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Posts Tagged ‘biotechnology

Of seeds and swadeshi

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RG_Asian_Age_GM_20140810India has reached food security without GM crops. Portrayed by GM advocates as an ‘attack on science’, the movement to keep this technology out is firmly grounded in the national interest. In this article published in full by The Asian Age, I have refuted three common arguments that are advanced to the citizens of India as justifying the need for genetically modified crops.

None of these owe their intellectual genesis to the present NDA government (which is employing them nonetheless), and can be found as theses in both UPA2 and UPA1. They are: that genetically engineered seed and crop are necessary in order that India find lasting food security; that good science and particularly good crop science in India can only be fostered – in the public interest – by our immediate adoption of agricultural biotechnology; that India’s agricultural exports (and their contribution to GDP growth and farmers’ livelihoods) require the adoption of such technology.

The article has attracted a number of comments, including one which is pro-GM (and which in turn has been attacked). Here is a file of the support and exchanges till now.

Examining these uncovers a skein of untruths and imputations which have been seized upon by the advocates and proponents of GM technology and broadcast through media and industry channels. First, the food security meme, which has assumed an oracular gravity but which has not been supported by serious enquiry. On this aspect, the facts are as follows. Our country grows about 241 million tons of cereals (rice, wheat and coarse cereals), just under 20 million tons of pulses and between 160 and 170 million tons of vegetables (leafy and others together). This has been the trend of the last triennium.

Concerning current and future need, based on the recommendations of the Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Nutrition, an adult’s annual consumption of these staples ought to be 15 kg of pulses, 37 kg of vegetables and 168 kg of cereals. Using Census 2011 population data and the projections based on current population growth rates, we find that the current 2014 level of production of cereals will supply our population in 2028, that the current level of production of vegetables will be more than three times the basic demand in 2030, and that the current level of production of pulses will fall short of the basic demand in 2020.

In short, India has been comfortably supplied with food staples for the last decade (witness the embarrassingly large buffer stocks) and will continue to be so for the next 15 years at least. Why then are the GM advocates and proponents (including unfortunately the Minister of Environment, Prakash Javadekar) in a cyclonic hurry to bring the technology and its manifold risks to India by citing food security as a reason? Read the rest of this article on The Asian Age website, or find a pdf of the original full text here.

The level of public awareness about the dangers of GM food and seed needs independent and credible science as a partner. Here, anti-GM protesters in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

The level of public awareness about the dangers of GM food and seed needs independent and credible science as a partner. Here, anti-GM protesters in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

This blog has carried a number of posts about GM and agri-biotech in India. Consult these links for more on the subject:

It’s time to confront the BJP on GM
Lured by dirty GM, Europe’s politicians betray public
Of Elsevier, Monsanto and the surge for Seralini
Scientists’ statement deflates the bogus idea of ‘safe’ GM
India marches against Monsanto, hauls it back into court
Monsanto drops GM crop plans in Europe
The year the GM machine can be derailed
Of GM food crops, Bt cotton and an honest committee in India


Of GM food crops, Bt cotton and an honest committee in India

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The Lok Sabha (the 15th Lok Sabha) of the Parliament of India has released the report of the Committee on Agriculture (2011-2012) on ‘Cultivation Of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects And Effects’. This report was presented to the Lok Sabha on 09 August, 2012.

Cover of the report. Click for the full report (pdf, 6.35 MB)

The report stands as a comprehensive indictment of the genetically modified food crops industry and its attempts to wrest control of India’s foodgrain and commercial crops production. The Committee sought views and suggestions on the subject from the various stakeholders and 467 memoranda, most of them signed by several stakeholders were received. In all, the Committee received documents running into 14,826 pages. The Committee also extensively interacted with various stakeholders including state governments, farmers organisations, NGOs, and also with farmers and their families during study visits during this period. Altogether, 50 individuals and organisations gave oral evidence before the Committee. Verbatim records of the proceedings of the oral evidence runs into 863 pages.

