Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What is Causing the Global Food Crisis?

Suman Sahai

Just because news of the food crisis has gone off the front pages and prime time television, does not mean the crisis has gone away. The crisis of food availability (not necessarily that of food production) remains and inexcusably large numbers of the poor across the world remain hungry. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG), far from showing signs of relief for the poor, are actually in a decline and a larger number of poor people are now below the poverty line than before. So, is food scarce? Not if you look at the statistics of global food production. At the height of the food crisis, farmers produced 2.3 billion tonnes of food grain worldwide. This was more than the production the year before. So shortfall in grain production was not a limiting factor. Neither was there a surge in population increase as compared to the growth in food production . Whereas cereal production has gone up three times after the Green Revolution, the population has only doubled.

Despite the ill-informed comments of George W Bush, food consumption by the Chinese, the Indians or anyone else, did not exceed food production. Rice consumption remained below the total production, as did the consumption of meat, oils and fats and dairy. Wheat consumption matched the production. At no time was there a shortage in the food production, nor did consumption exceed production. So why was there a food crisis? Here is what happened, it all began in America, that land of plenty.

When the sub-prime housing crisis opened up in the US and its full impact was felt, the US stock market collapsed. ‘Hot’ , speculative money invested in the stock market fled to seek new places to park itself. Temporarily, this parking space was the oil market which saw a surge back to back and running parallel to the food crisis. But hot money very quickly moved into food commodities and grain futures, sending the prices spinning. The price of wheat increased by 130 per cent in this period and the price of rice doubled. The price of all other food items like fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy increased tremendously. This is what happens when cartels control a commodity. They hoard it, manipulate the market and send the prices soaring, to make huge profits on their investments.

Did the big grain and food traders make profits during the food crisis? They certainly did. In April 2008, Cargill announced that its profits from commodity trading in the first quarter of 2008 were 86 per cent higher than the profits it made in the first quarter of 2007. The Syngenta Corporation saw profits increase by 28 per cent in the first quarter of 2008 and Thailand’s largest food trader, Charoen Pokphand Foods is expecting a revenue growth of 237 per cent for 2008. So, every corporation in the global food chain is making a killing as developing countries struggle to battle the food crisis. The table says what there is to say.

Globalisation and its iniquitous policies and unbridled capitalism unbridled capitalism of the kind that smashed Wall Street and led to the collapse of America’s flagship banks , is the root cause of several catastrophes, including the global food crisis. US policies of diverting corn and soybean to agro-fuel production has exacerbated the situation. It has also set off a wave of perverse “Ape the US” national policies on biofuels. India leads from the front on this. Still insecure on food security, it has framed an ambitious biofuel policy that will compete with food crops for land and water. The consequences of following such a policy are going to be grim. To guard itself against a food crisis at home, India must rededicate itself to solving age-old problems like land reform, food sovereignty, income generation and supportive policies for agriculture. It must also rise to the challenge of new problems like climate change and global warming.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Contaminating Natural Rice

Suman Sahai

No containment of the crop was done by Mahyco as mandated by law to prevent mixing of seeds/grains from GM crop fields), no fencing or netting of any kind was provided. Post harvest crop stumps were left standing in the Trial Field.

Mahyco, a partner of Monsanto Corporation in India, has been conducting field trials in

Jharkhand, flouting every prescribed regulation and condition laid down for field trials of GM crops. Gene Campaign staff made visits to the site of the Bt rice trial and spoke to the farmers in Saparong village to get details of how the trial was conducted. The details are as follows:

Bt Rice hybrids belonging Mahyco seed company were planted on approx 1 acre. Planting was done on March 29, 2008, the crop was harvested on August 11, 2008. This is not the main rice season in Jharkhand. The main paddy season is June to December. There are almost no rice pests at this time, so it is not possible to test the efficacy of the Bt induced resistance to pests.

Farmers had no idea what was planted in the trial field, they had never heard of Bt Rice of GM Rice. The company had told them nothing. The State Agriculture Department had no information about the proposed Bt rice trials. Farmers in Saparong told Gene Campaign staffers that Mahyco staff came to observe the trials and sprayed the crop (farmers did not know with what )

There was no physical containment or any kind of isolation of the trial field. No containment of the crop was done (mandated by law to prevent mixing of seeds/grains from GM crop fields), no fencing or netting of any kind was provided. The trial field is located in the midst of an agricultural area and is surrounded by farmers’ fields on all sides. The boundaries of neighbouring fields are close together and it is impossible to prevent contamination of

rice in other fields.

People walked regularly through the trial fields to other fields, increasing the possibility of contamination. Since the trials were done on high lying fields, the water flowed from there to lower fields, carrying soil, seeds, etc to fields below. Just one local farmer was appointed as caretaker to supervise the trials. Nobody from the company came to supervise the harvest and disposal of the crop residue.

Scientists of the Birsa Agricultural University in Ranchi refused to monitor the rice trials since they were not involved from the beginning but were asked to monitor the fields at a late stage. Senior scientists said that they were not informed about how the trials were conducted, adding that there was no way of knowing whether Mahyco was spraying its trial fields to show that pests were controlled in the Bt rice.

