Monday, December 27, 2010

Dangerous plastics in the kitchen

Suman Sahai

As endocrine diseases erupt in populations across the world and the incidence of all types of cancers register a sharp increase, surely we need to reflect on what we are doing wrong. The infamous Cancer Express from Punjab, so named because it carries cancer patients for treatment is testimony to the killer impact of chemicals in agriculture which enter our food and damage our health. The link between the chemical load in our food is increasingly better understood today but the food industry manages to keep regulation weak and standards as low as possible.

Take Bisphenol, it is a chemical used in plastic containers used to store food, food grade plastic bottles ( that is plastics approved to be used in food containers) , food cans and feeding bottles for babies. There is growing evidence that Bisphenol is harmful for health. Animal studies show that low doses of Bisphenol have adverse effects on the brain, reproductive system, and metabolic processes related to insulin balance and liver function. It may be related to cancer or even obesity and heart disease. The greatest sensitivity to Bisphenol is during early development and the substance is not flushed out as some drugs are, but accumulates over time in the body, causing damage to health

Despite the evidence, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the US allows the use of Bisphenol in food grade plastics and the plastic industry the world over takes its cue from that and allows Bisphenol to be used in plastic meant for use in the packing and storing of food. Microwaving food in plastic containers is particularly harmful. The plastic bottles that we use to store water at home should not be used and children should not be given plastic water bottles to take to school. Glass bottles are heavier but safer . Heat, detergents and scrubbing can break down Bisphenol and increase exposure. Consumers need to become aware of the dangers of Bisphenol and protest against its use in the food sector.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Bt Brinjal Story

Suman Sahai & Carly Nichols
Bt brinjal was developed by India's Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) using the modified gene Cry1Ac, under license from Monsanto. The modified Cry1Ac gene, found in the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, along with two other supporting genes, nptII and aad, are assembled in such a way that they work to produce an artificial insecticidal protein that is toxic to the targeted insect, in this case the fruit and shoot borer. Thus the intended effect is that the fruit and shoot borer is killed after ingesting any part of the Bt brinjal plant but that other organisms such as secondary insects, animals, and humans are unaffected. Field trials which must be performed before the release of GM crops are done to evaluate (a) the effectiveness of the insecticidal properties against the targeted insect; and (b) the safety of human, animal, and environmental health upon exposure to or consumption of the modified plant containing the transgenic construct.

Confined trials of Bt brinjal were first carried out between 2002 and 2004 and the data from these trials was submitted to the Review Committee of Genetic Modification (RCGM) in April 2006. On the basis of this data, generated and reported by Mahyco, RCGM recommended that GEAC should consider granting approval for large scale field trials of Bt brinjal.

In June 2006 Mahyco submitted bio-safety data to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the statutory and regulatory body for all genetically modified technology in India, and sought permission for large scale trials. GEAC decided to create a sub committee, called the Bt Brinjal Expert Committee I (EC-I), to look into the concerns raised by civil society on the accuracy of the submitted bio-safety data along with other overriding concerns such as cross contamination of normal brinjal by genes from Bt brinjal. These civil society concerns found expression in a May 2005 Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition filed by four activists, Aruna Rodrigues, Devinder Sharma, PV Satheesh, Rajeev Baruah (Writ Petition (Civil) No. 260 of 2005). The petition requested that field trials should only be allowed once “comprehensive, scientific, reliable and transparent bio-safety tests have been carried out” (Sreelata. 2006). This PIL eventually resulted in the Supreme Court issuing a ban on all GM field trials on September 22, 2006, pending scientific consensus on the risks involved with such field trials.

In July 2007 the EC-I submitted its report to GEAC, which recommended that 7 more studies on bio-safety be repeated to verify data which had been generated during the confined trials. Despite this, the EC-I gave the recommendation to go forward with large scale field trials. In August 2007 GEAC accepted this report and gave approval to begin large scale field trials. The Supreme Court subsequently lifted the ban on GM crop field trials so long as they abided by certain regulations such as isolation distance to prevent the risk of cross-breeding. As per GEAC direction, the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR) implemented large scale trials of Bt brinjal at 10 research institutions across the country in 2007 and 11 in 2008. (Decisions taken in the 79th Meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee held on 8.8.2007. <> ).

On a separate front, Gene Campaign, followed by Greenpeace, had asked under the Right to Information (RTI) Act for data to be released on toxicity and allergenicity tests conducted on Bt brinjal. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) refused to release this data saying it was Confidential Business Information. Gene Campaign approached the Supreme Court submitting that data having a bearing on public health could not be considered Confidential Business Information. In March 2008 the Supreme Court directed the Government to release allergenicity and toxicity data obtained from Bt brinjal.

Once the field studies carried out by Mahyco were obtained by civil society organizations data from them were sent to several expert scientists for independent reviews. These reviews yielded several reports by eminent scientists which questioned Mahyco’s experiment protocols as well as their interpretation of the data collected from trials (Carman 2009, Seralini 2009, Gurian-Sherman 2009, Heinemann 2009).

One notable report was authored by Gilles Eric Seralini in January 2009 just prior to the GEAC session slated to decide on the commercialization of Bt brinjal. Seralini, a biochemist with the Institute of Basic and Applied Biology (IFBA) at the University of Caen, found numerous discrepancies in Mahyco’s reporting of statistically significant data. For example, in goats which were fed Bt brinjal, blood took longer to coagulate and the bilirubin count had increased which indicates liver damage. Other adverse reactions were found in tests conducted on rabbits, cows, chickens, and rats which were fed Bt brinjal. These ranged from decrease in liver weight to changes in red blood cell profiles. Moreover the longest toxicity test which was conducted was for a 90 day duration which is far too short to gauge the risk of long-term effects such as cancer or tumour development. The overall validity of the trials has also brought into question as Seralini reports that Bt brinjal was modified to produce an insecticide toxin containing Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac modified sequences. However, in the toxicity tests (against target and non-target insects) a different Cry1Ac toxin was used instead.

Mahyco claims they disregarded the findings mentioned by Seralini for a variety of reasons. For example, deviations which did not show a linear dose response or a time response were disregarded, as were differences which showed up in either males or females, but not both. This omission of statistically significant results is contrary to standard scientific procedures. Seralini concluded his analysis of the mammalian biosafety trials by stating, “Clear significant differences [between Bt and non-Bt brinjal] were seen that raise food safety concerns and warrant further investigation. The GM Bt brinjal cannot be considered as safe as its non GM counterpart…it should be considered as unsuitable for human and animal consumption.”(Seralini. 2009).

Seralini also analyzed the environmental risks associated with the release of Bt brinjal. He characterized experiments done on the effect of Bt brinjal on non-target organisms, beneficial insects, and soil health as “woefully inadequate and give no assurances for the environmental safety of growing Bt brinjal.”(Seralini.2009). This is because indirect effects are not taken into account, such as the effects of Bt brinjal as it moves up the food chain. Seralini found that the gene flow studies performed were also inadequate as they failed to assess the risks of other methods of contamination, such as through the mixing of seeds. Based on these insufficient experiments Seralini recommended that Bt brinjal not be released into the environment for field trials or commercialization.

In January 2009 the IIVR submitted the results of the large scale trials. Due to concerns raised by several stakeholders, including experts such as Seralini, GEAC decided to constitute a second sub-committee (EC-II) to look into the adequacy of biosafety data which had been submitted as well as the broader concerns raised by stakeholders. The EC-II was to be overseen by Dr. P.M. Bhargava, a retired scientist with expertise in cell biology, who had been recommended by the Supreme Court as an observer in GEAC.

On October 14th, 2009 the Bt brinjal EC-II submitted its report, dated October 8, 2009, at the 97th meeting of GEAC. GEAC accepted the report and approved the environmental release of Bt Brinjal containing the event EE1 for commercialization. However, this approval was qualified by stating, " this decision of the GEAC has very important policy implication at the national level, the GEAC decided its recommendation for environmental release may be put up to the Government for taking final view on the matter"(GEAC 97th Meeting. October 14, 2009).

Within 48 hours of GEAC’s approval Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, intervened and halted the approval for commercialization. Responding to strong views expressed both for and against the release of Bt Brinjal, he extended an invitation to the public for comments. He further said that a decision regarding Bt brinjal’s release would only be made pending a nationwide consultation in January and February 2010.

From January 13th, 2010 to February 6th, 2010 seven public hearings on Bt-brinjal were organised by the Center for Environment Education (CEE) supported by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoE&F). These were held in Kolkata, Bhubaneshwar, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Chandigarh, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Almost 8000 people from different sections of society participated in these seven public hearings. Participants included farmer organizations, scientists, seed suppliers, state agriculture department officials, NGOs, allopathic and ayurvedic doctors, students and housewives.

