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Biotechnology in Indian agriculture

Centre for Education and Documentation

04 / 2009

It’s finally going to be here after much speculation-India’s first genetically modified food crop, Bt Brinjal. In January this year the Union Environment Ministry gave permission for commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal and if all goes “wrong” it is likely to be introduced in the Indian market by July 2009. Brinjal has been a part of the Indian cuisine for more than 4,000 years and genetically modifying the country variety of brinjal is bound to evoke certain emotions.

Prof E. HARIBABU, dean of Social Sciences of the Hyderabad Central University:

“In India we have a variety of brinjals. We have the black ones, white ones, green ones, round ones, long ones but I don’t know who said that brinjal is in short supply. I think what’s happening is the company is in a great rush to sell this Bt technology to as many farmers as possible, put it into various different types of crops and to push GM product because the Company realizes that after sometime the toxin that is produced by the Bt gene will not be effective because the pests will develop resistance against this kind of toxin.”

Bt Brinjal is created by inserting a gene Cry1Ac from the soil bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis into brinjal. This is said to give the brinjal plant resistance against Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer.

The Bt Brinjal, like many other GM crops, can impact health adversely. There have been no independent tests conducted by the Ministry of Health. However, several studies on Bt crops in particular and GM crops in general show that there are many potential health hazards in foods bio-engineered in this manner.

Bt Cotton in India

Cotton cultivation in India covers approximately 9 million hectares which is about one fourth of the total global area of 35 million hectares under cotton. Cotton is planted by 4 million farmers and many more are involved in processing, textile manufacture and trade. Cotton is highly susceptible to more than a hundred pests. Of all the pesticide usage, 55% of pesticides are used on cotton cultivation. Pests like American Bollworm are the most serious pests of cotton in India and cause annual losses of at least US$300 million.

In 1990 efforts began to produce genetically engineered cotton resistant to bollworm and other pests. Bt cotton became the first transgenic crop to be released in India. By March 2002, at least 3 Bt cotton hybrids were given the approval for commercial cultivation. At present, 40 cotton hybrids having gene for bollworm resistance have been approved for commercial cultivation. With commercialization of Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt Cotton India has seen a spate of farmer suicides in the past more than a decade.

Dr Michael HANSEN, scientist at the Consumer Policy Institute, USA:

“In Madhya Pradesh a survey was done in 5 villages where 22 people had symptoms after exposure to Bt cotton. Every single one of them had skin symptoms including itching, redness and eruption. About 40% had upper respiratory tract symptoms, runny nose and/or excessive sneezing. Every single one of these symptoms, the skin symptoms, the eyes symptoms, the upper respiratory systems is classic allergy symptoms. In 45% of the cases there were moderate symptoms and in another 45% they were severe. The symptoms were overwhelming on the exposed parts of the body. 80% were exposed in cotton fields and 20% were exposed at home while handling it. And these symptoms increased in severity when people continued to work in the fields and when they stayed away from the Bt cotton fields, the symptoms decreased in intensity. The symptoms only began in the last 2 years, which exactly coincides when the Bt crop was introduced. That suggests that these Bt crops have potential adverse health affects.”

In an interview with Centre for Education and Documentation, Krishna PRASAD of Bangalore based NGO « Sahaj Samrudha » expressed his concern:

“Many farmers who were growing BT cotton have committed suicide. Besides secondary pests like Mili have become a major issue now. So farmers now have to spray to control mili bug which was never the real problem.”

GM crops the world over: Is India’s ignorance Monsanto’s gain?

The world over governments of various countries are getting more conscious about the adverse impact of the GM crops. Members of the European Parliament have called for a community response to the threat posed by the introduction of “invasive alien species and alien genotype” and “to ban the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms and evaluate the potential threat to biodiversity posed by their introduction”.

France has banned the only GM crop being grown on its soil, a variety of Bt corn for animal feed. The UK does not grow any GM crops. Austria and Hungary have national bans on growing any genetically modified crops. Ireland, Wales and Cyprus are all slowly moving towards declaring themselves GM-free. In the US, four district courts have ruled that the US Department of Agriculture has acted illegally, for not conducting proper environmental impact assessments.

In Asia, China has called off commercialising Bt rice. Sri Lanka imposed a ban on the import of all genetically modified foods, raw and processed and GMOs and products with effect from May 1, 2001. Japan has, in its recent legislation, set zero tolerance for imports containing unapproved GE products.

India despite of being the world’s largest democracy has blatantly ignored all the anti-GM crop voices and campaigns. In a hearing of a Public Interest Litigation in February 2008, on Genetically Modified crops, the Chief Justice of India had stated that GM crops give higher yields and Indian government also seems to be promoting commercial cultivation of GM crops. We are the first country to undertake large-scale pre-commercial trials of Bt brinjal and Bt okra in field trials.

