Saturday, August 30, 2014

Concerns about BT Brinjal

Suman Sahai

The only stakeholder in the game that stands to benefit from the introduction of Bt brinjal is the company that is producing its seeds.

There is a raging debate in the country about BT brinjal which is poised to become India’s first GM food if the biotech industry has its way. Its entry is resisted by scientists and civil society groups that question its safety.

Why could Bt brinjal be unsafe ? It belongs to the plant family Solanacea which has important food plants like potatoes, tomatoes and chilli but also the poisonous datura and the deadly nightshade ( belladonna). Many plants of the Solanaceae family are rich in complex chemicals called alkaloids and contain some of the  most poisonous plants known to mankind. They produce alkaloids in their roots, leaves and flowers. These alkaloids can be hallucinogens, stimulants or outright poisons. Even plants like potato ,that have had their toxins bred out by generations of out breeding, when exposed to light, produce a chemical called solanin which appears as a green tinge. Green potatoes can be toxic, damage an unborn fetus and cause abortions.

Farmers have worked for thousands of years to domesticate wild plants to make them safe for eating. Much of this exercise involved selecting out the toxins contained in the wild plants. Scientists too have used careful, selective breeding to  ‘clean up’ crop varieties which had good qualities but contained harmful substances. Now through genetic engineering, brinjal, a member of a family known to carry poisonous substances, has been genetically engineered to produce the Bt toxin inside the plant, to kill the bollworm pest. This seems to be a perverse process to reverse thousands of years of effort to detoxify natural plants to make them safe as human food ! 

Genetic engineering is still relatively new and the process is ad hoc. We have no control over what the foreign genes do once they are forced into cells by gene guns, which is how genetic engineering is done. This random and aggressive process creates new products in the cell which could be normal but could also be poisonous or harmful. There are many known instances of new compounds being produced in plants which were genetically engineered that were found to be harmful.

When GM peas were being developed by the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial  Research Organization)  in Australia to protect the peas from a pest called the pea weevil, it was found that newly formed proteins in the GM peas caused immunity problems and lung inflammation when fed to mice. The experiments had to be abandoned. In another case, when mice were fed the genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato, seven  out of forty experimental animals died within 14 days and the others suffered from stomach lesions.

Genetic Engineering in plants of the Solanaceae family could be dangerous since disturbing the balance of the cell’s genetic material through the process of inserting new genes specially the toxin producing Bt gene, may trigger off metabolic processes that have been lying dormant.  There are apprehensions that not only new toxins could develop but that old toxins that were removed by selective breeding, may reappear. Disturbing the cell metabolism by genetically engineering of species that are naturally genetically hardwired to produce toxins,  is likely to call up old plant toxins in these species.

Testing for food safety is a crucial component of genetically engineered plants; it becomes more so with plants of the Solanaceae family. At present safety testing of GM crops is very poorly done in India and all kinds of short cuts are being used. The Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court to examine the way GM crops are being tested , has delivered a scathing report about the inefficiency and lack of competence in the regulatory bodies. The TEC has therefore recommended a ten year moratorium on releasing GM foods since poor testing could prove to be a threat to human health.

Apart from the critical safety issues, there are other questions that arise with the proposed release of Bt brinjal. There is no system in place for labeling these foods. Indeed, how can one , in the Indian situation label  a vegetable that will be sold from farmers’ fields, laden into trucks and taken to wholesale mandis. How will the vegetables on the vendor’s cart or the corner shop be labeled  as GM?

The government of India acknowledges the need to label GM food, and its official position in international forums has been for mandatory labelling. Accordingly, the Ministry of Health has drafted rules under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to include labelling of Genetically Engineered food and food ingredients.. But there  are as yet, no mechanisms in place to label GE food and food products, nor have any awareness programs been conducted to explain the nature of GM foods and the need for labelling them.  For most consumers, especially rural consumers, GM foods are a black box and unless they are made aware of the nature of GE foods, labelling would be meaningless. Putting GM foods on the market without provisions for labeling, would amount to taking away the consumer’s right to informed choice about their food. This right is enshrined in India’s Consumer Protection Act. 

There is no reason to introduce Bt brinjal. Farmers have not asked for it, it is not a crop of any great relevance to food security, nor is it a crop that has a more than average pest problem. The only stakeholder in the game that stands to benefit from the introduction of Bt brinjal is Mahyco-Monsanto , the company that is producing its seeds.

Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist trained in genetics. She is the founder of the research and advocacy organisation Gene Campaign.

Greater Kashmir, 28 August, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Scattered Approach to Agriculture

Sukhpal Singh/ Suman Sahai

Leaving aside a focus on warehousing and farm credit, the Budget has sprayed Rs 100 crore across a clutter of schemes
The new government’s budget is marked by a fractured approach to the farm sector, where perhaps the most significant spend has been on irrigation, after the large allocation to farm credit.
Credit push

A sum of Rs1,000 crore sounds good if instead of large irrigation projects and canal networks, the money is used largely for decentralised (rainwater) conservation and storage.

Agriculture in rainfed areas, plateau regions and mountain ecologies could get a boost if a network of tanks, ponds, wells, check dams is established along with efficient lift irrigation schemes for protective irrigation.

The new project “Neeranchal” to give impetus to watershed development in the country with an initial outlay of Rs. 2,142 crore is welcome. However, micro irrigation which is a relative success in Gujarat and is part of its agri development model, unlike other states, surprisingly finds no mention in the Budget.

There are also a number of small sum token schemes now known as the Rs.100 crore schemes’..

However, a significant increase in farm credit from Rs. 7 lakh crore to Rs. 8 lakh crore is a desirable move given the extreme paucity of formal credit to farmers.

But this money should not go overwhelmingly to high end agriculture/agribusiness to support cold chains, warehouses, reefer trucks, high tech packaging etc. Significant portions of the credit portfolio must be made available to enable small and marginal farmers to become not just self-sufficient, but also entrepreneurial.

An important provision is the Long Term Rural Credit Fund set up for the purpose of providing refinance support to Cooperative Banks and Regional Rural Banks with an initial corpus of Rs. 5,000 crore.

These banks were being marginalized in the rural and farm credit sector resulting in the exclusion of marginal and small farmers in the last decade.

Another amount of Rs 50,000 crore allocated for Short Term Cooperative Rural Credit is a good step as co-operative societies reach the last mile.

Another welcome step is the allocation of Rs 200 crore to promote 2,000 farmer producer organisations. This essentially means promotion of existing and new farmer producer companies.

This new set of entities which number more than 500 already are struggling for working capital and investment support though they appear to be quite promising in the modern agribusiness context.

Mixed bag

Warehousing will get a boost with an allocation of Rs. 5,000 crore . This is needed since there is a pathetic shortage of storage facilities both for cereals and perishable produce and the warehouse receipt system has not really made any headway so far despite its extreme relevance for small holder agriculture.

The provision for financing 5 lakh Joint Farming Groups of landless farmers who lease in land is a welcome move too as these farmers who now cultivate more than 15 per cent of the land do not have any facility to avail loans in the absence of land titles.

But, financing alone may not help as seen in the Andhra Pradesh experience a few years ago when identity cards were given to make such farmers eligible for loans. In any case, this large provision will drive attention to the issue.

An unfortunate fact is that farmers are vulnerable to high levels of production and market risk but no measures exist to make crop insurance work or make markets deliver stable prices.

In this situation, the budget provision of Rs.500 crore as a price stabilisation fund is highly inadequate.

There is no specific focus on the problem of making agriculture in rainfed areas viable — by investing in soil health, enhancing water retention capacity, identifying and producing locally adapted seed suited for the specific rainfed area and so on. A scheme to provide every farmer a soil health card in mission mode will be launched, for which Rs. 100 crore has been provided and an additional Rs. 56 crore to set up 100 Mobile Soil Testing Laboratories have been allocated.

This is adopted from the Gujarat experience and is much needed but to be effective, it requires participation of local agencies and institutions.

Disappointingly, there is just a very modest Rs 100 crore allocation to a National Adaptation Fund to meet the vagaries of climate change. Conserving genetic diversity to save valuable genes that could build climate resilience and investment in breeding climate resilient crops, would have buffered Indian agriculture against climate shocks.

However, there is a worthwhile investment in the creation of a fund with a corpus of Rs. 10,000 crore for providing equity through venture capital funds, quasi equity, soft loans and other risk capital specially to encourage new start-ups in the MSME sector. This can also be leveraged for agribusiness ventures to support farming and farmers.

However, the Budget could have acknowledged the reality of malnutrition and made an allocation.
The writers are with IIM, Ahmedabad and Gene Campaign, respectively
(This article was published on August 13, 2014)