March 17, 2020
The destruction of the supposedly Bt Brinjal crop in a farmer’s field in Haryana and not paying him any compensation for crop loss is an insensitive act of the government.
When Bt cotton was planted illegally in thousands of acres in Gujarat in 2000-01 the government could not dare to go into villages to destroy the crop. Recently when HT cotton was grown illegally in lakhs of acres in some states the governments could do nothing except to stop the sale of glyphosate for use on those fields.
In both Bt Brinjal and HT Cotton, farmers procured seeds, presumably at a higher cost, to address some issues in their crops. Instead of addressing those issues the governments deprived the farmer of the benefits and caused economic loss to them. To satisfy the activists? Agreed that cultivation of HT cotton is illegal. But having paid a high price for the seed, if the farmer can’t use glyphosate on it to control weeds, the reason for buying the seed, how are we helping him? HT cotton seed producers, who made the money, should have been arrested instead of punishing farmers who bought the seed.
It is clear from these three examples that the governments come down heavily on one or two hapless farmers but can do nothing when it involves many farmers, except adopting administratively convenient measures like banning the sale of glyphosate.
An unfortunate moratorium was imposed on Bt Brinjal in 2010 by a Government which was keen to appease the activists instead of following the scientific decision of the regulatory body. The GEAC decision was based on regulatory trial data generated for seven years as per guidelines to establish the safety of the technology. Since then Bangladesh approved Bt Brinjal in 2013 with great results. We have to congratulate the Agriculture Minister of Bangladesh Mrs Matia Chowdhury who took this courageous decision overriding the objections from activists.
In the famous 19 page order passed by Shri Jairam Ramesh in 2010, he asked GEAC to prescribe new tests to establish the safety of Bt Brinjal. Till date, these tests have not been specified by GEAC! Besides Mahyco several other private and public institutions were developing Bt Brinjal. The National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology developed Bt brinjal using the CryFa1 gene and licensed it to some private companies who carried out regulatory trials. The Indian Institute of Horticultural Research was developing Bt brinjal using Cry1Ab gene. All these were put in cold storage, thus wasting vast amounts of taxpayers money which was invested in the biotech research programs of the public institutions. India is paying the price for this decision. Research in this field is rolled back and no new technological solutions are introduced to address farmers problems.
Consumers may not be aware that the 60 days crop of Brinjal is sprayed more than 25 times with pesticides to control Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB). Since the present control methods for FSB involve heavy pesticide usage, brinjal fruit potentially contains significant amounts of pesticide residues, posing health concerns for consumers and farmworkers. Field studies in India have demonstrated that with Bt Brinjal farmers can use 70% less insecticide for FSB control and overall 42% less for control of all insects. On an average, 116% increase in marketable fruits over hybrids and 166% increase over open-pollinated varieties of brinjal was recorded resulting in higher net income. Estimated additional profits of Rs 16,000-19,000 per acre with Bt Brinjal were calculated, equalling Rs 2,000 crore to Brinjal farmers all over India.
A recent report “Success Story of Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh” published by Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions and Asia Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology and Bioresources, Bangkok, has noted the following facts. Four Bt Brinjal varieties developed by Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute were approved for commercialization in 2013 after extensive testing. The first Bt brinjal seedlings were distributed among 20 farmers in January 2014. Samples of Bt Brinjal from Bangladesh were tested in Covance Laboratory in London and no difference was found between them and their non-Bt counterparts. No adverse effects were found on the tested animals. In the last 5 years, there have been no reports of any health concerns among the consumers. Pesticide costs have come down by 61% for the farmers. Yields increased by 15% and costs declined by 24%, resulting in a six-fold increase in net profits. According to Dr Shelton of Cornell University, more than 27000 farmers grew Bt Brinjal in 2017-18. Are there lessons here for the Indian Government?
Brinjal, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Okra consume large quantities of pesticides to control Lepidopteran pests. Bt technology could have made these crops safer for the consumers and more profitable for the farmers. Indian consumers and farmers have lost because of the disastrous decision taken in 2010.
By blocking usage of GM technology the Government is indirectly encouraging the illegal entry of these products because the farmer needs them. The government should take science-based decisions and not fall for the scaremongering by certain organizations.
Crops suffer from biotic and abiotic stresses resulting in low yields and losses for the farmers. GM technology will help farmers to overcome difficulties and improve their profitability. This is a surer way to double farmers incomes. It is time for the government to wake up to these realities and take the long-awaited positive step forward.