On February 9, 2010, after concluding the public hearings, Minister Ramesh announced a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal. This, he said, was done in response not only to public concern but also significant input from national experts and the international scientific community, pressure from an active and civil society, and opposition from ten State governments, including all the major brinjal producing ones (Decision on Commercialisation of Bt-Brinjal. 2010). He said this moratorium would remain until there was further safety testing and a regulatory system specifically for genetically modified crops set in place. The Minister further said that the moratorium period would be used to commission fresh scientific studies and improve the testing process. Ramesh stated “If you need long term toxicity tests, then you must do it, no matter how long it takes… There is no hurry. There is no overriding urgency or food security argument for [release of] Bt brinjal.”(Decision on Commercialisation of Bt-Brinjal. 2010). Ramesh also made clear that the moratorium period should also be used to implement a functioning independent regulatory authority and hold a parliamentary debate on private investment in agricultural biotechnology.

This decision by Ramesh was followed by a request from civil society for a report to be drawn up to further assess the EC-II report. David A Andow, an eminent scientist at the University of Minnesota, was requested to assess the EC-II report and the environmental risk assessment (ERA) of Bt brinjal. In his report Andow said that the ERA which was submitted to GEAC had a too narrow scope to adequately gauge the risks posed by the commercial release of Bt brinjal. Andow states, “the EC-II is criticized not for whether it has accomplished what it set out to do, but whether it set out to do the right thing in the first place”(Andow. 2010). Andow’s main conclusion from his analysis of the EC-II report along with the original Mahyco bio-safety dossier is that the EC-II has not effectively characterized the risks associated with the release of Bt brinjal. These risks include not only environmental contamination and bio-safety hazards but also socio-economic risks to smallholder farmers which comprise a large part of Indian agriculture. Andow recommended that the risks posed by Bt brinjal need to first be adequately characterized, after which a proper risk management analysis can be performed.

At the same time that Andow was requested for an independent expert analysis, Ramesh commissioned six of India’s top scientific academies (The Indian Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Academy of Engineering, The National Academy of Sciences (India), The Indian National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and The National Academy of Medical Sciences) to more broadly assess the feasibility and safety of genetically modified (GM) crops and their regulation. The report was supposed to specifically focus on the case of Bt brinjal.

On September 24th 2010 the Inter-Academy report was released which stated that Bt brinjal’s safety for human consumption had been established "adequately and beyond reasonable doubt"(Inter-academy Report on GM Crops. 2010). They supported the quick release of Bt brinjal at limited sites across the country provided that distance and isolation requirements were maintained. Countering the findings of Seralini and Andow, the Inter-academy Report said that environmental risks associated with Bt brinjal were “negligible” and that there would be “no appreciable effect of GM crops on biodiversity.” However, the Inter-academy Report quickly became embroiled in scandal as proven allegations of plagiarism and blatant pro-GM biases surfaced within days of the report’s release. (India Today. September 26, 2010. Indian Express. September 26, 2010)

By September 27, 2010, this report had been dismissed as unscientific and overtly influenced by pro-GM thinkers by not only civil society and activist groups but by Minister Ramesh, himself. It was found that significant sections of the text were plagiarised from an article published in 'Biotech News' magazine and authored by Dr. Ananda Kumar, a scientist who heads the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology. The report did not contain proper references and was criticized for using an unscientific tone rife with generalizations and clichés. Minister Ramesh dismissed the report and stated that it did not “appear to be the product of rigorous scientific evaluation.” (Indian Express. September 28, 2010). The poor quality of the Inter-Academy report and the Minister’s response to it has further confused the matter of Bt brinjal in India. As it stands today, the moratorium on Bt brinjal continues.


Andow, David A. “Bt Brinjal: The Scope and Adequacy of the GEAC Environmental Risk Assessment”. Department of Entomology, University of Minnesota. August 2010.

“Bt Brinjal safe, says new report” Indian Express. September 26, 2010. Accessed December 1, 2010.

Carman, Judy. “A Review of Mahyco’s GM Brinjal Food Safety Studies” Institute of Health and Environmental Research, Inc. January 2009

Decisions taken in the 79th Meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee held on 8.8.2007. <>

Decisions taken in the 97th Meeting of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee held on 14.10.2009 <>

Gurian-Sherman, Doug. “Comments on Possible Consequences of Gene Flow from Bt Brinjal to Brinjal Wild Relatives in India, and the Inadequacy of the Current Risk Assessment”. April 2009.

Heinnemann, Jack. “Summary of Analysis of Mahyco Fruit and Shoot Borer Tolerant Brinjal”. Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety. July 2009.

Inter-Academy Report on GM Crops. September 2010. The Indian Academy of Sciences, The Indian National Academy of Engineering, The Indian National Science Academy, The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences The National Academy of Medical Sciences, The National Academy of Sciences (India). <>

“No scientific rigour in report on GM crops: Ramesh”. Indian Express. September 28, 2010. Accessed November 30, 2010

Ramesh, Jairam. Bt Brinjal: Note by Ministry of Environment and Forests. Decision on Commercialisation of Bt-Brinjal. February 9, 2010.

Seralini, Gilles-Eric. “Effects on Health and Environment of Transgenic (or GM) Bt Brinjal”. CRIIGEN. January 2009.

Sharma, Dinesh C.“Academies Copied to Push for Bt Brinjal” India Today. September 26, 2010. <> Accessed December 1, 2010.

Sreelata, M. “Indian Supreme Court Bans GM Crop Trials”. Science and Development Network. October 31, 2006. <>. Accessed December 8, 2010.

Writ Petition (Civil) No. 115 of 2004. Gene Campaign & Another Versus Union of India & Others. Supreme Court of India. <>

Writ Petition (Civil) No. 260 of 2005. Aruna Rodrigues & Ors. Versus Union of India & Ors. Supreme Court of India.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Challenges to Genetic Diversity and Implications For Food Security in South Asia

Suman Sahai

Genetic diversity in the field is the key to long-term sustainable food production. In agriculture and forestry, genetic diversity can enhance production in all agricultural and ecosystem zones. Genetic erosion is the loss of genetic diversity, which is being caused not just at the level of individual genes but at the level of gene combination, which is even more dangerous. The main cause of genetic erosion is varietal replacement. However, there are many traditional varieties that are extremely high yielding and that can in fact form a much bigger mix of varieties available in the field than this very narrow approach to increasing productivity would suggest. Genetic erosion is happening at a more rapid pace in developing countries because of the somewhat faulty planning to bring about change and increase productivity. Above all, agro biodiversity which is genetic diversity related to agriculture, is threatened not because of over use but because it is not used.

I Genetic Diversity and Agriculture
Genetic diversity in the agricultural system is recognised to be the foundation on which food, livelihoods and income security is based. It is the result of natural selection processes and the careful selection and inventive developments of farmers. Agricultural biodiversity, also known as agrobiodiversity or genetic resource, includes:
  • Crop varieties, livestock breeds, fish species and undomesticated (wild) resources within field, forest, and rangeland and including tree products, wild animals hunted for food and plants and animals in aquatic ecosystems;
  • Natural undomesticated species involved with production ecosystems that support food cultivators including soil micro-biota, pollinators, bees, butterflies, earthworms, and natural predators of pests;
  • Undomesticated species in the larger environment that are part of ecosystems that support food production. These could be agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic ecosystems.

Agrobiodiversity is the result of the interaction between the environment, genetic resources and management systems and practices used by culturally diverse peoples. Thus, agrobiodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are necessary for sustaining key functions of the agro-ecosystem, including its structure and processes for, and in support of, food production and food security. Local knowledge and culture can therefore be considered as integral parts of agrobiodiversity, because it is the human activity of agriculture that shapes and conserves this biodiversity.

Many farmers, especially those in environments where intensive agriculture cannot be practiced, rely on a wide range of crop and livestock types. This helps them maintain their livelihoods in the face of sub-optimal soils, biotic and abiotic stress like disease and uncertain rainfall, fluctuation in the price of cash crops and socio-political upheaval. Many minor or underutilised crops are frequently found in proximity to the main staple or cash crops. Yet they are neglected and little effort is made to either conserve them or mainstream them for domestic use or the market. During times of stress like drought or flood, such underutilised plants can play a very important role in food production systems at the local level. Plants that will grow in infertile or degraded soils, and livestock that will survive on little fodder are crucial to the survival strategies of communities.

Agrobiodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge
Indigenous knowledge is the information that people in a given community have developed over time. It is based on experience and adapted to the local culture and environment and is continuously developing. Indigenous knowledge is embedded in social structures. Different groups of people, ethnic groups and clans hold different knowledge. Women and men often possess very different skills and knowledge of local flora and fauna. Indigenous knowledge and gender differences within that knowledge, are key factors that shape and influence plant and animal diversity. Such knowledge can help increase the relevance and efficiency of agrobiodiversity management and conservation efforts at different levels. Indigenous knowledge continues to be an important asset for resource poor people to sustain their livelihoods.

