Desperate farmers switching to illegal GM crops
Desperate for breakthrough technologies as they struggle with a rough patch in traditional agriculture, thousands of farmers across states, some of them in open defiance of the law, are embracing illegal genetically modified (GM) crops — from Bt brinjal to herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton.
Despite the risk of prosecution, farmers in Maharashtra are growing illegal HT cotton, which has not been cleared for commercial cultivation, responding to a call by Shetkari Sangathana, an influential farmers organization in the western state.
Shetkari Sangathana, founded by the late Sharad Anantrao Joshi, a former MP, has traditionally advocated free markets and ready access to global technologies for farmers, is protesting the government’s freeze on new GM technologies. One cultivator was arrested on June 17 in the state’s Buldhana district.
Under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, planting unapproved GM seed varieties can attract a five-year jail term and a fine of up to ₹1 lakh.
The open defiance by farmers comes amid a downturn in agriculture blamed on the double whammy of bumper crops and unremunerative prices, and frequent droughts in parts of the country where the June-to-Sep
tember south-west monsoon is the lifeline of farming. At least 700 million people in India depend, directly or indirectly, on agriculture for a livelihood. And the health of the agricultural economy shapes the health of the rural economy.
On June 10, Shetkari Sangathana organised an event in the state’s Akola district where farmers pledged to sow illegal HT cotton. Responding to the call, farmers are growing this illegal variety openly in the state’s Yavatmal, Jalna, Aurangabad and Amravati regions.
In April, authorities forced Jeevan Saini, a farmer from Haryana’s Fatehabad district, to destroy his brinjal crop after it was found to be a banned GM variety. “I was told that this is a better variety. I don’t know that I was growing something illegal,” he said over the phone.
In February 2010, after nationwide consultations with scientists, farmers and other stakeholders, then-environment minister Jairam Ramesh announced an indefinite moratorium on commercialisation of Bt Brinjal. He said at the time that the moratorium will last till independent scientific studies establish Bt Brinjal’s long-term impact on human health, biodiversity and environment.
Saini may or may not have known that he was growing a GM brinjal variety not officially approved for cultivation, but Indian farmers have always craved new technology that promises to improve yields, cut costs and fetch higher returns.
“India has been the biggest exporter of cotton but now farmers are losing out to competition. Labour costs are rising. The government is holding back new technologies, hurting the interests of farmers,” said Ajit Narde, a leader of the Shetkari Sangathana.
The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), India’s biotech regulator, wrote to the chief secretary of Maharashtra on June 12 to initiate action to stop cultivation of illegal HT cotton, an official said, requesting anonymity.
GM crops are those whose genes have been altered for a certain benefit, such as higher yields or pest resistance. But they are also controversial. Those opposed to it cite risks associated with the environment or health.
HT cotton, grown globally since 1995, is designed to withstand herbicides, which kills weeds but leaves the plant unaffected. This results in significant savings on labour costs.
These are latest incidents in a country where the regulatory framework has failed to curb illegal varieties since India in 2002 approved BT cotton, the only GM crop to be allowed so far.
The circumstances back then were similar to what they are now. Authorities approved BT cotton after it was found that the crop was already being grown illegally on a very large scale so not approving it was futile.
In fact, unapproved HT cotton has been grown for the past two years across states such as Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat, according to a government report.
In 2018, the government set up a Field Inspection and Scientific Evaluation Committee (FISEC) based on instructions of the Prime Minister’s Office to assess the illegal HT cotton seed market. The FISEC report recommended destruction of “all HT cotton seeds” seized by authorities.
Those opposed to GM crops say that it is not difficult to crack down on the illegal GM seed market. “Authorities need to look at the whole supply chain. The government also needs to amend the law to make GM developers solely responsible for any leakage of unapproved seeds,” said Kavitha Kuruganthi of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.
The FISEC report, however, noted that consultation with farmers showed that they were very satisfied with the technology which is “less labour-intensive and hence is cost-beneficial”.
Scientists say this regulatory ambiguity over GM technologies is baffling. “We are in a silly situation,” says Deepak Pental, a biotechnologist and former Delhi University vice-chancellor whose state-funded GM mustard did not receive a final clearance despite being approved initially.
“Either you clearly say you are against GM...Farmers need technology. You should have technologies that are safe and sound. This ambiguity has done great harm,” Pental said, adding “Once you fall back on science, it will be very difficult to catch up.”
Kuruganthi said farmers taking to illegal GM crops were a sign of the government’s failure in providing acceptable agricultural solutions. “They have no choices.”