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Posts Tagged ‘Bt cotton

GM and its public sector servants in India

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[Continued from part one.]

The facade of sophisticated science carries with it an appeal to the technocrats within our central government and major ministries, and to those in industry circles, with the apparently boundless production and yield vistas of biotechnology seeming to complement our successes in space applications, in information technology, in nuclear power and complementing the vision of GDP growth.

Framed by such science, the messages delivered by the biotech MNC negotiators and their compradors in local industry appear to be able to help us fulfil the most pressing national agendas: ensure that food production keeps pace with the needs of a growing and more demanding population, provide more crop per drop, deliver substantially higher yield per acre, certified and high-performing seeds will give farmers twice their income, consumers will benefit from standardised produce at low rates, crops will perform even in more arid conditions, the use of inputs will decrease, and the litany of promised marvels goes on.

Yet it is an all-round ignorance that has allowed such messages to take root and allowed their messengers to thrive in a country that has, in its National Gene Bank over 157,000 accessions of cereals (including 95,000 of paddy and 40,000 of wheat), over 56,000 accessions of millets (the true pearls of our semi-arid zones), over 58,000 accessions (an accession is a location-specific variety of a crop species) of pulses, over 57,000 of oilseeds (more than 10,000 of mustard), and over 25,000 of vegetables.

And even so the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources reminds us that while the number of cultivated plant species is “relatively small and seemingly insignificant”, nature in India has evolved an extraordinary genetic diversity in crop plants and their wild relatives which is responsible for every agro-ecological sub-region, and every climatic variation and soil type that may be found in such a sub-region, being well supplied with food.

With such a cornucopia, every single ‘framed by great science’ claim about a GM crop made by the biotech MNCs must fall immediately flat because we possess the crop diversity that can already deliver it. Without the crippling monopolies that underlie the science claim, for these monopolies and licensing traps are what not only drove desi cotton out when Bt cotton was introduced but it did so while destroying farming households.

Without the deadly risk of risk of genetic contamination and genetic pollution of a native crop (such as, GM mustard’s risk to the many varieties of native ‘sarson’). Without the flooding of soil with a poison, glufosinate, that is the herbicide Bayer-Monsanto will force the sale of together with its GM seed (‘Basta’ is Bayer’s herbicide that is analogous to Monsanto’s fatal Glyphosate, which is carcinogenic to humans and destroys other plant life – our farmers routinely intercrop up to three crop species, for example mustard with chana and wheat, as doing so stabilises income).

Whereas the veil of ignorance is slowly lifting, the immediate questions that should be asked by food grower and consumer alike – how safe is it for plants, soil, humans, animals, pollinating insects and birds? what are the intended consequences? what unintended consequences are being studied? – are still uncommon when the subject is crop and food. This is what has formed an ethical and social vacuum around food, which has been cunningly exploited by the biotech MNCs and indeed which India’s retail, processed and packaged foods industry have profited from too.

When in October 2016 our National Academy of Agricultural Sciences shamefully and brazenly assured the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on the safety of GM mustard, it did so specifically “To allay the general public concerns”. What followed was outright lies, such as “herbicide is used in the process only in hybrid production plot”, “The normal activity of bees is not affected”, “GE Mustard provides yield advantage”, “no adverse effect on environment or human and animal health”. None of these statements was based on study.

India grows food enough to feed its population ten years hence. What affects such security – crop choices made at the level of a tehsil and balancing the demands on land in our 60 agro-ecological sub-zones and 94 river sub-basins – is still influenced by political position, the grip of the agricultural ‘inputs’ industry on farmers, economic pressures at the household level, and the seasonal cycle. In dealing with these influences, ethics, safety and social considerations are rarely if ever in the foreground. Yet India is a signatory to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, whose Article 17 requires countries to prevent or minimise the risks of unintentional transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms.

