Thursday, July 31, 2014


Gene Campaign welcomed move that the Government has held up the permission given by the Genetic Engineering Approval committee (GEAC) to conduct 15 field trials of five GM crops. Dr Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign said although the GEAC could only have proceeded with a green signal from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), it is nevertheless good that the MoEF has reconsidered its decision.

For one, the matter is sub judice since the Supreme Court is still considering the report of the Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by it in response to two PILs, the first filed by Gene Campaign in 2004. In its report, the TEC has advised abundant caution in the matter of releasing GM crops in the absence of an adequate regulatory system and suggested a moratorium till the regulatory system was substantially improved. This is in keeping with the prayer of Gene Campaign in its 2004 PIL.

The government must move in a transparent and intelligent manner on the issue of GM crops and give itself time to develop an informed opinion on the subject after comprehensive consultations.  The MoEF Minister Mr. Javadekar has indicated that he is inclined to do this.  There is no compelling reason to rush ahead with the release of GM crops. There is nothing in the pipeline that promises anything for either food or nutrition security. Nor do we have a food crisis at hand. In any case, we are producing large amounts of food by conventional agriculture already.

The BJP had stated in its manifesto that it would consider GM crops only after careful scientific testing and evaluation.  After government formation, one of the first public statements made by the new Agriculture Minister Sri Radha Mohan Singh was that GM crops were not the priority of the Agriculture Ministry. Then suddenly out of the blue, in a significant turnaround, came the announcement that permissions to go ahead with field trials had been granted for a large number of crops.

Dr. Sahai said that sending such conflicting signals is not good for policy making and does not help any of the stakeholders.  Indian policy has been favorable to moving into a high tech era. However technologies are seldom value neutral and their adoption must be done after due reflection. The new Prime Minister is known to be a technology buff.

Genetic engineering is a regulated technology and if we want to adopt it, it must be regulated properly to protect the environment as well as human and animal health. There are several outstanding concerns about GM crops and despite the biotech industry’s rhetoric about their safety, these concerns need to be resolved in an open and transparent manner.

We need to keep in mind that it is those very scientists who developed GM technology and who better than any one else understood the positive and negative aspects of it, who asked that this technology be carefully regulated. Just like the technology for generating atomic energy is regulated and is subject to several safeguards that must be carefully implemented, genetic engineering is also a regulated technology with its own set of safeguards and testing protocols that must be implemented.

The government would do well to make a new beginning with a review of existing reports and hold consultations to put in place a stringent regulatory system. Much thought and many inputs , the latest being the TEC report, have gone into defining  the contours of a rigorous biosafety testing process and  a credible regulatory system that can evaluate both the scientific and socio-economic impacts of GM crops. The outputs of such a system will enable policy makers to take correct decisions.

Suman Sahai

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


The content and allegations in the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) section of the IB report are shocking. The title itself “Concerted efforts by select foreign funded NGOs to ’take down’ Indian development projects” is more than extreme.

We question the IB’s jurisdiction to decide which projects are in favour of India’s development and which are not. As we understand, in a democratic set up like India, which is governed by the Constitution, policies have to be made and laws have to be enacted in accordance with the Constitution and any policies and laws against the Constitution can be struck down by the High Court as well as the Supreme Court. Whether a decision taken by the Government or law made by the legislature is for the common good has to be legally determined by the Court. Equally, the people of this country have a right to object and to put forth their point of view on law and policy as well as what constitutes public interest. This is in consonance with the Rule of Law and the democratic principles which have been affirmed time and again, by the highest court of the land.

With respect to GMOs , Rules were made in 1989 under the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The Rules are neither in consonance with the international conventions like the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety nor the provisions of the Constitution. Nor do they address the principles of sustainable development, precautionary principle and intergenerational equity. These rules are under challenge before the Hon'ble Supreme Court and therefore the first question is how the IB can report on a subject that is sub judice ? Does this not amount to an attempt to influence the decisions to be made by the Supreme Court ?

