Thursday, December 15, 2011

Water, Asia’s New Battleground by Brahma Chellaney

Reviewed by Suman Sahai

In a recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, the villain hatches diabolical plots to corner a certain South American country's fresh water resources. The Bond war is not over deposits of oil and gold but water. The conflict potential of water has clearly arrived even in the public’s imagination. In the backdrop of growing tensions over the sharing of water resources across the world and specially so in Asia , Brahma Chellaney’s new book titled Water, Asia’s New Battleground ( Harper Collins, 2011) is both timely and relevant.

In its seven chapters the book deals with diverse aspects of water in Asia , the conflicts and disputes that exist already and those likely to exacerbate as the economic boom in this region drives demand for scarce water resources. Many of these water resources will become further points of dispute as climate change melts glaciers , diminishes rainfall and reduces the over all availability of water in shared rivers. The unique role of the Tibetan plateau and China’s control of the headwaters of several rivers crucial to Asia constitutes an important part of the book’s analysis of the growing potential for discord. The book also deals with shared water resources on India’s western side, with Pakistan and the growing conflict over that sharing under the Indus Treaty. At the time of partition, the British gave the three western rivers of the Indus river system ( Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) to Pakistan and the three eastern rivers ( Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) to India. According to Mr Chellaney, India has failed to address this source of tension.

Mr. Chellaney describes the impact of the destructive use of natural resources, including water, in Asia’s rapid quest for double digit economic growth and how this is laying the ground for strategic shifts in Asia’s water politics, creating even greater potential for water wars between countries. The increasing demand for water to grow more food for the population dense countries of Asia, particularly China and India, is already causing upheavals in water sharing agreements. Both China and India are shown to be the victims of their earlier legacies of water use. Mao made grandiose plans for mega projects to divert water from the water rich south of China to its arid north and make huge dams on its rivers so that today China has the largest number of dams in the world. This includes the highly contentious Three Gorges dam which has wrought environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale. The over damming of rivers has interfered in their flows leading farmers to turn to groundwater, causing its overexploitation and pollution of aquifers.

In a different way, Mr Chellaney says that India’s negligent and disjointed approach to water management has also created a water crisis. Constitutionally water was made a state subject (rather than a central one, which would allow easier regulation) so that today states that share rivers are perpetually entangled in water disputes. Similarly, the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan ( 1960) according to which India committed to indefinitely reserve 80 percent of the Indus waters for Pakistan, reflects a lack of foresight and understanding of the role of water , especially for an agriculture dependent, food insecure country.

The book’s most fascinating part is where it lays out the position and politics of Tibet as an enormously rich source of natural resources, especially minerals, water and biodiversity. China’s annexation of Tibet and the brutal measures it takes to subjugate this rich land and its gentle people, is to be seen in the context of its determination to exploit Tibet’s vast mineral resources and its water for hydropower and irrigation, even as it destroys it unique, often unparalleled biodiversity . Having brought its own water resources under severe stress and caused irreversible contamination in many parts, China is now seeking to conquer the waters of Tibet. It is pursuing major water projects like inter river transfers in the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau. Tibet qualifies as a world heritage site on account of any one of its many aspects, its irreplaceable biodiversity, its landscape with deep gorges and canyons, its unique systems of agriculture and the culture of its people. Mr Chellaney’s description of the desecration of Tibet by China is heartbreaking .

This is a comprehensive and interesting book but it could have paid greater attention to suggesting what India could propose to mitigate the potential water conflict with China; what negotiating positions could it put on the table ? What counter measures could it take to protect its interests ? How for instance, could the two countries take advantage of each other’s strengths so that there is more to be gained from cooperation than conflict? Both countries, but especially China, have experience with micro hydropower projects. Local communities in the Himalayas and in Tibet have a tremendous knowledge of biodiversity, hydrology and efficient water use, as well as water conservation. Sharing this knowledge could build bridges of mutual benefit and provide a stake in collaborating. So far, collaboration and coordination between the two countries in dealing with environmental challenges has been limited, despite several signed agreements. In 1993, China and India signed a collaboration agreement on the environment and more recently they have signed an agreement to jointly monitor glaciers work and together in the areas of energy and afforestation. Suggestions on taking such beginnings forward would have added value to this book.

Asian Age, Dec 11, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Suman Sahai

Despite the proposition that independent India has not had large scale famines, widespread hunger prevails and by all accounts, is growing. As we now know from official data, the majority of the population does not attain the minimum calorie levels for rural and urban areas. According to one estimate almost 87 per cent of the rural population gets less than the rural cut-off of 2400 calories/day, and 64.5 per cent of the urban population gets less than the urban cut-off of 2100 calories/day. India finds itself at the bottom in terms of the HDI rankings. According to the multiple poverty index the levels of poverty in the country are alarming, in the range of 645 million, or 55.4 per cent of the population.

The Indian State Hunger Index (ISHI) found that 12 of 17 states surveyed had ‘alarming’ levels of hunger, with one state having an ‘extremely alarming’ level. Not a single state had ‘low’ or ‘moderate’ hunger levels. Despite this commonality, the ISHI demonstrated high variability in hunger between states. The ISHI enabled global comparisons which showed that several of India’s worst performing states have higher levels of hunger than countries such as Zimbabwe and Haiti. Madhya Pradesh, the worst performing state, ranked just above Ethiopia.

The agrarian crisis
The output of food grains in 2003–04 was still 14 million tonnes below the high level reached in 2000–01. Admittedly the food grain production did go up in the last two years yet the shortfall is still massive. In 2011 there was the announcement of so-called record food grain production which prompted the lifting of the Supreme Court ban on wheat exports. Nevertheless, this increase in production has been limited to the surplus states such as Punjab, Haryana, and Andhra Pradesh whereas the rainfed states suffering from the highest levels of hunger, such as Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, have not shared in these increases. On the contrary, the extent of fallow lands is increasing as farmers are unable to farm due to the paucity of productive resources. Given these growth rates and the regional disparities in hunger and agricultural production, it is not surprising that hunger and malnutrition have reached unprecedented levels.

Today, nearly half of India’s children below the age of three are malnourished and stunted, and 40 per cent of rural India eats only as much food as sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), India is one among 17 countries where the number of the undernourished decreased in the first half of the 1990s, before increasing in the second half, thus almost completely offsetting the gains made during the earlier part of the decade. The per capita availability of food has declined for the first time since the 1960s. The official National Sample Survey (NSS) of 2000 revealed that three-fourths of India’s rural population and half the urban population did not get the minimum recommended calories. This is confirmed by nutritional and health surveys, which show: more than two-fifths of the adult population suffers from chronic energy deficiency, and a large percentage are at the border of this condition; half of India’s women are anaemic; and half of India’s children can be clinically defined as malnourished (stunted, wasting, or both). It is estimated that half of the Indian rural population, over 350 million people, are below the average food energy intake of sub-Saharan African countries.

Economic reforms in India have led to disinvestment in the agriculture sector. This has adversely affected more than 60 percent of the population which relies on agriculture for its livelihood. Many of the farmers responsible for making India self-sufficient in grain production are themselves facing hunger due to non-remunerative prices and rising input costs, among other factors. The following graphs show how the new agriculture policies have diminished the food availability gains made in the 1980s, resulting in a food availability situation not much better than the early 1950’s.

Fig 1: Food Grain Availability

Source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Delhi 2005.
Fig. 1 shows that the 1950s, and up to 1964, the per capita availability of food grains ranged between 140 and 170 kg per annum. The availability dropped drastically in 1967, when it touched 143 kg, and then it increased again. What is noteworthy is the trend between 1979 and 1994, when the per capita availability of food grains ranged between 155 and 180 kg per annum. After 1994, availability declined to 150 kg per annum.