This small extract is from pages 24 to 29 of the 532-page Committee report:

GM crops are released in environment only after stringent evaluation of food/biosafety protocols/issues. To have a holistic and comprehensive view on the pros and cons of application of bio-technology on agricultural sector the Committee took on record IAASTD Report as it is an authentic research document prepared after painstaking effort of four years by 400 scientists from all over the world. India is a signatory to this Report which has been extensively quoted in a subsequent Chapter of the present Report of the Committee. Amongst various recommendations germane to all spheres of agriculture and allied activities and sectors, the following recommendations on bio-technology caught the attention of the Committee in all context of their present examination:

Conventional biotechnologies, such as breeding techniques, tissue culture, cultivation practices and fermentation are readily accepted and used. Between 1950 and 1980, prior to the development GMOs, modern varieties of wheat may have increased yields up to 33% even in the absence of fertilizer. Even modern biotechnologies used in containment have been widely adopted. For example, the industrial enzyme market reached US$1.5 billion in 2000. Biotechnologies in general have made profound contributions that continue to be relevant to both big and small farmers and are fundamental to capturing any advances derived from modern biotechnologies and related nanotechnologies. For example, plant breeding is fundamental to developing locally adapted plants whether or not they are GMOs. These biotechnologies continue to be widely practiced by farmers because they were developed at the local level of understanding and are supported by local research.

Much more controversial is the application of modern biotechnology outside containment, such as the use of GM crops. The controversy over modern biotechnology outside of containment includes technical, social, legal, cultural and economic arguments. The three most discussed issues on biotechnology in the IAASTD concerned:

o Lingering doubts about the adequacy of efficacy and safety testing, or regulatory frameworks for testing GMOs;
o Suitability of GMOs for addressing the needs of most farmers while not harming others, at least within some existing IPR and liability frameworks;
o Ability of modern biotechnology to make significant contributions to the resilience of small and subsistence agricultural systems.

The pool of evidence of the sustainability and productivity of GMOs in different settings is relatively anecdotal, and the findings from different contexts are variable, allowing proponents and critics to hold entrenched positions about their present and potential value. Some regions report increases in some crops and positive financial returns have been reported for GM cotton in studies including South Africa, Argentina, China, India and Mexico. In contrast, the US and Argentina may have slight yield declines in soybeans, and also for maize in the US. Studies on GMOs have also shown the potential for decreased insecticide use, while others show increasing herbicide use. It is unclear whether detected benefits will extend to most agroecosystems or be sustained in the long term as resistances develop to herbicides and insecticides.

Biotechnology in general, and modern biotechnology in particular, creates both costs and benefits, depending on how it is incorporated into societies and ecosystems and whether there is the will to fairly share benefits as well as costs. For example, the use of modern plant varieties has raised grain yields in most parts of the world, but sometimes at the expense of reducing biodiversity or access to traditional foods. Neither costs nor benefits are currently perceived to be equally shared, with the poor tending to receive more of the costs than the benefits.

The Committee note with great appreciation the fantastic achievements of India’s farmers and agriculture scientists leading to an almost five times growth in food grains production in the country during last six decades or so. From a paltry 50 million tonnes in 1950 the Country has produced a record 241 million tonnes in 2010-11. In spite of this spectacular achievement that has ensured the food security of the nation, things continue to be bleak on several fronts. Agriculture sector?s contribution to GDP has slid down from 50% in 1950 to a mere 13% now, though the sector continues to provide employment and subsistence to almost 70% of the workforce. The lot of the farmer has worsened with increasing indebtedness, high input costs, far less than remunerative prices for his produce, yield plateau, worsening soil health, continued neglect of the agriculture sector and the farmer by the Government, dependence on rain gods in 60% of cultivated area, even after six and a half decades of Country’s independence, to cite a few. All these factors and many more have aggravated the situation to such an extent that today a most severe agrarian crisis in the history is staring at us. The condition of the farming-Community in the absence of pro-farmer/pro-agriculture policies has become so pitiable that it now sounds unbelievable that the slogan Jai Jawan – Jai Kisan was coined in India.