The IB in effect says that those who are fighting on scientific and legal principles to strengthen the regulatory system for dealing with GMOs are ‘anti development’. And the IB quotes an American scientist , Dr Ronald Herring of Cornell University, known for his open advocacy of GM crops, especially those owned by American multinationals like Monsanto, to make its point that Indian NGOs are causing economic damage !  We therefore,  feel that  the  GMO  section  of the report is

motivated and is designed to benefit some vested interests. Why has the IB not quoted several international scientists of repute who advise abundant caution in dealing with GMOs ?

It would have been advisable for the IB to have done its homework and gone through the records and orders passed by the Hon’ble Court, which appointed a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) to examine the questions raised in the matter of GMOs. All TEC members, barring one, have 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 IB also neglects to refer to another official report on the state of GM technology and its implementation in India. The Sopory Committee Report  of 2012 was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture. The committee’s findings raised disconcerting questions over the claims made by developers of GM crops, 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 lies, fraud and lacking scientific expertise in GM technology.

The IB should inform itself of the 'National Policy on the Voluntary Sector'  prepared by the Planning Commission in 2007. The said policy recognizes the important role played by the voluntary sector and that it has been serving as an effective non-political link between the people and government. One of the objectives of this policy was to enable voluntary organizations (VO) to legitimately mobilize necessary financial resources from India and abroad. It is clearly stated in the National Policy that independence of VOs  allows them to explore alternative paradigms of development and that international funding of the VOs play a significant role. The foreign funding has to be regulated under the provisions of existing laws including the FCRA.

It is very unfortunate that the IB has levelled the charge that the TEC report is influenced by the NGOs. The decision taken by the Ministry of Environment regarding Bt Brinjal as well as the reports of the Parliamentary Standing Committee have also been projected in a similar insulting  manner by the IB. This is a very serious matter. Is the IB report an attempt to influence the functioning of the Executive as well as the Judiciary and the Rule of Law governed by the Constitution ?

Is the IB attempting to influence the decisions of the Supreme Court when it makes biased statements on matters that are sub judice ?
Is the IB attempting to position itself above Parliament when it questions the wisdom and independence of the Parliamentary Standing Committee ?
Do its insinuations not bring down the prestige of our sovereign Parliament ?

The intentional leaking of the IB report and its statements  are tantamount to contempt of the Hon'ble Supreme Court and denigrating the majesty of Parliament. These are very serious issues. Given these circumstances, the government should immediately order an enquiry into this IB report and put the correct facts as well its own stand on the Report before the people.

Suman Sahai

Monday, June 2, 2014

Trans Pacific Partnership to overtake WTO ?

A highly controversial trade agreement led by the US is being negotiated in such utter secrecy that until recently just a handful of people had any knowledge of what was being decided behind  closed doors.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership  Agreement , TPP for short, has now reached the public domain , thanks to WikiLeaks, the global watchdog that leaks ‘secret’ information that has a bearing on public interest. 

The TPP is a US led initiative of 12 member countries comprising apart from the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, , Chile, Peru, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore  and Brunei . These countries account for approximately 40 percent of the global GDP. Russia, China, India  and Brazil have been kept out of this exclusive club.  The scope of the TPP is vast and includes subjects like  Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), Biodiversity and the Environment, State Owned Enterprise (SOE) , Agriculture, Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), Investment, Public Procurement , Financial Services,  E Commerce,  Trade in Information Technology Products  (TITP), Market Access for Goods, Textiles etc. , Many of these are part of the WTO.

As with the WTO, the US clearly dominates the TPP and the negotiations in its various sectors. It exercises its veto like powers  and is able to put considerable pressure even on this group of countries which have significant economies of their own.  The available TPP documents which are excerpts from internal commentaries and notes of participating countries, show, the extent to which the US dominates the agenda and the discussions  in the TPP negotiations.  Member countries are constantly on their toes to keep articulating and amending  their positions on each aspect in the fast paced, often aggressively  negotiated text  so as not to leave any room for the US to force an agreement based on an ambiguous text or one that was not updated.