Post harvest crop stumps have been left standing in the trial field. These have thrown up tillers and seed has already set in the tillers. These rogue Bt rice seeds will start the process of contaminating other rice crops in the region as they multiply in each crop cycle. After the news of Mahyco’s violations appeared in the media, the company rushed its officials to the field trial site in Jharkhand the next day and destroyed the evidence. Gene Campaign has photographs of the destroyed trial field. Mahyco has clearly conducted the field trials of Bt rice hybrids by violating every rule in the book.

Gene Campaign has spent the last several years, collecting and conserving the traditional rice varieties of these regions in village level Seed Banks , in order to save the genetic wealth and diversity of rice and return it to farmers’ fields. The Gene Campaign Banks now have about 1,900 samples of traditional rice and roughly 600 samples of other traditional crop varieties. Reckless conduct by companies like Mahyco could end up contaminating such rice germplasm.

The planting of genetically engineered rice in Jharkhand is of special concern since Jharkhand along with Orissa and Chhattisgarh is considered the Centre of Origin, that is, the birthplace of rice and the maximum genetic diversity of rice is found here. Any genetic contamination from foreign genes like the Bt gene can very detrimental effects on the genetic diversity of rice.

India is Centre of Origin and diversity

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety urges countries that are Centres of Origin to exercise the utmost caution. Following this, other countries have decided to exercise the Precautionary Principle and have banned GM versions of the crop for which they are centres of origin. Mexico, the birthplace of corn does not allow planting of GM corn, Peru, the origin of potato has a ban on GM potato and China from where soybean originated, does not allow GM soybean. It is shocking that India, the birthplace of rice, does not exercise any caution with respect to rice germplasm and is happy to allow companies to exploit, and perhaps destroy, this great genetic wealth.

It is even more shocking that Mahyco’s reckless GM rice trials are being conducted in one of the three states (Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh) which may be considered the central core of the genetic diversity of rice—the very place that should be off limits to GM rice!

Jeopardising markets

Apart from that , careless field trials like the Mahyco trial can result in GM rice entering the market and this can contaminate rice consignments meant for export. This will spell doom for rice exporters who will lose their markets in Europe, Middle East and Africa, all regions that are opposed to GM crops and foods and do not allow it in their markets.

A few years ago, we saw in the US, that rice from a single field trial conducted by the Ventria company, found its way into US rice exports and was detected in places as far apart as Germany and Japan. This necessitated the recall of all US rice, costing the US several million dollars. It also led to the crash of the rice markets that had been carefully built up by the US.

Gene Campaign is particularly distressed at the callous negligence displayed by Mahyco in a backward tribal region where rice is the staple crop and where the genetic wealth of rice has been created and nurtured over generations by the Adivasis here. Rice is everything to them, their food, their drink, the very basis of their cultural and religious identity. The rice germplasm of this region is a national heritage and must be safeguarded. It cannot be opened up for exploitation of unscrupulous companies.

Swaminathan panel recommendations

In recognition of both the scientific and trade aspects of rice and the threat of GM rice to these interests, the Agbiotechnology task force chaired by Dr MS Swaminathan, had made explicit recommendations that GM rice should be kept far away from centres of rice diversity and that crops in which India had a trading interest, like rice and soybean, should not be genetically engineered, for fear of losing assured markets.

Gene Campaign demands that all field trials of rice must be stopped immediately. This is a crop, which is crucial to global food security.

  • The Mahyco seed company must be fined heavily for jeopardising this precious genetic wealth and putting at risk the future food security of the country and the livelihoods of countless farmers dependent on rice cultivation.

  • Given the grave nature of Mahyco’s violation, the company should be barred from testing any transgenic crops for at least five years.

  • Any further violations by Mahyco should lead to the suspension of its license.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Involve Public in Examining Patent Applications

Suman Sahai

A remarkably simple and innovative exercise has been launched in the US in order to cope with the overload of patent applications. Given the growing emphasis on knowledge creation and knowledge ownership as key underpinnings of the global economy, the world is moving towards sequestering knowledge rather than sharing it. The expected outcome of this trend is a spurt in patent applications in all the major patent offices of the world. India too registers a sharp increase over an admittedly small base. An overload of patent applications leads to delays and inadequate scrutiny of the application, leading to incorrect patent grants and subsequent litigation.

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has started a novel experiment at the initiative of Beth Noveck of the New York Law School to tackle problems of overload. The project called ‘Peer to Patent’ seeks to open up the patent examination process to the public. It has begun a pilot project to post patent applications on a designated website and invite public comments on the merits of the patent.

The crux of patent examination is to search for ‘prior art’. This means to examine whether the claims made in the application have already been patented before or whether they are known in the public domain. By involving hundreds of reviewers and tapping their knowledge and expertise, the examination for prior art becomes much faster and more comprehensive. The hope is that an expanded screening exercise of this kind, will lead to fewer patents that are granted incorrectly and reduced litigation over patent grants.

For the US, an obvious case where a ‘Peer to Patent’ approach would have been useful, is the case of the turmeric patent. The grant of the patent on turmeric derived properties by the USPTO, became the subject of litigation between India and the US. The Haldi Patent

was successfully challenged by the Indian government but at some cost to the public exchequer. Perhaps if this patent application had been subjected to scrutiny on a public review website like Peer to Patent, an opposition would have surfaced during the patent review process and the patent would never have been granted. This would have certainly saved India a lot of money.