The Value of Genetic Diversity in Agriculture
It is now well established that the traditional practice of maintaining genetic diversity in the field is the key to long-term sustainable food production. In agriculture and forestry, genetic diversity can enhance production in all agricultural and ecosystem zones. Several varieties can be planted in the same field to minimise crop failure, and new varieties can be bred to maximise production or adapt to adverse or changing conditions.

Newer strategies for stabilising production involve the use of varietal blends (a mix of strains sharing similar traits but based on different parents) or multilines (varieties containing several different sources of resistance). In each case, the crop represents a genetically diverse array that can better withstand disease and pests. Despite these efforts, genetic uniformity still places some crops at risk of disease outbreaks and in some regions, that risk is considerable. Some 62 per cent of rice varieties in Bangladesh, 74 per cent in Indonesia, and 75 per cent in Sri Lanka are derived from one maternal parent. From 1930 to 1980 in the US, the use of genetic diversity by plant breeders, accounted for at least half of the doubling in yields of rice, barley, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and sugarcane; a threefold increase in tomato yields; and a fourfold increase in yields of corn, sorghum, and potato.

As important as genetic diversity is to increasing yields, it is at least as important in maintaining existing productivity. Introducing genetic resistance to certain insect pests can increase crop yields, but since natural selection often helps insects quickly overcome this resistance, new genetic resistance has to be periodically introduced into the crop just to sustain the higher productivity. Pesticides are also overcome by evolution, so another important agricultural use of genetic diversity is to offset productivity losses from pesticide resistance.
Wild relatives of crops have contributed significantly to agriculture, particularly in disease resistance. Thanks to wild wheat varieties, domesticated wheat now resists fungal diseases, drought, winter cold, and heat. Rice gets its resistance to two of Asia’s four main rice diseases from a single sample of rice from central India, Oryza nivara.

Genetic Diversity and Livestock Breeding
Genetic diversity is becoming increasingly important in forestry and fisheries, and the use of genetic resources in livestock breeding has markedly increased yields. The average milk yield of cows in the US has doubled over the past 30 years, and genetic improvement accounts for more than 25 per cent of this gain in at least one breed. Although not as dramatic, Asia has also seen a rise in milk output due to the improved genetic stock of dairy cattle.

For a variety of reasons, genetic diversity has been less useful in livestock breeding than in crop breeding. Whereas one major use of the genetic diversity of crops has been in the development of strains resistant to specific pests and diseases, livestock husbandry has relied largely on vaccines since animals (unlike plants) can develop immunity to disease. Second, maintaining livestock germplasm is tougher logistically than maintaining the genetic material of plants: since animals do not produce anything comparable to plant seeds that can be stored easily. An additional problem is that many of the closest relatives of domesticated animals are extinct, endangered, or rare, and thus unavailable for breeding. This should be a priority area for germplasm conservation.

Genetic Improvement of Forest Species
Genetic improvement of forest species has also received less attention than crop improvement. Until recently, most timber was harvested from the wild and little attention was paid to breeding programmes. In addition, because trees are so long-lived, the rate of genetic improvement of tree species is quite slow. Tests and measurements of growth characteristics have been made for some 500 species (primarily conifers) over the years, but less than 40 tree species are being bred. Yet, impressive gains have been made with these species. In intensive breeding programmes, a 15 to 25 per cent gain in productivity per generation has been attained for trees growing on high-quality sites without inputs of fertilizer, water, or pesticides.

Fish breeding has not been widely utilised to enhance yields because most of the fish eaten is caught from the wild. An exception is aquaculture. In one case, the domestic carp (Cyprinus carpio) was bred with a wild carp in the erstwhile Soviet Union to enhance the cold resistance of the domestic species and allow a range extension to the north.

Maintaining Soil Biodiversity for increased agricultural production
Improvement in agricultural sustainability will require the optimal use and management of soil fertility and soil physical properties. Both rely on soil biological process and soil biodiversity. This implies management practices that enhance soil biological activity and thereby build up long-term soil productivity and health. Such practices are of major importance in marginal lands to avoid degradation, and in degraded lands in need of restoration.

Integrated Soil Management and Soil Biodiversity
Over the last few years, the concept of Integrated Soil Management (ISM) and Integrated Plant Nutrient Management (IPNM) has been gaining acceptance. It advocates the careful management of nutrient stocks and flows in a way that leads to profitable and sustained production. ISM emphasises the management of nutrient flows, but does not ignore other important aspects of the soil complex, such as maintaining organic matter content, soil structure and soil biodiversity.

Soil biodiversity reflects the mix and populations of diverse living organisms in the soil—the myriad of invisible microbes to the more familiar macro-fauna such as earthworms and termites. These organisms interact with one another and with plants and animals forming a web of biological activity. Environmental factors, including temperature, moisture, acidity and several chemical components of the soil affect soil biological activity. Clearly, for a productive sustainable agriculture, the complex interaction among these factors must be understood so that they can be managed as an integrated system.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation:
‘Soil health can be defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living system, within ecosystem and land-use boundaries, to sustain biological productivity and maintain their water quality as well as plant, animal, and human health. The concept of soil health includes the ecological attributes of the soil, which have implications beyond its quality or capacity to produce a particular crop. These attributes are chiefly those associated with the soil biota; its diversity, its food web structure, its activity and the range of functions it performs. For example, soil biodiversity per se may not be a soil property that is critical for the production of a given crop, but it is a property that may be vital for the continued capacity of the soil to produce that crop’ (FAO 2004).

Biological populations and processes influence soil fertility and structure in a variety of ways, each of which can have an ameliorating effect on the main soil-based constraints to productivity (See FAO 2004):

  • Symbionts such as rhizobia and mycorrhiza increase the efficiency of nutrient acquisition by plants;
  • A wide range of fungi, bacteria, and animals participate in the process of decomposition, mineralisation, and nutrient immobilisation and therefore influence the efficiency of nutrient cycles;
  • Soil organisms mediate both the synthesis and decomposition of soil organic matter and therefore influence cation exchange capacity, the soil N, S, and P reserve, soil acidity and toxicity; and soil water holding capacity;
  • The burrowing and particle transport activities of soil fauna, and the aggregation of soil particles by fungi and bacteria, influence soil structure and soil water regime.
Enhancing Soil Biological Diversity
Certain ecological principles are needed to enhance soil biological diversity and thereby increase agricultural production.

Supply of Organic Matter
Most soil organisms rely on organic matter for food. Each type of soil organism occupies a different niche in the web of life and favours a different substrate and nutrient source. Thus, a rich supply and varied source of organic matter will generally support a wider variety of organisms.

Increasing the Number of Plant Varieties
Crops should be mixed and their spatial-temporal distribution varied to create a greater diversity of niches and resources that stimulate soil biodiversity.
  • Create a diverse landscape: diverse habitats support complex mixes of soil organisms;
  • Rotate crops: crop rotation allows nutrient demand and rooting depth to be varied, thus reducing nutrient mining and hardpans. This encourages the presence of a wider variety of organisms, improves nutrient cycling and improves natural processes of pest and disease control.
Protecting the Habitat of Soil Organisms
Stimulate soil biodiversity by improving soil living conditions, such as aeration, temperature, moisture, and nutrients quantity and quality.
  • Reduce tillage;
  • Minimise compaction;
  • Minimise the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers;
  • Improve water drainage
  • Maximise soil cover.
Farming Practices to Change Soil Life
Direct methods of intervening in the production system aim to alter the abundance or activity of specific groups of organisms (inoculation and direct manipulation of soil biota). Indirect interventions are means of managing soil biotic processes by manipulating the factors that control biotic activity (habitat structure, microclimate, nutrients and energy resources) rather than the organisms themselves. Common constraints to the use of different soil biological management practices include labour and time costs, monetary cost, availability of inputs, for example planting material/inoculants and capacities, as well as social acceptability.