There is, therefore, a pressing need for policies and strategies in agriculture and allied sectors which not only ensure food security of the nation, but are sustainable and have in built deliverable components for the growth and prosperity of the farming community. It is also imperative that while devising such policies and strategies the Government does not lose track of the fact that 70% of our farmers are small and marginal ones. As the second most populous Country in the world, with a growing economy ushering in its wake newer dietary habits and nutrition norms, a shrinking cultivable area, a predominantly rainfed agriculture, the task is indeed enormous.

In the considered opinion of the Committee biotechnology holds a lot of promise in fructification of the above-cited goals. Several of conventional bio-technologies viz. plant breeding techniques, tissue-culture, cultivation practices, fermentation, etc. have significantly contributed in making agriculture what it is today. The Committee note that for some years now transgenics or genetical engineering is being put forward as the appropriate technology for taking care of several ills besetting the agriculture sector and the farming community. It is also stated that this technology is environment friendly and, therefore, sustainable. Affordability is another parameter on which policy makers and farming communities world over are being convinced to go for this nascent technology.

The Committee further note that in India, transgenics in agriculture were introduced exactly a decade back with the commercial cultivation of Bt. Cotton which is a commercial crop. With the introduction of Bt. Cotton, farmers have taken to cotton cultivation in a big way. Accordingly, the area under cotton cultivation in the Country has gone up from 24000 ha in 2002 to 8.4 million ha at present. Apart from production, productivity has also increased with the cultivation of the transgenic cotton. The Committee also take note of the claim of the Government that input costs have also gone down due to cultivation of transgenic cotton as it requires less pesticides, etc.

Notwithstanding the claims of the Government, the policy makers and some other stakeholders about the various advantages of transgenics in agriculture sector, the Committee also take note of the various concerns voiced in the International Assessment of Agriculture, Science and Technology for Development Report commissioned by the United Nations about some of the shortcomings and negative aspects of use of transgenics/genetical engineering in the agriculture and allied sectors. The technical, social, legal, economic, cultural and performance related controversies surrounding transgenics in agriculture, as pointed out in IAASTD report, should not be completely overlooked, moreso, when India is a signatory to it.

The apprehensions expressed in the report about the sustainability and productivity of GMOs in different settings; the doubts about detected benefits of GMOs extending to most agro-eco systems or sustaining in long term; the conclusion that neither costs nor benefits are currently perceived to be equally shared, with the poor tending to receive more of the costs than benefits all point towards a need for a revisit to the decision of the Government to go for transgenics in agriculture sector. This is all the more necessary in the light of Prime Minister’s exhortion on 3 March, 2010 at the Indian Science Congress about full utilisation of modern biotechnology for ensuring food security but without compromising a bit on safety and regulatory aspects. The present examination of the Committee, as the succeeding chapters will bear out, is an objective assessment of the pros and cons of introduction of genetical modification/transgenics in our food crops which happened to be not only the mainstay of our agriculture sector but also the bedrock of our food security.

The UNDP’s surprising, alarming, Africa view, lurid with green manipulation

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In mid-May 2012, the United Nations Development Programme (the UNDP) released its Africa Human Development report for 2012. Entitled ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, the report is unremarkable for its assessments and language – these have changed but little where Africa (indeed where the recalcitrant South is concerned) is concerned over the last 30 years – and remarkable for the subtext of the agriculture and food focus to human development.

Houley Dia ran out of food a month ago and is now existing on water. A 60-something-year-old widow, she lives in Houdallah, a village of the Fula ethnic group in southern Mauritania on the border with Senegal. Photo: IRIN / Nils Elzenga

The UNDP today, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (and their cousin multilateral lending agencies, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, all incestuous, all unscrupulous, all functioning as think-sinks for mendacious economists who lie with flash charts and sophisticated ppts), is softly softly peddling an industry line. The industry in this case, in the 2012 for Africa case, is food and agriculture, land and poverty, the provisioning of specials foods and the provisioning of the money with which to purchase this reconstituted manna.

