Last week, Shetkari Sanghatana — the farmers’ union founded by the late leader Sharad Joshi — announced fresh plans in its agitation for use of genetically modified seeds. In the current kharif season, farmers would undertake mass sowing of GM seeds for maize, soyabean, mustard brinjal and herbicide tolerant (Ht) cotton, although these are not approved. Farmers had carried out a similar movement last year, too.
What are genetically modified seeds?
Conventional plant breeding involves crossing species of the same genus to provide the offspring with the desired traits of both parents. Genetic engineering aims to transcend the genus barrier by introducing an alien gene in the seeds to get the desired effects. The alien gene could be from a plant, an animal or even a soil bacterium.
Bt cotton, the only GM crop that is allowed in India, has two alien genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that allows the crop to develop a protein toxic to the common pest pink bollworm. Ht Bt, on the other, cotton is derived with the insertion of an additional gene, from another soil bacterium, which allows the plant to resist the common herbicide glyphosate.
In Bt brinjal, a gene allows the plant to resist attacks of fruit and shoot borer.
In DMH-11 mustard, developed by Deepak Pental and colleague in the South Campus of University of Delhi, genetic modification allows cross-pollination in a crop that self-pollinates in nature.
Across the world, GM variants of maize, canola and soyabean, too, are available.
What is the legal position of genetically modified crops in India?
In India, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) is the apex body that allows for commercial release of GM crops. In 2002, the GEAC had allowed the commercial release of Bt cotton. More than 95 per cent of the country’s cotton area has since then come under Bt cotton. Use of the unapproved GM variant can attract a jail term of 5 years and fine of Rs 1 lakh under the Environmental Protection Act ,1989.
Why are farmers rooting for GM crops?
In the case of cotton, farmers cite the high cost of weeding, which goes down considerably if they grow Ht Bt cotton and use glyphosate against weeds. Brinjal growers in Haryana have rooted for Bt brinjal as it reduces the cost of production by cutting down on the use of pesticides.
Unauthorised crops are widely used. Industry estimates say that of the 4-4.5 crore packets (each weighing 400 gm) of cotton sold in the country, 50 lakh are of the unapproved Ht Bt cotton. Haryana has reported farmers growing Bt brinjal in pockets which had caused a major agitation there. In June last year, in a movement led by Shetkari Sanghatana in Akola district of Maharashtra, more than 1,000 farmers defied the government and sowed Ht Bt cotton. The Akola district authorities subsequently booked the organisers.
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Environmentalists argue that the long-lasting effect of GM crops is yet to be studied and thus they should not be released commercially. Genetic modification, they say, brings about changes that can be harmful to humans in the long run.
What is the movement about?
The Sanghatana has announced that this year they are going to undertake large-scale sowing of unapproved GM crops like maize, Ht Bt cotton, soyabean and brinjal across Maharashtra. Farmers who plant such variants will put up boards on their fields proclaiming the GM nature of their crop. Anil Ghanwat, president of the union, has said this action will draw attention to the need for introduction of the latest technology in the fields. He said farmers will not be deterred by any action taken against them by the authorities.
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