II Gender and Genetic Diversity
Men and women play important, but different roles, in the management and conservation of agrobiodiversity. There is a gender differentiation in the roles and responsibilities in agriculture. Gender relations are also affected by the upheavals in the management and conservation of agrobiodiversity and local knowledge. Cultural values continue to be the driving force of biodiversity management and conservation. Changing food culture and dietary habits can lead to the erosion of women’s knowledge of processing, preparation and storage. This ultimately leads to the erosion of plant diversity and family food security and health. Commercialised agriculture, modern technologies and innovations have created high external-input dependent systems. These often rely on introduced species and varieties, which have introduced changes in gender roles. Changes within the household composition affect available labour resources and have a profound impact upon agricultural management practices and agrobiodiversity. Shocks, such as HIV-AIDS, have an impact on gender relations and the interaction with other livelihood assets.
A gendered long-term strategy for the conservation, utilisation, improvement and management of genetic resources will require:
  • Acknowledgement that there are gender-based differences in the roles, responsibilities and contributions of different socioeconomic groups in farming communities.
  • Recognition of the value of men’s and women’s knowledge, skills and practices and their right to benefit from the fruits of their labour.
  • Equity in agricultural policies and implementation strategies to provide incentives for the sustainable use of genetic resources, especially through in situ conservation and improved linkages with ex situ conservation.
  • Appropriate national legislation to uphold the principles of equity and protect ‘threatened’ genetic resources for food and livelihoods, guarantee their continued use and management by local communities.
  • Ensure that any benefits accrued from the commercial exploitation of genetic diversity is dedicated for the use of local community.
  • Incorporate gender issues in legal instruments that regulate the management and use of biodiversity, at national and international levels,
  • Increase the access of farm men and women to land and water resources, to education, extension, training, credit and appropriate technology.
  • Participation of rural women and men in decision making.

III Policy Requirements Broadening Diversity in Crops
In order to increase agricultural production in the long term, the incorporation of a broader range of crops including non-food crops is a necessity. Innovative approaches in plant breeding for the purposes of domesticating new crops, bringing in as yet underutilised crops into the mainstream, the development of new plant varieties promoting genetic diversity on farms, such as planting mixtures of adapted varieties, are now recognised as a means for adding stability in agricultural systems and promoting agricultural production and food security.
Governments, intergovernmental organisations, research institutions, extension agencies, the private sector, farmers organisations and NGOs, should:

  • Develop programmes to monitor genetic uniformity and assess vulnerability in crops;
  • Review policies which may affect the level of diversity in agricultural systems, and specifically the degree of genetic uniformity and vulnerability of major crops
  • Increase heterogeneity by planting mixtures of adapted varieties and species as appropriate.

Funding agencies should be encouraged to support international agricultural centres, national agricultural research systems, and other relevant research bodies and NGOs, for work aimed at enhancing levels of genetic diversity in agricultural systems. The release by international centers of unfinished varieties to national programmes for further development, including on-farm improvement and the selection of high yielding landraces/farmers varieties are measures which could bring higher levels of diversity, adaptability and stability to crops.

Research systems should:

  • Increase their capacity to develop and use multilines, mixtures and synthetic varieties;
  • Increase their capacity to use integrated pest management strategies, including the use of race-non-specific (horizontal) resistances, the pyramiding of race-specific resistances, and the strategic deployment of resistance genes;
  • Encourage the strategic use of a broad range of varieties;
  • Use participatory plant breeding strategies to develop plant varieties specifically adapted to local environments;
  • Support efforts to identify those activities used in plant breeding, plant research and farming systems that foster on-farm diversity. Such research might include a review of non-homogenous farming systems such as those based on intercropping, polycropping, integrated pest management, and integrated nutrient management, for their possible wider applicability, as well as research to develop appropriate plant breeding methodologies.

At the national and international levels, systems should be put in place for:

  • Developing monitoring and early warning systems for loss of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture;
  • Supporting on-farm management and improvement of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture;
  • Increasing genetic enhancement and base-broadening efforts;
  • Developing new markets for local varieties and diversity-rich products.

IV Genetic Diversity and Food Security
Genetic diversity gives species the ability to adapt to changing environments, and combat biotic and abiotic stress like pests and diseases, drought and salinity. This diversity is the raw material for breeding new varieties of crops, which provide the basis for more productive and resilient production systems that are better able to cope with such stresses as drought or overgrazing and can reduce the potential for soil erosion.

Subsistence farmers, particularly in marginal areas are well aware of the relationship between the stability and sustainability of their production systems and the diversity of crops and crop varieties on their lands. This diversity is their greatest insurance against risk. Their management and use of a diverse range of varieties has helped them to survive under the most difficult conditions. Across Asia, farmers have classically planted a mix of varieties in the same field so that if some fell victim to pest and disease, others would survive, ensuring that atleast some grain could be harvested. Under monoculture conditions, the entire crop would be wiped out in the face of pest and disease, leaving the farmer nothing to take home. By growing a range of different crops, farmers have a better chance of meeting their needs and reducing their risk. These might be crops that mature at different times or mixed cropping, when two or more crops are cultivated in the same field. Crop varieties can also be selected for foods with a long shelf life to help to ensure a stable food supply throughout the year. Multiple varieties in the field provide a nutritionally balanced diet for farm families and diversify their income sources.

V Genetic Erosion
Genetic erosion is the loss of genetic diversity—both the loss of individual genes and the loss of particular combinations of genes such as those found in locally adapted landraces and farmer varieties. The main cause of genetic erosion is varietal replacement. The replacement of local varieties or landraces by high yielding, hybrid, genetically modified (GM) and exotic varieties and species is causing genetic erosion in all agricultural systems.

The genetic erosion of agricultural biodiversity is exacerbated by the loss of forest cover, coastal wetlands and natural, uncultivated areas, and the destruction of the aquatic environment. This leads to loss of the ‘wild’ or undomesticated crop plants and relatives important for the development of biodiversity and crop varieties. Also lost are natural foods available in fields and forests and fodder and medicinal plants that are so critical to rural and tribal communities as survival foods in times of crisis and for health and veterinary care.

VI Challenges to Agrobiodiversity
Expansion of Industrial and Green Revolution Agriculture
This includes intensive livestock production, industrial fisheries and aquaculture. Some production systems use genetically modified varieties and breeds. Moreover, relatively few crop varieties are cultivated in monocultures and a limited number of domestic animal breeds, or fish, are reared or few aquatic species cultivated.

Till the nineteenth and even early twentieth century, the agriculture sector had a sufficiently high autonomy vis-à-vis the other economic sectors. Today, the food industry which processes the raw foodstuff industrially is a highly concentrated trade sector and holds a dominating position. It demands standardised agricultural products that can be easily treated by machines.
With the industrialisation and intensification of agriculture, investments have escalated, and pressure has increased to compensate these costs by means of a higher productivity. This is being achieved through intensive land use systems, mechanisation, higher inputs of fertilisers and pesticides, monocultural cultivation and the breeding of high yielding crops and high performing livestock. These processes have caused massive ecological effects and unsustainable production and consumption patterns with impact among others on agrobiodiversity.

Globalisation of the Food System and Marketing
The extension of industrial patenting, and other intellectual property systems, to living organisms has led to the widespread cultivation and rearing of fewer varieties and breeds. This results in a more uniform, less diverse, but more competitive global market. As a consequence, there have been changes in farmers’ and consumers’ perceptions and preferences, marginalisation of small-scale, diverse food production systems that conserve farmer varieties of crops and breeds of domestic animals; reduced integration of livestock in arable production, which reduces the diversity of uses for which livestock are needed; and reduced use of ‘nurture’ fisheries techniques that conserve and develop aquatic biodiversity.

The Replacement of Local Varieties by Improved or Exotic Varieties and Species
Nearly all countries confirm genetic erosion is taking place and that it is a serious problem. Genetic erosion usually occurs as old varieties in farmers’ fields are replaced by newer ones. Genes and gene complexes found in farmers’ varieties are not found in the new varieties. The total number of varieties is reduced when commercial varieties are introduced into traditional farming systems. Few systematic studies of the genetic erosion of crop genetic diversity have been done so far.

Challenges to Local Knowledge
Local knowledge and local institutions managing this knowledge are particularly challenged by rapid socio-economic and environmental changes. Areas of very rapid population growth, or a concomitant reduction in resources by external pressures, may require particular adaptations of new agricultural technologies to increase food production and the diversification of livelihoods, leading to irrelevance of local knowledge. Immigration can mean that the repertoires of knowledge, for agricultural/pastoral production and environmental conservation, are out of focus with the new set of opportunities and constraints. Gradual environmental changes, such as climate change, widespread deforestation, or land degradation, challenge the resilience and adaptability of local knowledge systems. Rapid commercialisation and economic shocks can also undermine local knowledge.

Population Increase in Developing Countries and Agribusiness in the Developed World
With the vertical integration of the food chain and the linking of farmers fields to retail stores, companies began to standardise products, leaving no room for the banana that failed to measure to prescribed norms, the french beans that were too long or too short or wheat which did not have the prescribed gluten content. All this led to severe genetic loss since such crop varieties became gradually displaced from farmers’ fields.

Monocultures of crops to produce standardised fruit and grain and a few animal breeds with optimal food–product conversion effacing have starkly reduced genetic diversity. This has resulted in the neglect and marginalisation of small-scale, diversified food production systems that are based on a diversity of farmers' seed varieties and breeds of domestic animals, which may have low milk yields but can survive pests and disease and have a high ratio of fodder convertibility. These diverse gene pools varied with the eco-geography even within the same region and helped to maintain a broad genetic support base. A change in livestock production so that they are not integrated in arable production reduced the diversity of uses for which livestock are needed.

