 2019, which created freshwater lakes in the desert where luxurious vegetation was able to grow in an otherwise barren landscape. The vegetation attracted desert locusts hunting for food and provided them optimal breeding grounds.

By the time the next cyclone came, swarms of adult locusts were ready to fly out on the strong wind currents of the cyclone and reach new regions. The swarms moved through Iraq and Iran, and finally to South Asia. Feeding on grasslands, crops and vegetation thriving in the uncharacteristic and plentiful rainfall, the locusts could multiply into hordes through multiple breeding cycles by the time they reached Pakistan and India.

In India the damage to crops is estimated at Rs.100 crore so far and anticipated to go up because the locusts are still active.

Actually the FAO had already warned in mid-April 2020 that the unusual, widespread March rains in East Africa were likely to cause a dramatic increase in locust populations in East Africa and southern Iran.

Despite the early warnings however, it was not possible to control the insects because of movement restrictions imposed after the Covid-19 pandemic. Insecticides could not be delivered in time and the locust hordes moved unimpeded into western India from Pakistan and Iran around mid-May.

Climate change unfortunately portends worse for crop safety. Today locusts have received a climate fillip, tomorrow it could be another insect. One thing we know for certain is that new pests will emerge and old pests will change their behaviour as the climate changes.

The only way to stay on top of this is to be vigilant in detecting emerging trends and being prepared to stop a surge in insect populations in the earliest stages, before they can take the shape of full blown attacks. India must do all it can to protect its food supplies.

And how has India prepared itself to face the climate upheaval? Not very well I am afraid.

In 2008 the central government responded to the looming climate crisis by establishing an eight-pronged National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) comprising the National Solar Mission, National Mission on Enhanced Energy Efficiency, National Mission on Sustainable Habitat, National Water Mission, National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Eco-system, National Mission for a Green India, National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture and National Mission on Strategic Knowledge for Climate Change.

The formulation of the NAPCC was followed by a spate of State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC). Sadly little work has happened under these national and state plans, or at least not enough to make a dent anywhere. It’s almost as though the climate emergency was not taken as seriously as it should have been.

Granted there is a global dimension to climate change, but we can do much more than we have done to adapt to the new conditions.

Despite the repeated warnings by experts, why have “we” allowed things to come to such a pass? Why, when the first signals were flashed did states disregard them and continue stripping forests for mining, logging trees for timber, clearing land for industrial estates, choking the streets with motorised vehicles spewing greenhouse gases?

The most powerful human institutions seem to have a death wish. We have been landed in this situation, where climate change is reaching a point of no return, because of the determined refusal to rectify this “hurtling-into-the-abyss” model of development.

Even as we battle the new coronavirus, cyclones and locust swarms, the Union environment minister has opened up the mining sector without any regulations, so that the remaining green lungs, our forests and our biodiversity can be ravaged by industrialists wanting endlessly to dig out bauxite, iron ore, manganese and coal from the bowels of the earth.

Far from putting in place protective measures, we seem to have launched ourselves on an accelerated path of destruction.

Dr Suman Sahai is a geneticist and chairperson of Gene Campaign