Thursday, July 21, 2005


Suman Sahai

The Prime Minister took along a number of scientific and technical people on his visit to the US with the aim of entering into technical collaboration with the Americans. Apart from the much discussed pact on nuclear energy, there is also a ‘second generation collaboration on agriculture’. The relevant extract from the Prime Minister’s speech reads like this “ …. have decided to launch a second generation of India-US collaboration in the field of agriculture. The new initiative will focus on basic and strategic research for sustainable development of agriculture to meet the challenge of raising productivity in conditions of water stress. It seeks to take information and know-how directly to the farming community and promote technologies that minimize post harvest wastage and improve food storage. It will also help Indian farmers to meet phytosanitary conditions and enable them to participate more fully in global agricultural trade.

The key areas the Prime Minister’s advisors have decided to focus on for seeking US help, are sustainable agriculture; developing drought resistant crop varieties; reducing post harvest losses of agricultural produce by improving the shelf life of such produce; taking information about improved technologies directly to farmers and training in the WTO requirement of maintaining adequate sanitary and phytosanitary standards for agricultural produce. The last, training and capacity building in achieving hygiene and purity standards for agricultural produce that is globally acceptable will be welcome since India is very poor in this regard and could do with some international level training on achieving sanitary and phytosanitary standards in agriculture. Indian produce is often returned by international buyers, sometimes because they use phytosanitary standards as a protectionist tool to protect domestic producers but partly also because the products are contaminated or substandard.

It is when we take the phytosanitary point further that we realize that it is actually a blind alley which does not take us anywhere. According to the PM’s speech, collaboration on phytosanitary training will enable Indian farmers to participate more fully in global trade. Yet, there is no mention of the only factor that will enable us to export our goods and that is reducing tariffs and bringing down the large domestic and export agriculture subsidies which are the barriers to our participating in global trade. The astronomic agriculture subsidies in the US and EU make Indian products expensive and unviable in their markets.So, after training in phytosanitary standards we may end up with better agricultural produce ( a desirable enough goal), but let us not fool ourselves that this will open up American and European markets for us. The subsidy impediments to those markets are being negotiated currently, without any success whatsoever, in the run up to the Agreement on Agriculture negotiations prior to the December WTO Ministerial meeting in Hong Kong.

Now let us examine the rest of the agenda, which although not stated explicitly, deals essentially with agricultural biotechnology. Does the US have anything of relevance or importance to offer Indian agriculture and small farmers? The technologies available in US laboratories in the private and public sector are known since many years. There is nothing new there nor anything of terrible relevance to the problems of Indian agriculture. An important problem with using US technologies is the question of Intellectual Property Rights. Almost the entire spectrum of technologies in agricultural biotechnology is protected by patents. In fact, the technology can be said to be almost completely in the hands of six multinational concerns, Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont, Bayer and BASF. The public sector technologies that were developed in American universities and research institutions have also slipped into the hands of the industry thanks to the Bayh- Dole Act. This legislation allowed universities to transfer technologies generated with public research funds, to the industry, resulting in public institutions granting (exclusive) licenses to the corporations, on almost all key technologies. So at best, the US can give us access to its patented and expensive GM technologies.

Any talk of Indo- US collaboration would make sense only if the technologies were to be available for free or on highly concessional rates. If we have to access a technology at market rates, there is no need for a special collaboration. Agbiotech technologies, like Monsanto’s Bt technology, are available to anyone who can pay the license fees that they charge. The other IPR question is that of seed patents. The Americans are known to favor patents as against Plant Breeders Rights which is the legislation that we have in India. The corporations (backed by the US) have been lobbying for a change in India’s patent laws that would make genes and seeds patentable. A collaboration to use their technology is likely to increase the pressure on India for introducing seed patents and perhaps removing the ban we have placed on the terminator technology. The terminator technology is jointly owned by the US government. None of these developments will be in the interest of Indian farmers or national food security.

Regarding the special focus that has been placed on the collaboration with the US ,to develop drought resistant varieties, it is worth recalling that this research has been entrusted to the institutions of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Instead of frittering small research grants in many laboratories, the international research community (including India) decided that the principal mandate of the CGIAR with respect to GM crops would be to develop drought tolerant varieties.

The CG system with its strength of over 8000 scientists and researchers is a public sector research agency whose mandate is to do publicly accessible research ( without being patented) to serve public causes and farmers’ needs in developing countries. If at all India needs to use the transgenic approach to drought tolerance research, its natural partner is the CG system, not the US.

It is quite another matter that experts in the field of water stress have pointed out repeatedly, that a plant’s response to water stress is far too complex and dependent on often unpredictable factors, to be fixed by a transgenic approach, shooting some foreign gene into a plant. There are far greater chances of success in going the conventional way; exploring the available genetic biodiversity of the particular crop, selecting promising varieties and breeding drought tolerant varieties which contain an optimal combination of genes that will help the plant to withstand water stress in a variety of ways. We need to remember that all drought tolerant crop varieties in existence today have been bred by conventional breeding. Nothing has yet emerged from the years of expensive transgenic research directed towards this goal.

Then we have the focus on reducing post-harvest losses and improving food storage. The only technology that the US has in this connection is the delayed ripening technology that they used to create the ‘Flavr Savr’ tomato, a tomato that would remain firm and not rot easily. This technology which looked promising failed for a variety of reasons, the most important of which were food safety concerns raised after feeding trials. Rats fed with Flavr Savr tomato in laboratory experiments showed health damage. Flavr Savr has never been picked up again, not even in the US and we should be cautious that we do not become the dumping ground for a failed and dangerous technology.

If it is post harvest losses we are concerned about, there are relatively easy solutions with no connection to Agbiotech. We need substantial investment and scaling up of our food processing sector, to add value to agricultural produce that otherwise rots under poor quality storage conditions or because it cannot reach markets in time. The Indo -US collaboration would be useful if it brought advanced food processing technology that would allow value addition of fruits and vegetables locally, increasing farm incomes.

This is a more realistic approach to reducing post harvest losses than a potentially dangerous, expensive and failed agbiotechnology from the US. More and better warehouses for storing our buffer stocks and better transportation facilities,( less broken trucks that leak the grain as they transport it) are guaranteed to reduce post harvest losses. The fact is that we know the causes of our post harvest losses and we also know the solutions. It is hard to see where a genetic engineering approach fits here.

The part that mystifies most is the assertion that the Indo –US collaboration will take information and know-how directly to the farming community. How does it propose to do this ? Given the fact that we have entirely dismantled the agriculture extension service and the connections between the laboratory and the farmers’ fields have been snapped many years ago, through which mechanism will these allegedly beneficial technologies be taken directly to the farming community? The Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) , set up as technology absorption hubs in rural areas have long ago fallen into disuse and there is no provision to revive them.

The real challenge before Indian agriculture is the weakened to the point of becoming defunct nature of the agricultural research system. The system is moribund, lacking innovative capacity and engaged to a large extent, in copy cat research. Over a third of all the research being done on GM crops in the country is based on Monsanto’s Bt gene, as though the only problem we have in Indian agriculture is the bollworm (the pest against which Bt is partly effective). Collaboration with the US will not solve these problems nor introduce the desperately needed spirit of independent scientific enquiry that seems to have abandoned the ICAR system. Many proposals have been made in recent years to overhaul the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the agricultural universities, to make them responsive to the country’s needs. Its time to take action on those. Heads must roll, the stables cleaned up, the system revamped and good scientists (of which there are plenty) brought in to lead the world class research that our scientists are capable of conducting. No amount of Indo- Us collaboration will solve these problems, only resolute will and action will.