This picture becomes clearer if we mark out the per day availability of food grains as shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 : Per Day Food Availability

Source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Delhi, 2005.
Fig. 2 shows that the net per day availability of food grains in India has dipped alarmingly. It is now touching almost the same levels that it had reached in the early 1950s, at less than 450 grams per day per capita. There is a considerable shortfall in the actual requirement and availability of food grains. In the context of the current agrarian crisis, this trend poses a grave danger to communities already afflicted with hunger.

The Food Security Bill
In the backdrop of declining food availability, there have been diverse efforts to tackle hunger. There has been the Public Distribution System (PDS) providing subsidized grain, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the mid-day meal scheme for school children.

The most recent in this line of efforts to improve the hunger situation, is the National Food Security Bill (NFSB) proposed by the powerful National Advisory Council (NAC). The NFSB is being considered seriously by the government where reception to its contents is mixed at best. Elements in government and out of it have not been unanimously supportive of the Bill. An expert committee headed by C Rangarajan, stated that the entitlements outlined under the NAC draft (90 percent coverage of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban) were not feasible due to unavailability of sufficient food grains. They recommended that the entitlements which were guaranteed for above poverty line (APL) households be discarded and that only below poverty line (BPL) households (as measured by the Tendulkar estimate plus a ten percent margin) be included in the scheme. This would mean a drastic reduction in coverage with only 46 percent of the rural population and 28 percent of the urban included under the ambit of the legislation.

The Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has expressed doubt over the large quantity of grain procurement that would be required by the NAC draft and said that the issues raised by the Rangarajan Committee remained ‘pertinent’. Adding to this, the Food Ministry submitted their revised draft legislation days later which was substantially different from NAC’s proposal and decreased both the scope and size of the entitlements. Civil society groups appear divided on the NAC Bill, with some terming it merely a revised form of the PDS.

There are grave problems with the government draft that patterns itself on the draft provided by the National Advisory Council. Primary is its extremely restricted scope. This is not a Bill that attempts to bring about food security, it is only a Bill that offers a different plan to the existing PDS system, to distribute grain. No attention is paid to the most important components of food security, the production of food, its distribution and its absorption by the poor and hungry. Of the three major pillars of food security, food production, food distribution and food absorption, the NAC draft addresses just one. It is actually more a welfare Bill, a ‘dole’ as it were than an effort to tackle the complex problem of food security per se.

Tackling food security will certainly mean treading on influential toes. The conflicts will arise over who will have preferential access to productive resources like land and water. Will Coca Cola get the water for its bottling plant or will farmers get it for their cultivation? Will small farmers in the dry lands get massive investments in creating water bodies to enable them to have a second crop in the winter? The conflicts will be over such things like fertiliser subsidies. Will Punjab, Haryana, Western UP, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu continue as the principal beneficiaries of the government’s subsidies or will nutrient based subsidy be directed at poor quality soils in rainfed areas that most need intervention, finally get their due? The smallest , most marginal farmers have the worst soils and the least access to water. A Food Security Bill will have meaning only if it tries to swing things in their favour.

The Food Security Bill must tackle the fundamental question of common property resources and the right of access to them. It must be able to speak out against Jatropha plantations on common lands which are conveniently designated as ‘wasteland’. The biofuel produced in the name of clean energy will take away the grazing lands of herders and pastoralists , the place where they can park their livestock because they have no other land. It will take away the source of leafy green vegetables and medicinal plants that the poor rely on.

Just as it will have to tackle the Coca Colas , the Food Security Bill must also take a position against the Adanis, the Reliance lot and all the other conglomerates who are grabbing agricultural lands in the name of SEZs to set up industrial estates ( or just to corner real estate ) India’s most productive lands, the two crop and three crop zones are being snapped up to build urban estates. Where will we grow our food?

The food production part of the Food Security Bill will also have to deal with putting into place our response to ensure food security when faced with climate change. According to the IPCC report, the impact of climate change will be most severe in Africa and South Asia, especially its rainfed areas. We cannot continue behaving as though this is someone else’s problem and even as we debate the finer points of universal versus targeted distribution of food grains , that someone will step in and make the problem go away.

The neglect of rural India continues . There is no technical or financial obstruction to providing sanitation and clean drinking water in mission mode but it still has not been done. Children continue to die of diarrhoea and adults continue to sicken with it , unable to retain the little nutrition they get. There is no reason why this simple intervention has still not been done….
The fact is that to draft a truly comprehensive Food Security Bill and accommodate the logical aspects that belong there, a lot of people will have to be asked to give up some of what is in their bag of goodies. The Food Security Bill clearly fights shy of that .

Questions have also been raised about the manner of drafting this Bill. What kinds of consultations were undertaken? How did the principal stakeholders engage in the process of providing inputs? In what manner were experts and other actors brought on board ? How were the public’s views sought? Has this Bill attempted to be pluralistic representative of other views?

Redrafting a Food Security Legislation
It seems clear that to draft a food security bill, more than just the distribution aspects will have to be addressed. The Bill must include all relevant aspects related to the three major pillars of food security :
• the production (availability) of food,
• the distribution of food
• the absorption of food and nutrition. For this clean drinking water and sanitation are minimum requirements to prevent diarrhoea.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Better Food Storage?

Suman Sahai

It is estimated that around 20 percent to 25 percent of India’s food grain production is lost due to improper or inadequate storage. That amounts to approximately 60 million tonnes of food grains each year, almost as much as what India actually stores in its official godowns. Almost 120 million tonnes of fruits , vegetables and other perishable commodities, twice the volume of grains, are similarly wasted due to delayed and inadequate transportation, lack of cold chains as well as treatment and storage facilities.

The absence of a supply chain is seen to be the major bottleneck. Responding to this line of thinking , the government has set up a new . The aim is to improve the storage capacity in the country and also help producers and consumers get a better deal by cutting out intermediaries and wastages. The 2011-12 budget made cold chains and post-harvest storage a part of infrastructure and made them eligible for income tax relief.

The initial focus for the WDRA has been on the agricultural sector and the central government has announced the Rural Godown Scheme to promote the construction of warehouses in rural areas. At present the WDRA scheme includes 40 agricultural commodities like cereals, pulses and spices.

If the WDRA scheme is implemented properly and corruption is contained, it will give farmers a concrete advantage and some control over their produce. In the absence of available storage, farmers are unable to hold their harvest and have to resort to distress sales immediately as the harvest comes in. This provides middle men and traders with the opportunity to drive down prices and buy up the agricultural produce of the season at rock bottom prices. They can store the grain and sell at high prices later but the farmer cannot do this in the absence of affordable and accessible storage.
Today most food warehouses in rural India are for captive use, very few are business models. To remedy this, the WDRA has recently registered 50 warehouses across the country, which will now be able to issue negotiable warehouse receipts. Negotiable Warehouse Receipts have been devised by the WDRA to enable farmers to get the best price for their produce and help bring down prices of commodities by cutting out the arbitrage earned by middlemen which they do by setting different prices for the same commodity.
Warehouses who want to participate in the Negotiable Warehouse Receipts scheme must get themselves registered by an accredited agency. Eight such agencies, four each in the public and private sector, have been recognised by the WDRA. Accredited warehouses and the Warehouse Receipt scheme are designed to ensure that the concerned warehouses have the facilities for safe and effective storage. They will also be required to do grading and sorting according to quality of the produce and fix expiry dates for the commodities so they can be moved out of storage for use. To give the stored products financial and transactional value, the WDRA has formed linkages with the Indian Banks Association to ensure that banks honor the receipts from registered warehouses.

