Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Posts Tagged ‘Mustard

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.]

India foodgrain and commercial crops data

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Here in one convenient Excel file is the annual data from the release of Advance Estimates of crop production for India. This is from the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, and is usually posted on the website of the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation.

The file contains the annual estimates for 1997-98 to 2006-07, two advance estimates for 2007-08 and the full four advance estimates for 2008-09 and 2009-10. The Ministry, just to make things more interesting for the toiling masses, posts the data as a grubby two-sheeter pdf image. I’ve been careful about the numbers.

These estimates are for all major crops covered by the Ministry and in rabi and kharif where applicable: rice, wheat, jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, small millets, barley, coarse cereals, cereals, tur, gram, urad, moong, pulses, kharif, rabi, groundnut, castorseed, sesamum, nigerseed, rapeseed, mustard, linseed, safflower, sunflower, soyabean, oilseeds, cotton, jute, mesta and sugarcane.

How many onions in this mandi?

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Wordcloud credit:

Wordcloud created at from names of major crops and states

Who finds and collects the numbers – the enormous diverse sets of numbers – that help describe India’s agriculture? How these are found and used is an absorbing story. In their most encapsulated form, they are given to us as micro-tables by the Ministry of Agriculture in weekly briefings in New Delhi. Depending on the time of the year, these ar titled “rabi sowing progressing well” or “kharif sowing progressing well” (that didn’t happen in 2009, with the failed monsoon, but these habits are hard to break).

Our agri-bureaucracy is large and deep. It’s big enough to rival other countries’ entire administrations. Who in all that byzantine maze is responsible for keeping track of the dozens of foodgrain crops, dozens of commercial crops, the land use in 35 states and union territories, the vast network of departments, research institutes, agricultural extension offices, state agricultural universities, livestock, fisheries, boards and finally the tens of thousands of farmers’ cooperatives?

Here’s a short attempt at describing this universe. The Ministry of Agriculture consists of three departments: Department of Agriculture and Cooperation; Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries; and Department of Agricultural Research and Education. Each department has its own statistical organisation and system, and I have my doubts about whether they exchange data and methods on subjects that matter.

There’s an Agriculture Census Division which is responsible for organising the quinquennial agricultural census and input surveys in the country in collaboration with the State Agricultural Census units. There are two main statistical activities of the Division: the Agriculture Census and the Input Survey. The Agriculture Census collects quantitative information about the structure of agriculture in India. So far, seven Agriculture Censuses from 1970-71 and six Input Surveys since 1976-77 have been completed.

Ploughing a field in Satara district, Maharashtra

Ploughing a field in Satara district, Maharashtra

The Directorate of Economics and Statistics (DES) is responsible for “collection, collation, dissemination and publication of statistical data on diverse facets of agriculture and allied sectors, required for planning and policy formulation by the Government”. The Agricultural Statistics Division maintains state-wise estimates of area, production and yield of 44 principal crops (27 major and 17 minor) under the two broad seasons of kharif and rabi. The estimates are updated annually in February or March after the release of final estimates of area, production and yield of the preceding agricultural year. This Division also estimates and measures demand and supply projections of foodgrains, oilseeds and other commercial crops. Agricultural wages constitute a major item towards cost of production. Data on agricultural wages in 17 states is collected by DES every month, the wage data relate to the agricultural year (July to June).

Then there is a ‘Timely Reporting Scheme’ which assesses the area sown under principal crops on the basis of what it calls “complete enumeration of 20% villages selected randomly”, which in country with 600,000 villages is a lot. This scheme is put to work in 16 land record states – Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh – and 2 Union Territories – Delhi and Puducherry.

The Cost Study Division implements the “Comprehensive Scheme for Studying the Cost of Cultivation of Principal Crops in India”. This division compiles cost data on principal agricultural crops grown in India: barley, gram, jute, lentils, peas, rapeseed and mustard, safflower, sugarcane, wheat, arhar (tur), bajra, coconut, cotton, groundnut, jowar, maize, moong, nigerseed, onion, paddy, potato, ragi, sesamum, soyabean, sunflower, tapioca, urad and tobacco. This division supplies cost estimates to the all-important Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) which then makes “suitable recommendations” on the Minimum Support Prices of 24 agricultural commodities, which it is then the responsibility of the state governments to ensure that each state’s farmers are paid (at least) those prices for the major crops they bring to the procurement yards.

Finally, there’s the Prices and Markets Division, which collects data on wholesale prices, retail prices, farm harvest prices and market arrivals of selected agricultural commodities from all over India. The bulk of the daily and weekly commercial data is gathered by this division and the scale and scope is staggering: weekly wholesale prices of 154 agricultural commodities are collected from around 600 selected markets and centres; weekly retail prices of 45 food items and monthly retail prices of 43 non-food items from 87 selected markets and centres covering 32 states and union territories. The prices are collected every Friday. It also collects annual farm harvest prices for 26 principal crops from all major states and union territories.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the numbers that (we hope) help describe India’s agriculture.