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,

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

GENE CAMPAIGN Charter of Demands

 On the occasion of Gene Campaign’s 20th anniversary, a number of experts from across India , came together to brainstorm on the policy changes that were needed to make farming profitable and farmers prosperous. Given below is the Charter of Demands that was formulated by the experts after a daylong meeting.
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1. The government must increase annual budgetary outlays for agriculture , by the Union and state governments ,  to 10 per cent of India's gross domestic product (against less than 1.5 per cent at present) for the next ten years. Of these outlays, between 60 per cent and 70 per cent should be reserved for rain-fed farming. systems.
2. Programs for food security must include nutrition security. Fortification of common staple foods with micro-nutrients should receive attention. A comprehensive program to establish homestead gardens should be promoted to boost household nutrition.
3. All programs providing food and nutrition support to children must be linked to their being registered in school and receiving regular health checkups.
4.Credit and insurance facilities should be provided to all those who cultivate land and keep livestock (not merely to land owners) by revamping the kisan credit card and making insurance more widespread.
5. Given the growing feminization of agriculture in India, there an urgent need to : enforce property rights of women and encourage joint ownership of productive assets, incentivize women’s access to credit cards (through an interest rate subvention of at least one per cent) , invest in agriculture equipment suitable for women.
 6. Restore and reorient agricultural extension services to promote high yielding, diversified and ecologically sustainable agriculture. This should be backed by research support and indigenous knowledge. 
7. To reduce financial burden on small farmers, establish and incentivize Smallholder Farmer Estates with common facilities and equipment, skill building in joint estate management,  bionutrition and IPM , water conservation and management, micro irrigation, fertigation ,  post-harvest value addition , packaging and collective marketing etc
8.  Government policies must strengthen and promote a broad genetic base for agriculture and encourage conservation of agro-bio-diversity, to build resilience in farming
9. Launch a comprehensive soil testing program across India to implement  location specific measures to restore and improve soil health.
10. Develop a policy and research framework for the development of agriculture in the mountainous regions of India.
11. Launch a water literacy campaign at policy and implementation levels that demand management is the main strategy for overcoming water scarcity.
Water management must be used as an entry point to improve livelihoods through productivity enhancement, value addition, and income generating activities through market-led diversification.
12. The public distribution system must be diversified and decentralized. Government policies should encourage procurement from about 50 km from the points of consumption and the PDS should include a range of locally produced foods.
13. Divert a part of fertilizer subsidies to public investments in agriculture leading to capital formation for strengthening alternative farming systems, especially climate resilient agriculture.
14. Encourage and incentivize states that reduce reliance on chemical inputs in agriculture and encourage bio-organic farming systems.
15. All government policies must be geared towards enabling the Indian farmer to become an entrepreneur. Only then can those who are in the riskiest profession in the world be empowered, making farming profitable and farmers prosperous.
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Dated: Saturday 9 November, 2013
New Delhi

Friday, November 15, 2013

Who Owns Our Genetic Wealth ?

Suman Sahai

There was a recent news report that ICRISAT, an international organisation and part of the CGIAR ( Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) consortium, had entered into an agreement with Gubba Cold Storage Ltd. to set up a private seed bank, the first of its kind in India. No details were available of the terms and conditions under which the genetic material from the ICRISAT gene bank would be placed in the physical possession of  a private company. ICRISAT holds thousands of varieties of chickpea, pigeon pea, groundnut, sorghum, pearl millet and small millets collected from farmers’ fields across the world.

What makes the ICRISAT varieties particularly valuable to plant breeders and seed companies is the fact that almost the entire collection has been characterized so that the properties of each variety are known. This information along with the huge choice of genetic material  (over 120,000 varieties) is a veritable gold mine for seed companies.Access to crop varieties characterized for important properties like disease and pest resistance, drought and salinity tolerance, adaptability to soil types and weather conditions, yield traits etc., can be rapidly converted into lucrative crop varieties for the market, earning themcrores of rupees. 

The disconcerting thing about the ICRISAT deal with Gubba Cold Storage is that public material held in trust by ICRISAT has been at least physically transferred to a private company. It is not clear under what terms the material will be stored in Gubba cold storages. Who will be able to access the material? How will unauthorized use be prevented? What will be the monitoring process? How will violations be dealt with ?In the Svalbard Seed Vault, which is permafrost gene bank in the frozen mountains of Norway, where countries are depositing genetic material, all collections are stored under “black box” conditions. This means that the germplasm is coded and sealed in boxes before being deposited in the Seed Vault. The so called black box is under the control of the country or agency that deposits the material. Only the said country or agency can open the box and add or remove material from it. Despite this being a bank in the public sector, supported and monitored by the Norwegian government, widespread concerns have been expressed over the integrity of the collections and the possibility of theft and unauthorized use of valuable genetic material. How much more is the cause for concern when public material is handed over to an unknown private company for storage ?