Beginning with 50, the WDRA has made plans to accredit another 300 warehouses in the months ahead. But before this scheme is made fully operational, farmers will have to be trained in the procedures of storing their produce and the rights and obligations that they will have with such storage. Costs of such storage(including transportation to site from their fields ) will need to be worked out to see how feasible such storage facilities will be and how suited to small farmers.

Small farmers create small but critical surpluses which will have to be accommodated to make storage meaningful. Otherwise, big farmers and traders will be the only ones to benefit from the government’s scheme of better storage. Vigilance will be required in this scheme to ensure that it does not get hijacked by the big players to facilitate their commodity trading by having secure and subsidized storage. With agricultural decisions being the jurisdiction of state governments, it will have to be seen how the states intervene in the execution of issues like negotiable receipts and ownership of the produce.

A note of caution must be sounded on any plans to take a step by step approach in this matter. The argument of economic viability must not lead us into the trap of creating a national facility that first accommodates big account holders and pushes small farmers
away, to be accommodated later.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

GEAC orders silly tests to judge if Bt brinjal is fit to make Ayurvedic medicines

In a quandary over the release of Bt brinjal, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has ordered laboratory tests to conduct a compositional analysis to find out if Ayurvedic principles are disturbed in Bt brinjal.

P Anand Kumar, Principal Scientist, National Research Centre on Plant
Biotechnology (NRCPB) who has been working on Bt brinjal for several years, has informed that the tests are being conducted in the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad. The lab test report which is expected in the next two months would pave
the way for commercial release of Bt brinjal, it is thought.

Dr Ananda Kumar said the tests conducted in NIN would clear the apprehensions expressed by some that the Bt variety of brinjal would not have the same efficacy for preparing ayurvedic medicines as the non-GM.

This is utterly ridiculous. What are the 'lab tests' supposed to reveal about the suitability of using Bt brinjal in Ayurvedic medicine? Ayurveda scholars and practitioners will tell you that it is hard to identify isolated elements responsible for the medicinal value in a plant. Most often it is not known which specific 'chemical' actually is the effective one with the healing property. According to Ayurvedic principles, its a combination of elements that work to create the healing effect. This is the reason why many isolates from medicinal plants lose their healing properties when they are extracted and bottled.

Medicinal plants produce special chemicals under specific conditions. When these are changed, the composition and balance of such chemicals can change. The chemicals will vary from species to species and from location to location. It is for this reason that developing cultivation packages for medicinal plants is difficult. The cultivated varieties very often do not contain the effective properties that their naturally occurring counterparts do.

Competent as the NIN is, it can only measure what is known. If the active principles in brinjal that confer medicinal properties are not known, what will NIN measure ?

Dr Ananda Kumar should declare the mandate given to NIN and explain what they have been asked to measure. Further, Dr Kumar should explain how the measurement of these elements will reveal whether Bt brinjal is suitable for Ayurvedic preparations or not.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Suman Sahai

The agriculture ministers of the twenty most powerful nations in the world, the G 20, to which India now belongs, met for the first time in June 2011. This high powered meeting held in the back drop of the global food crisis tried to hammer out a strategy for the farm sector that would help to alleviate the world food situation. Prime amongst the strategies proposed was for countries like India and Russia to export their grain reserves. Whereas Russia has traditionally been an exporter of certain grains , specially wheat, India is a net importer especially when faced with a monsoon that is less than adequate.

What quite takes my breath away is the gall of the Americans who pushed for India to lift its ban on exports to meet global demand for food. After the food crisis of 2008, India had imposed a ban on rice exports so as to meet domestic food requirements and avert a crisis that could result from high food prices. This ban, according to the Americans should be lifted. In addition, India should share with the Americans information on the amount of grains stocked and their location so that they can intervene more directly.

Quite apart from the brazen interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, the Americans in typical fashion, hold one set of standards for themselves and another for the rest of the world. American corn is burnt to produce biofuel , creating a shortage in the international availability of corn. The biofuel fad leads nowhere since without the unnatural subsidies it receives, it is not a viable product. Nor apparently is it good for the environment it attempts purpotedly to save. The Obama administration’s review of the American biofuel program found that more conventional energy was required to transform corn into biofuel than the energy it would save. Why doesn’t America stop its biofuel program and let the corn and wheat that it destroys , re enter the food chain ?

If the American heart bleeds for the hungry and if it wants to help the global food crisis, let it begin to implement its sermons at home. Instead of telling other nations to release buffer stocks of grain meant for the poor and hungry, let America first release all the food stocks it destroys to produce biofuels. Then let it stop the enormous wastage of food . According to the most recent report of the FAO, the US and Europe together waste about a third of the food that is produced in their countries. Once they have cleaned up their own act, may be they will acquire some legitimacy and be able to offer suggestions to others about what they should be doing to resolve the global food crisis.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Suman Sahai

Some years ago the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) reported after its study on agriculture that roughly half the farmers in the country did not wish to continue with farming. They would quit if they had an alternative . This shameful fact reflects the despair that farmers feel and is based on the fact that agriculture is a loss making enterprise and the farmers are unable to either feed themselves or turn a profit. In addition to this, rural India is looked down upon by the well to do urban India , including the policy makers who are seen as part of the urban elite. Whether or not they are, they certainly behave like that. This discrimination strips farming and the farmer of his ( and even more so , her) dignity and does anything but provide an incentive to the younger generation to want to take up farming. Raised on a diet of unreal aspirations beamed out through our surfeit of television soap operas and bollywood films, the rural youth sees neither glamour, money nor dignity in farming. Why would he want to adopt it if there is nothing there for him ?

The tenuous situation with farming is not helped by electoral politics playing with rice and wheat as gimmicks to get votes. In this election the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala joined the rice politics of the state and promised 35 kg rice at Re 1 per kg in a month for BPL ( Below Poverty Line) families and at Rs 2 per kg for APL (Above Poverty Line) families in its election manifesto. Before this, the LDF manifesto had guaranteed rice at Rs 2 per kg for all BPL and APL families. The poor must certainly get the help of the state to overcome hunger and poverty but the way to do this should be empowerment and fostering self reliance , not creating dependency through doles. When such support is enmeshed in politics, nobody is fooled and it creates a culture of cynicism and dependence. This has undesirable consequences at several levels.

In the last few months during my visits to the Gene Campaign field station in Jharkhand, I have been encountering a dangerous pulling away from agriculture. In addition to the other work we do on food , nutrition and livelihoods, we also provide training in adapting the fragile agriculture of the dryland to the growing uncertainty of global warming and climate change. These trainings are hands on, with several practical demonstrations and we usually have enthusiastic farmers coming for training programs which they have found useful. Although the youth have sometimes been less keen to continue with agriculture , or to invest too much physical labour in it, it is now all farmers who are reluctant to practice farming and are reluctant to come for trainings. If their agriculture has become unattractive, why would they come for training programs to improve agriculture?

The uncertain rainfall and drought of the last three years has made farming even more risky than before. In Jharkhand farmers can take only one crop in the year during the monsoon when it rains. Because there is no irrigation, they are unable to plant a second crop in the winter as farmers in the irrigated regions of Punjab and UP can.

When the monsoon has become uncertain because of global warming and farming remains non remunerative , the farmers have no incentive to continue farming. Farm losses become even higher if the single rice crop too fails, creating a crisis of hunger for farm families. The coping mechanism for such a situation is to abandon farming and seek work as manual labour since that brings assured income, which farming does not.