Catastrophes and Climate Variation
One need look no further than the recent devastation caused by the Kosi river shifting course in Bihar. Apart from the loss of human life and assets, the crops of the area have been swept away and along with them, the traditional varieties that were cultivated there. In the coming days of global warming and climate change, cyclones and hurricanes will increase and with that will increase the probability of loss of genetic diversity. Whereas stocks of seed of the HYV and parental lines of hybrids are carefully maintained, these can be restored but government agencies and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) have no provisions for conserving seed of traditional varieties, therefore, many traditional varieties could be lost for ever.

Flawed Policies
Genetic diversity in animal breeds was starkly reduced in the 1960s and 70s when the livestock improvement programme started in India. This consisted of importing cattle to cross with indigenous breeds and a large scale programme of artificial insemination using imported cattle as one parent. During the artificial insemination programme, large numbers of bulls of indigenous breeds were culled or castrated to prevent them from impregnating the animals meant to be inseminated. This resulted in substantial loss of genes of less productive animal breeds, which had other traits like the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, resist diseases and survive in fodder scarce times.

In developing countries, loss of diversity has been reinforced by a donor policy that has promoted the import of exotic breeds and crossbreeding that threatens the survival of local breeds. Both the markets for agricultural inputs and for agricultural outputs have been increasing in size, thus feeding into a globalising food market that demands goods in huge consignments. In order to process them industrially, those agricultural goods need to be homogenous. Therefore, apart from the yields, it is the requirements of industrial cultivation, husbandry and processing (and to some extent consumer demand) that determine the breeding objectives rather then nutritional value, taste, improved stress resistance or adaptation to natural conditions.

Agrobiodiversity Loss through New Technology
Modern, highly selective breeding methods contribute to diversity loss, thereby leading to dangerous degrees of homogenisation. In livestock breeding artificial insemination, multiple ovulation and embryo transfer are applied to reproduce only a few top performers; a huge number of other individuals are thus excluded from breeding and the genetic distance within populations is correspondingly reduced. Hybrid breeding, with both animals (for example. poultry, pigs) and plants (for example corn, rice), and in the future, cloning, are methods used to reproduce genetically homogenous and high performing livestock and plant varieties. In the case of animals, impacts on the genetic pool are expected when traditional pure breeding gets replaced by modern methods. Also, since hybrid breeding produces infertile breeds and seed, farmers cannot use the material to continue breeding/growing according to their own selection preferences, they are forced to rely on commercially bred/grown livestock and seeds, which they have to buy again every year. In plant breeding, ‘Genetic Use Restriction Technologies’ (GURTs) have the same effect.

The economic and technological developments detrimental to agrobiodiversity were partly supported by policies and governance structures such as intellectual property rights (IPR) and sovereignty regimes that regulate access to genetic resources as well as seed and livestock breeding laws. These have encouraged high output and homogenisation, thus affecting the choice of plants and livestock.

At the coming into force of the WTO/TRIPs (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) IPR laws had to be enacted over biological resources in all countries. Patents and stringent Breeders Rights restricted the free flow of germplasm and contain it in compartments that are increasingly privately owned. Two major IPR regimes can be distinguished, which impact agrobiodiversity in varying degrees. The first is patents and the other is Plant Variety Protection (PVP), applying only to plants. Plant variety protection systems based on Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) are inclined to diminish agrobiodiversity.

The criterion for variety protection—the so called ‘DUS requirements’ (for Distinct, Uniform i.e. homogenous and stable), impacts on plant variability. Secondly, Plant Breeders Rights, like other IPRs have indirect effects on agrobiodiversity by restricting access to genetic resources. The uniformity criterion aims at minimising genetic diversity within a plant variety, because to qualify for a Plant Breeder’s Right, the variety must be distinguishable from other varieties. This physical distinctiveness and uniformity comes at the expense of genetic variability. In the field, uniform varieties are less able to withstand biotic and abiotic stress. At the same time, the uniformity criterion puts genetically diverse land races out of the purview of protection. The DUS criterion inclines breeders to develop varieties that have low adaptability and are highly adjusted to monocultural production systems for large markets.

VI Declining Diversity and Impact of Diversity Loss
Since the 1900s, some 75 per cent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have abandoned traditional varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties. 30 per cent of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction; six breeds are lost each month. Today, 75 per cent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species. Of the 4 per cent of the 250 000 to 300 000 known edible plant species, only 150 to 200 are used by humans. Only three—rice, maize and wheat—contribute nearly 60 per cent of the calories and proteins (FAO 1999).

Loss of robust crops and livestock breeds adapted to their ecosystem, and their replacement by genetically homogenous, high yielding varieties and high performance animals and birds makes inevitable the use of unecological inputs like chemicals, hormones and antibiotics, leaving an ecological footprint. The new varieties and breeds are not only more vulnerable, and prone to diseases, because of their narrow genetic base, they are dependent on high cost inputs like energy, and agrochemicals as well as pharmaceuticals in the case of animals. The loss of locally adapted traditional varieties and breeds also impacts on the surrounding eco-system and wild biodiversity by disrupting the interdependent system of survival of the ecosystem. The protection of landraces and indigenous livestock breeds is important despite their comparatively lower yields since they often possess valuable traits such as disease and pest resistance and are better adapted to harsh conditions and poor quality feed, which are qualities desirable for low-input, sustainable agriculture.

In terms of social impacts, the loss of genetic resources poses a threat to food security. Genetic resources, along with soil and water, constitute the foundation upon which agriculture and world food security are based. The destruction of the diversity of these resources not only increases vulnerability in terms of animal diseases, pests and harvest failures, but it also undermines the foundations of future breeding and development paths. Another social dimension of agrobiodiversity loss is the equity issue. It becomes relevant in relation to property rights, especially patents and stringent Breeders Rights, regulating the balance between farmers and agribusiness. It also becomes relevant in relation to the distribution of benefits between agrobiodiversity rich countries in the South and industrial countries in the North which appropriate the returns when utilising these resources.

Finally, agrobiodiversity loss also has economic impacts: the diversity at the genetic, species and agro-ecosystems levels protects against vulnerability to the vagaries of the weather, insect pests and diseases that can devastate a uniform crop. There are famous examples of economic disasters springing from ‘genetic monoculture’ such as the nineteenth century Irish potato famine and the US pest ‘Corn Leaf Blight’ in 1969. In the case of diminishing farm animals, genetic diversity impedes adaptation to diseases, parasites, or variations in the availability and quality of food. Thus, agrobiodiversity loss increases the economic risks for individual farmers and can undermine the stability both of agriculture and the food business.[1] Whereas traditional mixed farming systems produce modest but reliable yields, planting a single modern crop variety over a large area can result in high yields but the crop may be extremely vulnerable to pests, disease and severe weather.

VII Farmers’ Perception of Agrobiodiversity
Gene Campaign conducted a study in Bihar and Jharkhand in India to ascertain farmers’ perception about agrobiodiversity and their views on its conservation. The main goals of the study were to understand:

  • The perception of farmers about the erosion of genetic diversity with the coming of green revolution varieties;
  • The farmers’ opinion about the drawbacks of traditional varieties, if any;
  • Their response to the loss of traditional varieties;
  • The farmers’ views on efforts to preserve the large varieties of seeds that are a part of their heritage;
  • What the farmers want as material benefits in order to grow traditional varieties on a portion of their land.

The study found that:

  • Most farmers were nostalgic about the traditional varieties that were grown in their region in the past and have been replaced by the High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) over the years. They regret the fact that this has happened.
  • The farmers felt that there was an urgent need for local seed banks, offering both traditional seeds and HYVs.
  • In districts where HYVs are cultivated, primarily irrigated areas, farmers were of the opinion that the biggest drawback of traditional varieties is its low yield and the fact that seed is not easily available.
  • In districts where hardly any HYVs were cultivated, primarily rain fed areas, farmers do not have complaints against the traditional varieties, recognising that that do better under their conditions. They also complained about the difficulty of accessing seeds of these varieties. Neither seed stores nor government agencies provide such seeds.
  • Most farmers are of the opinion that the loss of traditional varieties is a negative development for agriculture.
  • A section of younger farmers are not sure if this loss is a negative development or it has actually been a positive development for the farming community, resulting in the overall development of agriculture.
  • Farmers acknowledged that HYVs fare better in terms of yield and marketability but traditional varieties are better in terms of the characteristics they offer, amount and quality of straw and disease resistance. The traditional varieties were said to be better tasting and important for festivals, ceremonies and rituals.
  • Most farmers are open to cultivating traditional varieties of crops, at least on a portion of their land. The main impediment to this is lack of seeds.
  • Farmers were open to changing over to cultivation of traditional seeds but wanted incentives to offset the loss of yield compared to HYVs. Some of the desired incentives were assured availability of water, link roads, assured supply of good quality seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and marketing facilities with price support.

