Crop of questions
As the debate rages on about the pros and cons of genetically modified (GM) crops, Vibha Sharma talks to a cross section of experts from various fields and puts together varying viewpoints on this complex issue.

Yudhvir Singh
Yudhvir Singh:
The claim that Bt cotton crop does not require pesticides has also fallen flat on its face

Sunita Narain
Sunita Narain:
Small and marginal farmers sowing branded Bt cotton are still as vulnerable to losses

Vandana Shiva
Vandana Shiva:
A large number of Punjab farmers are not using Bt varieties but those developed through cross-breeding from Gujarat

Usha Zehr
Usha Zehr:
If farmers were not happy, the acerage under Bt cotton 
would not have increased

Genetically modified crops are viewed in contrary ways: As a nutritious food option, revolutionary scientific alternative for resource-constrained small and marginal farmers or a health hazard for consumers and death-knell for the farming community. Environmentalists say GM technology is bad for the flora and fauna, and spells unknown health risks for human beings and animals. Promoters argue that GM food has stronger resistance to weeds, pests and disease; superior texture, shelf life, flavour and nutrition; and makes better economic sense.

There is also a perception that the issue has been "sensationalised" by NGOs and media.

In an effort to represent the various viewpoints of this complex issue, opinions of well-known environmentalists Sunita Narain and Vandana Shiva, Greenpeace campaigner Divya Raghunandan and representatives of farmers’ community were taken. Usha Barwale Zehr, a scientist with Maharasthra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (Mahyco), who is currently working on Bt brinjal, gave the corporate viewpoint. The government’s version has been culled from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) website and views expressed by a couple of members.

Monsanto, along with Aventis, Syngenta, BASF and Du Pont are the five MNCs, which, Greenpeace says, control the GM market in the world. Monsanto has 80 per cent of the market share and holds the patent for Bt cotton along with the US Department of Agriculture. In India, according to Dr Zehr, close to 25 companies, including Monsanto, Monsanto-Mahyco Biotech and Mahyco, are working on transgenic field crops and vegetables.

The GM crop is synonymous with Bt cotton in India, as it is the first GM crop and till date the only one to be cultivated in the country. India’s experience with GM crops began as recently as 2002 when the GEAC granted approval for the commercialisation of three varieties—Bt Mech-12, Bt Mech –162 and Bt Mech-184, developed by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech in a 50:50 partnership between India’s largest seed-producing company and the world’s largest GM seed company.

At present, more than 55 varieties approved by the GEAC are in the market for commercial cultivation and several seed companies are marketing these varieties.

Conflicting claims

The introduction of GM seed has led to increased productivity in certain agro-climatic zones, promoters claim, adding that farmers, including those in Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, are very happy with the output of Bt cotton. "If farmers were not happy, the acerage under Bt cotton would not have increased. Farmers are coming back to buy seeds, and the fact is that the company can only make money if farmers make money," asserts Dr Zehr.

Environmentalists do not buy this line and blame Bt cotton for large-scale farmers’ suicide and the death of hundreds of cattle in Warangal. "Farmers are caught in a vicious cycle of debt and beholden to moneylenders. Surveys by Vidarbha Janandolan have shown that 90 per cent of the farmers who committed suicide in the past six months had sown Bt cotton," says Vandana Shiva, Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.

At the global level, the issue is still being debated but the US and the UN consider GM food to be safe. "But then America is truly the wild West as far as GE is concerned," adds Dr Shiva.

Lesser pesticides

"Bt cotton is capable of protecting itself against bollworm and Bt brinjal fruit and shoot borer, thereby reducing the need for external dosage of chemical pesticides. Lesser number of sprays mean better health for farmers and minimal contamination of ground water and rivers through run-off pesticides during rains," Dr Zehr says.

In India, so far no GE food crop is available as Bt cotton is the sole GM crop to have been commercialised. However, several agricultural institutions are conducting research for developing GE food crops like rice, cabbage, chickpea, muskmelon, mustard, though the first GE subzi likely to reach our dining tables could be the very humble baingan ka bharta, provided environmental groups fail to have their way.

Mahyco has developed a transgenic hybrid brinjal and sought permissions for large-scale field trials from the GEAC . The GEAC has been flooded with representations against granting Bt brinjal permission and on the last meeting on June 30, a decision was taken to present the issue for discussion before a committee comprising toxicologists, economists, senior vegetable breeders.

