Growing Pains of India's GM Revolution
By Richard Black. Environment correspondent
BBC News website, India
February 07, 2007
"Indian farmers are clamouring for genetically modified seeds"; so said India's agriculture minister Agit Singh five years ago.
If that indeed was the case then - which is open to dispute - much has changed since.
Genetically modified varieties of crops such as rice, wheat, and mustard developed at home and abroad have not gone through commercial trials as their developers anticipated.
The only GM crop now being grown commercially might put a shirt on your back but is absolutely guaranteed not to alleviate hunger - it is cotton.
For the moment, India's biotech dream lies wilting on the wastelands of a farmer's degraded backyard.
For the reason why, look no further than Rampura village in Haryana state.
In October last year, local farmers and activists from the Bhartiya Khisan Union (BKU) razed to the ground fields of experimental GM rice plants.
The company behind the trials was Mahyco, a close ally of the multinational Monsanto; the fields they hired belonged to Paramjit Singh.
"[Mahyco] came to me and said 'we're going to trial a hybrid seed'," he recounts. "They said 'if you can provide two acres of land, we can pay you 30,000 rupees (£350, $680); and you also provide the irrigation'; they mentioned hybrid seed, not GM," he says.
How the local community and the BKU discovered these were GM plants is not entirely clear; but discover they did, and the fields went up in smoke. Paramjit Singh admits he knew nothing about genetic modification before the BKU officials came along; but his opinion is now clear.
"GM technology is bad, so I had no problem with the idea of burning the field," he says. "It's not good for the farm, for the environment, for human life; I'm happy to see it burn."
Near-identical scenes were played out last year in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Mahyco says it did not mislead farmers and also denies it broke biosafety rules, another allegation from farmers' unions.
But whatever the rights and wrongs of these individual cases, two things are clear: activists are beating biotech companies and the government in the public relations game, and farmers are voting with their matches.
Fuelled by the pyres in Haryana and Tamil Nadu, campaigners led by Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security won a Supreme Court decision suspending commercial trials of GM crops.
Mr Sharma insists that the drive for biotechnology has absolutely nothing to do with a desire to solve India's hunger problems.
"About 320 million people go to bed hungry in India each night; not because there is no food, but because they cannot buy that food," he says. "Between 2001 and 2003, India had a record grain surplus of wheat and rice amounting to 65 million tonnes.
"If you could have stacked the bags of grain one on top of another there would be enough bags to walk to the Moon and back; that was the quantity of food lying in India, and yet 320 million people went hungry.
"So let's be very clear; no-one is interested in eradicating hunger."
And with suspicion of genetic modification running high in certain quarters, another of India's prominent activists, Vandana Shiva, is promoting a radically different approach to increasing yields and providing essential nutrition: organic farming.
"Our surveys show that on average, with biodiverse organic farming, farmers can get double the yield without spending money on untested seeds and toxic chemicals," she says.
"Consumers get a quality product; and contrary to the myth propagated by the genetic engineering lobby that you need to destroy biodiversity and monopolise seed in order to get more food produced, we are able, through farmers' own seeds and farmers' own knowledge combined with scientific research, to grow more food, remove hunger and remove poverty without putting the environment at risk."
Dr Shiva's organisation Navdanya publishes guides and advice, gives support to experimental farms, and sells what are by Indian standards expensive organic vegetables to Delhi's burgeoning middle classes.
How relevant her arguments are to the less affluent parts of India is open to question; but they do not appear to be making a dent in the government's commitment to high-tech agriculture.
"Technology-based agriculture is the solution," maintains SR Rao, scientific advisor to the government's department of biotechnology.
"Whether it is GM technology, marker-assisted breeding, whether it is a nanobiosensor to detect water residues - all are required. People think that we are talking of GM as though it is the solution; it is one of the solutions."
As in other parts of the world, no-one making plans for agriculture in India can ignore what computer models of climate change are predicting about the future.
One recent study forecast that rising temperatures and diminishing rainfall would shrink South Asia's wheat-growing area by half by the middle of the century.
Professor P Pardha Saradhi is perhaps the country's leading plant biotechnologist. His research at Delhi University now concentrates on using genetic modification to make plants more adaptable, more capable of survival in a potentially warmer and dryer future.
"What we are seeing is unexpected changes in the environment; sometimes we have high temperatures, sometimes temperatures suddenly go down," he says.
"Last year, in the case of chick peas, there has been severe damage and the yield went down to about 25% to 30% (of normal).
"So we want to make genotypes of crop plants to withstand any kind of environmental situation, and we're trying to take genes from some of the wild relatives of crop plants and introduce them into crop plants in order that at least we will have good productivity."
If his research is successful and the testing moratorium is lifted - which seems unlikely in the short term, given the ongoing wrangles between biotech supporters and anti-GM campaigners over the composition of the government's regulatory panel - it would still be years before Professor Saradhi's creations could be used.
"You have a lot of uncertainties in the basic research stage, and that takes maybe three to five years," observes SR Rao.
"Then you enter into regulatory field trials, which takes again maybe three to four years, and then you have to do performance trials; it's a big process of product development."
Dr Rao believes that pro-biotech forces ought to be planning something equally serious on the social front.
And perhaps if the government and the biotech companies could develop crops which people wanted to grow, if they could repair the distrust which has mushroomed between farmers and themselves, if they could involve rural communities in the development of new varieties, former minister Singh could see his biotech vision come into fruit.
Because even if Devinder Sharma is right and there is no political will to eradicate hunger, Indian agriculture still has to find ways to feed a growing population in the face of climatic change and potential water shortages; these arguments, carefully made, could yet win over a reluctant rural population.
"Agriculture is not a business in India, agriculture is the culture of the Indian people," says Yudivir Singh, regional organiser of the flame-wielding BKU in Haryana.
"We are not against technology, we want more crops, we want more production, this is a necessity; but not like this."