Abandoning farming now makes economic sense to the farmer. In Jharkhand, here is how it works for them. In a family with five members, if four go out to seek manual work in mines or at construction sites, they collectively earn about Rs 300 per day at an average wage rate of Rs 75 per person which is below the minimum wage but it is money that comes into their hands at the end of the day. This makes the average monthly income of the family Rs 9000 rupees per month, or Rs 1 lakh eight thousand per year. This is several times what they can ever dream of earning from farming from the un irrigated land holdings they possess. In the farmer’s calculation, agriculture is expensive, risky and requires back breaking work which does not even bring enough to eat, let alone any surplus. On top of all this, it carries the near certain burden of debt since in order to coax his single crop out of the ground, the farmer needs to take credit to procure inputs like seed and fertilizer, sometimes even water .

In another scenario, the BPL card holder gets 35 kg of rice at Rs 1 per kg and 3 liters of kerosene oil per month for cooking. This subsidized grain lasts his family for fifteen days in the month, for the other fifteen days he purchases food from the market with the money the family has earned from manual labour. On the other hand , here is what many farmers recounted about their experience with hybrid rice cultivation. Hybrid rice is promoted aggressively by government agencies although all the hybrid rice seed is being sold by private companies and there is not a single public sector hybrid rice available on the market. ! Farmers bought hybrid rice seed at about Rs 250 per kg, planted the nursery and at the time of transplantation, the rains failed. Since there is no investment in rainwater conservation, there are no water bodies and life saving irrigation is not available to save the crop. So, after investing between 3000 to 4000 rupees , the farmers got about 50 to 60 kg of rice from the entire kharif crop. Compare this with the 35 kg rice that they get for Rs 35, every month. Why would the farmer farm ?

The failed agriculture sector combined with wage labor opportunities in the market and subsidized grain schemes like those for Below Poverty Line and Antodaya card holders, has made agriculture and food production the least attractive option for the rural community, especially the youth. Food is more easily ( and less painfully ) obtained by a combination of activities which does not include farming. There is another danger in this set up, the deskilling of agriculturists. Many in the younger generation are forgetting how to farm. They have increasingly little facility with the hoe and plough, do not know how to turn the soil and make the field ready. The younger lot are unable already to read the weather to time the planting of their crop; they do not know which seeds to choose for the particular situation that is currently obtaining. Slipping away too is the knowledge of agricultural practices in special land types, keeping the soil alive, problem solving, seed and grain storage, adding value to local produce and a host of other things. Two more generations of this kind of youth and we may not have enough people who can grow food in this country. And then ?

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Suman Sahai
As the world struggles with successive food crises and turbulence marks the countries that suffer from endemic hunger, there is the new factor of global warming and climate change to contend with. Climate change and its impact on agriculture and food production is being properly understood only now, as its anticipated impacts are being felt in agricultural ecosystems across the world.

The developing countries in the tropics are more susceptible to climate change damage than the temperate countries, many of which will be beneficiaries. The worst impacts of climate change on food production are anticipated in Africa and South Asia. For the latter where agriculture remains largely monsoon dependent, disturbances in the monsoon as we know it, could have grave implications for food and water security. If the monsoon falters, so does our food security as well as the livelihood security of large parts of the population.

Changes in rainfall patterns and temperature regimes, influence local water balance and disturb the optimal cultivation period for particular crops, known as Length of Growing Period (LGP). According to climate change data, land with good LGP will decrease by as much as 51 million hectare world wide.

Adequate LGP is needed to ensure that medium to long duration crops are able to grow to maturity. Some crop varieties ripen quickly and are ready for use in a shorter period ( short duration varieties), others, specially among cereals require a longer period to mature.When the LGP in an agro climatic zone is long,a variety of crops from short duration to long duration can be cultivated there, throughout the growing season. This means higher food production. When the LGP contracts, the growing season is shortened, with implications for food production. Most climate change models predict large increases of LGP in today’s temperate, and arctic regions. This means that temperate regions which are currently one crop zones will become two crop zones, thus increasing agriculture production there.

Tropical areas on the other hand are slated to see an expansion of arid zones accompanied by a contraction of 31-51 million ha of favorable cultivation areas. This will mean a significant reduction in food production in the most vulnerable areas where population density is high and food is already scarce. Nearly one billion people live in these vulnerable environments, dependent on agriculture. These vulnerable populations will suffer most from climate damage like land degradation and biodiversity loss.

Climate Change Impacts in India and South Asia
According to climate data almost 40 percent of the production potential in certain developing countries could be lost. In India and South Asia, dryland areas where agriculture is rainfed, will see cutbacks in productivity due to a shorter, more uncertain monsoon. The biggest blow to food stocks however is likely to come from declining production because areas where two to three crops are being cultivated today, as in Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh, the Northeastern states and certain coastal areas, are likely 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 to support cultivation.

The manifestation of climate change in India and South Asia finds many forms. There have been serious and recurrent floods in Bangladesh, Nepal and India since 2002 and unusually heavy rainfall and floods in Mumbai in 2005. Torrential rain in Jaisalmer and parts of Rajasthan in 2010 led to floods in this desert region, accompanied by more frequent and prolonged droughts as in the years 2008 to 2010. At the same time cyclonic activity has become high. Witness the increased cyclones in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea since 1970 and more recently Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008 and Cyclone Aila in 2009. This weather turbulence is accompanied by increasing turbulence in India’s food lifeline, the South West monsoon.

According to monsoon modeling data, the total number of rainy days during the monsoon period will decrease by 15 days. Considering that most of the monsoon rainfall falls within 100 days, this will be a significant shortfall. The intensity of the rainfall is expected to increase accompanied by strong surface run off and loss of fertile top soil. The melting of the Himalayan glaciers will diminish the water flow in the major rivers of North India ,affecting the food production in the highly productive Indo- Gangetic plains.

The melting polar ice is causing the sea level to rise. Large parts of the Maldives could go under, as could the Ganges delta in Bangladesh. India with its coastline of nearly 6000 km, has cause for concern. Several million people practice agriculture and aquaculture along the coast, all of which will be threatened by the increasing salinity of ground water as sea water seeps into aquifers. Along with major staple crops, other food sources like livestock and fish , both marine and fresh water will be affected by rising temperatures. Sea level rise will impact the habitations of populations that live along the coast, as in Kerala or Bangladesh and loss of homesteads along with livelihoods will create a new class of climate refugees who will be forced to migrate inwards, seeking new avenues of survival, creating greater pressures on urban centres. Contingency plans will be needed to rehabilitate climate refugees from vulnerable areas.

To cope with the impact of climate change on agriculture and food production India will need to act at global, regional, national and local levels.

Global –India must negotiate hard to ensure that the emission reduction pledges in climate change negotiations are sufficient to ensure that the global temperature rise is capped at 20C. If this is not done, the impact on agriculture and food security in developing countries will be devastating.

Given that agriculture is the lifeline of the developing world and will bear the worst brunt of climate change, India must insist that developed countries must reduce their own agriculture emissions while at the same time paying for adaptation, especially in the agriculture sector, consistent with the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

Regional.- Regional cooperation at SAARC level and with China is necessary to protect the Himalayan ecosystems and minimize glacial melt. Negotiations on river waters emanating from the Tibetan plateau are urgent so that the river flows in our major rivers like the Ganga and Brahmaputra are maintained to support agriculture. Regional strategies for mitigation and adaptation across similar agro ecologies will help all countries of the region to protect their agriculture and food production.

National – The Prime Minister has established the National Action Plan on Climate Change with eight national Missions designed to cope with the impact of climate change in diverse sectors like energy, water, agriculture and biodiversity. Appropriate policy and budgetary support for mitigation and adaptation actions is needed. In agriculture, adaptation strategies have long lead times and need to start NOW. Multiple food and livelihood strategies are needed in rural areas to minimize risk. Food inflation must be contained at all costs. It will worsen with climate change as more frequent and unpredictable droughts and floods will result in shortfalls in food production. Just one bad monsoon in 2009 led to a reduction of 15 million tonnes in rice and 4 million tonnes in pulse production, causing prices to go through the roof. To prepare for climate altered conditions, practices in agriculture will need to shift from intensive, mechanized, water demanding agriculture to a more sustainable, conservation agriculture that grows crops using less water, extracting more crop per drop of water.