So where does the WTO fit in ? The impression is gaining ground in the last years, that unhappy  with the increasingly democratic nature of the WTO, where countries are asserting themselves more and more, the US  in a sense wants to  walk away from the WTO. After the Doha Round, which the US sees as a setback, among other things, to its pharmaceutical industry, its trade representatives have made clear their displeasure over the multilateral platform where the US is facing growing resistance.  The TPP appears to be the Empire striking back to recover lost ground.

An extraordinary feature of the Trans Pacific Partnership is the status being accorded to multinational corporations . The TPP proposes to give the corporate sector powerful advantages, tilting the scales in their favor at the cost of  consumers, in almost every sector. In a path breaking move, the TPP is putting in provisions that will enable corporations to take on nation states directly.  Among the proposals is the setting up of an international tribunal to rule on legal disputes between nations as well as between corporations and national governments. .
So corporations could challenge the laws and regulations of a country before this tribunal which is empowered to overrule the country’s legal framework and  impose economic penalties.  In the WTO only nation states can act against each other before the Dispute Settlement Court. In an unprecedented paradigm shift, the TPP seeks to elevate corporations to the status of sovereign nations  and empowers them   to challenge governments. 

This proviso is a triumph for the capitalist economic model where money trumps democracy and democratic rights !All is geared to make big money happy. This is not surprising since the US leads the TPP and the US economic  and for that matter environment policies, are designed to benefit the corporations who are considered privileged  partners in the governance and policy making  process and structures.  Critics have slammed the TPP as the escalation of  the  ‘neo-liberal agenda’. Celebrated academic and author Noam Chomsky has called the TPP a ‘ neoliberal project to maximize profit and set the working people in the world in competition with one another  so as to lower wages ‘. Commentators on the IPR program of the TPP have called it a ‘Christmas wish list’  for the big corporations . 

Another American viewpoint  pushed forward by the TPP is deregulation. Never a votary of regulation which is antithetical to the interests of big money, successive US governments, starting at least from the Reagan administration have sought to keep regulation to the minimum in most economic spheres.  Giving a free hand to capital and the market, US administrations have sought to limit the activities that governments can regulate and have consistently rejected regulation as a tool of governance and international trade. The TPP takes deregulation to a new level and introduces provisions that protect only the rights of the investor  but not that of the consumer  or the citizen.

A case in point is  the area of environment where  the US has been a reluctant player on the global stage.  It has chosen to remain out of international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has also refused to be part of the  Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) through which nations agree to conserve biological diversity, respect the knowledge of local communities and acknowledge their ownership of such knowledge.  Both these exclusions are designed to give a free hand to business. In the Kyoto Protocol,  by not requiring industry to make emission cuts and in the case of the CBD, by not restraining biopiracy by pharmaceutical companies. Pharma giants help themselves to the indigenous knowledge of communities and create patented drugs based on that.

The draft  text pays lip service to protecting the environment , dealing with such subjects like illegal logging , overfishing,  wildlife trafficking, marine pollution from ships and ozone depleting substances. But predictably, there is nothing related to climate change,  biodiversity and indigenous knowledge . Even in this limited engagement , the US insists that environmental issues be dealt with only if they affect trade and investment.  With respect to trade in biodiversity for instance , the US position is antagonistic to that proposed by the other members . Peru and Mexico are attempting to link CBD features like acknowledging the rights of holders of indigenous knowledge in biodiversity trade but the US opposes this.

Notably, there is no requirement for compliance in the Environment section, and implementation  is left to the discretion of individual countries. No penalties have been proposed for violations, unlike in other TPP chapters like Investments, where penalties are severe. The environment sector is left completely unregulated and everything is voluntary.  Not surprisingly, there is a lot of tension in the Environment negotiations with several countries resisting the US proposals to limit engagement in this field. There are at least three areas where there is clear discord among the TPP members. 