Neither the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), in the case of GM mustard, nor the Department of Biotechnology, the Department of Science and Technology (whose Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council in a 2016 report saw great promise in genetic engineering for India), the Ministries of Environment and Agriculture, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR, with its 64 specialised institutions, 15 national research centres, 13 directorates, six national bureaux and four deemed universities), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have mentioned ethics, consumer and environment safety, or social considerations when cheering GM.

This group of agencies and institutions which too often takes its cue from the west, particularly the USA (which has since the 1950s dangled visiting professorships and research partnerships before the dazzled eyes of our scientific community) may find it instructive to note that caution is expressed even by the proponents of genetic engineering technologies in the country that so inspires them. In 2016 a report on ‘Past Experience and Future Prospects’ by the Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine of the USA, recognised that the public is sceptical about GE crops “because of concerns that many experiments and results have been conducted or influenced by the industries that are profiting from these crops” and recommended that “ultimately, however, decisions about how to govern new crops need to be made by societies”.

Practices and regulations need to be informed by accurate scientific information, but recent history makes clear that what is held up as unassailable ‘science’ is unfortunately rarely untainted by interests for whom neither environment nor human health matter.

[This is the second part of an article that was published by Swadeshi Patrika, the monthly journal of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Part one is here.]

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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.

All over India, thousands march for seed sovereignty

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On 9 August 2011, a date marked every year as ‘Quit India Day’ for its association with a landmark in India’s freedom movement, thousands of Indians marched to support food and seed sovereignty. From remote tribal hamlets in Orissa to cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, more than a hundred events were organised by civil society groups and concerned individuals to highlight the issues of food, farmers and agricultural freedom.

[See earlier post, ‘Monsanto, get out of India!’]

The ‘Monsanto, Quit India!’ day call was given by the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a national network of more than 400 organisations working to promote sustainable farm livelihoods, seed and food sovereignty, food safety, farmers’ and consumers’ rights etc.

Across the country, the demands made to central and state governments were four-fold: no collaborative research partnerships with companies like Monsanto in the state agriculture universities and other institutions in the NARS; no commissioned projects especially for GM crop trials, by these institutions and no GM crop trials in general; no public-private-partnerships (PPP) in the name of improving productivity especially of crops like maize and rice which in effect pose serious questions on food/nutrition security as well as seed sovereignty; setting up grassroots systems of seed-self reliance, recognising farmers’ skills and knowledge related to seed and supporting institution-building and infrastructure around such self-reliant systems, so that timely availability of appropriate, diverse, affordable seed for all farmers is possible.

The Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture, India (ASHA) has summarised the Quit India day events and actions ahead:

In Mumbai, farmers from the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra state joined hands with Mumbai citizens to narrate stories about GM seeds like Bt cotton and how suicides by farmers continue to take place because of debt related to high inputs and crop failures. In Mumbai, youth joined freedom fighters in a silent march from the Lokmanya Tilak Statue in Chowpatty to the historic August Kranti Maidan.

In Orissa, padayatras and palli sabhas marked the day with dialogues with farmers in the tribal regions where the government is promoting hybrid maize along with chosen corporations, activists and farmers leaders urged farmers not to fall prey to the false promises and short-term yield claims of these corporations.

In Andhra Pradesh, all major farmers’ unions along with dozens of civil society groups came together to urge the state government not to allow any GM crop trials in the state. They reminded the state government that corporations like Monsanto (and its associates) have not hesitated to defy the government on various issues including redressal for loss-incurring farmers and price reduction on cotton seeds. A delegation met with senior bureaucrats in the Department of Agriculture after a protest sit-in at the Agri-Commissioner’s office.

Bangalore in the state of Karnataka witnessed a gathering of 300 farmers and consumers under the leadership of Kodihalli Chandrasekhar, President, Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) who held a demonstration at the Directorate of Agriculture. One of the main points raised here was related to state agencies like the University of Agricultural Sciences-Dharwad facilitating biopiracy in the name of collaborative research. Protesters demanded the scrapping of the ABSP II project through which Bt brinjal varieties were created posing serious questions on the IPRs over farmers’ seed resources; they also demanded that agencies which have violated the legal provisions of the Biological Diversity Act be penalised for such violations. The protestors dispersed only after receiving an assurance from top bureaucrats sent by the Agriculture Minister, that all partnerships and collaborative projects with Monsanto and other such companies will be reviewed.

