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The Genetically Modified (GM) crop debate

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Economy

In the debate over whether India should go for transgenic or genetically modified (GM) crops or not, there is a viewpoint that supports its ability to enhance production and increase food security, while against the motion there's a word of caution on the grounds that it will encourage monoculture and end diversity of traditional crops. Besides, biotech crops are still not perceived as fully safe for consumption, although nothing is proven scientifically.

The issue is significant as India's economic security depends heavily on agriculture, sustaining 58% of the population, as against 75% at the time of Independence. But since the onset of green revolution in the late 1960s, the country has made impressive strides in agriculture with better use of chemicals, high-yielding cereals and other plant varieties. The green revolution has boosted agricultural output substantially, increasing it 2.85 times to 235 million tones helping feed the country's population that has swollen from 440 million to 1.2 billion.

Saving millions from starvation, self-sufficiency is a driver for poverty reduction and economic transformation in rural areas. The mid-'90s marked a shift in which agricultural slowed down causing stagnation or even decline in farmers' income and agrarian distress turned serious with passing time. Agriculture is no more productive for small or marginal farmers, many of whom have committed suicide because of debt burden.

Studies show 40% farmers would switch over to another job. Sudhir Panwar, president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, says "farmers are in agriculture by compulsion, not by choice. The impact is most visible in UP, which has seen net decline of 49 lakh agriculture workers in the last five years. The NSS report shows number of total agriculture workers went down from 4.03 crore in 2004-05 to 3.69 crore in 2009-10 and 3.54 crore in 2011-12," said Panwar.

Reason is not far to seek. In spite of the success of green revolution, contribution of agriculture and allied sector to the gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from 61% to 19% in the last five decades. Presently, India sustains 16.8% of world's population on 4.2% of world's water resources and 2.3% of global land. Per capita availability of resources is four to six times less compared to the world average which will decrease further with increasing demographic pressure and consequent diversion of the land for non-agricultural uses.


While sparing virtually negligible land from agricultural use, around 51% of India's geographical area is already under cultivation compared to 11% of the world average. The present cropping intensity of 136% has registered increase of only 25% since Independence. Rain-fed dryland constitutes 65% of the total net sown area. There is also an unprecedented degradation of land (107 million hectare) and groundwater resource, and also fall in growth rate of total factor productivity.

- - - This brings into the picture GM crops, a new wave in agriculture as it can increase productivity and help farmers meet food needs of ever increasing population. GM crops are more robust against biotic and abiotic stresses, can resist disease, insects, weeds and climatic changes and are also better in value and nutrient composition. They are capable to tide natural vagaries like droughts, floods and climatic change conditions.

India has drawn a blank in developing the technology even after spending over Rs 200 crore on it in the last decade, while US takes the lead.

In 2012, 170 million hectares of land, around 12% of the global arable land, was planted with GM crops of soybean, corn, cotton and canola in 28 countries. United States of America planted the largest area, 69.5 million hectares, while Brazil showed highest increase in area planted with biotech crops (6.3 million hectares). India planted 10.8 million hectares of Bt cotton and the farm income from 2002 to 2011 was 12.6 billion dollars. Income from Bt cotton among small farm households in India made a positive impact on food security and dietary quality, suggesting transgenic crops can be important in food security strategy.


But the role of GM crops for food security remains subject of controversy. The negative perception is despite no adverse impact reported from any part of US where GM crops are in use for over two decades. In a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared GM crops are not inherently less safe than conventional crops. The GM crops issue should be approached in the light of scientific proof and bogey raised against it discarded, judging its from its fruits and not roots. Punjab government joined hands with US-based biotech company Monsanto for developing research demonstration farms. UP must follow suit. When asked to comment, chief secretary Jawed Usmani said: "We are not averse to the idea, but a decision has yet to be taken." This calls for a holistic approach in which appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks are required to ensure that the needs of poor farmers and consumers are taken into account and undesirable social consequences avoided.

For the full text of the article in the ToI, click here.

Amidst all the noise against GM crops, I thought this was a more balanced write up, and therefore worth a read.

My biggest fear is what I have highlighted in the first para. The highlighted (by me) part in the para towards the middle, I guess, is what is in contention.

Muralidhar Rao

Comments

murali772's picture

Relevant exchange through google-group

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SR: Yes, Mr Mraludhar. This is a balanced write up on GM Crops. But I noticed that health point of using GM Crops is not touched upon...Is there any health wise risk factor...?

Me: The following excerpts from the report more or less answers your query, I guess:
"But the role of GM crops for food security remains subject of controversy. The negative perception is despite no adverse impact reported from any part of US where GM crops are in use for over two decades. In a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared GM crops are not inherently less safe than conventional crops. The GM crops issue should be approached in the light of scientific proof and bogey raised against it discarded, judging its from its fruits and not roots".

Muralidhar Rao
blrpraj's picture

re: health point of genetically modified crops

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SR: Yes, Mr Mraludhar. This is a balanced write up on GM Crops. But I noticed that health point of using GM Crops is not touched upon...Is there any health wise risk factor...?