These relate to balancing the need to protect the environment with ambitious commitments on trade and investment. The current way out seems to be to make nothing binding in the environment chapter so that the parties can push their investment and trade agendas  and take only that much notice of environmental protection as they want to. Another point of disagreement relates to  handling commitments already made in other multilateral fora like the WTO and for countries other than  the US,  also the CBD and Kyoto Protocol. How are these to be brought in resonance with the far more ambitious goals of the TPP , especially in fields like Intellectual Property Rights. 

Consensus also eludes the nature of the dispute resolution mechanism the TPP should adopt . The TPP is a much more close knit group than the WTO and their interests are largely convergent, especially with respect to the unfettered deployment and use of capital. In the WTO, there is a clear division between wealthy,  industrial nations and developing countries with smaller economies. The dispute settlement process is invoked largely ( but not exclusively ) to bring the less powerful economies in line with the trade ambitions of the rich countries. It will be difficult enough to institute a structure like the Dispute Settlement Court of the WTO and  the US is pushing for a more firm dispute resolution mechanism  than the other members are willing to agree to.

After Wikileaks made available portions of the TPP negotiations, there is a growing backlash, largely  in the US,  against the clandestine, non-democratic  nature of the negotiations. In what may be a first,  the  Obama administration is treating the TPP negotiations as so classified, that information  even  to members of the US Congress is restricted.

India must take note of the TPP provisions and prepare responses in its areas of interest. For surely, once concluded, the TPP will set the benchmark for negotiations in other multilateral and bilateral forums. India must also act quickly to strengthen its partnerships and alliances to protect its trading interests.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Suman Sahai

There is a view that the Brazilian model of sugar cane based ethanol is what we should follow for transportation. But is ethanol a viable alternative fuel for India as it is for Brazil ? India first promoted an ethanol blending policy in 2002, making  it mandatory for oil providers to blend  oil with five percent ethanol.  This policy never took off since there are fundamental problems with it which cannot be wished away with the pronouncement of an inadequately thought through diktat.  India’s production of ethanol is based on sugarcane. Its production of a little over 2000 million liters annually is claimed mainly by two sectors, the manufacturers of  IMFL(Indian Made Foreign Liquor ) and  the chemical industry. The ethanol production in India is simply not enough to satisfy the demands of the liquor and chemical industry and also provide ethanol for five percent blending . This and the fact that sugar cane production fluctuates greatly from year to year, are  the principal reasons why  the government’s  ethanol blending policy has not taken off.

Brazil’s ethanol production stands at about 23 to 24 billion litres annually ,roughly ten times what India produces . This is more than enough to  satisfy its  diverse domestic  needs, divert  ethanol as fuel  and leave over enough to export to other countries like India.  Brazil with a land mass of over 8.5 million square km is more than twice the size of the Indian land mass at 3.2 million square km. The population of Brazil at 198 million, is a fraction of India’s 1.24 billion and growing population which needs substantial amounts of  land and water to produce food.

Most significantly, Brazil’s water resources are enormous, of central importance  for a water guzzling crop like sugar cane.  To compare at the level of river basin volume, as an indicator of water availability, Brazil has a total river basin volume of  over 11 million square km whereas  India’s river basin volume  stands at some 3 million square km.  The fact is that India’s sugar cane production is largely based on ground water which is being overexploited, with many ground water blocks having become critical. 

In addition to its huge advantage with natural resources,  Brazil also has a very small population compared to India. It is a percentage of this small population  that is the consumer  of ethanol biofuels.  India’s  large population base  would  have a much greater demand for ethanol as fuel . Can India divert more land and water  to increase sugar cane production for ethanol  to satisfy its ethanol needs  without coming into conflict with its food and nutrition needs ?

