Wednesday, January 27, 2016

GM Mustard: Repeating Mistakes

Suman Sahai

An alliance of farmers organizations has recently asked the central government not to proceed any further with field trials of GM mustard. They go further and are asking for a stop to the commercialization of GM mustard. The farmer alliance has in addition demanded that the Government of Punjab recommend to the Centre that all trials of GM mustard be halted. Punjab is an important mustard growing state and its farmers do not want GM mustard. So why is the government pushing for its release, moving ahead with its field trials? If the consumers of this technology have reservations and reject the genetically modified mustard, in whose interest is the government pushing it? Increasingly, GM crops are looking less and less like products that farmers want and more and more like something that someone else wants to force them to have.

One thing is clear to anyone who knows the agriculture sector, farmers are not stupid. They know what works for them and what doesn't. They are willing to experiment, accepting and adopting what is suited to their farming and rejecting what doesn't make economic sense. Countering the push for GM crops based on the argument that it is high yielding, farmers in Punjab are pointing out that yield and productivity are not the issue, faulty government policies are the problem. They say that if proper support to crop cultivation and remunerative pricing are enforced as according to the legal framework in place, they should be, then new varieties of mustard are not required.

Safety issues can't be ignored
The commercialization of any GM food crop will of necessity have to demonstrate that it is safe for the environment and not harmful to human and animal health. This will be best achieved by sharing the results of safety testing with the public. But this is exactly what the developers of GM crops refuse to do. Requests for information on biosafety data are turned down citing that such information is ‘confidential business information'.

This is utterly ridiculous. Information about the nature of the gene construct may be classified and the innovation may constitute ‘confidential business information'. But under no circumstances can any information which could have a bearing on public health, be withheld from the public and be termed ‘confidential'. The refusal of technology providers and technology regulators to be transparent and share information with the public has led to a growing distrust of GM technology. With the passage of time even those not greatly involved with the debate on GM crops are asking why the government/ industry is hiding data if the data are clean and there is nothing to fear? The more the technology providers hide data, the greater the likelihood of the public contesting the adoption of GM technology.

Liability has to be fixed
Then there is the issue of fixing liability. In its rush to promote GM crops, government agencies have not cared about bringing in a law on liability and redress. The recent Bt cotton failure reveals what can go wrong with GM technology. In the absence of a national law on liability and redress who is going to be held responsible for the crippling losses incurred by the farmers in Punjab and Haryana ? How will liability be fixed for the failure? Under which law will Monsanto, the owner of Bt technology and the Bt genes and their partner seed companies, be held accountable for the damage caused by the failure of the Bt cotton crop?

Gene Campaign has pointed out repeatedly that adopting the new transformative technologies which scientists acknowledge have potential dangers, without a strong legal framework within which the technology should be considered for adoption, is dangerous. It is irresponsible and unethical to expose farmers and consumers, to new technologies without ensuring that they are adequately protected incase the technology fails. In other countries this has been done 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 and clean up the mess.

The StarLink case is a good example of why laws on liability are important for societies wishing to go the GM route. StarLink is a genetically engineered corn hybrid which was cleared in the US as an animal feed but not as human food. In 2000 StarLink corn was detected in processed foods like taco shells. Aventis, the company that owned StarLink had to trace and buy back all the StarLink corn that had contaminated corn stocks in different parts of the US. They also had to cover the cost of cleaning and sanitizing equipment used to process corn from harvesting and cleaning to storage. It is estimated that in 2001, Aventis could have incurred a cost upto $ 1 billion to clean up the StarLink mess.

India continues to have an ad hoc approach to GM crops and those who should know better, have allowed a confrontational situation to develop. This is hardly intelligent. It would be advisable to conduct an honest dialogue about the pros and cons of GM technology and its relevance and use under Indian conditions.

Source: BioSpectrum, 16 January 2016, 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Reimagining farming

Suman Sahai

Rather than just being an avenue for food security, let agriculture generate cash surplus

I have just returned from Uttarakhand where Gene Campaign has been working on issues related to agriculture, food and nutrition for the past 14 to 15 years. The aspirations of the younger generation with respect to what they want from life are changing so rapidly that people of the older generation are most often not aware of what their children want. Indeed this is true across the country, especially in rural areas where agriculture remains the mainstay despite a growing disconnect from it. This understanding is not new. Already in 2005, a study conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) told us that 40 per cent of farmers did not want to continue in farming and would move out of it if they could find another livelihood. Ten years down the line the situation has not improved. It has only worsened. As the agrarian crisis shows no signs of dissipating, farmers are leaving agriculture in droves. In Uttarakhand, entire villages have been abandoned and the fields have not been tilled for several years.