"GMO," says Dr Shiva is a multi-billion dollar, thousands of people aggression. "The country needs a more active body to deal with it than the two-and-a-half person GEAC, which woke up to the issue as late as 1998 when we took it up. A GEAC member’s opinion is "all Mahyco is asking for is field trials. Bio-safety data on the crop is available. Concerns that reuire merit can be substantiated with more studies." "The event-based approval system introduced by the GEAC goes against all science-based regulatory systems. Biosafety protocols require a step-by-step and case-by-case approach. Field trials undertaken so far in the Bt. brinjal case have not been cleared by GEAC. Before the clearance of large-scale, agronomic field trials and seed production, companies need to apply to the GEAC to repeat the biosafety trials, both for regulatory reasons, and for scientific reasons," says Dr Shiva


In India the bt transformation has been the only successful one. Which is why it is now being introduced in brinjal, potato, tomato, rice, etc, explains GE-Free campaigner Divya Raghunandan.

Bt is the short for bacillus thuringienis, a soil bacterium. "Bio-safety studies in Bt brinjal show benefits like reduction in pesticide usage, increased marketable yield due to less damaged fruits, safety in terms of pesticide exposure and pesticide residue on fruits for both farmers and consumers and increased income as a result of all these benefits. It is absolutely safe to eat and does not affect non-target insects or other animals. Though the GM seeds cost more money but they also save on extra sprays of pesticides and give a better yield. It is a win-win situation for farmers at a little extra cost. Public-private partnership is making available technology to all groups of farmers, particularly resource-constrained marginal farmers," she says.

The problems

According to environmentalists, GMO is an attempt to push agriculture into industrialised mode. "The GEAC should not approve commercial trials of Bt brinjal as Mahyco’s biosafety assessment is unscientific, inadequate and biased," says Dr Shiva. "Look beyond the propaganda of corporates and scientists hired by them and you will see that the bt cotton experience has been expensive and unreliable. It is an excuse to establish monopolies in the market by making patent and getting profits at farmers’ cost.

The greatest threat is lack of data to the public. Impacts of the GE crops are not known to the common man. None of the Mahyco studies on Bt brinjal have been carried out at in a scientific way at biochemical and cellular level. Thousands of sheep have died in Warangal after grazing on Bt cotton fields. Why has that happened if it is so safe? Clearly, corporate claims need scientific research and investigation," she adds.

Divya too asserts that the GE food is not safe. "Even Monsanto is not sure. Caterers at Monsanto’s UK main offices banned GE food at the staff restaurant in response to concerns raised by staff itself," she asserts. Divya adds that GM food is neither more nutritious, nor safe. "One would have to eat about 10 kg of GM potato everyday to meet the daily minimum protein requirement."

Environmentalist also say that GM food doesn’t work out to be cheaper for consumers as GE crops are thrice as expensive.

"With decreasing demand for pesticides in the developed world, the agro-chemical giants have re-oriented their focus on GE foods. Since companies patent all seeds, these come with a price in short term as well as long term. These seeds generally cost two to three times more than ordinary seeds. Moreover, they come with heavy royalty fees, meaning that farmers often fall in the vicious circle of shelling out money for every crop cycle year," says Divya.

No answer to hunger

Greenpeace also points that there is absolutely no connection between GE food and the problem of hunger in India or elsewhere. "This is just one of the ways MNCs, promoting GMOs, make people opposing the GE crop feel guilty. There is food rotting in our godowns across the country. The problem is ineffective distribution, lack of purchasing power among the poor and the government’s outdated policies. GM food is not an answer to India’s hunger and the solutions to these problems are in no way connected to the GE technology."

Dr Shiva says "Bt was permitted in the state just last year. Moreover, a large number of Punjab farmers are not using Bt varieties but those developed through cross-breeding from Gujarat."

CSE-speak on Punjab

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has analysed the cost-benefit scenario of Bt cotton and according to CSE Director Sunita Narain, in terms of total costs — labour, machinery and transport — the farmer has been the loser, pre-as well as post-Bt. "The losses are greater post-Bt, simply because the outflow is more and the indebtedness is greater."