VIII Rectifying the Situation
Public sector investments must be made to maintain genetic diversity and the livelihoods of the poor. Comprehensive characterisation of varieties and species should be done to document features like the agroecological niches occupied by plant types which are little known or regarded as weeds. The various economic characteristics of plants and livestock, including pest and disease resistance, their nutritional properties, and their complementarity with others in an ecosystem should be recorded.

Protect Genetic Diversity through the Public Distribution Systems (PDS)
The Public Distribution System (PDS) which procures grains for distribution to the poor can become a powerful tool to support genetic diversity, at the same time offer local people foods that they know. The government scheme procures only high yielding varieties and quality standards are set for the procurement of such varieties. This encourages farmers to grow just one variety, at best two, of both rice and wheat. Traditional varieties are not procured because there is diversity in these crops so the grains are not identical. Some varieties produce short, fat grains, others may have long, narrow ones, some dark, the others light in colour. This makes absolutely no difference to the quality of the food. In fact, traditional varieties usually have a better nutritional profile than the high yielding ones, but farmers are discouraged by the lack of a market.

Instead of rice and wheat from Punjab and Western UP, if the PDS would buy traditional varieties of crops locally from farmers it would be a great incentive for farmers, to continue growing these varieties and so called minor cereals like millets. Farmers in rainfed areas are still growing traditional varieties of rice, millets, pulses, oilseeds and vegetables. If there is a good price for these crops, the farmers will not feel the pressure to shift to high yielding varieties, which get them higher incomes. In irrigated areas where farmers have been practicing mono-cropping and intensive agriculture, the ecological impact of intensive use of agro-chemicals is becoming apparent. They would be happy to convert some portion of their land to traditional varieties but are hesitant to do so because there is no market for these crops.

Ensure Seed Supply of Traditional Varieties
In a study conducted in UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, Gene Campaign found that among other reasons, farmers tend to shift away from traditional varieties because seed of these varieties is difficult to obtain if they should lose their own seed. The formal agricultural system does not offer any support for traditional varieties and farmers cultivating older varieties are usually left to their own devices. They encounter difficulties at both ends, in the availability of seed and the lack of a market to sell their produce. Were this situation to change, farmers would be more willing to cultivate traditional varieties of rice, as also varieties of millets.

Agrobiodiversity Conservation: The Gene Campaign Experience
Gene Campaign elected to work on conservation of agrobiodiversity in Jharkhand because, along with Orissa and parts of Chattisgarh, this region of Eastern India is considered to be one of the primary centres for the origin of rice. The wealth of genetic diversity here is being eroded by the aggressive promotion of HYV and hybrid rice. There is no corresponding effort for the conservation of traditional rice varieties. The Seed Exchange Programme undertaken by the Government of Jharkhand is an official instrument for the systematic destruction of the genetic diversity of rice in its birthplace, the area where a large and varied genetic diversity is still found. The Seed Exchange Programme provides high yielding seed to farmers in exchange for their traditional varieties. Farmers bring in their traditional rice varieties and take back an equivalent amount of seed of HYV or hybrid rice seed. There is no programme for the conservation of the traditional varieties that are brought in, instead, they are milled and turned into rice, thus destroying large amounts of genetic diversity in a systematic way.

Gene Campaign started a few years ago to collect, characterise and conserve traditional varieties of crops, principally rice but also legumes, oilseeds, millets and vegetables. Gene Campaign’s activities to conserve the genetic diversity scientifically are as follows:

  • Collection of agro biodiversity of various crop plants, chiefly rice and its characterisation and processing for long-term and medium-term conservation in Gene/Seed/ Grain Banks
  • Ultradessicating seed samples for storage at room temperature and testing seed viability and germination every year for five years
  • Setting up Gene and Seed Banks in the village with proper storage conditions like water proofing, light proofing and pest control
  • Developing a community-based system for using and administering the material in the Gene/ Seed bank
  • Multiplication of seed samples to create seed source for farmers
  • Refreshing seed in field plots every year to retain the viability of the seed stored in the bank.
  • Characterising the collection of agrobiodiversity using standard forms and approved descriptors.
  • Maintaining the integrity of the seed collections by proper curating of the collection, weeding out mixtures, exact and accurate labeling.

Agrobiodiversity conservation in village level Gene-Seed Banks will help support local food security in a number of ways. The long-term conservation of genetic material will aid future breeding work and the genes contained in conserved agro biodiversity will not be lost as traditional varieties get displaced from farmers fields. These genes should be conserved so that as climate, biotic and abiotic conditions change/vary, breeders can use this kind of bank to access genes with specific properties, to breed new varieties. That is why it is important not just to collect but also to characterise the properties of traditional crop varieties.

In the short term the Gene-Seed banks have begun to serve as a seed source for farmers who can access seed adapted to local dry land conditions. Not all farmers can opt for HYV or hybrid rice cultivation and maintaining a diverse and secure seed source for such resource poor farmers is important to support their agriculture and local food security. The Gene-Seed Banks provide such locally adapted seed.

The Gene/Seed bank is also a repository of Farmer Varieties, which can be registered with the National Plant Variety Authority. According to the new IPR regime in India and the new legislation on Farmer Rights, Farmer Varieties can be registered once they have been characterised. This is to accord ownership rights to farmers over their genetic material and the IK inherent in its breeding and conservation. The collection, characterisation and conservation of traditional varieties in the gene/seed bank helps to get farmers their legitimate due both intellectually and materially. It establishes their claim to the benefits derived from commercialisation and provides an incentive to conserve such varieties.

To give the next generation a stake in conservation, village youth have been trained to collect traditional varieties, process them scientifically and characterise them. They are also trained to multiply the seed samples in plots, harvesting, drying and storing the samples in a carefully segregated fashion. Farmers are trained to maintain careful field protocols and plot designs as trained by the scientists. These farmers can multiply seeds for the bank on their fields. The longer term goal is to encourage farmers to restore some of the traditional varieties on part of their lands so that there is field level conservation. Bringing scientific conservation techniques to the field should help to arrest the rapid genetic erosion. This kind of work should be magnified and spread to all regions where genetic diversity exists.

Impact of Setting up Seed Banks
The seed banks have had several impacts. Traditional rice varieties to farmer’s fields have returned. The traditional varieties that were lost from the region are being cultivated again in many places. Farmers have been trained to participate in seed renewal and multiplication, thus creating viable source of traditional seed. Traditional varieties with cultural-religious significance have also returned to communities. Conservation of rice diversity is beginning to happen in its Centre of Origin and farmers again have the option to mix varieties which helps to distribute risk, especially when hybrid rice is being promoted.

Suman Sahai is Convener of Gene Campaign.

End Notes
[1] The Irish famine in 1846 due to the potato blight Phytophthera infestans, is well known. In 1970, the US corn crop suffered a 15 per cent reduction in yield and losses worth roughly US$ 1 billion when a leaf fungus (Helminthosporim maydis) spread rapidly through the genetically uniform crop. The loss of a large portion of the Soviet wheat crop to cold weather in 1972, and the citrus canker outbreak in Florida in 1984 all stemmed from reduction in genetic diversity.

FAO. 1999. ‘What is Happening to Agrobiodiversity?’, Accessed from:, accessed on 14 May 2010.
FAO. 2004. ‘Soil Biota and Biodiversity: the “Root” of Sustainable Agriculture’, Accessed from, accessed on 14 May 2010.

Source : South Asian Survey (2010), A Journal of the Indain Council for South Asian Cooperation, Sage Publication, Volume 17, Number 1, Page 111

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cancun gone, now look to South Africa

Suman Sahai

Before the run up to Cancun, world leaders have begun to articulate what everyone knew all along, that the climate talks in Mexico will not progress any on climate change than what happened at Copenhagen. The Cancun talks were expected only to be a halt en route

to arriving at something more. That ‘something more’, everyone agrees must be a globally binding deal like the Kyoto Protocol but nobody seems to want to take concrete

steps in that direction. To add another twist to the reigning despondency, Japan threw in its spanner, saying it had no interest in furthering the Kyoto Protocol.

Following the failure of Copenhagen, representatives of 192 met in the Mexican resort city of Cancun from November 29 to December 10 for another attempt to strike a deal to curb greenhouse gases after 2012. According to most world leaders, one of the major challenges of Cancun and indeed all climate talks is to get the American government and the Chinese government to agree to emission cuts and accept that it is actually in their interest to enter into a proper legally binding agreement.

For their part , Chinese leaders say they want a binding climate change treaty by late 2011 but blame US politics for impeding talks and making a deal on global warming impossible at Cancun. The Chinese also assert that they have little expectations from Cancun but hope that the final outcome of Cancun will allow progress on forging a legally binding document by the time of the next climate meeting, slated to be held in South Africa. Whereas China does not make clear cut commitments on emission cuts, it vows to keep pressurizing rich countries to commit to deeper cuts in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are causing global warming.