Indian patent offices would do well to emulate the US initiative. They are more overstretched than most patent offices partly because India has had a history of knowledge creation in the public domain so patenting is new business. The ‘patent everything in sight’ culture is only beginning now. Our patent offices are notoriously short of trained manpower to deal with the sudden increase in applications arising out of new legislation like the amended Patent Act and the Act on Geographical Indications.

Regardless of the merits of the patent-at-all-costs approach that is being promoted in Indian research institutions, we need to be equipped to deal with the surge in patent applications. Instead of the expensive and time consuming process of routing applications through patent examiners, a first round evaluation through the public review process will identify the cases that do not qualify on grounds of novelty, distinctness and utility. These are the essential benchmarks of patentability. After this filtering, only those patent-worthy applications need go up for critical examinations.

The public review process is welcome from another perspective. It introduces an open source approach as a contrast to secret government procedures, secrecy being the hallmark of the Indian government’s performance in all sectors. Opening up the patent sector will also help to demystify the still new patent culture in this country and get more people involved in discussing its merits or otherwise. It will also help to introduce greater vigilance with respect to old problems like biopiracy and the misappropriation of indigenous knowledge. One impediment could come up though. For this process to succeed, the patent applicants must be willing to go along with the process.

So far, in the US it is only software and hardware applicants that are willing partners in this novel exercise. It remains to be seen whether the biotechnology patent applicants, largely the Life Science corporations are as enthusiastic. These corporations have been notoriously reluctant to share any information, even with government agencies, unless absolutely necessary. India should quickly begin discussions to set up a similar system in the patent offices here. Any fears that the public scrutiny can lead to frivolous interference should be dealt by vetting the registered users and ensuring that oppositions to the proposed patent claims are accompanied by well researched and properly backed up evidence. Since the patent application is put on a publicly accessed website, there should be no fear of misuse by competing interests since such would be quickly detected by the same examination process.

Monday, September 8, 2008

BIOFUEL POLICY : Who Benefits?

Suman Sahai

India certainly needs to rationalise its energy use and reduce its consumption of petroleum-based fuels. The answer lies not in compromising food security and joining the biofuel bandwagon, but in time tested strategies like increasing efficient public transport, and reducing private cars.

The Indian government has finalised a National Policy for Biofuels on September 11, 2008. The high profile given to this policy can be judged by the nature of the implementation committees that have been set up. There is a National Biofuel Coordination Committee chaired by the Prime Minister himself and a Biofuel Steering Committee under the chairmanship of the cabinet secretary. The earlier draft biofuel policy had proposed to start with a blending proportion of 5 per cent (5 per cent biofuel with 95 per cent petroleum) by 2012, 10 per cent by 2017 and over 10per cent after 2017. The final policy is far more ambitious, aiming for a blending ratio of 20 per cent by 2017. This means a huge jump in the amount of biofuels/ agrofuels that will be required in the next eight to nine years.Where will it come from? And considering our fuel consumption is increasing by over 7 per cent annually, does it mean the acreage under agro fuels will keep increasing too?

The Indian biofuel/agro fuel policy comes at a time when international agencies and experts have identified the main cause of the global food crisis to be the biofuel policies of the US as well as the EU. Warning signals about the consequences of the US led biofuel fad on food and feed availability are being sent out by the FAO. Reports prepared by the World Bank, the World Food Organization and the OECD predict that the current trend will take land out of food production and increase the price of agriculture commodities.

The report anticipates that this will lead to a rise in food prices over the next ten years. While higher food prices will be profitable for food exporting countries and large farmers, they will threaten the economies of food importing countries, the livelihoods of their farmers as well as the food available to the urban poor in these countries.

Realising the impact of the biofuel policy on global food supplies, the EU is contemplating a revision of its biofuel/agrofuel targets. Yet India, with all its food security concerns, is going full steam ahead with even bigger targets of agrofuels. And at the same time it continues its plans to import wheat! Does this make sense? Allow land to be used to grow agrofuels like biodiesel and become dependent on imported food grains to meet our food targets?

The vocal ‘biofuel lobby’, argues that bio-energy crops to produce agrofuels would only be grown on degraded or wasteland, not fertile land. This is pure mythology. There is no such thing as wasteland in India.

The village community uses all land for some purpose. Uncultivated land is used as grazing pastures on which the livestock depends for fodder. It is also the source of medicinal plants on which the rural community depends for its health and veterinary care needs.

The basic issue here is that of land, which is finite. We need to be very clear that land that can support food crops should not be diverted to producing biofuels. A piece of

land that would support a Jatropha plant, which is required to produce large amounts of oil, would have to have soil nutrients, would need fertilizers and sufficient amounts of water. Experts now concede that satisfactory plantations of Jatropha cannot be raised without at least three applications of water. So, if the so-called “wasteland” is capable of supporting Jatropha cultivation, it will support the cultivation of food crops, which should be the country’s primary goal.

There is an ethical dimension to the biofuel story as well, a question of equity. On the one hand are the poor whose right it is to have access to adequate food. The nation’s primary responsibility is to do its utmost to produce the maximum amount of food it can, to end endemic hunger and poverty. It is irresponsible and unethical to divert land that can produce food for the poor, to produce fuel for those who can afford to drive cars. So essentially, the agrofuel policy plans to sacrifice land that should produce food and fodder for the poor, and use it to grow biodiesel crops that will power the automobiles of the rich.