In Patna, in the state of Bihar, freedom fighters and social activists along with farmers’ leaders joined hands to take up a one day symbolic fast against the government’s partnerships with Monsanto and research on GM crops like Golden Rice. The activists were met by the Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Food and Civil Supplies and an assurance provided that Bihar government would look into all the issues raised with regard to hybrid rice, hybrid maize, Golden Rice etc.

More than 15 events marked the day in Tamil Nadu state. In Coimbatore farmers and acitivists urged the state government not to allow the State Agriculture University to take up GM crop trials. They reminded the ruling party in Tamil Nadu about its election manifesto in 2009, where AIADMK had expressly recognised the threat from GM seeds and their unsuitability for Indian conditions, wherein the party had promised ‘no more promotion of GM seeds’. Memoranda submitted to the Chief Minister from various locations across the state urged her to follow the footsteps of other progressive states, which have taken a firm stand in favor of farmers and environmental sustainability and have said NO to GM crops. Data was shared from official records on the occasion to show that Bt cotton had not made any dent to the insecticides use in cotton in the state and that yields have been fluctuating greatly over the years that Bt cotton expanded in the state.

In Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of protesters gathered in Neelam Park in Bhopal from all over the state and took out a funeral procession of Monsanto and cremated Monsanto symbolically. They pointed out that the promotion of hybrid maize seed would nullify the efforts of the state government in promoting organic farming in the state, with an organic farming policy being officially adopted recently here. Protesters said that hybrid maize PPPs with corporations like Monsanto will take away diversity from our farms, will jeopardize food and nutrition security of poor tribals, will bring in agri-chemicals and indebtedness and will push the farmers of the state towards more suicides.

Punjab saw the launch of a week-long unique ‘Kheti Khuraak Azaadi Jatha’ from Jallianwala Bagh on the occasion. This Jatha will travel through the villages and towns of Punjab in the coming days and highlight the dangers of the recent secret deal that the Punjab government entered into with Monsanto. Farmers unions and activists here cautioned the government against giving a No Objection Certificate to GM crop trials in the state and said that all political parties have to take cognizance of the opposition amongst citizens against GMOs in our food and farming, as Punjab moves towards Assembly elections next year.

In Gujarat, a Beej [seed] Yatra in the tribal pockets of the state preceded the August 9th events; in Baroda, many Gandhians, along with housewives, youth and activists, took out a rally across the city today, despite heavy rains. In Uttar Pradesh, led by Bhartiya Kisan Union’s Rakesh Tikait, a fiveday long mobilization effort began with a farmers’ meeting held in Muzaffarnagar. The UP government was urged not to allow any GM crop trials in the state and to revise its plans for hybrid maize and hybrid rice promotion.

Monsanto, get out of India!

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On 9th August 2011, which is 69 years since the Quit India movement was launched in India as part of the freedom struggle, marches will be held in major Indian cities to throw out GM crops, industrial agriculture, corporate land grabs, and the multinational companies who are profiting at the expense of millions of small farming families.

India’s kisan swaraj movement – farmers’ independent self-reliance – has said that the question of who controls our agriculture – our crores of farmers or a few big corporations – has deep ramifications for the whole society.

“We all have a big stake in whether unsafe genetically modified foods will be thrust on us, whether unsafe agri-chemicals would further damage our water, soil and health, whether 10 crore (100 million) farmer families will lose their livelihoods, whether our rural and urban areas will be sustainable and whether we would have safe, diverse and nutritious food to eat.”

The 9th of August 2011 is to be a day of action which aims to strengthen the broader struggle against corporate domination of agriculture by focusing on its most potent symbol. From Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai and other towns and cities in India, a strong signal will be sent that citizens will not tolerate corporate domination of our food and farming systems.