With its 1.3 billion people, China is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases from human activity, but is also a developing country with average emissions per capita well below those of wealthy economies. China will be a crucial player in post Cancun talks, so it is important that it takes the South Africa meeting seriously enough to put its weight behind achieving a firm and legally binding agreement on climate change and moving towards concrete implementation. The Beijing strategy is to press for certain principles in the climate talks, for instance that developing countries like China should not be made toaccept the same absolute caps on emissions that rich countries must take on.

Mr Jairam Ramesh said in Cancun that the Indian position would be guided first and foremost by the country’s economic interests ( read going slow on reducing emissions). This is clearly the government position, rather than Mr Ramesh’s. The environment minister has been known to express another view in private, that it was in India’s enlightened self interest to reduce its emissions.

As a matter of fact, India is extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts and can only benefit if temperature rise is checked. According to the IPCC climate report, agriculture in South Asia will be most severely affected by climate change and the rainfed areas of the region will suffer the worst depredations from the uncertainties that climate change will bring. India is vulnerable on several fronts. It has a coastline of about 7500 km ( including the islands ), much of it vulnerable to inundation when seal levels rise. A 40 C rise in temperature is predicted to cause a sea level rise of up to 6.6 feet, causing devastation in urban centers and destroying agriculture along and inland from the coast. Indian rivers, many dependent on the Himalayan glaciers are facing a crisis as the glaciers show evidence of melting with global warming. Less water in the rivers will mean less water for agricultural, domestic and industrial use.

And finally, the monsoons which are the mainstay of India’s economy. Given this dependence, any change in the pattern of the monsoon arising due to climate change, does not bode well for the country. For all these reasons, India must be at the vanguard of forging an international agreement that will lead to concrete reductions in green house gases. Its domestic agenda must be of a piece with this position. The consequences of not being able to halt temperature rise, will be catastrophic for developing countries, particularly in South Asia. It is crucial that India take leadership in determining the outcome at South Africa.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Suman Sahai
Six academies of science in India ,The Indian Academy of Sciences, The Indian National Academy of Engineering , The Indian National Science Academy, The National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, The National Academy of Medical Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences India, have just finished covering themselves in glory. This distinction came after their September 2010 report released to promote Bt brinjal and ask for its immediate release , was exposed to be a cut and paste job, shamelessly plagiarizing material from diverse sources, including some GM promotional material. The Inter Academy report shocked one of its authors ( Prof Vijayan of the Indian National Science Academy) sufficiently for him to declare “This is unfortunate — we are devastated. This should not have happened”.

Considering that this report was prepared in response to a request made by Dr Kasturirangan, Member Planning Commission and Sri Jairam Ramesh, Minister , Environment and Forests, it does little to address the points that the Minister raised in his detailed decision on why he held back commercialization of Bt brinjal. For instance the Minister had this to say on toxins in the brinjal family: “The plant family Solanaceae to which brinjal belongs appears to be more problematic than others because it contains several natural toxins that can resurface when metabolism is disturbed. The kind of testing done, it is being said, is not specific or stringent enough to detect toxins. This is an important issue since brinjal is an item of almost daily consumption for most of us.” But this concern, like many others, is not addressed in the report.

It was surprising indeed that the National Academy of Medical Sciences is a signatory to this report since both, the Director-General of the Indian Council of Medical Research as well as the Drug Controller to the Government of India had expressed misgivings about the release of Bt brinjal to Jairam Ramesh, recommending that chronic toxicity and other related tests should be carried out independently before taking a decision. As this goes to press, the National Academy of Medical Sciences has distanced itself from the Inter Academy report and has pushed for a fresh report with scientific rigor.

A scientific critique of the Bt brinjal testing has been done by David Andow, professor of insect ecology at the University of Minnesota and an authority on environmental risk assessment (ERA). His report says that the ERA of Bt brinjal conducted by GEAC and Mahyco was misdirected and failed to assess the actual adverse environmental consequences that Bt brinjal could have. In the August 2010 report, Andow has outlined the manner in which an ERA should be, but was not done, to address the specific biosafety questions relevant to Bt brinjal in India.

The main thesis of David Andow’s report is that the GEAC set too narrow a scope for the environmental risk assessment of Bt brinjal. Because of this, the testing was limited and many of the right questions were not asked; therefore most of the possible environmental risks of Bt brinjal were not adequately evaluated. For this reason, Andow concludes that the report of the Expert committee II ( EC-II) does not constitute an adequate ERA. Andow’s report has been endorsed by two highly respected scientists in this field, Professor Norman Ellstrand, University of California and Professor Allison Snow of the Ohio State University.

The report submitted by the science academies is embarrassing and worrisome on at least two counts. First, it reveals how the scientists have abdicated the responsibility of maintaining decent standards in science and second, that they have become lobbyists instead of remaining independent pursuers of the truth. A proper enquiry of this sorry episode must be conducted and strictures passed against the offenders. We must send the message that such shoddy work and ethical compromises are not acceptable.

The new colonizers

Suman Sahai
A new colonialism is underway. Rich, food-importing countries are grabbing the world’s farmland for captive food production for their people. China, South Korea, Japan, as well as Saudi Arabia and the Arab states are the new colonisers. Africa, with its large land mass, fertile land in most places and abundant water, is a target, like India, with its fabled wealth that once was. Only this time, India is joining the ranks of the land grabbers, not on the same scale as the biggies but India, too, is acquiring land in Africa.

The tragedy of Africa is that it remains food insecure despite its fertile farmlands, receiving food-aid from UN agencies like the World Food Programme. Ethiopia, which is aggressively promoting the lease out of its land to foreign investors, receives food aid worth $115 million but its lands generate cereals worth $100 million for Saudi Arabia. Ethiopian land produces food for foreigners but cannot do the same for itself! Similarly, Sudan which receives as much as $1.6 billion worth of free food from international agencies, grows wheat for Saudi Arabia, vegetables for Jordan and its own staple food, sorghum, for animal feed in the United Arab Emirates.

The food crisis of 2008 and high food inflation brought home to many how fragile the global food situation can be, not just for the poor but also for the rich who do not have sufficient land to grow the food they require. When global food commodities disappeared from the international market as a result of factors like speculation leading to hoarding, diversion of foodgrains like corn and soybean to biofuels and increased demand for animal feed, the rich food-importing nations realised that it was not sufficient to have money. To be food secure, they decided, they could not depend on international food stocks but must have control over food production directly. If they did not have enough land in their sovereign territories, they would simply acquire this land elsewhere, produce the food there and ship it home. This would allow them to bypass global food markets and the volatility associated with them in the recent past. It is estimated that in the last few years, up to 20 million hectares of land are either already leased or are being negotiated for lease.

This new colonialism takes forward the trend of the last centuries. The 19th century Europe took over large tracts of farmland in Africa for coffee and cocoa plantations. US-based fruit growing conglomerates appropriated farmland in South and Central America and in Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines to produce bananas, pineapples and other tropical fruits for the world market. The farmland grab of today is fundamentally different though. Earlier it was cash crops and a means to wealth generation, today it is based on straightforward food security instead of revenue generation. Food-importing countries are seeking the first instance to secure food supplies for themselves.

Not just the wealthy countries, others have also joined this exploitation of global farmland.

In neighbouring Pakistan, the government is offering farmland to (largely) Arab investors. Government-backed roadshows are being held in the Gulf state, offering extremely generous tax incentives to attract investment. Given the state of the country’s domestic security situation, an additional bonus that Pakistan offers is a one lakh strong security force to protect the foreign investments.

India too is in the thick of the land grab. Indian companies have found a way out of the land ceiling laws in India to build vast agriculture operations in Africa where there is no ceiling on land ownership. Building huge agriculture empires is not possible in India, but it is in Africa. The Indian government supports this move and provides soft loans and reduced import duties to enable the shipment of agriculture produce to India. Indian farming companies have bought thousands of hectares of land in Africa and are growing rice, maize and pulses which they sell to India. These companies have invested upwards of $2.4 billion to buy up farmland in Ethiopia alone. Karuturi Global, a Karnataka-based company is one of the biggest land owners in Africa, where it grows cash crops like sugarcane and palm oil, as well as rice and vegetables. Not surprisingly, the backlash from people in Africa against foreign investments has begun. Karuturi is one of the prime targets. Activist groups are calling the investments a “land grab” taking away the entitlements of the African people. They say such alienation of land will deprive locals of their livelihoods. They have a point.