To suggest that India should follow Brazil’s ethanol example, is to turn a blind eye to India’s ground realities. Most notably, India’s grinding poverty ,its shocking levels of hunger and malnutrition (India is home to the largest number of hungry and malnourished people in the world), must force us to stop and reflect on the way we should use our land and water. Should these critical resources be used to  grow more food or should the land and water be diverted to the production of sugarcane for ethanol for cars.

Clearly, ethanol cannot be a long term or sustainable  option for India, nor for that matter , can Jatropha derived diesel .Any source of alternative fuel that will work ,  can only be one that does  not divert land and water from the production of food and  maintaining the integrity  of ecosystems and biodiversity. However, before introducing an alternative plan, we must realize that the most logical way for India to reduce its dependence on imported oil and  minimize the pollution from fossil fuel combustion is to rationalize its system of transportation.  The proposal favoring public transport over private transport will always remain valid because it is the only sustainable way of transportation. The bane of our transportation system is following the American model of personal motorized transport  without having America’s resources .  The number of personal cars that are allowed on to the road every month, in one city alone,  is unsustainable for the planet and  a  recipe for global disaster.

India has access to at least two  sources of viable energy for transportation. The first is solar energy , abundant and free which remains  practically unexploited barring primitive solar heaters  and solar light panels. The other really promising option is more high tech, to produce alcohol by fermenting algae.  Algal oil and alcohol along with solar generated power is the way forward for alternative fuels. Algae can produce up to 300 times more oil per unit area than crops such as sugarcane or Jatropha. As algae have a short life cycle, they can be harvested every  1–10 days. Sugarcane takes the best lands, masses of water  and blocks the farmer’s land for almost a year. 

Algae can be grown in open ponds or bioreactors which are just plastic or glass containers through which nutrient rich water is pumped. The water can be brackish or wastewater, fresh water is not required. And algae yield two types of biofuels. The lipid, or oily part can be used to produce biodiesel and  the carbohydrate in the algae biomass can be fermented into bioethanol and biobutanol. This is a promising way to move ahead.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Custodian Farmers are the real Seed Saviors

Suman Sahai

Biodiversity and traditional seeds are being rapidly lost in all countries of the world. The reason for this erosion of genetic diversity is the promotion of intensive agriculture relying overwhelmingly on high yielding varieties. The Green Revolution is the greatest culprit for genetic erosion. Government policies while actively promoting the Green Revolution, paid little attention to the conservation of traditional seeds even though the two could have gone hand in hand.

Nevertheless there are many farmers in developing countries that still cultivate traditional varieties, though they too are shifting to high yielding varieties when they get a chance. Farmers in rainfed areas, marginal lands not suited to intensification or special eco niches like regions with brackish water, such as the Sunderbans, continue to rely on traditional varieties.

Such farmers maintain a number of different varieties of many crops, including staples like rice. India which is the birth place of rice was once home to almost 200000 varieties, with a range of different properties. Farmers maintained these because they provided a choice of seeds to cope with different weather conditions like the timing of the monsoon, type of soil, location of the farm etc.

Apart from farmers who maintain traditional crop varieties because it helps them adapt to local ecosystems and weather conditions, there are also those who maintain a diversity of cultivars out of pure interest and passion. Called “Custodian Farmers”, these are the real seed saviors. They  develop & maintain  agricultural biodiversity  and also share this with other farmers. These seed saviors are high on skills and unlike the farmers who practice intensive agriculture, they  are knowledgeable about their varieties and know how and where these cultivars can be adapted.

Farmers who conserve a variety of seeds automatically become an integral part of the informal seed system since with their knowledge,  they can recommend varieties for specific conditions. They are aware of local preferences and promote the conservation and use of local diversity among their friends and neighbors for the sheer joy of it. Such sharing of seeds and planting material like cuttings, runners, buds  and grafts is not monetized within the locality although planting material may be made available to outsiders for a price.

The fruit orchards, especially of mangoes, belonging to the landed aristocracy were a treasure trove of diversity. Mangoes of different colors and shapes, tastes and aromas have been conserved in these orchards for generations. The saviors and keepers of this diversity were more the orchard keepers and gardeners than their masters.