Local- Attention will have to be paid both to mitigation and adaptation to climate change, the real action for which will have to be at the local level. The pursuit of sustainable agricultural development at the local level is integral to climate- change mitigation and combating climate change effects is vital for sustainable agriculture.

Since approximately 17 percent of total GHG emissions are attributed to crop and animal husbandry , it is necessary to reduce this for the overall health of the planet. Mitigation measures can include minimizing mechanization; supplementing urea with biological fertilizer and using neem coated urea to minimize ammonia volatilization contributing to nitrous oxide emissions. An effective strategy to reduce methane emission from cattle is establishing biogas plants with animal dung which in addition provides a clean source of renewable energy. Building soil carbon banks to capture and retain carbon in the soil can be achieved by planting fertilizer trees

Mitigation of greenhouse gases from agricultural systems and building adaptation strategies must be anchored in the village panchayat system to enhance coping capacities of farming communities. Mitigating emissions from agriculture will reduce input costs for the farmer and make the production system more sustainable but the real challenge to the food and livelihood security of our people will have to be met by rapid and targeted adaptation strategies.

Adaptation will require strategies to reduce vulnerabilities, strengthen resilience & build the adaptive capacity of rural and farming communities. Industrial agro ecosystems damage environmental goods and services and so have weak resilience. The ecosystem approach with crop rotations, bioorganic fertilizers and biological pest controls, improves soil health & water retention, increases fertile top soil, reduces soil erosion and maintains productivity over the long term. The more diverse the agro ecosystems, the more efficient the network of insects & and microorganisms that control pests and disease. Building resilience in agro ecosystems and farming communities, improving adaptive capacity and mitigating GHG emissions is the way to cope.

Agriculture biodiversity is central to an agro ecosystem approach to food production. The genetic diversity in livestock and fish species and breeds is as important as in crop varieties . Genetic diversity gives species the ability to adapt to changing environments and combat biotic and abiotic stress like pests and disease, drought and salinity. A knowledge-intensive, rather than input-intensive approach should be adopted to develop adaptation strategies. Traditional knowledge about the community’s coping strategies should be documented and used in training programs to help find solutions to address the uncertainties of climate change, build resilience, adapt agriculture and reduce emissions.

An early warning system should be put in place to monitor changes in pest and disease profile and predict new pest and disease outbreaks. The overall pest control strategy should be based on Integrated Pest Management because it takes care of multiple pests in a given climatic scenario. A national grid of grain storages , ranging from Pusa Bins and Grain Golas at the household/ community level to ultra- modern silos at the district level must be established to store buffer stocks to ensure local food security and stabilize prices. A special climate risk insurance should be launched for farmers and the agriculture credit and insurance systems must be made climate responsive and more sensitive to the needs of small farmers.

Adaptation and mitigation support structures in the form of Climate Risk Research Centers should be established at each of the 128 agro-ecological zones in the country. The Centers should prepare computer simulation models of different weather probabilities and develop and promote farming system approaches which can help to minimize the adverse impact of unfavorable weather and maximize the benefits of a good monsoon. Gyan Chaupals and Village Resource Centers with satellite connectivity should disseminate value added weather data from the government’s Agromet Service to farmers through mobile telephony, giving them information on rainfall and weather in real time.

Uncertain weather will disrupt established cropping patterns, requiring a different set of crop varieties for which seed will have to be produced. Decentralized seed production involving local communities will help to produce locally adapted seed of the main and contingency crops. A network of community level seed banks with the capacity to implement contingency plans and alternative cropping strategies depending on the behavior of the monsoon will be a key adaptation strategy.

Finally, investments must be made in strategic research of both anticipatory and adaptive nature. This should cover all aspects of food production , starting with farming systems and including crop, fodder, livestock, fish and the key aspects associated with each of these.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Suman Sahai

Traveling through western and central Uttar Pradesh on my way home to Tilhar for the Holi break, I had occasion to see the winter crop . Tilhar lies about 300 km east of Delhi in the fertile plains of northern India. Here acres of wheat stood sturdily in the fields, slowly changing colour from green to yellow. The crop was good and if all goes well ( touchwood !) the farmer will have a good harvest ,bringing in a good average of grain, but will it bring in prosperity? Will the crop in the field translate into money in the bank? Likely not.

One thing is clear , the farmer knows how to farm. He, and now increasingly she, can coax out of the earth, even under difficult conditions of poor soil and little water, something to eat. In areas blessed by Nature like in the Indo-Gangetic belt where Tilhar lies, farmers know how to take good crops.

This year the wheat is good. Fairly decent winter rains that came late in the season were nectar for the standing crop. The westerly wind did not blow too much and the farmer was relieved . Because when the Pachiyao wind blows in from the west , it will cruelly dry up the sap in the seed so the grains will be light and shriveled. But this season with its sunny warming days and cool nights, so crucial for wheat, the crop was thriving and the grains are plump and plentiful. The wheat crop depends on the night temperature. It must be cold for the wheat to thrive. This year the nights have been cold and the crop in the fields shows it.

Western and Central Uttar Pradesh produce surplus grain like Punjab and Haryana and since the days of the Green Revolution, these have been important centres where rice and wheat are procured for the central pool. In the early days this worked well for farmers but in the last years , procurement has become an exercise to torment farmers rather than support them. First, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) that is announced, is never paid in full, always less. If the price announced for wheat is Rs 1120 per quintal, as it is this year, the real price that the farmer would get could be anything from Rs 750 to Rs 950 per quintal. Corruption locks the farmers in a vice like grip because they have no storage facilities and must sell their harvest immediately after harvest.

Both procurement agencies and where relevant, the market, knows this and turns the screws on price since they know the farmer has no choice but to sell. Other strategies that are used to press prices down is to tell the farmer that their grain has not been dried sufficiently ( whether that is true or not) and will not be lifted. As soon as palms have been greased, the grain dries miraculously. Other tricks are to declare the grain too ‘light’ , not fulfilling the standards set by the Food Corporation of India (FCI). The FCI’s exacting standards are equally miraculously met once the farmers pockets have become correspondingly lighter.

Often there is an unholy nexus between the FCI agents and private companies . The deal is that the procurement agency will reject much of the grain on one pretext or another Farmers have to travel to procurement centres with their grain, for it to be inspected, weighed and lifted. If they do not have their own bullock carts, they hire these or rent trucks or tractor trolleys to bring their grain to the centre. Every day of delay costs the farmer in rental money. Its like ports charge demurrage charges if you do not lift your goods. Each day the port holds your goods, it charges you a fee. Bullock cart , tractor- trolley and truck owners do the same. So if they have to wait around till the farmer can negotiate the deal, the cost of hire goes up every day.

This eats into the farmer’s profit. When the farmer’s grain is held up and he is desperate to sell , the private companies will step in and buy up the grain at low prices. In this way the backbreaking effort put in by the farmer and the little subsidy he gets on fertilizer and diesel to irrigate his fields goes to benefit the private companies. Despite a good harvest the farmer may not make a profit. Sometimes he can not even recover his cost and in this way he gets poorer and so desperate that he wants to abandon agriculture.

This is not my version. The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) discovered this in its survey in 2007 when almost half the country’s farmers said they would abandon farming if they could find another occupation. This should set the alarm bells ringing in the corridors of power. If the farmer does not grow food what will we eat? Import food ? But there is nothing available on the international market to buy ! Droughts in Australia and Russia, floods in New Zealand and turbulent weather every where has ensured that the guaranteed food surpluses cannot be counted on. The biofuel drive in the US has drawn away the American corn into ethanol production so that wheat is being diverted to animal feed and both corn and wheat are now in short supply.