The global rush to switch from oil to energy derived from plants is being led by the rich countries who want to see energy plants grown extensively for fuel as a way to reduce their own climate changing emissions. The United Nations urges governments to beware the human and environmental consequences of the agrofuel trend, some of which could be irreversible. They warn that taking the current the agrofuel route will lead to deforestation, push small farmers off the land, and lead to serious food shortages and increased poverty. As the FAO estimates, biofuel production based on agricultural commodities increased more than threefold from 2000 to 2007. India should review its biofuel policy and examine our natural advantages to see what kinds of strategies are viable for producing supplementary energy.

India certainly needs to rationalise its energy use and reduce its consumption of petroleum-based fuels. The answer lies not in compromising food security and joining the biofuel bandwagon, but in time tested strategies like increasing efficient public transport, and reducing private cars. There is no harm in some petrol rationing till better discipline leads to reduced fuel use. This will give time for public transport and new technologies to be introduced. What has the government been doing so far on this front?

Why has the Department of Non Conventional Energy failed to make any breakthroughs in solar energy? Elsewhere in the world, experiments are ongoing on alternative fuels from algae, from human and animal wastes and from other carbon sources. What is India’s investment in such research? Is the only way to minimise petroleum import bills by snatching the food options of the poor, so that we can claim credits at the next international conference on climate change?


  • An indicative target of 20 per cent by 2017 for the blending of biofuels –bioethanol and bio-diesel has been proposed.

  • Bio-diesel production will be taken up from non-edible oil seeds in waste / degraded / marginal lands.

  • The focus would be on indigenous production of bio-diesel feedstock and import of Free Fatty Acid (FFA) based such as oil, palm, etc., would not be permitted.

  • Bio-diesel plantations on community / government / forest wastelands would be encouraged while plantation in fertile irrigated lands would not be encouraged.

  • Minimum Support Price (MSP) with the provision of periodic revision for bio-diesel oil seeds would be announced to provide fair price to the growers. The details about the MSP mechanism, enshrined in the National Biofuel Policy, would be worked out carefully subsequently and considered by the Biofuel Steering Committee.

  • Minimum Purchase Price (MPP) for the purchase of bio-ethanol by the Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) would be based on the actual cost of production and import price of bio-ethanol. In case of biodiesel, the MPP should be linked to the prevailing retail diesel price.

  • The National Biofuel Policy envisages that biofuels, namely, biodiesel and bio-ethanol may be brought under the ambit of “Declared Goods” by the Government to ensure unrestricted movement of biofuels within and outside the States. It is also stated in the Policy that no taxes and duties should be levied on bio-diesel.


Biofuels have been widely publicised as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But researchers from University of Washington shows that some of the most popular current biofuel stocks might have exactly the opposite impacts than intended. The study highlights relative impacts of major biofuel sources like corn, grasses, fast-growing trees and oil crops on the environment in terms of water and fertilszer use and other criteria to calculate the environmental footprint of each crop. The study was published in the June issue of the journal Conservation Biology.

The study looked at factors such as the energy needed to produce a renewable fuel source

compared with how much energy is produced, the impact on soil fertility and effects on food supply when fuels based on crops such as corn and soybeans are mixed with fossil fuels. Based on those factors, the authors determined that cornbased ethanol is the worst alternatives.

The authors argue that because such large amounts of energy are required to grow corn and convert it to ethanol, the net energy gain of the resulting fuel is modest. On the other hand using a crop such as switchgrass, common forage for cattle, would require much less energy to produce the fuel, and using algae would require even less.

For example, farmers who plant only corn because it is suddenly profitable, and don't rotate with crops such as soybeans, are likely to greatly deplete their soil, which could limit crop growth and promote soil erosion. According to a study from the European Environment Agency, increased demand for fuel crops could have serious damaging impacts on wildlife, water and soils as more of Europe's agricultural land is handed over to biofuel production.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Who is watching out for agriculture?

Suman Sahai

In a belated response to the challenges posed by climate change, India has finally prepared an action plan. The thrust of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, unveiled by the Prime Minister is on energy. The plan identifies eight core “national missions” running through 2017 and directs ministries to submit detailed implementation plans to the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change by December 2008. Not surprisingly, one of the weakest links in the Action Plan is its response to agriculture. Whereas market based incentives have been formulated for industry and affluent consumers, like automobile owners, not much is proposed to rescue farmers, who will be the worst affected category, standing perhaps, to lose their livelihoods. They and poor consumers are not visible in the national deliberations and have been left to cope on their own. This is demoralising specially when it has been projected by practically all the models generated by international teams of scientists, that South Asia will be amongst the worst affected areas impacted by global warming and would face serious challenges to food production.

In India, food security has still not been achieved on a sustained basis as we remain totally dependent on the monsoons to achieve food production targets. With its dependence on the monsoon and its low levels of irrigation, only a third of the country’s agriculture is irrigated, the rest being rain fed, the prospect of swings in the monsoon are a frightening possibility. Yet, little is being planned to cope with this situation, which is not in some distant future, but is upon us. The meteorological department’s linkage with agriculture departments remains a formality, when actually they should be working closely together to predict the onset of the rainy seasons and planning planting cycles according to that.