For most of Africa south of the Maghrib (or Maghreb, if you prefer, it is impossible to render adequately the flowing Arabic, the Ar’biyy’a, into l’Anglais, into the stilted Roman alphabet) wherever white settlement occured in quantity, the pattern in land expropriation and the use of labour was set by the Union of South Africa. So said Basil Davidson in ‘Let Freedom Come’ (Little, Brown & Co., 1978). This pattern heralded a long period of rising white prosperity still continuing in the 1970s, if with some checks and hiccups (hiccoughs too, the uprising kind) in the 1920s and 1930s, remarked Davidson. He pointed out that South Africa’s Land Act of 1913 provided a model that abolished all African land ownership (i.e., ownership by ‘native’ Africans). Labour supply was increased and the wage rate was lowered and Davidson went on to say that “the same system of proletarianising self-sufficient peasants and of driving them into a labour market where they could have no bargaining power, was used elsewhere with local variants”.

Now, almost a century after that Land Act come into being (providing the precursor to apartheid) an African Development Report from the UN’s development experts has said that “addressing hunger is a precondition for sustained human development in sub-Saharan Africa” (who writes such sentences, I wonder, for do they truly not see the puppet of hunger in Africa and the South) dancing from the threads in the hands of the grain marketeers of the North and their local agents?). “Food security must be at centre of continent’s development agenda,” the report observes magisterially.

A Malian refugee woman in Mangaize, northern Niger, ponders her future. In January, she and her family fled Menaka, a town in Mali, because of the general insecurity and fighting between the army and Tuareg fighters. Photo: IRIN / UNCHR / H.Caux

Pithy statements of concern are duly provided (and recirculated by the world’s press) by the UNDP public relations robots. Hence UNDP Administrator Helen Clark is quoted: “Impressive GDP growth rates in Africa have not translated into the elimination of hunger and malnutrition. Inclusive growth and people-centred approaches to food security are needed.” Hence Tegegnework Gettu, Director of UNDP’s Africa Bureau is quoted: “It is a harsh paradox that in a world of food surpluses, hunger and malnutrition remain pervasive on a continent with ample agricultural endowments.”

And that is why this report, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, is replete with paragraphs like the following, appropriating the language of fairness to conceal behind it the naked greed of the globe’s industrial food networks, their agri-biotechnology partners, their unreliable allies the commodity exchanges, and the political brokers who stitch together, for huge commissions, the whole wreck of an exploitative opera: “Breaking with the past, standing up to the vested interests of the privileged few and building institutions that rebalance power relations at all levels of society will require courageous citizens and dedicated leaders. Taking these steps is all the more pressing as new threats to the sustainability of sub-Saharan Africa’s food systems have emerged. Demographic change, environmental pressure, and global and local climate change are profoundly reconfiguring the region’s development options.”

This is the sort of hearkening to ‘green capitalism’, a disgusting notion, that the UNDP is steering dangerously close to. Why must it be so? Why should this UN agency err on the wrong side of propriety? A closer reading of Africa Human Development Report 2012, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, may answer these questions. Underlying the pregnant concern in the UNDP’s prose is an environmentalism that conforms to “weak sustainability” (as Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal, has called it) and that is the marketing of “rights of access to the planet’s resources.” Great regiments of conventional economists have openly rallied to this position, proposing “the auctioning of world resources” (fisheries, pollution permits, forests, watersheds, and of course land). As Amin has said, this is a proposition which simply supports the oligopolies in their ambition to mortgage the future of the peoples of the South still further.

In villages in Mangalmé District, Guéra Region, central Chad, women have resorted to digging up ant nests in search of the grains of food ants leave behind. Some 3.5 million Chadians are food insecure this year (2012). Photo: IRIN / Oxfam / Stephen Cockburn

As the World Bank knows, the borrowing of an ecological discourse provides a very useful service to Imperialism Version 2.0. I find it impossible to imagine that the phalanx of authors who contributed to the Africa Human Development Report 2012 were all unaware of this capture, this mangling of the ecological discourse, this driving of a weak sustainability doctrine, this marginalising of the development issue and the diminishing, the ruthless diminishing, behind a sequined screen of consensual politics, of the agriculture and food rights of 53 countries that we have come to call Africa.