It is not rocket science to understand that we need to make agriculture work if we as a nation are to get anywhere. Pursuing the dreams of 9 percent growth while leaving large chunks of India out of the ambit of such growth is fraught with danger, as the developments in Chattisgarh and Jharkhand are showing us every other week. Internal security, the Prime Minister says is the country’s largest crisis. Fixing agriculture and putting money in the farmers’ pocket is a dead sure way of finding our way out of this crisis. When will we get that?

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Green Signal

Sri Yoginder Alagh’s recent article ‘The Green Signal’ in the Indian Express of April 13, 2011, makes a worrying point on the cultivation of soybean in the country. Alagh mentions that the boost in the cultivation of soybean is a result of the use of GM varieties. India’s regulatory agencies have not yet given permission for the cultivation of GM soybean since the bio safety testing process has not been completed. If Sri Alagh has knowledge of the cultivation of GM soybean, he must immediately report it to the authorities since this cultivation violates the biosafety law and is therefore illegal. The cultivation of the illegal GM soybean poses a threat to the environment and human health since it has not been fully tested nor declared safe for consumption by the authorities.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sowing the seeds of destruction

Suman Sahai

Here is yet another Mahyco-Monsanto tale, one of defiance and breaking the law even as the scientific community looks on. Monsanto is the world’s largest investor in seed and biotechnology research investing $1 billion/`5,000 crores and is also the leading producer of genetically engineered (GE) seed. It provides the technology in 90 per cent of the world’s genetically engineered seeds.

The Mahyco seed company had approached the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in its meeting on January 12, 2011 for permission to produce seed of genetically engineered cotton containing a herbicide tolerant gene. This non-Bt cotton was not proposed to be released as a herbicide tolerant (HT) crop but to be used as the refuge crop for when BG II RR Flex cotton is finally approved for cultivation. Currently it is in trials. BG II RR Flex refers to Bollgard II, a cotton hybrid that carries two Bt genes as well as a gene conferring tolerance to Roundup Ready, which is a herbicide. This double Bt, single HT cotton is a stacked cotton hybrid, which is piling on Bt genes to stay ahead of the bollworms that are fast catching up and becoming resistant to the Bt toxin inside the plant, which is meant to kill them.
Mahyco had already applied to GEAC in September 2010 to produce the same seed and had been turned down on the grounds that the hybrid had not cleared the regulatory process and did not have permission for environmental release. Therefore, according to the Rules of 1989, which govern biotechnology, Mahyco could not be given permission to produce seed of the unapproved cotton. But did Mahyco accept the GEAC ruling and desist from using the unapproved HT cotton seed? No it did not.
It went ahead, cocking a snook at GEAC, made seed of the unapproved non-Bt RR Flex cotton and is using it to plant the refuge crop in the trials of its double Bt, single HT cotton hybrid BG II RR Flex. A 20 per cent “refuge crop” of non-Bt cotton is required by the law, to be planted along with Bt cotton so that the invading bollworm has a non-toxic cotton to feed on, to delay the build up of resistance to the toxic Bt cotton. The Mahyco Company is merrily carrying on using the unapproved cotton as the refuge planting in the trials of its new double Bt, single HT cotton hybrid even after GEAC had denied it permission to do this.
So why is Mahyco breaking the law to plant (the unapproved) herbicide tolerant cotton as the refuge for its double Bt, single HT cotton hybrid? Because it slyly admits what we have been pointing out all along, that planting a herbicide tolerant crop, like the new Bt-HT cotton, and using the matched herbicide (Roundup Ready) during its cultivation will destroy all the neighbouring crops and the adjoining biodiversity. This will happen when Roundup Ready lands on them when fields of the HT crops are being sprayed. Only plants carrying the HT gene can survive the herbicide spray. Since the other crops and the surrounding biodiversity do not contain the HT gene, they will die when the Roundup Ready hits them.
HT crops can only be cultivated if all the other crops in the region are also HT (which is an impossibility), otherwise they will be destroyed when they catch the Roundup Ready spray drifting in the wind or if they get sprayed inadvertently. In several articles and submissions I have made to policy bodies, this is why I have argued that the herbicide-tolerant genetic trait must not be permitted for use in India. First because it will displace agriculture labour (weeding provides wage labour), second because it will destroy all the surrounding biodiversity that rural communities use as food, fodder, medicinal plants etc. and third because of what Mahyco-Monsanto now themselves admit, that Roundup Ready sprays will destroy all the other non-HT crops in the neighbourhood.
The Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur acknowledges the problem with HT crops, saying that the refuge for the Bt-HT cotton must be planted with HT cotton during commercial cultivation. Otherwise the refuge will be killed by Roundup Ready spray drifts. According to the minutes of the 106th GEAC meeting of January 12, 2011, the CICR director’s views are recorded as follows: “If the Refugia in BG II RR Flex comprise only of non-Bt cotton without RR-Flex (HT trait), there is every likely possibility of the refugia patch getting destroyed due to spray drift or inadvertent application of ‘Round-up’ on the ‘non-RR-Flex-non-Bt-cotton’”. So the scientists admit there is a problem with the implementation of HT crops in real life. The CICR director, however, does not propose a strategy for how other crops and biodiversity should be protected when Mahyco’s new Bt-HT cotton is planted commercially and Roundup Ready is widely used in the fields.
Because Mahyco has blatantly defied the directions of the GEAC not to produce HT cotton seed until it gets regulatory approval, the regulators have decided to issue a showcause notice to the company, seeking explanation on why penal action should not be initiated against it under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), for violations of the Rules of 1989. The Rules of 1989 are framed under the EPA that is the umbrella legislation.
It will be interesting to see how this story unfolds. Will the GEAC really follow through and take action against Mahyco for its defiant stand and blatant violations? Or will Mahyco walk home free as it has done in the past? It is openly mentioned that the Mahyco-Monsanto gang are used to getting their way with regulatory agencies like the GEAC. Do they indeed get away with things? The grapevine is full of gossip and names are mentioned openly. This situation is untenable for a society that lays claim to scientific achievement. After the disgraceful performance of the scientific community in the Bt brinjal case, let them redeem their reputation and tighten up the regulation of genetically modified crops so that it is rescued from being the farce that it is today.

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

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Suman Sahai

Almost a billion people in Asia and Africa are plagued by hunger. The global firms pushing the “New Vision for Agriculture” have little to do with sustainable agriculture or solving the problem of hunger. Their goal is to corner resources like land and water as well as public sector finances and make these work to earn big profits for themselves

Seventeen corporations belonging to the consumer industries community of the World Economic Forum have announced their intention to enter the food business in the name of the poor. The alliance includes the world’s biggest life science corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and BASF, the world’s largest food commodities traders like Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill, processed food giants like Kraft Foods, Nestlé and PepsiCo, global retailers like Walmart and Metro in addition to diversified transnational corporations like SABMiller, Unilever, Yara International, Coca-Cola and General Mills.

These colossal entities that control the food chain starting from the genetically modified (GM) seed, fertilizer and pesticide to the grain and finally to the cakes and biscuits in large retail stores hope to become the saviours of global agriculture and the defenders of food security. Without a shred of embarrassment, they assert that their project works to “advance market-based solutions to agricultural sustainability”.

They call it the New Vision for Agriculture, and they have hijacked all the clichés of food security to portray their intent: “… over the past two years, food security and economic crises have highlighted both the urgent need and the potential for developing sustainable agricultural systems”. Or “Nearly one billion people — one out of six globally — lack access to adequate food and nutrition” . Their mantra to feed the 9 billion people expected to be on the planet by 2050 is to increase agricultural productivity through investment, innovation and the right policy framework! The sustainable agriculture growth they profess to initiate is to be achieved by market-based solutions.