This call is being put out by Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), an all-India network of about 400 organisations of farmers, agricultural workers, consumers, social activists and academics, working to promote ecologically sustainable agriculture and secure livelihoods for farmers, and stop corporate domination of our agriculture and food system.

Monsanto’s Misdeeds and Growing Threat in India – A few indications about the dangers of Monsanto and the extent of its control [get the English pamphlet here / get the Hindi pamphlet here]:
1. Mahyco-Monsanto used its Bt cotton seed monopoly to set exorbitant prices. The Andhra Pradesh government had to use the MRTP Commission,  Essential Commodities Act and then a special Act to finally push its price from Rs.1800 per packet to Rs.750.
2. Monsanto actually sued Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat state governments that they have no right to control seed prices – with Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi as its lawyer! How can individual farmers protect themselves from its legal machine?
3. Monsanto entered into licensing agreements with most seed companies so that out of 225 lakh acres of GM cotton, 210 lakh acres is planted with its Bollgard. During 2002-2006, Monsanto earned Rs.1600 crores just in the form of royalties.
4. Monsanto is on the Board of US-India Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, under which bio-safety regime for GM crops was sought to be weakened; repeating its US strategy where its lawyers practically wrote the policies on GM seeds and patents.
5. Monsanto entered into hushed-up agreements with several states  (Rajasthan, Orissa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir) under which the states spend hundreds of crores of public funds every year to purchase Hybrid Maize seeds from Monsanto and distributing them free of cost to farmers, creating a ready market.
6. Monsanto is pushing the sales of its herbicide glyphosate which is known to cause reproductive problems. Approval for its herbicide-tolerant GM crops would skyrocket the use of this hazardous chemical in our fields.
7. Recently, gross violations were exposed in its GM maize field trials in Karnataka.

Written by makanaka

August 8, 2011 at 20:23

Understanding how Bt Cotton ‘deskilled’ farmers in India

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Rally against Bt cotton in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, India

Rally against Bt cotton in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, India

The adoption of Bt cotton in India has led to agricultural deskilling, and there is evidence of over-reliance on social learning rather than careful trial and study of new seeds and practices. This is the central message of a startling new study carried out in the state of Andhra Pradesh, in the Warangal district. The study was done by Glenn Davis Stone, an anthropologist at Washington University in St Louis, USA, and published by the journal World Development.

Field-level studies of Bt cotton in India now number in the dozens. The clear majority of studies by economists do reveal advantages in cotton yield, and often in pesticide usage, for Bt cotton, but there are several reasons for agreeing that the results to date are inconclusive. One issue is that measures of central tendency obscure the enormous variability across time and space. Consider the major cotton-producing states: yields in Gujarat have surged from below the national average before Bt cotton to leading the country by 2005, while yields in Madhya Pradesh have decreased since Bt arrived.

Within sub-state units such as the district or mandal, villages vary greatly in prosperity, access to information, and other factors affecting use of new technologies, which may help explain cases like Maharashtra where studies show a “complex, confusing picture of farmers’ spraying behaviour and a startling degree of variability in their cotton output”, according to one earlier study. It is doubtful that there is any such thing as a typical cotton growing village in India, said another. [SciDev.net has a report on the study and its findings.]

Stone has said that another persistent problem has been selection bias. Early adopters are known to be a sample biased towards successful farmers. Bt-adopters have been found on average to own 58% more land and 75% more non-land assets; to own up to 36% more land; to be not only richer in land, but better educated and more diversified. Bt-adopters have also been found to be more effective farmers by comparing the non-Bt yields of adopters (i.e. farmers who planted both types) with the yields of non-adopters; the adopters’ conventional yields were found to have produced 29–43% more than the other conventional yields.

Research to date has very rarely controlled for this bias, and many studies fail to even specify how their samples were drawn. The problem is key because almost all studies have focused on the years immediately following the introduction of Bt cotton, when yield differences mainly reject the agricultural prowess of a biased group of early adopters (and also reject how this group happened to fare their first time trying a new technology).

