Genetically modified crops: A wake-up call?https://indianexpress.com/article/india/genetically-modified-crops-risks-debate-bt-cottton-brinjal-seeds-farmers-a-wake-up-call-5839719/

Genetically modified crops: A wake-up call?

Amid a continuing moratorium on all genetically modified crops except Bt cotton, prohibited seeds are now in use across the country. The government knows it, and defiant farmers have started challenging it to do something about it.

GM crops, GM crops risks, GM crops protests, GM crops debate, Bt brinjal, Bt cotton, Genetic modification, GMO, india news, Indian Express
(C’wise from above) Farmers in Sarangpur, Hisar, where HTBt was sowed; Saini, whose Bt brinjal crop was uprooted; Kauthakar faces an FIR over HTBt. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Sixty-plus FIRs, at least a dozen against farmers, cases against over 40 seed sellers, the arrest of at least one, and the seizure of nearly 1,100 kg of cotton seeds. Still, a ‘civil disobedience’ movement that started with a group of Maharashtra farmers planting genetically modified (GM) crops has now spread to Haryana, and shows no sign of abating.

Jeevan Saini, 32, of Nathwan village in Haryana’s Fatehabad district, says he “lived in fear” for nearly two months after officials ordered the Bt brinjal he had grown in his half-acre leased plot destroyed in May. “We were treated like criminals, questioned every day. Finally when I took the Haryana government officials to the Dabwali mandi from where I had purchased the saplings, I was left alone,” says the father of three, who has studied till Class 8. Saini adds that Bt brinjal helped him double his income. “I could afford private school fees for my three children.”

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Saini, who has now planted Bt cotton in the cleared field, claims he got no compensation for the destroyed crop. So, on July 5, he joined nearly 200 farmers, led by a faction of the Bharat Kisan Union (BKU), to “symbolically” sow another banned GM crop, Herbicide Tolerant (HT) Bt cotton, at a farm in Sarangpur, Hisar district.

“I am a small farmer and pay rent for my land (Rs 60,000 for the field he grew the brinjal on). If GM seeds get us better returns, why shouldn’t the farmers use them?” he says.

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It’s a question that resonates more than 1,000 km away, in India’s cotton belt.

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On June 25, Laxmikant Kauthakar, 35, led a group of farmers in sowing HTBt seeds in Adgaon Budruk village in Akola’s Telhara taluka. It was a fortnight after a thousand farmers, including him, had sown the seeds in Latil Bahel’s field in Akola, leading to an FIR against Kauthakar and nine other farmers.

Since a 2010 Central government order put a moratorium on cultivation of all GM crops except Bt cotton, planting such a seed entails a five-year jail term and Rs 1 lakh fine.

However, with the BJP governments in the two states cautious, and the farmers defiant, official action has not gone beyond FIRs. This gives farmers hope that the centre of gravity on the GM debate in India may have shifted, enough for a tipping point.

Haryana Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Department Deputy Director Vinod Phogat claims to be “not aware” of the Sarangpur protest, and says the department hasn’t been notified about the ban on HTBt cotton yet.

Back in Maharashtra, the newly appointed Minister of Agriculture, Dr Anil Bonde, has talked about the need for “open consultation”. An MLA from the cotton-growing district of Amravati, Bonde says, “We have to take note of both sides. Based on that, we will send a report to the Central government.”

The state’s powerful Shetkari Sanghatana (SS) farmers’ union has been seeking HTBt since two years. The news of the Saini incident brought the two outfits together, says BKU president Guni Parkash. He was present along with an aide, Chiranjilal Bishnoi, at the June 10 event where the SS planted HTBt cotton in Maharashtra’s Akoli Jehagir village.

Bishnoi’s younger brother, Sunil Kumar, says access to GM seeds can transform the lives of farmers like him. “Despite Hisar, Sirsa and Fatehabad being the cotton belt of the North (cotton is cultivated in over 6 lakh hectares in Haryana), you find Fortuner and Audi cars only outside the homes of paddy farmers,” he says. For now though, it is simply a question of “survival”, add Kumar and Bishnoi, with low Minimum Support Price, high cost of fuel, labour and fertilisers, and poor monsoons, rendering cotton farming increasingly unprofitable.

A big chunk of that cost involves weeding, with the cotton crop being particularly vulnerable to weeds. At present, the only option farmers have is weeding manually, but clearing a single acre in one day entails hiring 10 labourers, or spending around Rs 2,500. With a total of four deweeedings prescribed during the 180-day time period of the crop, the cost comes to Rs 10,000 per acre. Broad-spectrum and low-price weedicide glyphosate can’t be used for Bt cotton as the chemical is unable to distinguish between the weed and the crop. This is where HTBt, the third generation of GM cotton, steps in. It makes the crop resistant to glyphosate. “The total cost (of deweeding) is almost one-third of the present. Why shouldn’t we use it?” says Kauthakar.