If this form of land leasing is to be made fair and sustainable, a code of conduct must be formulated. This could be done by bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

There is a fear that the foreign investments in food production will end up hurting farmers as corrupt local governments allow the land to be leased out without building in any securities for the land owners. These could often be small farmers with little idea of what has been negotiated or what would be the terms of getting their land back. Would the land owner have some right to the food that is produced on his land? Would the local community have preferential rights to access the food or could it be all exported without leaving anything for the local people? Who would ensure that the land is not degraded during the lease period and that it is returned to the owners in a healthy state? Such investment deals have been notoriously non-transparent in most cases so far.

If this form of land leasing is to be made fair and sustainable, and if the small landholders are also to benefit from it, a code of conduct must be formulated. This could be done by bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. They should define the terms and conditions under which land is made available for contracted food production. There must be a consultative process with not just the governments but with the land owners directly and the terms and conditions must be made clear to them. Prior Informed Consent, a feature of recent negotiations determining access to resources, as for instance in the Convention on Biological Diversity, must be made standard features in all such arrangements, before a deal can be finalised. The international community must put its weight behind compliance of the code of conduct in both the host and investor country so that such deals do not become tools of exploitation, depriving the poor and hungry and robbing them of the chance to ever become food secure.

Dr Suman Sahai, a genetic scientist who has served on the faculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, is convenor of the Gene Campaign

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hot, dry, hungry

Suman Sahai

Despite the India Meteorological Department’s brave pronouncements, the monsoon this year is looking to be as disturbed as it was last year. A disturbed monsoon has a direct correlation with a deficit in food production. This happened last year and in all likelihood will happen again this year unless the monsoon in north India picks up immediately. These weather uncertainties are being attributed to climate change, a result of anthropogenic or manmade factors. The anticipated changes in climate and its impact on agriculture and food production are of great concern to tropical countries like India. The developing countries in the tropics are less able to adapt and are more susceptible to climate change damage than the temperate countries, many of which will be beneficiaries.

There is a broad consensus that tropical areas are slated to see an expansion of arid zones. This will be accompanied by a contraction of 31-51 million ha of favourable cultivation areas and a significant reduction in food production in the most vulnerable areas where population density is high and food already scarce. Nearly one billion affected people live in these vulnerable environments, dependent on agriculture. These vulnerable populations have limited capacity to protect themselves from the environmental hazards that will accompany climate change, like drought and floods, and will suffer most from land degradation and biodiversity loss.

The Polluter gets Paid
Climate related impacts on food production will be geographically unevenly distributed. In a perverse irony, the developed (industrialised) countries will experience an increase in agriculture productivity potential as temperate regions get warmer. The regions which because of their industrialisation and huge emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are responsible for the climate change phenomenon will actually end up being its beneficiaries with respect to food production. On the other hand, today’s developing world in the tropics, which has not contributed to creating this climate hazard, will be its worst victim, and will suffer a loss in agriculture productivity, with serious consequences for food availability and hunger.About 40 poor and food-insecure countries, with a projected total population (in 2080) of one to three billion, will lose 10-20 per cent of their cereal-production potential. Of these, Africa will be the worst affected followed by South Asia. Crop production losses as a result of climate change could further worsen the prevalence and depth of hunger. This burden will fall disproportionately on the poorest. To compound the damage, the overall trend of reduced food production will create market imbalances, which will push up international prices, making it even more difficult for governments of food scarce countries to access food for their poor.

According to estimates, a little less than half the production potential in certain developing countries could be lost. In South Asia, the biggest blow to food production is expected to come from the loss of multiple cropping zones. The worst affected areas are predicted to be the double and triple cropping areas like Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh from where the surplus grain for our buffer stock comes. This means areas where two to three crops are produced in a year and which are predicted to turn into single crop zones, where only one crop can be taken in a year because the rest of the season will be too hot and dry for cultivation.

Coping with wheat loss
For South Asia, particularly India, one of the most serious impacts is anticipated in wheat production. Wheat is the single largest winter crop of north India and states like Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh produce the surplus wheat that goes into the PDS. Wheat is a particularly temperature sensitive crop and it has been estimated that for every one degree rise in temperature, wheat producing areas in India and South Asia will lose about four to five million tonnes of production. This will have a cascading effect on food for the poor.

The immediate challenge is to find a substitute for wheat as the dominant winter crop for north India and other parts where wheat is cultivated. Tubers like potato, can be part of the solution. These could fill the shortfall to some extent but the cereal deficit will have to be made up by some other cereal. Corn could be suitable as a supplementary crop and a partial wheat replacement. Millets are as yet an unexplored option and have not been assessed for potential. Although millets typically grow during the summer in Asia, there are also several millet types which are cultivated at high altitude. Such millet germplasm could form the basis of developing new varieties suited for cultivation during the winter season of a changed, warmer climate regime.

The ability of a country to cope with the impact of climate change on agriculture will depend on a number of factors. The total amount of arable land and available water resources will be critical determinants of the ability of regions to adapt to the changes brought by a warming world. Apart from land, the availability of water could become a critical limiting factor. For instance, the impact of global warming on the Tibetan plateau and Himalayan glaciers will affect the 10 or so main rivers like the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Brahmaputra that come out of there and flow into China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. Harnessing these river waters as the ice caps and Himalayan glaciers recede and the water flow in rivers diminishes, will need skilful diplomatic negotiations so that river waters can be shared in such a manner as to ensure that requirements of agriculture are met in all affected countries.

India has technical skills in agriculture and a sophisticated farming community capable of combining indigenous knowledge with recent scientific advances. The country is rich in biodiversity and community experiences from diverse agro ecological zones offer a number of options to find solutions. All this would enable the agriculture of the region to cope with climate change impacts provided a comprehensive and effective policy response is put into action right away.

- Dr Suman Sahai, a genetic scientist who has served on thefaculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, isconvenor of the Gene Campaign

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Starve the people and feed the rats

Suman Sahai

The Supreme Court has had to step in once again and tell the government to do its job and feed the poor. In this case, the Court’s injunction was with respect to the food grains rotting in government godowns over which there has been a public hue and cry. The Court has directed the government to make the food that is stored and on the verge of rotting, to be made available to the poor.

The government acknowledges that food worth crores is destroyed every year due to poor and insufficient storage facilities. Yet it has done little about increasing the storage capacity for food. Mountains of grain, collected over years, are rotting in the open, in states like Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. In Punjab alone, this grain could feed three lakh people. When state governments appeal to the centre to release the food stocks so that the poor have food, the government’s economists stop them from doing so on the ground that it would be bad economics. So the central government holds the grain, allowing it to rot; the people get hungrier, the youth in villages after years of deprivation get enraged and take to the gun. The Indian heartland is exploding to the sound of grenades as the economists do their calculations and discuss inflationary pressures.

In government warehouses where construction is shoddy there is seepage from the ground below and leaks from above. The bags get wet, fungus destroys the grain , making it inedible, even as animal feed. In addition rats make holes in the bags and eat up large quantities of grain, leaving behind their excreta to further poison the food. The food lost during storage is keeping millions of Indian hungry.

Even as it watches this destruction of precious food, the government has failed to take any action to fix responsibility and punish those responsible for such criminal actions. Business as usual continues , callous neglect and corruption being par for course, food is

destroyed season after season as malnutrition ravages the countryside and India’s hunger and malnutrition figures slip below Sub Saharan Africa. When this came to light in 2009, the Agriculture Minister told Parliament that he would examine the matter. A year down not a single cubic foot of additional storage space has been built.

Warehouses and godowns are actually bad forms of storage. The bags that are stored first, lie at the bottom, rotting because they cannot be taken out first. It is the bags on top , the most recent ones, that get taken out when food has to be sent out. The cardinal principle of storage, ‘first in - first out’ is violated by the warehouse method of grain storage. The answer is grain silos. These vertical structures of steel allow grain to be poured in from the top and taken out from below. First in- first out, no damp since the structure is off the

ground, easy to keep waterproof since the metal does not allow seepage and damp, so no fungus. No rats or rodents either, nor their excreta. Just clean dry grain, ready to be taken out and trucked wherever it is needed. Is the government taking steps to introduce this straightforward solution to rotting food grains? No it is not. Plans have been made instead to send a delegation to China (one more junket with all hands on board) to study how the Chinese tackle their grain storage issues. Many helpings of chowmein later we will have an analysis of how the Chinese manage their business but we may not get even one grain silo.

The odd thing about the silo is that it is not a new concept for India. In many parts of eastern India, especially places like Jharkhand and Bihar, the traditional grain gola, a small silo like structure is used to store grain at the local level, perhaps for a cluster of villages or even at the block or taluka level. In the British period, grain golas were used to stock food grains during the famines and food shortages created by colonial policies. These structures were made of galvanized iron and had a fairly long life. They are still around. There is no reason why a network of large grain silos and smaller grain golas can not be erected across the country to store food grain cleanly and reach it efficiently and quickly when the need arises. Let this government’s ambitions of nine percent economic growth begin with feeding the hungry in this land with the food that has already been roduced.