Monday, December 14, 2015

Genetically irresponsible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sowing Poverty

Suman Sahai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DNA, Thursday, 12 November 2015



Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The skewed pulses story

Suman Sahai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deccan Chronicle | Suman Sahai | November 02, 2015


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

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

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

Are we prepared for field trials of GM crops?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Bt cotton is perceived to be a great success.

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

What is the impact on farmers?

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

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

How does the consumer ascertain if GM foods are safe?

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

Are Indians already eating imported GM food?

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

Source: -Times of India, 02 Nov. 2014

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Experts urge caution on GM crops

Suman Sahai

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