If the onset of the South-west monsoon is delayed, farmers can be told to delay planting their rice; if on the other hand, as we saw this year, the rains came very early, farmers could have been advised to plant another suitable crop. Swings in rainfall patterns are expected to intensify with climate change, so coordination between the Met department and agriculture departments will become even more crucial and necessary in future.

What is worrying though is that far from responding to the rapidly changing situation with any urgency, our system of agriculture research and implementation seems to be immobile and unable to cope. The Indian Council of Agriculture Research, India’s leading agency (some would say, leading in expenditure rather than competence) has still not revealed any plans on how it proposes to adapt to food production in a warming world. No strategies have been prepared, nor any changes in research strategies developed to address the impact of global warming on agriculture in the many agro climatic zones in the country.

Perhaps the most urgent requirement today is to anticipate how the crop cycle in each of the agro climatic zones will be affected by the predicted rise in temperatures. New crop varieties will be needed to plant in situations where the older crop varieties that were well adapted earlier, will not be so, when the conditions are warmer. Say for instance, the varieties of maize that are being cultivated in the mountain belt of Himachal Pradesh, will not perform well there when temperatures rise. New varieties of maize will have to be developed for that eventuality. Developing a new variety and testing its suitability for a region takes time.

It takes even more time to generate enough planting material like seeds or tubers to make available to farmers. An exercise begun today will yield results only in some years. Yet, the country’s agriculture research and implementation machinery sits inertly, unable to react either timely or appropriately.

Overhauling the ICAR has been on the cards for a long time. It is high time this exercise is undertaken and a new ICAR crafted to make it more responsive to the challenges that Indian agriculture is facing. Fresh blood needs to be inducted and a radical new approach and fresh plans are needed which include the perspectives and experience of a range of stakeholders who are seldom consulted in agriculture planning. These should include experts in diverse fields like water conservation, ecology, pest control, genetics and plant breeding working in formal institutions and in civil society organisations (CSOs).

Many groups working on the ground have valuable experiences and suggestions that should be heard. The indigenous knowledge of rural and tribal people must be tapped and combined with formal science to find solutions and to create new opportunities.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Climate Change and Agriculture : Reinventing the crop cycle

Suman Sahai

Increasing temperatures, shifting rain patterns and frequency of extreme weather spells threaten global food systems. The new buzz phrase is `climate proofing of crops'.

Global climate change, if it occurs, will definitely affect agriculture. However, simulation of crop response models has been limited to a few major crops for a region, usually important grain crops, with yield effects extended to other crops. Also, model responses do not take into consideration carbon dioxide or CO, fertilisation and improved water-use efficiency, the effect of cloud cover (on both climate and photosynthesis), or the uncertain nature of climate change. Farmers will have to change crop management practices, grow tougher plant varieties and be prepared for constant change in the way they operate. Temperature and rain are the key factors that affect crops.

Higher Temperatures

Crop-producing areas may expand northwards to ice-bound regions in Greenland, Canada and Russia. At higher latitudes, global warming will extend the length of the potential growing season, because the snow bound period will be reduced. This could allow earlier planting of crops and the possibility of taking two crops instead of just one crop as now. On the other hand crops adapted to the growing-season temperature and day lengths of the plains and lower latitudes may not respond well to the changed conditions. Satellite data shows that the dry trop-ics, where rainfed agriculture provides 60 per cent of the world's food, will be the most vulnerable to climate change.

In warmer, plains regions, increased temperatures may speed up the rate at which plants release carbon dioxide in the process of respiration, resulting in less than optimal conditions for net growth. When temperatures exceed the optimal for biological processes, plants will respond with a drop in yield. If minimum night-time temperatures rise significantly--as is expected from green-house warming projections, higher night-time respiration -may also reduce potential yields. Another important effect could be accelerated physiological development, resulting in premature maturation and, therefore, reduced yield. Increased temperatures may also lead to more decomposition of soil organic matter.

Increased Co2

Photosynthesis is the foundation of plant growth. It is the process by which the energy of sunlight converts water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air into sugar, starches, and cellulose, making the plant grow. Carbon dioxide enters a plant through its leaves. Greater concentration of carbon dioxide in the air will result in higher carbon dioxide uptake and greater conversion to carbohydrates.

Crop species vary in their response to carbon dioxide. Wheat, rice, and soybeans arc called C3 plants and respond readily to increased carbon dioxide levels. Corn, sorghum, sugarcane, and millet arc C4 plants that follow a different pathway and arc more efficient photosynthetically than C3 crops. So far these distinctions have been demonstrated only under experimental conditions such as growth chambers and greenhouses. Experimental studies of the long-term effects of carbon dioxide in realistic field settings have not yet been done on a comprehensive scale.

Already; rising carbon dioxide levels arc changing the metabolism of grasses and shrubs on rangeland, decreasing the protein levels in plants eaten by cattle. Higher temperatures are already, resulting in shorter picking sea-sons.

Higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide also induce plants to close the small leaf openings known as stomata through which carbon dioxide is absorbed and water vapour is released. Thus, under higher carbon dioxide conditions, crops may use less water (by closing their stomata) even while they, produce more carbohydrates. This dual effect is likely to improve water-use efficiency, which is the ratio between crop biomass and the amount of water consumed. At the same time, climatic effects, such as higher temperatures and changes in rainfall and soil moisture, could either enhance or negate potentially beneficial effects of enhanced atmospheric carbon dioxide on crop physiology.

Water Stress

Climate change and global warming will modify rainfall, evaporation, surface runoff, and soil moisture storage. If temperatures and rainfall patterns turn adverse, soil mois­ture stress will result from increased evaporation from the soil and accelerated transpiration in the plants. Moisture stress during flowering, pollination, and grain-filling is harmful to almost all crops, but the most susceptible crops are corn, soybeans, and wheat, which are likely to suffer the worst damage when there is shortage of soil moisture. The predictable response to this eventuality is to develop crop varieties with greater drought tolerance, those that can withstand moisture stress.

More crop pests

Insect pests proliferate more readily in warmer climates since conditions fbr growth and multiplication are more favourable compared to cooler conditions. The incidence of other crop diseases like fungal and bacterial infections is also likely to increase if the climate gets warmer.

In temperate areas, longer growing seasons will ena­ble insects to complete a greater number of reproductive cycles during the spring, summer, and autumn. Warmer winter temperatures may also allow larvae to survive the winter in areas where they are now limited by cold, thus causing greater infestation during the following crop sea­son.

Storms and hurricanes and changed wind directions are likely to change the spread of both wind-borne pests and of the bacteria and fungi that are the agents of crop disease. Crop-pest interactions may shift as the timing of development stages in both hosts and pests is altered. Livestock diseases may be similarly affected.

Climate proofing

Climate change is making crop scientists review their research agenda. Until now, their main focus was on improving yields. But with successive Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports warning that increased droughts and floods will shift crop systems, 'climate-proofing' of crops has become crucial. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) institutes are now investigating how to make crops' more resilient to environment stresses. But efforts are hampered because few climate models predict changes for individual regions, making it difficult to predict how climate change will affect growth and yields of specific crops in each region.

More importantly, under changing climate conditions, farmers' past experience will be a less reliable predictor of what is to come. In many areas of the world, the necessary adjustments (such as substituting crops, introducing or intensifying irrigation, and modifying field operations such as tillage or pest control) may be too costly for many farmers to implement. These and other uncertainties must be taken into account explicitly in climate change impact studies.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

India Silent on Biosafety in International Negotiations

Suman Sahai

Gene Campaign was the only Indian organisation to attend the fourth Meeting of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (MOP 4),held in Bonn from 12 to 16 May 2008.This was disappointing since the MOP presents an opportunity to not just follow the global negotiations but also to intervene with suggestions. Unlike the closed WTO process, negotiations of the Biosafety Protocol allow accredited NGOs to play a role. This could have been an opportunity for the many Indian groups involved with genetically engineered (GE)crops and products,to learn and to help influence the outcome in favour of developing country interests.

What was really scandalous though was the non- performance of the Indian delegation.They were not prepared, had nothing to contribute and did not open their mouths during the four-day,heftily contested negotiations, which focussed on developing a legally binding,international regime for Liability and Redress. India's silence during the entire debate, disappointed many that had hoped to see it in a leadership role, fighting for the environmental and health safety of people in all countries where GEOs are being produced.

As it was, Malaysia led the developing country efforts supported by the Philippines,Colombia and other Latin American countries and very decisively the African countries who were vocal, with firm arguments. To add strength to their case, the developing countries formed a block of 80 countries called the Like Minded Group of which India was a member.

The opposition to the international liability regime was consistent and led by Japan, Peru and Brazil. A strong liability regime is of crucial relevance to developing countries because it could provide them a means to protect their farmers and consumers from any damage caused by GE crops and foods. It is vehemently opposed by the biotechnology industry and countries like the US (which is a non-party),Canada, Australia and their friends like Brazil and Japan.

At a point it appeared as though the talks would break down. It was again the Malaysian delegation that fought hard to keep the talks going and asked for several closed-door meetings with allies to thrash out a counter strategy to the Japan-Brazil-Peru led opposition. Ultimately, the talks could be saved with an agreement to continue discussions in early 2009.However, after four days of negotiations at the Fourth Meeting of Parties it was not possible to get an agreement on liability. For now, the biotech industry and the developed countries have succeeded in blocking the emergence of a legally binding international liability regime.

Gene Campaign,which has been working on developing components of a liability law for India,had organized a panel discussion on developing components for a liability regime,on the sides of the MOP4 meeting in Bonn.Some key consensus recommendations to emerge from that discussion are:

i)the adoption of a strict liability regime for damage from GEOs, where liability could be imposed, without the necessity to prove fault or negligence on the part of the defendant,(barring usual exceptions such as Act of God etc.);

ii)the term "damage" to be given the widest possible interpretation and to include environmental damage, damage/risks to human and animal

health as well as socio-economic damage including loss of income, damage to food security and livelihood,and to culture and livelihoods of indigenous and local communities;

iii) the liability for damage caused as a result of introduction of GEOs to be channeled to the agencies producing and approving the technology. This will include public and private sector research agencies and the regulatory bodies of the state granting approval;

iv) absolute liability to operate in the case of genetic contamination in areas that are crop centers of origin and where maximum genetic diversity is found. This stringent provision is in accordance with the principles of natural justice and inter-generational equity, which invokes safeguarding the environment and resources for coming generations;v)in the case

of damage caused by GEOs, the time limit should take into consideration the fact that damage in biology may only appear after several generations. As such, an absolute time limit of 50 years (a period during which effects on two generations could be manifest)should be considered and vi)Civil Society Organisations (CSO)acting in the public interest should have the right to bring a claim for damages on behalf of those directly or indirectly affected.