Seed saviors are found in all kinds of agro ecosystems, usually in tropical countries where they are conserving seeds of all kinds of cereals, fruits and vegetables. Now, the trend to save old varieties is becoming increasingly popular in the industrial countries too as people have become wary of the consolidation of the seed industry in the hands of a few companies.  These companies armed with seed patents are pushing a few commercially popular varieties, neglecting the rest. Seed saver networks have sprung up in Europe and the USA, most specializing in the conservation of heritage seeds which are the older varieties that have fallen into disuse.  

National and International Seed Saviors

Not just individual farmers and communities, a chain of national and international gene banks have been established as global seed saviours. For example, the International Rice Research Institute  (IRRI) in Los Banos , Philippines conserves all the rice varieties of the world, as Cymmit in Mexico does for wheat. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) conserves over 135,000 seed samples of wheat, barley, oats and other cereals; food legumes such as faba bean, chickpea, lentil and field pea; forage and rangelean crops, as well as the wild relatives of each of these species. Similarly ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad saves several thousand seed samples of chickpea, pigeonpea, ground nut, pearl millet, sorghum and little millets.

The world’s most dramatic seed saving set up, atleast its most  talked of, lies in the Norwegian town of Svalbard , north of the Arctic Circle. Often referred to as the ‘Doomsday Vault’, the Svalbard seed bank is supposed to protect the world’s seed collection from the most terrible disasters that can befall , hence the name “Doomsday Vault’. The Svalbard bank as it is planned will eventually conserve a sample from all the collections currently housed in more than 1400 gene banks across the world. The reasoning is that if disaster strikes any one or more of the banks, the seed material will not be lost since it will be backed up in the bomb proof bunker built some 400 feet inside a Norwegian mountain covered in permafrost.

Chang La
To match the effort in Europe, Indian authorities are going ahead with the construction of a similar permafrost gene- seed bank in Chang La in Ladakh. At a height of over 17,500 feet, The Chang La gene bank is about 75km from Leh and is under the stewardship of the Defense Institute of High Altitude Research. Intended to be a national conservation centre initially, it is proposed to make available the Chang La gene bank for the seed collections of developing and developed countries. Chang La's permafrost conditions, low  humidity and temperatures generally below - 18 degrees Celsius are ideally suited to conserving seeds at low temperature without the energy costs.

More than apocalyptic calamities like cyclones, hurricanes or bombs , the world’s genetic material and its seeds are threatened steadily by a warming planet and consequent change in the climate. So saving seed collections in Svalbard and Chang La is  of great significance.

Gene Campaign as Seed Savior

In 2008, Gene Campaign along with the farmers that it works with in Jharkhand, received India’s Genome Savior Award. This award recognizes seed saviors, those who conserve traditional seed varieties. Gene Campaign has been working in Jharkhand and Uttarakhand for the last several years, conserving traditional varieties of rice, millets, legumes, vegetables and oilseeds. A special focus is the conservation of rice since India is its Center of Origin and the place where the greatest genetic diversity of rice is found.

Traditional crop varieties from farmer’s fields are collected and the knowledge of the farm family is documented along with the seed sample.  The Gene Campaign collection consists of about 900 rice varieties from Jharkhand, Orissa, Chattisgarh, West Bengal and Assam. The seed samples are scientifically processed and conserved in community managed, field level gene-seed banks.

Zero Energy Gene Seed Banks
Unlike the cold gene banks of the formal system, Gene Campaign’s , Zero Energy Gene Seed Banks have no energy costs. Because these  banks are located in the village, they are owned by the people. Village youth committees supervised by village elders run the banks.. The seed in the bank is accessed every season by the farmers who return three times the seed they take,  when their harvest comes in. The core collection is multiplied in carefully designed plots in farmers’ fields, monitored by trained village youth and Gene Campaign staff.