‘Towards a Food Secure Future’ has said, with the air of heavy pronouncement, with the air a cardinal of the curia adopts perhaps during a papal succession: “With more than one in four of its 856 million people undernourished, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world’s most food-insecure region. At the moment, more than 15 million people are at risk in the Sahel alone – across the semi-arid belt from Senegal to Chad; and an equal number in the Horn of Africa remain vulnerable after last year’s food crisis in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.” Is there a hint of opportunism in these words? Is it possible that the Rockefeller of this era – in the form of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has subtly (or forcefully, for the era of subtle manipulation is as firmly buried as the Bandung cooperation and the Warsaw Pact) influenced the UNDP’s authors? This is, to my mind, a manifesto for the feeding of Africa which extends ambitiously the ecologist discourse in the direction of the merchants of nutrition, the brokers of grain, the doctors of plant DNA.

The UNDP’s Africa Human Development Report 2012, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, may prove to be a turning point for the agency, or it may prove, I hope, a bridge too far, too dangerous, and saner counsel will pull it back into the realm of the familiar damnation of the world’s majority that Frantz Fanon spoke about, which ended not with the withdrawal of formal colonial rule, which continues for Africa in the razorwire-bounded transit camps, in rural pauperisation (Asia too, South America too, East and Central Europe too) and in shanty towns where odes to Steve Biko are still sung.

Formation of the ‘Big 6’ seed-biotech-crop companies

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Over the past 15 years, the world seed industry has consolidated through mergers and acquisitions. This graphic, extracted from a 2011 December USDA report, shows how the ‘Big 6’ got to the positions they now occupy (I have added colour to make it easier to distinguish each dominant conglomerate’s consolidation history).

Formation of the 'Big 6' seed-biotech-crop companies. Graphic from: Research Investments and Market Structure in the Food Processing, Agricultural Input, and Biofuel Industries Worldwide / ERR-130. Economic Research Service / U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (Report Number 130, December 2011) (click for the full size png image, 652kb).

Over the past 15 years, the world seed industry has consolidated through mergers and acquisitions. This graphic, extracted from a 2011 December USDA report, shows how the ‘Big 6’ got to the positions they now occupy (I have added colour to make it easier to distinguish each dominant conglomerate’s consolidation history).

An excerpt from the USDA report has explained some of the features of changes to the seed industry which can be summarised as follows:

1. Among the largest firms in terms of total product sales, the close relationships between seed and agricultural chemicals industries have continued. This applies to the Big 6 firms in particular. These relationships may result partially from complementarity of product lines such as herbicide-tolerant seeds and chemical herbicides, or possibly from economies of scope in marketing as well. Chemical companies also realized GM crops with pest resistance traits would compete with the crop protection chemicals, which helped drive these companies’ interest first in biotechnology and eventually in seed, thus changing their business models to meet farmer demand for crop pest management as technological opportunities changed.

2. On the other hand, the “life science industry” model suggested a decade ago has not become the dominant paradigm. This model stemmed from the likelihood that technologies underlying pharmaceutical discovery were the same as those underlying gene discovery for seeds. Differences in business models and types of customer, however, prevented firms from combining both pharmaceuticals and agricultural biotechnology. Of the current Big 6 companies, only one — Bayer — has pharmaceuticals as its primary product line.

Detail from the graphic, 'Formation of the 'Big 6' seed-biotech-crop companies'

Even when Bayer expanded into the seed/biotechnology industry in 2002 with its acquisition of Aventis Crop Science, Aventis pharmaceuticals eventually became a component of Sanofi-Aventis pharmaceuticals, not Bayer. Monsanto, which entered pharmaceuticals in the mid-1980s with its acquisition of Searle, was briefly held by Pharmacia before the agricultural enterprise was spun off as the “new Monsanto”; Pharmacia retained the pharmaceutical business segments. When Novartis’s chemical and seed businesses were merged with Zeneca’s agricultural chemical business in 2000 to form Syngenta, the pharmaceutical portion of Novartis remained intact as a separate large pharmaceutical company. BASF and DuPont ended their relatively smaller pharmaceutical investments after 2000 and 2001, respectively, and Dow had already sold its pharmaceutical subsidiary Marion Merrell Dow to Hoechst in 1996.