These recommendations have been submitted to the secretariat of the Meeting of Parties as inputs from civil society.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


Suman Sahai

A shortage of products that are not genetically engineered (GE free), especially soybean and corn, is forcing countries that are averse to GE produce to change their stand. Countries in Asia like Japan and South Korea, that are traditional soybean users have rejected GE soybean so far but may now be forced to buy genetically engineered soybean, not just for animal feed but also for soy based food products.

Most of Europe demonstrates a near phobic rejection of foods that are genetically engineered. In Asia, affluent sections of society are averse to consuming gene-spliced foods. In the case of soybean, countries like Japan and South Korea have expressed a clear preference for soy products made from GE free soybean. This has raised the demand for non GE soya and increased its price premium. The net result is a situation where the supply of non GE soya is unable to keep pace with the demand. The shortage of GE free soya is created largely due to the fact that China, the largest producer of non GE soy is faced with growing inflation in the food sector and has decided to hold on to its produce for domestic use.

The short supply and the rising price premium on non-GE crops is now forcing food processors in South Korea to buy American GE corn for the first time for their starch and sweetener industry. This is the first ever use of a GE product in the food chain in this region. Following S Korea, Japan is likely to allow the import of GE soybean too. Both countries are reluctant buyers of GE soybean, forced to do it in order to make up the shortfall in domes-tic requirement because not enough GE free soya is available.

This is a golden opportunity for India to step up its production of non GE soybean and enter the international premium niche market. India as the only country after China to produce certified non GE soybean, can position itself as the new source of GE free soya for countries in Europe which seek bulk soya for animal feed and Asia, particularly China, Japan and South Korea which are looking for quality non GE soya for food.

Stepping up production of GE free soybean immediately should not be difficult. India has been cultivating it for some years in places like Uttaranchal, Madhya Pradesh and some parts of Maharashtra. The transition to soybean in Madhya Pradesh came from the Black Toor, a legume similar to soybean which is eaten as a daal. In the hills varieties of soybean are also eaten as daal. This is to say that the cultivation of soybean is not unknown in India so it will not be an alien crop that farmers are not knowledgeable about. The introduction of soybean will have another advantage, that of replenishing the soil. The nitrogen fixing legume will improve soil nutrition, enabling better second crops. A kind of win - win situation for the farmer.

In Vidarbha particularly, soybean could become the alternative to cotton, which has proved to be such a risky crop. A farmer rehabilitation package could be based on promoting soybean cultivation. This will be better suited to the water deficient situation in Vidarbha and will be less risky than the water guzzling cotton, particularly Bt cotton, which demands even more water than other cotton varieties. Soybean has already begun to replace cotton in Vidarbha as farmers move away from the Bt cotton that has brought disaster.

If India is to exploit the market vacancy successfully, the soya package must be carefully organized, with top class planting material and marketing channels stream-lined and tied up from the farmers' fields to the international buyer. Farm training in sanitary and phy-tosanitary measures will be necessary, so that farmers are careful about maintaining the health and purity standards of their produce. Where necessary, government should negotiate markets in other countries, much in the same way as Malaysia negotiates advantageous market condi-tions and low tariffs for its palm oil.

Policy aspects will also have to cover research programs on soybean. There will have to be a clear and explicit ban on any research on genetically engineering soya. The government must be very clear that it cannot dabble in research on GE soya, risk contamination and expect to capture growing international markets for GE free soybean.

It will need just one single instance of contamination with GE soy to bring the GE free niche market crashing down. We saw what happened to US rice exports after the detection of traces of a GE rice from Bayer, called LL 601 in rice consignments. Overnight there were no takers for American rice. Vietnam and Thailand entered with GE free rice and captured the rice market.

The directionless, largely copycat agenda for research on GE crops that is being supported by the DBT (Department of Biotechnology) and the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) must be brought under a stringent review to conform with India's food as well as trading interests.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Urgent Need To Monitor The Farm Loan Waiver

Suman Sahai

The farm loan waiver is the least the government can do to begin the process of healing the farm sector. The current agrarian crisis has not been created because farmers shirk work or cannot manage farms. The crisis is the result of insensitive and exploitative policies crafted by successive generations of bureaucrats and politicians in this country.

That farmers continue to produce food under the austere and adverse conditions that we have created for them is nothing short of a miracle.

Post waiver, rectifications have been proposed which should be acted upon to better focus this relief and undoubtedly this will happen when Parliamentary Standing Committees meet to discuss the budget. There is for instance, recognition of the fact that a blanket

limit of 2 hectare land holding to qualify for relief would not be fair. Larger land holdings in rain fed areas should be entitled for relief since productivity is much lower under rainfed conditions compared to irrigated areas. Two hectare in Punjab is not the same as two hectare in Jharkhand.