It’s quite another matter that the poor are barely linked to the market except as consumers because they have nothing to sell and little means to buy with. The crisis of food is exemplified in India by the twin tragedies of rotting grain in buffer stocks and families suffering from endemic hunger. Almost a billion people in Asia and Africa are plagued by hunger even as large food stocks are traded in international markets by the very people who are the stewards of this New Vision of Agriculture, the Cargills, the Archer Daniel Midlands, the Bunges and so on.

The alliance claims that it seeks a “win-win” approach that leverages and multiplies each party’s investment. Revealed here is the real face of the New Vision for Agriculture, its corporate face that has little do with sustainable agriculture or solving the problem of hunger and malnutrition, but everything to do with cornering resources like land and water as well as public sector finances and make it work to earn big profits for themselves.

For instance, this New Vision for Agriculture has struck a deal in that part of Tanzania, (the south) which has bountiful water, good soils, favourable climate and a good infrastructure linked to regional and international markets. In short, ideal conditions for commercial agriculture. This is not the area that needs help because the conditions there are favourable anyway. It’s the sub-Saharan countries that need a leg up to improve agriculture, food security and nutrition but the New Vision for Agriculture is not going there.

What the New Vision proposes in Tanzania reads more like the land grab that is taking place all over Africa than any activity with the philanthropic intent of solving hunger. Land grabs are rampant in the favourable, fertile parts of Africa, where African governments and foreign corporations are striking unholy deals to corner large tracts of land belonging to small farmers. This is being leased out to produce food to be shipped out, not solve hunger at home.

By its own candid admission, the New Vision project proposes to involve itself only with profitable, modern commercial farming and agri-business. This too not everywhere but only in selected areas and only with crops with high market potential. According to current planning, the project leaders will identify “profitable, scalable agricultural and services businesses, with major benefits for smallholder farmers and local communities”. The politically correct categories of smallholder farmers and local communities are mentioned at appropriate places (although not too often). It is alleged the proposed projects will bring them major benefits, though how this will happen is not spelled out. The New Vision does not plan to establish anything in areas that require improvement but build only on existing operations mobilising and leveraging both public and private-sector investments into those opportunities that are viable. No talk here of investing in improving the viability of those units that are not so viable!

As part of their food security programme in Vietnam, the New Vision for Agriculture has made plans to develop coffee, tea, fish, fruit, vegetables and grain commodities for regional and global markets. A task force has been set up to oversee implementation. Members of the task force include Bunge, Metro, Cargill, Cisco, DuPont, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Monsanto and Unilever.

The current crop of New Visions and Alliances against Hunger look like con jobs. Curiously though, neither the crops selected to alleviate food insecurity nor the strategy to achieve this goal seems to strike the involved governments as the slightest bit incongruous. It says something about the state of affairs in the food domain that this in your face brazenness has not met with howls of protest from international agencies or national governments. On the contrary, even India, with its massive food security issues, is rushing to partner in this exercise. Shouldn’t we be doing something to stop this blatant exploitation? Isn’t anyone in any government thinking?

The writer is the Chief Editor of Gene News, published by the Gene Campaign Foundation

Friday, March 4, 2011

Will Mahyco Finally Get its Comeuppance?

Suman Sahai

The GEAC has decided to issue a show cause notice to the Mahyco seed company for defying its directions and going ahead with using a seed for which it did not have regulatory approval. The Mahyco seed company had approached the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) at its meeting on 12 January, 2011 for permission to produce seed of genetically engineered cotton containing a herbicide tolerant gene. This non Bt cotton was to be used as the refuge crop for when BG II-RR Flex cotton was finally approved for cultivation. Currently it is in trials. BG II-RR Flex refers to Bollgard II, a cotton hybrid that carries two Bt genes as well as a gene conferring tolerance to Roundup Ready which is a herbicide.

Mahyco had also applied to GEAC in September 2010 for permission to produce the same seed and had been turned down on the grounds that the cotton they wanted to use had not cleared the regulatory process. Therefore according to the Rules of 1989 which govern bio-technology , Mahyco could not be given permission to produce the seed of the unapproved cotton. But did
Mahyco accept the GEAC ruling and desist from using the unapproved HT cotton seed? No it did not.

It went ahead, cocking a snook at the GEAC, and made seed of the unapproved non-Bt RR-Flex-Cotton ( containing the HT gene) and is using it to plant the refuge crop in the trials of its double Bt, single HT cotton hybrid . A 20 percent ‘refuge crop’ of non Bt cotton is required by the Rules of 1989, to be planted along with Bt cotton so that the invading bollworm has a non toxic cotton to feed on, to delay the build up of resistance to the toxic Bt cotton. The Mahyco company is merrily using the unapproved cotton as the refuge planting in the trials of its new double Bt, single HT cotton hybrid even after GEAC had denied it permission! So why is Mahyco breaking the law to plant the unapproved herbicide tolerant cotton as the refuge for its double Bt, single HT cotton hybrid ? Because it slyly admits what we have been pointing out all along, that planting a herbicide tolerant crop, like the new Bt-HT cotton, and using the matched herbicide (Roundup Ready) during its cultivation will destroy all the
neighboring crops and the adjoining biodiversity. This will happen when the herbicide lands on them when fields of the HT crops are being sprayed. Since the other crops and the biodiversity do not contain the herbicide tolerant gene, they will die when the Roundup Ready hits them.
HT crops can only be cultivated if all the other crops in the region are also HT (an impossibility),
otherwise they will be destroyed when they catch the Roundup Ready spray drifting in the wind or get sprayed inadvertently. That is why in several articles and in the submissions I have made to policy bodies, I have argued that the herbicide tolerant genetic trait must not be permitted for use in India. First because it will displace agriculture labor (weeding provides wage labor), second, because it will destroy all the surrounding biodiversity that rural communities use as food, fodder, medicinal plants etc. and third because of what Mahyco-Monsanto now themselves admit, that Roundup Ready sprays will destroy all the other Non HT crops in the neighborhood.
The Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur acknowledges this problem inherent in HT crops, and agrees that the refuge for the Bt-HT cotton must be planted with HT cotton during commercial cultivation, otherwise the refuge will be killed off by Roundup Ready spray drifts. The CICR director however does not propose a strategy for how other crops and biodiversity should be protected when Mahyco’s new Bt-HT cotton is planted commercially and Roundup Ready is widely used in the fields.

Because Mahyco has blatantly defied the directions of the GEAC- not to use the HT cotton seed until it gets regulatory approval - the regulators have decided to issue a ‘Show Cause’ notice to the company, seeking explanation on why penal action should not be initiated against it, for
violation of the ‘Rules of 1989. It will be interesting to see how this story unfolds. Will the GEAC really follow through and take action against Mahyco for its defiant stand and blatant violations? Or will Mahyco walk home free as it has always done in the past?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Record: 'Crux of food security lies in rainfed farming'

by Vibha Sharma
Founder of Gene Campaign Suman Sahai, recipient of the Padma Shri in the category of science and engineering, is an active voice on food security for the past many years. She is opposed to the UPA government’s Food Security Bill in the current form. Which is why, the announcement of the top government honour came as an "unexpected, but pleasant surprise" to her.

She speaks to The Tribune on the Padma Shri and about the food security legislation.


Q: Were you expecting the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour of India?
A: It is an unexpected but a pleasant surprise. Gene Campaign has been critical of government policies but whenever we have done we have also tried to provide an alternative. Ours has not been a vicious, meaningless criticism. We disagreed only because we wanted a better situation for farmers and food security. It is a wonderful feeling to know that the government has the capacity to recognise constructive criticism. The award is in recognition of our contribution to agriculture and farmers’ and community rights.