Here is my take on the health point; while i concur with Murali's reply in the previous post; i feel that we need not be unduly worried about the ill effects of genetically modified food. I am sure that i have been knowingly or unknowingly eating genetically modified food for all these years and i seem to be fine. While i definitely agree that we should not be playing with nature and that someday we may unleash a genetically modified food with potential harmful health effects, i feel that we need not be unduly concerned. What is a greater risk factor (on a potentially exponential scale) to long term health is - 1) road accidents and 2) pollution.  Both of which are really big problems but very underestimated in terms of risk to human being. Why nobody is asking questions about these 2 and not debating it voiceforously? 

murali772's picture

GMO convert's view-point

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Conventional eggplant farmers in Bangladesh are forced to spray their crops as many as 140 times during the growing season, and pesticide poisoning is a chronic health problem in rural areas. But because Bt brinjal is a hated G.M.O., or genetically modified organism, it is Public Enemy No.1 to environmental groups everywhere.
 
The stakes are especially high because Mr. Rahman is one of only 108 farmers in Bangladesh currently permitted to try out the new variety. Moreover, this is among the first genetically modified food crops to be grown by farmers anywhere in the developing world. Virtually every crop, in every other country, has so far been blocked.
 
In neighboring India, green campaigners managed to secure a nationwide moratorium against the genetically modified eggplant in 2010. In the Philippines, a Greenpeace-led coalition has tied up the variety in litigation for two years. Greenpeace activists took the precaution of wrecking field trials first, by pulling up the plants.
 
I, too, was once in that activist camp. A lifelong environmentalist, I opposed genetically modified foods in the past. Fifteen years ago, I even participated in vandalizing field trials in Britain. Then I changed my mind.
 
After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s.
 
There is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues, I realized, that climate change is real and genetically modified foods are safe. I could not defend the expert consensus on one issue while opposing it on the other.
 
- - - - As someone who participated in the early anti-G.M.O. movement, I feel I owe a debt to Mr. Rahman and other farmers in developing countries who could benefit from this technology. At Cornell, I am working to amplify the voices of farmers and scientists in a more informed conversation about what biotechnology can bring to food security and environmental protection.
 
For the full text of the article by Mark Lynas, a researcher at the Cornell Alliance for Science, in the New York Times, click here
 
Interesting piece by a researcher got converted to accepting and now propagating GMO. Certainly provides more food for thought, keeping in view the heated debates currently on on the Land Acquistion bill (check here), as also Liberalisation of Agriculture (check here).
 
Muralidhar Rao
blrpraj's picture

my problem with GMOs

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The issue i have with GMOs is that mankind is potentially placing future of food security in the hands of a few companies that are driven by corporate greed, profits and share holder value.  Imagine what would happen if  corporate behemoths like Cargill, Monsanto and a bunch of biotech companies control what the farmers grow, what we eat, how much we eat etc? 

The greatest tragedy in mankind will be the patenting of seeds and plants by a bunch of corporate thugs and tell farmers that they can't store & retain seeds for the next year's sowing.In the long run we will lose the biodiversity of various types of food crops that nature offers. The natural biodiversity of seeds, crops, food grains, vegetables and fruits belong to the people in general and farmers in particular; it should not be allowed to be patented and owned by corporate thugs.

http://www.newyorker.com/...

 

murali772's picture

Well considered view

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The worldwide application of GM crops is only about four decades old; indeed, it is only in the last two decades that it has ‘captured’ new territories. Even so, only six countries (of 29) account for over 90 per cent of all GM crop area, restricted mostly to four crops—soya, cotton, corn and canola. Most of Europe is quite wary of the potential side-residual effects of GM; the jury is still out on its benefits and safety.

The author of this article, as the then textile secretary, enthusiastically pushed Bt cotton in India in the early 90s; in 2002, use of Bt cotton was officially approved. The ‘success’ of Bt cotton, in retrospect, is quite suspect—it is not quite clear that the gains outweigh the negatives. While there is much hype about increase in production, almost certainly much of this cannot be attributed to Bt. From 2005 to 2015, use of Bt cotton grew in India from 6 per cent to 90 per cent coverage, but the per-hectare productivity rose only by 10 per cent—even this probably largely due to integrated optimal application of inputs.

Productivity-wise, India ranks only 31 of 77 cotton countries. No more than 15 countries produce Bt—it is obvious that GM has no particular role to play. Indeed, India produces 514 kg/ ha, less than a third of Israel or Turkey, both of which shun Bt/GM. Farmer suicide rates have apparently gone up sharply; India had great diversity in pest-resistant desi cotton varieties. Alas, most of it is now gone, forever.


If I had, in 1995, the same level of knowledge and understanding (even now it is incomplete) as I have now, I am sure that Bt cotton would not have been ushered in with so much enthusiasm, possibly gullibility.

For the full text of the column by Sri T S R Subramaniam, IAS (retd), in the New Indian Express, click here.

Technology is fine; but it has its limitations too. As such, the Modi govt would do well to rein in those venturing into uncharted territories, at the behest of marauding profiteers.

Also, Mr Subramaniam's kind of candid admission that he may have erred in helping usher in Bt cotton, is possible only when one has the courage of conviction to back oneself. I am sure it's not going to go unnoticed.

Muralidhar Rao
murali772's picture

Karnataka's answer to Monsanto

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From lost or old vegetable varieties, to plates made from recycled plant waste, green entrepreneurs are enabling Karnataka farmers to be commercially viable and innovative.

For the full text of the article in the Bangalore Mirror, click here.

Perhaps, herein lies our answer to the Monsanto's of this world. In fact, it has the potential of becoming the new paradigm across the world even.


 

Muralidhar Rao

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