The other issue is how to help the large numbers of farmers who are indebted to private moneylenders. Kerala has developed a model by setting up a Farmer Debt Relief Commission with powers to find solutions that can be implemented. This kind of exercise would best be undertaken at the state level. State Agriculture Departments, Agriculture Universities, Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI), and NGOs should be brought together to help identify indebted farmers. The debt with private moneylenders should be negotiated and a compromise formula worked out to make a final settlement.

But the key concern, as the process of providing debt relief gets underway, will be to monitor the allocation of funds. Great vigilance needs to be exercised to ensure that the write offs are not being exploited by fat cat farmers growing grapes and sugar in Maharashtra ! A monitoring and oversight committee of citizens, with a sentinel function should be set up immediately to watch where the money of the loan waiver is going. Keeping in mind the high levels of corruption and the routine siphoning off of government funds by people who were never intended to be beneficiaries, there must be a tremendous effort to ensure that the 'business as usual' method of functioning does not pour the waiver into illegitimate pockets. One of the best monitoring mechanisms is transparency. All banks should be required to publish in the local newspapers and national dailies, details of the farmers whose loans are being written off.

Careful intervention and proper guidance is crucial at this time to ensure that loans are used to increase productivity and the cycle of debt is not repeated. Farmers should be given easy access to critical agriculture inputs needed for productive agriculture.

These could be good quality seed, fertilizer and pesticide. The new loans can be used to create water bodies to provide irrigation for a second crop in single crop rainfed areas. Where appropriate, the new credit can be used to acquire livestock or develop poultry or fisheries for additional off farm incomes. The crux is that the debt relief must be guided in a way that the farmer is enabled to become productive again. If this can be made to happen, this investment in agriculture will alleviate the agrarian distress and lead to increase in food production and a more assured basis for the country's food security and sovereignty.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Should There Be Foreign Investment In Higher Education And Research?

Suman Sahai

When I was a member of the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) some years ago, the perpetual struggle was to get the government to increase the education budget and to get it to agree to divert large parts of the budget to primary education. Recently the CABE has recommended that the education outlay should be increased to six percent of the GDP , which should include one percent for higher education. If the government accepts this, there should be quite a lot of money available for higher education, including for scientific research. Greater allocation of funds for research should provide a counter argument to those who are pushing for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)on the plea that advancement in scientific research is suffering because of the shortage of funds.

A paper on 'Higher Education in India and GATS :An Opportunity', exploring trade in education services, was floated by the Commerce Ministry two years ago and drew equal shares of support and opposition. Academics, scientists and educationists were sharply divided on whether this was a good idea for India or not. The critics ,amongst whom can be counted distinguished scientists and academics, argue that foreign investors in higher education have so far brought in commercial products and are more likely to bring in educational products like copyrighted courses and workshop modules in order to make money. They are less likely to bring in skills and expertise with the intention of adapting these to the needs of Indian students or the requirements of Indian science and research.

The track record of foreign investments in educational programs over the last ten years has not been impressive. Most programs have been offered by second and third tier institutions, not the top institutions of their countries. Most have not invested in infrastructure like setting up a campus and operate out of rented premises. In many cases,

the programs available in India are not even accredited in the host countries. Somebody did a study of the programs offered by foreign institutions in India and showed that about a third of these were not recognized or accredited in their own countries. So the question is, will permission to allow foreign investment in scientific research result in raisng the standards of science education or will it result in the exploitation of gullible Indian students ? The government has to be extremely careful in formulating a policy in this field and it should put in place stringent filters to determine what kind of programs can be offered in our country and by whom.

Investment in scientific research must be allowed only after firm guidelines are put in place to set priorities and standards.We need to determine the areas in which we would like to invite investment;the rating of the institutions that will be permitted to invest and the modalities for sharing the fruits of the research. The government can even shortlist the better known universities and research stations in those countries where scientific research of good quality is being done, as preferred investors. We should invite investment in fields of research where we have something to learn and where we need to build our capacity, not necessarily where we are leaders ourselves. For instance, India is already doing top class research on stem cells and could collaborate with other top class institutions, but not necessarily invite FDI in this field.

We could take a leaf out of Singapore's book in the matter of framing a policy for foreign investment in scientific research. Singapore allows only world-class institutions to enter, and that only when they bring their own money. For instance the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),a leading technical institution in the US, has a collaboration with the National University of Singapore. From Australia, a country with which it other-wise has close contacts on several fronts, it is only the University of New South Wales ,considered a premier institution, which was permitted to establish a campus solely on the basis of its own investments. As a result of its policies on foreign investment in education, Singapore has successfully achieved two goals, one to make itself an educational destination for neighbors in Asia who can now go to world-class institutions in Singapore rather than go to Australia or the US; and two, to bring in top-quality programs and skills to upgrade their own research.

Even after prioritizing the institution and the research field, India will need to be careful about many other aspects associated with allowing foreign investment in research, specially if this is in a strategic area. For instance research in microorganisms will have to be carefully monitored to see that it is not leading to products that could help advance the goals of bio terrorism. There is the issue of intellectual property rights, who will own the IPR? How will benefits be shared? Before rushing to invite foreign money indiscriminately, India must engage in due diligence and assess whether its research interests and the capacity of its scientific cadre will benefit from foreign investments in higher education and research.