Seed renewal to maintain viability          

Viability of the seeds is maintained by growing them out each year and returning the fresh seed to the Banks. This routine exposes the varieties to the current climate, helping them to adjust and adapt. The seed material that is returned to the bank after every grow-out season is adapted to the environment, which includes the climate as well as pests and disease. The material frozen in the cold gene bank does not get a chance to adapt to the local climate and when it is taken out at a time of crisis, it may or may not have the adaptive capacity to provide an efficient crop under the prevailing conditions.
In the short term the Gene-Seed banks serve as a seed source for farmers who can access seed adapted to local conditions. They are also a repository of Farmer Varieties, which are being registered with the National Plant Variety Authority.

Seed Saviors are specialists
Rather than just conservers of diversity, many farmers who conserve traditional seeds and planting materials, see themselves as specialists and tend to conserve varieties with unique traits. It is a good thing they are recognized as leaders by their communities and accorded the respect that they deserve. It is high time the scientific community accorded them similar respect and provided them a place in decision making about agriculture and the direction it should take.

If the formal system can find the wisdom to support the women and men that conserve special genetic diversity, it could become the beneficiary of immense wisdom and a cornucopia of genes that will keep food production viable in the face of all kinds of challenges. It will also make our food baskets rich and diverse and make available to us an assortment of delicious and nutritious foods.

In The Hindu, Survey of Indian Agriculture, 2014

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Response to the PM’s pitch for GM crops at the Science Congress, Jammu

Suman Sahai

It is extremely disappointing that our PM has chosen to make such a strong pitch in favour of GM foods and trashed those who hold different views on the acceptability of such foods as “unscientific prejudices”. The current Prime Minister is a specialist in agriculture and among the most highly educated political leaders of today. He knows more than most about the large and diverse set of problems that beset Indian agriculture. Does the Prime Minister seriously believe that GM crops are necessary to solve all the problems of Indian agriculture and ensure food security? And are GM crops the silver bullets to solve the problems of hunger and malnutrition? 

This is not the first time that the Prime Minister has used the Science Congress to throw his weight behind the promotion of GM crops. His Agriculture Minister does it regularly too. Mr Pawar’s first response after the passage of the Food Security Act (FSA) was to state that India could not meet the targets set by the FSA unless it adopted GM crops. It would be helpful if the Prime Minister and his office would also engage with the concerns expressed by several scientists, members of civil society, farmer organizations and concerned citizens about the safety and desirability of these crops. These are not unscientific prejudices, they are most often, genuine concerns arising from a high level of familiarity with the scientific evidence of harm resulting from the consumption of GM foods. The results from feeding studies done on animals, in many parts of the world are available in the public domain and they show the risks that can be associated with eating GM foods.

Informed scientific opinion has expressed itself repeatedly that research on farming systems and supporting better farm practices, together with reviving the extension support to farmers and strengthening market linkages are the key to making farming profitable and banishing hunger.

It is deeply disappointing that a Prime Minister as erudite as ours has willfully chosen to indulge in biased rhetoric and espouse the controversial, as yet unproven contribution that GM crops can make to hunger and malnutrition.

Gene Campaign believes that any technology including GM technology can at best provide a solution to a particular problem when it is implemented with extreme caution and stringent biosafety testing. It can in no way provide answers to a complex situation like hunger. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How India sold out to the WTO

Suman Sahai

After Bali we should expect an influx of heavily subsidised agri produce from outside. This will knock the stuffing out of Indian farmers already reeling under adverse domestic policies.

The Indian media is presenting a glorious conclusion of the Bali ministerial, saying the Indian stand had prevailed and that India had indeed bent the US and EU to its will. This is the exact opposite of what has actually happened.

First, India was isolated, partly by the machinations of the developed countries but also because it chose to go it alone rather than with the bloc of developing countries who it has rightly infuriated with its succumbing to US pressure. India giving in will have negative implications for all of them. All the bravado we heard from commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma days before about standing firm to defend our food security vanished in Bali.