A related problem is bias in cultivation practices: prior to the institution of price caps in some states in 2006, Bt seeds cost four times as much as conventional seeds, and would have been planted in the yields with best irrigation and then benefited from unusual care and expense. This accords with the fact that adopters spent more on bollworm sprays for their Bt plots than for their conventional plots. “In Warangal I have seen many cases of farmers lavishing extra resources and attention on their Bt yields,” wrote Stone in his paper.

“The 2007 season marked the first time virtually all farms in the sample planted exclusively Bt cotton. In 2007, most input shops stocked little if any non-Bt cotton seed, and no farmers in the sample reported with confidence that they had planted any non-Bt seed in 2007. In some cases farmers said they were not sure if they had bought Bt seed or not; farmers often buy seeds that others are buying without knowing much about them. Therefore it is impossible to specify how many packs of non-Bt seed were bought, but we can be certain that the number is vanishingly small. By 2008, I believe the number to be zero: all of the eight input shops I interviewed in Warangal City and four villages had only Bt cotton, and no vendors or farmers knew where one could find a box of non-Bt seed. Most people had stopped even identifying Bt cotton as such.”

[The formal citation: Stone, G. D. Field versus Farm in Warangal: Bt Cotton, Higher Yields, and Larger Questions, World Development (2010). Paper available here.]

From a farm-level perspective there appears to have been a general management failure of which the bollworm damage was merely a symptom. Such management failure has been theorised as “agricultural deskilling” which may be synopsised as follows:

* Farm management skill (in non-industrial contexts) is based not on static “indigenous technical knowledge” but on the ability to “perform”. It is not static, but rather an ability that must be continually updated and refined, especially when there are changes in market conditions, input technologies, pests and diseases, government policies, and even new ideas. This ongoing process of learning to perform with given technologies under changing conditions is agricultural skilling.
* How skilling actually occurs is complex. Drawing on work by behavioral ecologists, it is helpful to distinguish between environmental learning, which is based on evaluations of payoffs from various practices, and social learning, in which adoption decisions are based on imitation.
* Social learning is an indispensable part of human adaptation but it has intrinsic biases. One is prestige bias, in which a farmer chooses which farmer to emulate on the basis of prestige, regardless of the other farmer’s actual success with the trait being copied. Another is conformist bias, in which a farmer adopts a practice when (and because) it has been adopted by many others. Reliance on “pure social learning” should be high when environmental learning is costly and/or inaccurate. Social learning may lead to the spread of maladaptive beliefs, especially when the environment changes very rapidly.
* Failure of the ongoing process of learning to perform under changing conditions is agricultural deskilling, a condition differing in some key respects from the better-known industrial deskilling.

Varieties of cotton seeds at a local outlet

Specific causes of deskilling in Warangal cotton farming were identified as inconsistency, unrecognisability, and an excessively rapid rate of change in cotton seed. Patterns of seed choice gave conspicuous evidence for deskilling. Although choice of seed is one of the most serious decisions the farmer makes each year, farmers in all study villages relied heavily on “pure social learning,” producing a surprising pattern of highly localised seed fads, driven not by local agroecology but by marketing and happenstance. In counterpoint to the classic model of farmers adopting new seed only after careful evaluation of test plots, Warangal farmers showed a keen desire for new and untested seeds, which encouraged the churning of the seed market with new releases (including releasing seeds under multiple names).

In his discussion, Stone has said: “We have, on one hand, a global constituency that contests the spread of agricultural biotechnology on mostly political-economic grounds including effects on intellectual property regimes, funding priorities, and other articulations between the industrialised and developing worlds. On the other hand, we can recognise nexuses of corporate biotechnology, academic science, and state trade interests with a keen interest in developing-world success stories. There is much at stake, and the claim that transgenic technologies are ‘just another tool for the farmer’ is true only in the studiously myopic sense that the textile mills in England’s Industrial Revolution were ‘just another tool’ for making cloth. But the debate has followed a trajectory with enormous emphasis on empirical field-level measurements, and given the pervasive vested interests and strong antipathies, claims of resounding field-level ‘success’ or ‘failure’ have found ready audiences.”