|AGRICULTURE TRIBUNE||Monday, May 20, 2002, Chandigarh, India|
Eco-friendly Bt. cotton and GMCs saviour of Indian farmers
Concern over food quality and safety
Eco-friendly Bt. cotton and GMCs saviour of Indian farmers
Though belated, India joins the group of countries growing genetically modified crops (GMCs). The Genetic Engineering Approved Committee (GEAC) of the Ministry of Environment gave conditional permission to cultivate Bt. cotton on March 26. The rejoicing had not completed 24 hours when a report from Karnataka overshadowed the economic benefits that were supposed to accrue from Bt. cotton. As per this report, Bt. cotton required more number of sprays than the non-Bt. and joined those environmentalists who had been resisting the commercial introduction of Bt. cotton. That the herbicidal resistant gene when transferred to other plants on open mating may produce non-eradicable super weeds. Doubts are also expounded that the application of genetically modified seed may result in ill-effects on human health such as allergies, skin troubles, nausea, digestive disorder. The MNCs, who will have sloe right on the sole of seed, will exploit the poor farmers; that the small farmers will not be benefited by the GMCs; that seed produced in the USA or elsewhere will not take into account the location specific need-based requirements of the farmers.
Today there are two groups of countries, the one who allows the cultivation of GMCs with or without validation of field trials. Important among these are the USA, China, Australia, South Africa and many more smaller countries. The second group, mostly in Europe, vehemently opposed the cultivation of the GMCs on the consideration referred above. India though falls in the first categories is tight cornered and it is not easy for the GMCs to reach the farmer’s fields. The strong criticism of the environmental lobby led to the deferring of the use of Bt. cotton seed by one year. Monsanto Mayhco Biotech will now market the three Bt. cotton varieties — Mech-12, Mech-162 and 184 — cleared for cultivation. The fourth variety Mech-915 could not be cleared due to the non-availability of data. The GEAC has also imposed a restriction that the area using Bt. cotton should be 20 per cent of the non-Bt area preferably in five rows along the periphery of their fields.
This raises an issue as to whether Bt. cotton has seen the light of the day on its merit or a revolt from the pro-Bt lobby of farmers, including the Chief Minister of Punjab. Though technically illegal the cultivation of Bt. cotton in Gujarat last year has served as a field demonstration of cotton prosperity in comparison to non-Bt areas where the American bollworm has created havoc. The pro-group was impatient and for them any further delay would mean the wiping off this crop from the Indian farm scenario. Today suspicion is there on both sides. The pro-group has gone to extent of alleging that there is a nexus between pesticidal companies and all those who are opposing the GMCs.
In India we do not have sufficient data neither to support nor to oppose the use of these innovative genetically engineered crops. It will, therefore, be worthwhile to examine the Chinese experience where the life of such introductions is now six years old. The study made by Jikung Huang, Scott Rozelle, Carl Pray and Qin Fang Wang published in January issue of 2002 in Science (Vol. 295) sheds the doubts of all those who are opposing the cultivation of Bt. cotton in India. The number of applications of pesticides in non-Bt. crop were 19.8 as against 6.6 in Bt. cotton. The cost of pesticide use per hectare came to $ 726 and $ 136 for non Bt and Bt. cotton, respectively. These authors have also reported that only 4.7 per cent people suffered from toxic effects of chemical spray in minor ailments in comparison to 22 per cent who were using non-Bt. cotton. It was 11 per cent among the farmers growing both Bt and unaltered varieties. Furthermore, most of the farmers grew Bt. cotton over less than 0.5 hectares of acreage.
Now it is our wisdom as to whether take immediate advantage of this new technology or to wait and see the effects of GMCs on human health and environment in general and bioresources in particular. I do not think that a thickly populated country like India can afford this type of luxury. Today we are standing at the same stage of early sixties as to whether permit the introduction of Mexican wheat as these might bring new diseases to India and also the weeds. Then the political will of Union Minister of Agriculture C. Subramaniam and the scientific vision of Dr M.S. Swaminathan failed the prophecies of all those who were thinking of famine catastrophe for India. Today we are food surplus. The ascertaining of validation of the GMCs has to be rigid but to subordinate merit by whims of few is uncalled for in the national interest.
Why can’t we see the other side of coin that the GMCs are eco-friendly. If we get increased production per unit area for food crops then such lands can be supplemented for forestry and wildlife. Our national forest policy proclaims 33 per cent of the country’s geographic area under green cover as against about 20 per cent at present. Norman Bortang, the hidden hand behind the Green Revolution, has also postulated that the new technology — biotechnology — should be allowed to advance in the welfare of human race so that the vast stretches of areas can be reverted to forest and wildlife habitats. The human ingenuity in introducing GMCs has to be seen in a holistic manner than to follow the unauthenticated claims of all those who oppose it.
India is an agrarian country. Its economy depends and will continue to depend upon the agricultural produce. Therefore, we cannot afford to neglect biotechnology as a means to boost our yield for unit area. Unfortunately, the negative attitude on GMCs has created a casualness towards this new science. Although it exists as a status symbol in all our universities and research institutes, leaving a few prestigious centres, progress made in this direction in comparison to our neighbouring country China is shocking and alarming. China has today 251 varieties of food crops that have been cleared by the Genetic Energy Safety Administration for field trials and, in contrast, our number does not exceed 20 and that too mostly under green house testing.
Today China’s budget in biotechnology has reached $112 million, while it is only $23 million in the case of India. In China the major share of funding is governmental, while in India we will look for private investments also. Industries have to come forward for investments so that through biotechnology we can also harness the fruits of gene business of this "genetic gold rush". The role of biotechnology in India is the same as that of atomic power. Develop it or else we will continue to be among the poor nations. More funds, better R&D and profuse opportunities of bio-business for entrepreneurship and employment generation are assured by biotechnology.