It’s remarkable that India failed to bring to centrestage the unfulfilled issues of the Doha Round and no attempt was made to link compliance with outstanding issues there with new issues raised at Bali.

India fell into the trap of discussing subsidy limits and de minimis support in agriculture when it should have argued on the basis of welfare and human rights. The Aggregate Measure of Support (AMS) calculated under the Agreement on Agriculture applies to producer subsidies, that is subsidies to farmers, which heaven knows the Food Security Act does not touch since, in a masterly move, the FSA does not deal with the producers of food at all.

Any subsidy component under discussion here would be a consumer subsidy, not a producer subsidy. It should have been argued as a welfare measure based on human rights imperatives.

India should have argued that its appalling figures of hunger and malnutrition amount to gross violation of the people’s right to food and any attempt by the government to act on it cannot possibly be placed under the purview of WTO sanctions. There was strong support for the India case from the UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food which the Indian team failed to build on.

As it stands, India has failed to get its position accepted and it has accepted an interim agreement, a peace clause, but with conditions. And it has ceded trade facilitation. What has it come back with from Bali?

w Indian negotiators have placed the country’s entire stockholding of food under external scrutiny and have lost sovereign control over decision-making regarding buffer stocks. They have allowed the WTO’s Committee on Agriculture (CoA) to monitor our grain stocks.

w India will have to freeze its minimum support price (MSP) and will be unable to either raise the MSP or add new crops to its stocks after it has submitted the complicated and embarrassingly detailed forms on public stocks held by Central and state governments.
w Enormous paperwork and implementation costs have been added to maintaining our public stocks, money that could have been spent more profitably elsewhere.

w India will have to freeze the structure and modalities of food procurement now and will be unable to make changes without the permission of the CoA. This is not only humiliating, it has introduced the dangerous precedent of foreign interference in our food security strategies. India after Bali has lost the right to use public food reserves as a plank of its food security.

w Having made a pig’s breakfast of the Bali negotiations, India has also effectively sealed off for itself any avenues to support its farm sector, improve food production and secure the livelihoods of its small and marginal farmers, without invoking howls of protest from the CoA and the denizens of the WTO.

And Trade Facilitation stays in place as what we have given away at Bali. This will mean “facilitating” the entry of foreign products into the Indian market. Opening India’s market to agricultural produce has long been the goal of the large agriculture exporting countries, especially the US and EU. That goal is close to being realised. India has so far managed to fend off large-scale dumping of agricultural produce but that may be coming to an end.

After Bali we should expect an influx of heavily subsidised agri produce from outside. This will knock the stuffing out of Indian farmers already reeling under adverse domestic policies and the utter neglect of the agriculture sector. Trade facilitation for genetically modified products will almost certainly be on the menu, if for no other reason than to break the back of the domestic resistance to GM crops and foods. But also because the major agriculture exporters are sitting on stocks of GM corn and soya and there are other products in the pipeline, all waiting for markets.

And the Indian farmer post-Bali? Unable to compete with the heavily subsidised farm products from the US, Canada, Australia and the EU, the Indian farmer will be forced to abandon his fields and swell the slums of cities. Apart from the supply to the open market, who will produce the stocks of cereals needed to keep the Food Security Act in motion? I can almost see the Cargills and Bunges smiling in the wings.

The ill-conceived and opportunistic Food Security Act has cost the country very dear. Together with the inept negotiations in Bali, it has put India in the dock, under public scrutiny, tied its hands behind its back and taken away options for the betterment of the farm sector and future food security. The pale silver lining around this very black cloud is that there are four more years of negotiations before a final settlement on the issue of public stock holdings is reached. India must put together its best brains to develop aggressive negotiating positions well in advance, try to win back the support of the developing countries it has ditched and face the next rounds of WTO discussions with the goal of recovering what lost ground it can.

Source The Asian Age; 14 December  2013,