Indian Government has received a lot of criticism for condoning serious irregularities and safety violations by Monsanto-Mahyco with regard to Bt cotton. It has also been criticised for lack of transparency in the screening process and public debate.

Is Biotechnology bad?

All biotechnology is not bad and certain innovations have helped us live better and healthy lives. If all happens in the ambit of certain ethical codes which are strictly followed, biotechnology can be useful. The problem then has to be the unethical play by some powerful-only-profit-seeking giants.

Hansen clarifies:

“I don’t think all biotechnology is bad. The problem with genetic engineering is in the functioning of the technology itself, since we have no control over where we are inserting things. We don’t understand the process and until we do, that could be potentially hazardous. Companies such as Monsanto want to control the food chain because everybody has to eat and if they can control the seeds and if they can control what gets planted they can force farmers to buy from them every year. This creates a capital market, and they can make huge sums of money. So the political economy is really important, and if you can get rid of the profit motive, there is still a question for engineered crops because we don’t understand because this insertion technology is not ready for prime time.”

Krishna Prasad:

“Now the companies and the scientist are talking about gene revolution since green revolution is no more effective. There is tremendous diversity in Karnataka, be it Ragi, Paddy or Vegetables, or Millets etc. For example if you take brinjal, each village has its own variety. If you go to Hosanagar near Shimoga they grow big Brinjal which weighs nearly 2 kgs, without using a pinch of chemicals. They use their own traditional techniques of using some liquid manure. If you go to Udupi coastal region there is a special brinjal called Mattigulla, which is sacred and is offered to Lord Krishna as Naivedyam (Prasadam).

“Now Dharwad Agriculture University scientists are introducing Bt gene in this brinjal. Tomorrow this brinjal is cross-pollinated so Bt gene is transferred to other traditional varieties, we may loose all the traditional varieties which will be contaminate. Already 169 varieties of GM crops are under trial. Just Bt Brinjal is in the pipeline and waiting to enter the market. So this is the fear, once you release it in the nature you cannot undo it.”

Traditionally in India farmers save seeds for the next season. These seeds may be exchanged within the farming community. Under the GM regime farmers are prohibited from saving seeds of transgenic crops under the Intellectual Property Rights, forcing them to depend on companies like Monsanto. The kind of hegemony these practices have establishment is oppressive and tormenting for the farmers who very often cannot even afford to buy expensive seeds from the companies

Mixed up, messed up!

Many countries where GM crops have been introduced are already finding it difficult to deal with the mess created by the introduction of GM crops. Some time ago traces of GM rice was found in rice that was declared non GM. Consignments of US rice exported to many countries had to be recalled because of this.

Dr Michael Hansen:

“Over 2 years ago on August 18th, 2006, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) announced that long grain rice in the Southern US was contaminated with the other proved variety of genetically engineered rice i.e. LL601 that was developed by Aventis which is now merged with Bayer Crop Science. And the interesting thing is LL601 was never grown commercially, it was grown on a little tiny experimental plot in field test between 1999 and 2001 only for 3 years. 5 years later in 2006 they find out that all this rice when it is tested gets contaminated and a week later the European Union began mandatory testing of all US long grain rice. Japan halted long grain rice imports. Trade was impacted in more than 15 countries. This LL601 contamination in rice was found in 30 countries and remember this is grown on little tiny plots for only 3 years so it shows contamination can happen easily. 63% of the US rice imports were contaminated and were affected. This was the largest financial and marketing disaster in the history of US rice industry and the total cost has been estimated runs high as $1.28 billion.”

I am no lab rat

« I am no lab rat » is one of the campaigns that highlights the fact that human beings are being subjected to a mass experiment by way of GM food. Laboratory experiments on rats has revealed that upon being fed genetically modified food, these rats displayed symptoms of immune system damage, stunted growth, misshapen cell structures in different organs, organ damage particularly to liver and kidneys, bleeding ulcers in stomach, reduced digestive enzymes, inflamed lung tissue and higher offspring mortality.

The mistake has been committed. Some of us have learnt a lesson. Now is the time for concrete, collective action to campaign against GM crops. Many countries have realised the potential threat posed by the GMOs and have taken the initiative and banned or restricted GMOs. The Indian government needs the political will to take the right decision in a democratic manner. And if such a response cannot be evoked from the government the matter should well be taken up the the civil society organisations, non-governmental organisations and groups of concerned individuals.

Key words

Genetically modified organism (GMO), GMO and agriculture, agriculture, agriculture and health

, India


Small scale farming in India


This sheet is available in French: Les biotechnologies dans l’agriculture indienne

Further readings:


Prof E HARIBABU is quoted from his talks at Knowledge in Society Debates, Roundtable Conference, January 5, 2009, Hyderabad.


Original text

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