US giant Bayer Monsanto had applied to the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) for the commercial release of HTBt in 2013 but withdrew the same in 2016. Approached by The Sunday Express, Monsanto refused to comment on the issue.

Kishan Kumar, 40, a cotton farmer in Sarangpur, says HTBt seeds can increase their yield to 24 quintals per acre. “We end up spending Rs 40,000-45,000 per acre for cotton. While in theory Bt cotton is resistant to pests, we spend nearly Rs 12,000 on pesticides to fight pink bollworm and whitefly. The MSP for cotton produced on a one-acre plot (10 quintals) is Rs 60,000. So our profit is barely Rs 10,000.”

Saying poor rains have shot up irrigation costs, fellow farmer Dalvir Singh, 42, says, “Karz-maafi nahin karz-mukti chahiye (Not loan waivers, we want freedom from debt).”

Kauthakar finds the situation “hilarious”. “Here we are fighting for technology and the authorities are booking us. Whatever happened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan of Jai Anushandan (innovation)?”

While making a case for HTBt, BKU president Parkash says there is no reason to keep out Bt brinjal either — the GM debate largely centres around whether it is safe for food products. According to him, the reason can’t be more obvious. “Seventy per cent of the brinjal in Haryana is already GM. Its saplings are available everywhere.” In Maharashtra, estimates suggest, 15 per cent of the state’s 40 lakh hectares under cotton have HTBt.

Claiming they don’t know where the seeds are coming from, Parkash adds, “The government must acknowledge the change.”

Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture told the Lok Sabha that the sale of HTBt cotton seeds had been reported from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Telangana. In February, the Department’s Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee found that unapproved cotton was grown in around 15 per cent of the cotton area in Andhra, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana in 2017-18.

Barun Mitra, who is associated with the Centre for Civil Society, says the regulation around GM crops has “handicapped” farmers. “In 2010, a moratorium was placed on Bt brinjal and further tests suggested. Has there been no testing in 10 years? In Delhi drawing rooms the conversation centres around subsidy, but what farmers need is technology. Bt brinjal will have less pesticides, if anything it will be better for consumers,” he says.

Jairam Ramesh, the UPA minister for environment, under whom the moratorium was placed, was unavailable for comment.

With no clear policy despite a change in regime at the Centre, GM sceptics are alarmed at the tacit acceptance that appears to be filling the vacuum. Ashwani Mahajan, the national co-convener of the RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), accuses herbicide companies of tapping into farmers’ ignorance. “Who is gaining from HTBt cotton? It is the herbicide companies. It’s a cartel. They are making these seeds available illegally… What the farmer doesn’t know is that herbicides are carcinogenic in nature. With these varieties being grown widely, one can see an increase in cases of cancer.”

Adds Anil Faujdar, the national council member of the SJM, “Once a farmer uses GM seeds, he is dependent on the seed dealer and the MNC operating behind the scene for new seeds every year.”

Gurnam Singh, who heads another faction of the BKU in Haryana, says not all farmers support GM farming either. “A small group of farmers are not bothered about the impact of GM, and so a lot of such crops are being grown. We often see oversized lauki (bottle gourd) in the market. It is full of chemicals… The government must crack down.”

It was on May 17, following a report by the National Bureau for Plant Genetic Resources, that Saini’s entire Bt brinjal crop was uprooted. Now, in Saranagpur village, Chiranjilal hopes another GM crop will settle the debate. He was among the farmers who defied the law to sow HTBt on July 5. “The sowing season for cotton begins in April, we are three months late. But even if the HTBt plants grow a bit, both the farmers and officials in Haryana can see the results,” he says.

In Akola, Ganesh Nanote of Nimbhara village, who grows cotton in around 20 acres, is also waiting to make a crucial decision. “The day HTBt is permitted, I will shift my entire land holding to it,” says the 45-year-old.

Mitra points out that India’s neighbours like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, are miles ahead in GM technology. “The US introduced Bt cotton in 1996, and we got it in 2002. Why do we have to follow the West? Bt cotton 2 was introduced in India in 2006, and since then farmers have been waiting for a new (herbicide tolerant) variety.”

Insisting the delay was holding India back, Mitra adds, “HTBt cotton has revolutionised the textile industries in Bangladesh, which is now taking over China in the production of inner garments… We need a cotton revolution to boost our industry as well.”

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At a time of deep agricultural distress, it’s not enough to just eulogise farmers as anna data (food providers), says the BKU’s Parkash. “Even mobile phones have harmful effects, we haven’t banned them. Farmers need technology. Haryana’s farmers are not scared of jail. We will sow Bt brinjal (next).”