The policy makers and scientists have, however, failed to recognise this alarming trend and have failed to take any remedial steps. Equally, they have failed to synchronise their planning with the aspirations of either the farming community or the young people living in rural areas. Let me start with the dominant narrative in the food and agriculture sector. We are still talking the language of ‘food security’ and ‘nutrition security’. Granted that the latter remains a challenge of serious dimension but in my many conversations with young farmers in Uttarakhand , Jharkhand, UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and occasionally in other states as well reveal one common theme. 

Young people want cash income from agriculture, not ‘food security’ per se. So we need to change the focus and the discourse from ‘food security’ to prosperous, well-paying farms. The younger rural youth perceives agriculture as a mug’s game. You will often hear the farmers’ sons say: “Baba, you do the farming. I am off to the city where I will at least get a steady income’. The fact is that farming does not give a steady income and more often than not, rather than an income, the net returns are negative. Why will the young want to continue to suffer like their parents?

In a consumerist society and with the onslaught of television programs and advertisements, most young people do not want to associate with agriculture as it is being practiced. They want better lives and different kinds of things for which they want cash in their pockets.
But their attitude to agriculture can change if agriculture starts generating cash incomes that can buy them the kinds of things they aspire to, a powerful motorcycle, a bigger television set, fashionable clothes and shoes, visits to the city and so on.

So my suggestion is, when government programmes try to promote agriculture, let the focus be rather more on agriculture being an avenue that can generate surplus cash rather than just food security. And change the perception about agriculture. In today’s world, perception is king!!

Start with national TV channels. Stop showing the farmer in a dhoti with a plough upon his shoulder, crushed with misery, with three worry lines furrowing his forehead. Or, looking bleakly up at the sky and waiting for the rains to set in as he sits on a piece of land that is cracked and parched from drought. This is not an image the youth (or anyone else) wants to identify with. Show the farmer as a smart young man or woman taking produce to the market, processing fruit into attractive bottles of juices and jams, operating a unit making parboiled rice and packing it into attractive packages, making dalia out of wheat , chips out of potatoes, sauce out of tomatoes, breakfast cereals out of grain mixtures. Show that agriculture makes money, and is a glamorous profession.

Take a cue from the advertising the defence sector does. When they invite people to join the army, air force or navy, a smart young man in his blue-gray overalls, carrying his helmet under his arm, is shown against the backdrop of a fighter plane. The army is represented by dashing young men in spit and polish, looking ready to take on any enemy to defend the country. A woman in uniform is marching at the Republic Day parade leading a contingent. These are powerful, and attractive images. The air force doesn’t field images of mangled, crashed MiGs, nor does the army pictures of bloodied and assassinated soldiers even though that is sometimes part of their reality.

Why then do we persist in showing a miserable broken farmer, unable to feed his family, crushed by life’s adversities. Adversity is as much part of his life as are mangled planes and sunken ships to the air force and navy. But that is not what the defense sector projects.

In our work with young farmers in Uttarakhand, we have begun to talk about the great possibilities that the farm, orchard and livestock offer to make money and lead good lives. We have started training programmes in value addition of fruits, vegetables and traditional grains like millets and amaranth. We have experts give training and demonstrations in increasing the production and productivity of crops. We also talk to farmers about the importance of healthy, clean produce if they want their products to reach the market. We are introducing the concept of quality standards and the significance of meeting those standards if they want to make their products viable and competitive in the market.

We work principally with women farmers and we have organised them into Mahila Kisan Samitis. Here in Uttarakhand, as in most hill states, the women do most of the farm work. So we figured that they should claim that identity too. We don’t exclude the young men – not those who are interested. They are also included in the value addition work. The response is beginning to show. If you can show make farming and agriculture-related activities prosperous and glamorous enterprises, the younger generation will have a reason to stay on in the profession. Otherwise, they will not.

Daily News and Analysis, 5 January 2016,