We must remember that all the material in Gene/Seed Banks anywhere, is the property of the farmers from whose fields the seeds were collected. It is not the property of the Bank in which it is kept, nor of the countries where such banks are located. For instance , the thousands of traditional rice  samples in Gene Campaign’s village level Zero Energy Gene-Seed Banks are not Gene Campaign’s property. Ownership over the varieties and the community bank in which they are conserved, rests solely with the local community. Similarly the collection of over 4 lakh varieties in the National Gene Bank in Delhi, is not the property of the National Gene Bank but of the several hundred thousand farmers who have maintained these varieties for generations in their fields and who have developed them with their genius and diligence. These farmers have given their seeds to be held in trust by the National Gene Bank to be used for the benefit of all mankind, not for private seed companies to make huge profits.
The international community acknowledges the ownership of rural and tribal communities over the genetic wealth they have created in different parts of the world. Well defined procedures have been laid down if someone wants to access such publicly owned material.  These include Prior Informed Consent (PIC) , Material Transfer Agreements (MTA) and Benefit Sharing agreements. The last says that if any profit is derived from the use of the community’s genetic wealth, they are entitled to a share of the profits. 

All this does not mean that access to genetic resources , along with PIC, MTA and Benefit Sharing agreements, has to be given. Communities have the right to refuse access if they feel this would better serve their interests. These internationally agreed conditions are binding as much on ICRISAT, the National Gene Bank and local efforts like Community Gene-Seed banks of the kind that Gene Campaign has set up.   

A central point in all questions relating to access to genetic resources is that of Intellectual Property Rights. The Indian law , the Protection of Plant varieties and Farmers Rights Act does not allow the grant of patents on plant varieties. Only a Breeders Right can be granted if a variety is developed using varieties accessed from public collections. If IPRs are to be granted, they have to be subject to conditions mentioned earlier and should include preferential access to farmers to the newly developed varieties. These are all features that have not yet been operationalized.

We have no idea how they will be worked out in dealings with the private sector. We do not know what ICRISAT has negotiated with Gubba.  What kind of IPRs can be claimed in other countries on varieties developed from germplasm from farmer’s fields?  The CGIAR has tried to walk a ( sometimes fudgy ) line between multinational corporations and their demands for patents on materials they develop from public gene banks and the pressure from civil society that this would be unethical and tantamount to piracy. ICRISAT must make public the terms and conditions under which it has placed public genetic material into the hands of a private company.
Not just ICRISAT, the ICAR system too is preparing to throw open the national collections to the private sector. 

The Depty Director General (DDG) of ICAR, Dr Swapan Datta  is on record  saying that  the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR)  would offer multinational seed companies its massive national collection of germplasm in exchange for expertise and a share of the profits. The DDG has no locus standito take such decisions, especially when India is moving towards increased participatory decision making. In this climate when law and policy making is sought to being made more open and democratic, it is antediluvian for a small committee of the  National Advisory Board for Management of Genetic Resources, to take a decision on behalf of communities to make available their crop varieties to MNCs. Any decision on giving seed companies access to public genetic material can only be taken after public consultations and then following the due process of Prior Informed Consent, Material Transfer Agreements and Benefit Sharing agreements.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist and chairperson of Gene Campaign, working on food and nutrition. She can be reached

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Interview – Responses of Dr Suman Sahai

High Priority Areas in India
·         Government should focus first on inputs for increasing agricultural productivity. Seeds, soil health and water should be the priority for investment within inputs,.
·         Besides increasing productivity, other goals should be improving the small and marginal farmers’ access to credit, insurance and markets
·         Rain-fed area should be the priority focus rather than the irrigated area since two-thirds of India’s agricultural land is rain-fed.
·         In terms of regional focus, states like Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Jammu & Kashmir should be prioritized. Also, nothing has been done to improve the productivity in mountain regions, especially in Uttaranchal and Jammu & Kashmir.
·         Agriculture should be made sustainable and the foundation should be on a broad genetic base. Narrow genetic base makes crops vulnerable to pests and diseases. Genetic diversity provides resistance to pests and diseases and resilience to climate change.

Agricultural Situation in Targeted States
·         Bihar has a lot of water resources, irrigation access and fertile soil. The state is more a victim of bad governance (e.g., land reforms never happened in Bihar). Jharkhand, which was earlier a part of Bihar, requires much more attention as it has bad soil and dearth of water resources.
·         Uttar Pradesh also has sufficient access to irrigation and fertile soil. Focus should be on Eastern Uttar Pradesh as Western UP is a green revolution area.
·         Odisha is underdeveloped but has resources. The Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK) districts in Odisha are together known as the starvation belt despite having enough rice production. This is because majority of the rice produced is traded out.

