Agri-biotechnology Agriculture Policy

Environment Ministry Refutes Anti-GM Mustard Activists; Supporters Mount Email Campaign

With genetically-engineered mustard reaching the last stage of the regulatory approval process, those against and for the technology are making hectic efforts to force their way . Anti-GM activists held a press conference in Delhi last week, where they alleged that at least three members of the sub-committee which prepared the bio-safety docket for public consultation should have no place in it. The South Asia Biotechnology Centre (SABC), has mounted a counter campaign in support of the genetically-engineered hybrid.

The anti camp says the sub-committee does not have a health expert. The chair of the committee is a ‘GM crop developer.’  K Veluthambi, who is also the co-chair of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), has genetically engineered rice for disease resistance. For them, that is a disqualification.

The charge against B Sesikaran, a member of the sub-committee is that he is on the board of an international professional body which also has agri-biotech MNCs as members. The accusation against S R Rao, Adviser in the Department of Biotechnology, is that he is on the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board funded by Syngenta. (According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Syngenta scientists improved upon Golden Rice developed in 1999 by two scientists and produced a better variety with higher levels of beta carotene (and Vitamin A). Syngenta has arranged royalty-free access to patents and intellectual property held by several biotechnology companies for key technologies used in Golden Rice. This allows IRRI and others to develop Golden Rice on a not-for-profit basis).

SABC says mustard yields have been stagnant for the past two decades. Six million Indian farmers have to suffer low incomes because of this. The GE mustard hybrid developed by Deepak Pental of Delhi University and his team can increase yield by about 20-30 percent. The technology can be backcrossed to produce hybrids with higher yield. SABC’s email says India is a major importer of GE canola, which is the name given by Canada to GE rapeseed.

Countries growing GE canola (Canada, Australia and the US), SABC says, dominate the global trade in mustard seed, oil and animal feed. GE canola accounts for 94 percent of the global trade in GE soybean and canola, 22 percent of the global edible oil trade and 64 percent of global animal feed trade. These countries have approved multiple-trait GE canola allowing their farmers to harness yield potential through hybridization and weed control through glyphosate and glufosinate tolerance.

Those opposing GE mustard, according to SABC, are conspiring against Indian mustard farmers and favouring foreign exporters. It says they are misleading the people by attacking the Indian scientific community and demeaning the regulatory system. India’s regulatory system for GE crops is robust, it says, and has experts drawn from across disciplines. The food and environment safety assessments follow the best practices and parameters similar to European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Australian Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), the United States Food and Drug Administration and the US Environment Protection Agency.

The government also has hit back at the anti-activists. In a press release issued on Sunday (18 Sept), it refuted their charge that GEAC’s sub-commitee on GE mustard does not have a health expert. There is, it said, and he is B Sesikaran, MD in pathology and former director of the National Institute of Nutrition of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

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I Do Not Understand Bt Cotton technology; I Know It Works

Y Kallanagouda Patil, 46, of Uppinbetegeri village in Dharwad taluk  owns 52 acres jointly with his three brothers. He holds a diploma in agriculture from a school in Raichur. Patil grows cotton on ten acres, apart from sugarcane, potato, Bengal gram, jowar, tur,moong and vegetables. He uses groundwater to irrigate his fields. The water is drawn from a depth of 280 feet. Electricity is free so he flood irrigates the fields, except the one under banana  where he uses drip irrigation. He does not micro-irrigate cotton because it is closely planted and has to make way for another crop after eight months. This farmer has his cost all worked out. Making quick mental calculations, he estimates the cost of cotton crop at Rs 22,500 an acre and the realization from 17 quintals an acre at Rs 68,000. He had planted Bayer seed. ‘I do not understand technology, he says, all I know is if I use Bt seed there will be no

Pests Snack on Chilly But Not Cotton

F Basavaraj Rudagi, 48, did not grow cotton before 2008. This farmer from Saundhi village in Dharwad district’s Kundogol taluk made a partial switch to Bt cotton as chilly was susceptible to pest attack and yield was declining. From five acres in 2009, Rudagi had fifteen of a forty acre joint farm under cotton this year, when smartindianagriculture  caught up with him in February. He tried out Bayer in a change from Mahyco and Raasi seed. Rudagi says he got 11.5 quintals (100 kg) an acre from his rain-fed crop and at Rs 4,050 a quintal, his realization was a little over Rs 46,000. The cost, he says, is Rs 26,000 an acre, excluding rental earnings had he leased out the land. This does not mesh with the profit he claims he makes, but then he admits to not keeping crop-wise accounts. Rudagi also grows peanuts, coriander, gram, safflower and jowar. There is safety in diversity. And yes he plants pigeon pea or tur around the cotton crop for bollworms to feed on so they are not forced by the survival instinct to develop resistance to Bt protein.  In this sense he is quite a cut apart. Low cotton prices are worrying but what is the alternative?