Regarding Punjab, CSE analysis "The fabric of cotton" says that productivity has increased in Punjab with the introduction of Bt (from 413 kg per ha in 2003-04 to 600-700 kg during 2005- 06). Punjab was the largest per hectare user of pesticides before Bt came in to the state first through unauthorised route from Gujarat in 2003. The per hectare expense was Rs 7,171, according to government data. After Bt was legally introduced in the state in 2005-06, the pesticide cost has declined to Rs 3,585 almost a 50 per cent decline. This reduced the cost of cultivation on account of pesticides.

Branded Bt seeds are priced at almost four times the normal hybrids. So the farmers are sourcing unauthorised seeds from Gujarat. These seeds are priced in the range of Rs 300 to Rs 700 compared to Rs 1800 to Rs 2000 of branded Bt. Independent surveys show almost 90 per cent of Punjab’s Bt is unauthorised. But this has reduced the cost of cultivation and losses for farmers. "Farmer suicides, however, have been reported in the state. Small and marginal farmers sowing branded Bt are still as vulnerable to losses as they were when large amounts of pesticide use was on. Bt requires three times more water than normal hybrid hence farmers who cannot afford irrigation are in trouble," the CSE says.

The solution

Environmentalists say that while Bt cotton was initially effective against bollworm, numerous secondary pests have ruined the cotton harvest over the last few years. "This burst the bubble that Bt cotton reduces pest incidence and reduces pesticide usage." "Bt brinjal, unlike Bt cotton, is a vegetable which will be eaten on a regular basis. The government first needs to put its labelling laws in place before allowing large scale seed production and large-scale agronomic trials. The government plans to introduce mandatory labelling of GM foods. The health ministry is in the process of finalising its draft proposals for amending relevant provisions of the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Rules, 1955. Such a labelling system needs to be fully in place before any step towards commercialisation of Bt brinjal, including large scale trials and commercial seed production are allowed.

Further, it needs to ensure that the biotechnology industry is fully responsible for traceability and segregation. This should not be a cost transferred to small-scale retailers and consumers.

Moreover, since Bt can also contaminate non-Bt, government needs to ensure large areas are allowed to become GE-free if it wants to stand somewhere in the future," Divya also adds that companies that sell food with GE ingredients must label them as GE, so that consumers have a choice to reject or accept them. "A basic policy to eating healthy is to eat local produce (food that hasn’t travelled thousands of miles) traditional (varieties that are region and climate specific) and seasonal food. Every time we eat a non-seasonal, non-local food, we make a trade off and contribute to an increase in demand for industrial farming and pesticides. Organic food is the best way to avoid dangerous pesticides and GMOs in food. Sustainable agricuture practices are those where a farmer has the right to choose."

The GEAC says that the government is treating the whole issue with utmost caution and care. A viewpoint also is that despite hullaballoo by environmentalists, there is no clear-cut scientific evidence to prove that GM food is not safe "I am not saying whether the NGOs are right or wrong, the GEAC has decided to go case by case. We know socio-economic factors and pricing are the issues but overall farmers have been happy with the performance of the Bt cotton in states where it has been introduced."

As environmentalists say, "Like in the case of pesticides, should we wait for two decades to say that GM food is bad for health?"

According to the Organising Secretary of Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, Janak Raj Mahajan, "Studies by our central body have shown that Bt cotton has not been successful in the cotton belt of Punjab. Farmers still have to use pesticides and there are additional problems like Bt fields affecting non-Bt-cotton fields. Overall farmers are preferring to use non-Bt varieties." National Coordinator of Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movement, Yudhvir Singh agrees: Despite the fact that Bt cotton has been a total failure, the government is now trying to push Bt brinjal. In the past three years, workers in Bt cotton fields have reported allergic reactions.

A Centre for Sustainable Agriculture study shows that a large number of sheep died after grazing in Bt cotton fields in Warangal district. The company’s claim that Bt crop does not require pesticides has also fallen flat on its face".

Yudhvir Singh who is also a member of a coalition GE-Free India, says that the claim that Bt cotton yield has been good is because in the North and West India the climatic conditions have been favourable. "Not only the Bt but the non-Bt crop varieties have also flourished in these areas in past three years. In other parts of the country, like the Vidarbha where agro-climatic conditions were not favourable, both Bt and non-Bt crops failed. Our analysis is that the success of the crop is more dependent upon agro-climatic conditions."