Q: Your views on the Food Security Bill being considered by the Government and the National Advisory Council are hardly charitable. What are your objections and what is the alternative?
A: The problem with the Bill is that it has skipped the first nine steps and jumped to the last one. A whole lot of people who have no idea about food security have taken over the agenda. Welfare is one part but if you do not ensure a proper atmosphere for farmers to grow more, how will you get that extra food for distribution?
Right now there is something drastically wrong with the farming sector. Half of the farming community wants to get out of it specifically because it is not remunerative. If farmers are not making enough money to be encouraged to stay in the business, it would be a ridiculously simple approach to come up with a binding legislation on food security.How will you get that extra food from? There is no surplus grain in the international market. Food security equals food sovereignty. Otherwise you will always be vulnerable to external forces. You have to come up with a bigger vision and start from step number one, growing enough food. Solutions are not exactly rocket from step number one, growing enough food. Solutions are not exactly rocket science. They are fairly obvious.

Q: What should be the plan of action before the government makes the final commitment?
A: First, agriculture has to be made sustainable for the farmer. Then there has to be a well-defined water policy, including one groundwater extraction. There is also no need to give free water or electricity to farmers who are not looking for freebies. They are more than willing to pay for conveniences you provide if they are making money.
If the farmer does find farming remunerative he will give up the production. If you want to make the country food secure, bring the water to rainfed area. The crux of food security lies in rainfed agriculture.
I strongly recommend shifting subsidy in urea to sustainable agriculture in rainfed areas. Solutions are neither complex nor cost-intensive. They are very simple, practical solutions, something that should have been implemented yesterday. The food security legislation currently is more like propaganda: it does not reflect the genuine desire to solve food problem. It is not a sustainable legislation.

Q: Punjab and Haryana farmers have been complaining of lowering of yields. What is your advice to them to increase productivity?
A: Move away from the current model of agriculture which has sucked out micronutrients of the soil without giving anything back in return. `A0As it is, the area is fairly arid and cultivating rice has just left a layer of concrete in places. Farmers should step back from this crazily intensive production system they have been following and improve the soil health.
Secondly, diversification does not mean growing kinnow. Rice and wheat have been taking away the same kind of nutrients. So, go back to oilseeds, pulses and other cereals. The soil has to be given an opportunity to recuperate. Pulses will put back some nutrients rice and wheat have been extracting. Also, reduce mechanisation.Farmers must realise that while they are building the soil health their rates of profit will go down but agriculture in this region has to take rest and then start off differently.

Source :The Tribune, 6 Feb, 2011

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

WikiLeaks on bio-terrorism : India is vulnerable to attacks by novel organisms

By Suman Sahai
THE media has been spilling the contents of the Radia tapes with salacious gossip about a minister running Air India into the ground to benefit private airlines, or the promiscuous ways of an industry tycoon. WikiLeaks is also getting space with stories of the less than reverential US attitude towards us despite all the soft-soaping going on in public about the power of rising India. What went unnoticed in this milieu of gossip and innuendos was a set of postings having unnerving contents. Dealing with bioterrorism, these minutes of the meetings of US diplomats with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reveal the US evaluation of India’s lack of preparedness to handle any kind of bioterrorism.

Indian officials have been aware of the threat of bioterrorism at the hands of jihadi elements for some time. Two years ago a terrorist apprehended in Kashmir was found to be carrying a sophisticated device looking like a fountain pen, which contained strange and toxic chemicals. According to a WikiLeaks document, MEA officials admit that Indian intelligence agencies have picked up the conversation of suspected terrorists discussing the use of bio-terrorism. According to this leaked report, jihadi groups have opened up channels to identify people with PhD degrees in biology and biotechnology to recruit those sympathetic to their cause. No guesses for figuring out what these PhDs should be doing for their jihadi masters.

Though old-style bio-terror agents like anthrax bacteria and cholera germs are still effective, antidotes are known for these and can be deployed fast if the state agencies are alert and can respond in real time. The real fear of bio-terrorism, however, now comes from the next generation of biological organisms that are being created in the lab using new tools like genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Advances in biotechnology have put in the hands of scientists and laboratory technicians several methods and techniques, all of them quite uncomplicated, that can be used to create new organisms with hitherto unknown traits.

Given that there are hundreds of labs engaged in the exercise of cutting and splicing genes from one organism to another and that all the equipment and chemicals needed to do this are easily available, the potential of creating God-knows-what in the lab is magnified several-fold. India’s rich biological diversity offers a range of bacteria and viruses and thousands of lethal toxins that can be obtained from sources like micro-organisms and plants. All these have the potential of being cut and spliced at will, creating dangerous new organisms that have no pedigree and for which no antidotes are known. These are the monsters on the horizon, waiting to be picked up by terrorists with mayhem and destruction on their agenda.

So far as bugs like anthrax are concerned, we know their structure and understand their way of functioning. We know how to control and destroy them. If there were to be an anthrax attack as it occurred in the US a few years ago, people would know how to contain the bacteria in a short time after the smallest number of casualties. In the case of new organisms created by genetic engineering or synthetic biology, nobody knows their structure or their properties. Since they are not natural, they are not related to other organisms, which could offer clues about their functioning. The spread of such new organisms in a population could cause devastation because we would have no way of containing them or knowing how to destroy them fast enough.

Since threats from such novel organisms are rated as serious, the technologies of genetic engineering and synthetic biology are highly regulated. In May 2010, when Craig Venter announced his breakthrough “artificial life” a newly constructed micro-organism made up of genes synthesised in the lab, one of his first actions was to notify the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues so that official circles were in the know about what he was developing and could keep track of it. Since then the Presidential Commission has issued a number of recommendations for the emerging field of synthetic biology, most notably for coordinated federal oversight of scientists working in both large and small institutions.

In India, it is a matter of concern that there is little such oversight. It is ridiculously easy to procure biological materials such as harmful bacteria, viruses or toxins from academic laboratories since the supervision in these institutions is notoriously lax. According to the WikiLeaks report, there is a real fear that getting into a supposedly high containment facility to obtain lethal bio-agents is not very difficult in India and that “India's notably weak public health and agricultural infrastructure coupled with high population density means that a deliberate release of a disease-causing agent could go undetected for quite a while before authorities become aware”.

Of a piece with all this is our shabby regulatory system for genetic engineering which is known to be full of holes. Premier academic institutions do not follow the rules and prescribed regulatory procedures. A few years ago the field trials of Bt brinjal being conducted in the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi had to be burnt down because they were being done in violation of the process laid down for such trials. The Mahyco company has been conducting field trials of Bt rice in Jharkhand in flagrant violation of all prescribed norms. When evidence of their violations, which were contaminating the native rice, was pointed out to the regulators, they refused to take action against the company and began to harass Gene Campaign instead for bringing this to light. There are rumours of even worse. That regulation can be influenced and clearances obtained for a price.
In addition to leaky and compromised science and technology systems, India is particularly vulnerable to bioterrorism attacks because there is almost no coordination between the ministries and departments that would need to pull together in immediate response to such an eventuality. Turf guarding, lack of communication and the near-total absence of cooperation among key stakeholders from different departments is a glaring and dangerous impediment to the country’s capacity to respond to a bio-terrorist attack. For officials milling around inflated with self-importance, sober introspection about our terrifying vulnerability to modern bio-terrorism would appear to be an urgent requirement. It is high time this “emerging global power” got its house in order to protect the life of its citizens.
The writer, an expert in genetics, is the convener of Gene Campaign.
Source :