On his visit to the US, the Prime Minister made a deal on nuclear energy and another on agriculture. Because of the furor over the former, the latter seems to have gone unnoticed. It should not be. India has asked for US help to develop drought resistant crop varieties; reduce post harvest losses, take information about improved technologies directly to farmers and provide training in sanitary and phytosanitary standards. Training to improve food standards will be welcome since India is very poor in this regard .Indian exports are returned, sometimes because buyers use phytosanitary standards as a protectionist tool but also because the products are contaminated or substandard.
Phytosanitary training alone will not enable Indian farmers to participate more fully in global trade, as is projected. That will only happen if domestic subsidies and tariffs are reduced by the US and EU. The subsidy impediments to those markets are being negotiated currently, without any success whatsoever, in the agriculture negotiations prior to the December WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong.
Although not stated explicitly, the agriculture pact deals essentially with agricultural biotechnology. The US really does not have anything of relevance to offer Indian agriculture and small farmers. The technologies available in US laboratories are known and there is nothing of importance to Indian agriculture which is plagued by different problems, like lack of credit and crop insurance, spurious seeds and substandard inputs.
Then there is the problem of Intellectual Property Rights. Almost all products and processes in agricultural biotechnology are protected by patents and practically controlled by six multinationals. The technologies developed in American universities have also slipped into their hands thanks to the Bayh- Dole Act which allows universities to transfer technologies generated with public funds, to the industry.
A collaboration with the US would make sense only if technologies were to be available free of patents, if not, there is no need for a special deal. Monsanto’s Bt technology, for instance, is available to anyone who can pay their license fees. A deal to use US technology is likely to increase the pressure on India for introducing seed patents and removing the ban we have placed on the American terminator technology. The Americans favor patents on seeds as against Plant Breeders Rights which is the Indian legislation.
Regarding the special focus on developing drought resistant varieties, it is worth recalling that globally this research has been entrusted to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The principal mandate of the public sector CG system with its strength of over 8000 scientists is to develop drought resistant plant varieties for developing countries. If at all India needs to use the transgenic approach to drought tolerance, its natural partner is the CG system, not the US.
If it is post harvest losses we are concerned about, there are relatively straightforward solutions. We need scaling up of our food processing sector to add shelf life to agricultural produce. 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 main post harvest technology that the US has is the delayed ripening technology that was used to create the ‘Flavr Savr’ tomato. Flavr Savr was abandoned largely because of health fears after it was found that laboratory rats fed on the GM tomato died or suffered health damage. Flavr Savr has never been revived and we should be cautious that we do not become the dumping ground for failed and dangerous technologies.
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 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 problem in Indian agriculture today is the appalling state of the agricultural research system , which 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).
The Indo- US deal will not solve our problems nor introduce the desperately needed spirit of independent scientific enquiry that seems to have abandoned the ICAR system. Instead, a radical overhaul of the country’s agricultural research is needed. 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. That, and not a dubious pact in agriculture is what the country needs today.