Concern over food quality and safety
Food security, food safety and food quality, besides access to nutrition food in adequacy, are vital concern for every citizen, the nation and the world community at large.
Safety of food is an assurance that saleable food will not cause harm to the consumer when it is produced or consumed according to its intended use. Primary production of food is through agriculture and allied activities, but its further processing, value addition and making preparations of innumerable kinds for catering to the consumer demands are in the hands of traders and food manufacturing enterprises in the unorganised and organised sectors.
Because of much public interference with the entrepreneurs involved in the production, grading and marketing, storage and trade of food items, corruption amongst inspecting staff and dishonest manufacturers and traders indulging in adulteration of food articles are not very uncommon. Such public servants and traders indulging in profiteering at the cost of public health should be brought to book with no mercy. But as has been the experience that only a little percentage of such offenders get punishment under law because of long drawn process of law, technical difficulties and not very sincere efforts put to bring such guilty to book, which in turn encourages more of indulgence in such activities.
Presently, several acts and orders are under implementation in India with a view to protecting the consumer against adulteration and other unfair practices. The Agricultural Produce (Grading and Marketing Act, 1973) was the first legislation providing for the formulation of grades and grade standards and the implementation grading programmes for agricultural and allied products. Under this act and the rules framed thereunder, the Central government has been empowered to frame and notify grade standards for agricultural products and also to prescribe other conditions relating to the packaging of the produce and the marking of package/container. Grades notified under the act are known as "AGMARK".
An important point to be noted is that although much has been done to grade and standardise the quality of agricultural products under the APGM Act, 1937, as amended in 1986 grading under AGMARK has remained a voluntary programme capable of benefitting only those who are willing to take recourse to it. There has been a considerable increase in the grading of certain commodities like vegetable oils, ghee, ground spices. etc.
Over the years, even so as a percentage of total production in the country, the quantity graded still remains insignificant at 15 to 20 per cent only. The reasons are many.
The average consumer in our country goes mostly by the price and the assurance of the merchant with whom he deals. In the absence of specific demand from the consumers for graded products, the trader is not keen to stock and sell good stuff. His margin of profit by selling substandard stuff is much higher than he can make by selling pure, graded stuff. As a result. the consumer demand for graded and tested products has not shown substantial increase. In spite of the best efforts of the PFA administration, the incidence of adulteration continues to be high. In a vast country like India, it is beyond the capacity of a limited number of officers and inspectors to enforce quality standards in respect of edible articles sold loose or packaged by millions of shopkeepers.
On the preventive side of vigilance, internal surveillance should be kept on officials whose conduct has been found to be questionable and such officials should be kept away from public contacts. Similarly, stringent action should be taken against defaulting agencies whose product has been found to be of substandard and adulterated. Apart from punitive action in accordance with relevant provision of law, malpractices committed by them should be highlighted in the media.
— Control weeds in the plant as well as ratoon crop by giving heeings with bullock-drawn plough or tractor-drawn implements. Due to the prevailing hot weather conditions, sugarcane crop requires frequent irrigation at 8 to 10 days interval. Apply 65 kg of urea per acre to the ratoon crop. Moisture conservation may be done by spreading mulch between cane rows. Use rice straw/wheat straw/rice husk for mulch. This also checks the growth of weeds.
— For checking attack of black bug, spray 350 ml of Thiodan 35 EC or Dursban 20 EC in 200 litres of water. Direct spray material into the leaf whorl.
— Sugarcane mite can be checked by spraying 400 ml of malathion 50 EC in 100 litres of water per acre. Destroy "baru" weed growing nearby which is an alternative host for mite.
— The thrips also damage the sugarcane, particularly ratoon crop, so spray the crop with 400 ml of malathion 50 EC or 350 ml of thiodan 35 EC per acre in 100 litres of water.
— Sometimes iron deficiency appeared in ratoon and plant crops in light-textured soils and calcareous soils. Deficiency symptoms first appear in young leaves as yellow stripes between green veins. Later the veins also turn yellow. To control this, spray the crop with 1 kg ferrous sulphate dissolved in 100 litres of water on the foliage 2 to 3 spray at weekly intervals are sufficient.
— After the harvest of wheat, bunch variety SG-84/M 522 can be sown after applying rauni irrigation. Whereas other varieties like M-355, M-522 should be sown from May 25 onward with a pre-sowing irrigation. Treat the seed before sowing with 5g Thiram or 3g of Indofil M-45 per kg of kernels.
— Apply 25 kg of Can or 12 kg of urea and 50 kg of single superphosphate at the time of sowing. If recommended dose of phosphorus has been applied to wheat, its application to groundnut of 50 kg of gypsum would be required.
— Summer moong is severely attacked by the thrips, which are small, dark brown, round in flowers and cause flower drop, deformation of pods, deterioration of grain quality and ultimately heavy reduction in yield. Spray the crop at bud initiation stage with 100 ml Rogor 30 EC (dimethoate) or Malathion 50 EC or 120 ml Metasystox 25 EC (Oxydemeton Methy) in 100 litres of water per acre.
— Last irrigation to summer moong should be stopped 50-55 days after sowing. This would help in uniform ripening of the crop.
— Due to the prevailing hot temperature, mentha crop would require frequent but light irrigations.
— Termites attack the underground parts of the plants and damage the roots and the stem of mentha. Apply Chlorpyriphos @2 litres per acre with irrigation water.