3. Agricultural chemicals have been an important part of product sales for all the Big 6 companies. However, positions in markets for non-agricultural chemicals have not remained constant, with some companies shedding these nonagricultural products. Monsanto divested this portion of its business to Solutia in 1997. When Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz merged to form Novartis in 1996, nonagricultural chemicals were spun off to Ciba Specialty Chemicals, which eventually was acquired by BASF. In response to antitrust considerations, Bayer sold selected insecticides and fungicides to BASF in 2003. DuPont sold its polymers business in the early 2000s.

Industrial farming versus the peasantry

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Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

The October-November 2010 issue of Himal Southasian is out and includes a contribution from me. The issue is themed on agriculture and ruralscapes in Southasia (that’s how Himal spells it, one word). Here’s an extract from my article:

India’s government and its agricultural research establishment are forging new compacts with the private sector food industry. Their reasons for doing so are the breakdown of agricultural extension and the need for food infrastructure. Yet low-input organic farming yields sufficient produce in tune with local conditions, and is well suited to smallholder rural farming households. This benefit is opposite to the ‘agritech’ demands of food industry powers in India, and at risk is the farm livelihood of the country’s massive majority of farmers.

In July, India’s agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, talked about the role of the private sector in agricultural research and human-resource development in the country’s food industry. His audience was made up of participants of an ‘industry meet’ put up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), assembled to discuss four issues: seed and planting material; diagnostics, vaccines and biotechnological products; farm implements and machinery; and post-harvest engineering and ‘value addition’.

Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

Pawar explained the conventional approach of public-sector agricultural research and development, which has been to take responsibility for setting priorities, mobilising resources, research, development and dissemination. He then explained that agricultural extension – the education of farmers in new techniques and technologies, which has been neglected for several years – is ‘no longer appropriate’. Instead, he urged the adoption of public-private partnerships, through which public-sector institutes (such as those in the ICAR network) can ‘leverage valuable private resources, expertise or marketing networks that they [the farmers] otherwise lack’.

The so-called area, production and yield (APY) model of measuring agriculture in India has long been the dominant one, focusing on growth in irrigated area, crop production in tons and yield per hectare. In following this model, central and state planners, leveraging the reach and influence of the national agricultural research system, have automatically tended towards technology as an enabling factor and the economics of the organised food industry. This strong bias exists as a legacy of the successful years of the Green Revolution, when the massive laboratory-led creation of high-yield varieties proceeded in step with massive irrigation programmes and farm mechanisations schemes. In the process, they have turned the needs of small and marginal cultivating households into programmes and schemes, so that these small-scale farmers become ‘consumers of technology’ rather than being recognised as holders of traditional agricultural knowledge.

How the price of tomatoes is determined

These sustainable agricultural systems contribute to the delivery and maintenance of a range of public goods such as clean water, carbon sequestration, flood protection, groundwater recharge and soil conservation. But since they cannot help to achieve short-term profit-oriented goals, both the commercial effort of the National Agriculture Research System and the private sector ignore them. Finally, the cost-benefit of conservation of resources can be determined by the scarcity value of those resources. For instance, will urban food consumers be willing to pay for watershed protection in a district from which they import food?

The only way to get a positive answer from this question is by investing in public education, and by building it into public policy at an institutional level – where it immediately runs into political and business interests. The development of community-supported organic agriculture in India can provide an alternative, which will depend more on the ability of associations of organic farmers to organise, rather than on state support.

India’s organic farming systems. These grow a variety of cereals, tubers, leafy vegetables, fruits and tree crops without chemical fertiliser and pesticide and largely depend on saved seed. There are well-established biological and energy benefits of organic and agro-ecological farming that, under the growing shadow of climate change and energy scarcity, become even more compelling for farming communities.

There’s more in the full article which can be found here.