Small and Marginal Farmers
·         Most of the farmers in rain-fed areas are small and marginal farmers
·         Crops: The basket of small and marginal farmers in rain-fed areas include only one crop – the kharif (summer) crop which is mainly rice. No second crop is usually possible in rain-fed areas due to low availability of water in the winter season. The basket of small and marginal farmers in irrigated areas includes both a summer crop (mainly rice) and a winter crop (mainly wheat, mustard, potato or vegetables)
·         Income: Income varies from state to state and also dependent on the crops grown. But one trend which is uniform is that none of the small and marginal farmers are able to have a surplus in India. Farmers in irrigated areas are better off than farmers in rain-fed areas as they have the buffer of second crop. Small and marginal farmers also work on large lands as laborers ,especially during sowing, harvesting threshing etc., to earn extra income.
·         Yield: Agricultural yield on a small land is higher than a large land provided all inputs – credit, insurance, seeds, water and good soil are available. This is because a small and marginal farmer works on his own on a small land and therefore, dedication level is much higher than working as a laborer on a large land. However, in India, small and marginal farmers do not have required inputs to attain that yield. Normally, small and marginal farmers have the worst soil. They require credit to procure required inputs which is again not available.
·         Decline in cultivator population: It is true that small and marginal farmers leave the land fallow due to lack of inputs and work as agricultural laborers on large farms. This is one of the prime reasons for increase in population of agricultural laborers and decline in population of cultivators. Some small and marginal farmers even shift to non-agricultural jobs.
·         The access of markets for small and marginal farmers is crucial and should be looked into.
·         Livestock: Most small and marginal farmers keep  livestock. Thus, integrated farming is a common way to survive for them. Credit and insurance is the key for integrated farming to succeed.
·         Mechanization: Mechanization is important for small and marginal farmers but not motorized mechanization. The focus should not be on fossil fuels but equipments like solar pumps or treadle pumps. However, mechanization displaces labor and any labor-displacing technologies will put people out of work.
·         Co-operative Equipment Park: Co-operative equipment parks should be promoted where a person should be paid for maintaining and taking care of farm equipments. Small and marginal farmers can then lease the equipments as and when required.
·         Co-operative Farming: Co-operatives have failed in India because farmers prefer cropping as individuals. Co-operative farming can work if it has a flavor of both individual and collective farming – collective farming. Farmers can  continue to cultivate as individuals and sell collectively.

Agricultural Extension
·         Agricultural extension services require immediate attention
·         Replacing earlier agricultural extension services (where extension officers used to visit the fields) with ATMA (where farmers have to go to extension officers) has been disastrous. It should be reversed as soon as possible.
·         There is no accountability under ATMA. Farmers are not aware where ATMA offices are located. Besides, ATMA is a den of corruption.
·         Young high school students can be hired and trained to conduct extension programs
·         Programs should also focus on skill building, so that farmers can themselves do the next level of processing before selling

·         Seed production should be localized in order to increase the access of quality seeds in India.
·         Foundation seed can be given to farmers to multiply
·         There are enough good quality varieties in the major food crops ( with the exception perhaps of pulses). New varieties need not be developed .Existing seeds varieties have enough genetic potential to give high yields, if farmers are enabled to provide adequate inputs to their fields.
·         Role of private sector in seed production and distribution is limited unless they work with farmer interest in mind. Raking in profits for themselves at the cost of the farmers is not acceptable.
·         Private partnership is good if they can scale up the capacity in rural areas. In many cases, private sector indulges in contract farming and later backs off. For example, in Karnataka, farmers dumped tomatoes on roads because the private sector backed off from the contract. Private sector contracts should be carefully looked into and only protected contracts should be allowed.


·         MGNREGA is a  populist program with no vision. The work revolves around digging ditches. No productive work is done under MGNREGA, no sensible infrastructure is created and no skill building takes place so the people remain as unskilled labor.

·         MGNREGA has led to shortage of agricultural labor and increase in negotiating power of agricultural labor.
·         Implementation of MGNREGA is seriously affected by corruption. Workers are paid much lower than notified wages and

Central Government Support
·         Central government has supported the agriculture sector by launching programs and allotting funds to the sector. However, all the funds are transferred directly to state governments for implementation of the programs and not even half of the funds are utilized. As a result, most of the programs that go from central government to state governments fail.
·         Government is averse to working with civil society, which is a silly and self defeating position.   Role of civil society needs to be appreciated  as they are in touch with both the government and the farmers and can be the bridge between them. An international donor organization can also work with the civil society. Civil societies bring in more accountability than government agencies.

Market access
·         APMC has created more cronies and middle men
·         With e-marketing today the farmer’s  access to markets everywhere is easy and possible
·         A key area for government policy and intervention is to train farmers to build value chains and provide linkages to markets

GM Seeds
·         The way GM technology is presently used in India is risky.
·         For the use of GM seeds
1.       Need should be assessed- which problems doe the farmer face ? Can these be resolved by conventional breeding ? If not, which GM approach would be feasible ? Where for instance was the need for .Bt brinjal ?
2.       If the GM approach is chosen as the  alternative solution, proper bio-safety testing is a must before a GM crop could be introduced.
3.       Proper biosafety testing is not being done because it costs money and everyone is trying to cut corners. This is dangerous.
·         So far, it is the private players which are creating the market in India. Monsanto has the two main genes in use- Bt and HT. Their prime motive appears to be  to license their technology to as many agencies as possible. They do not assess farmers  need and do not want to get into seed production , especially in low production crops such as pulses .