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Dossier Dispossession and Resistance in India and Mexico

Hybrid Infestation: The Politics of GM Crops in India

, by CHAKRAVARTTY Anupam

In India, GM crops arrived through the backdoor. Even as India set up a regulatory structure to screen GM products and showed interest in agricultural biotechnology as early as the 1980s, in ten years biotechnology companies saw the large agrarian economy of the country as a huge opportunity for their own growth. With the first field trials of GM tobacco starting in France and USA in 1982, a cabal of Indian scientists advised the Government of India, then led by Rajiv Gandhi of the Congress party, to constitute a body to identify long term plans in biotechnology. The first GM crop to be introduced in India was Bacillus thuringiensis Cotton also known as Bt Cotton. This article takes a look at the context of GM crops in India, to then examine more closely an agrarian crisis that was caused by the widespread adoption of Bt Cotton in the northern fertile agrarian state of Punjab. Specifically, recounts the impact of white fly infestation on Bt cotton in the state, experienced over the last couple of years which has taken the lives of farmers and deprived families from earning their livelihoods.

History of GM Crops in India

Created by using a bacterium that releases toxins against different kinds of pests, especially the American bollworm, Bt Cotton’s arrival in India has remained controversial from the very beginning. US based multinational biotechnology firm, Monsanto started negotiating with the government as early as 1990 for a collaboration with Indian agro-research organizations. However, the government was not interested back then. Monsanto tied up with a hybrid seed manufacturer from Western India called Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (MAHYCO), with Department of Biotechnology accepting the licence for commercialization of GM crop in 1996. However, with the mounting protests especially in cotton growing areas such as Andhra Pradesh, the then Congress government did not allow the commercial cultivation of Bt Cotton. In 1998, a new government lead by Bhartiya Janata Party came into power following which in 2001, the Mahyco-Monsanto Bt Cotton for commercial cultivation came up for approval again. Facing stiff opposition from the ruling party’s various factions, government rejected only to grant the permission a year later. In 2002, the government approved the release of three Bt Cotton hybrids. By the time Monsanto-MAHYCO was granted a formal approval, yet another domestic company, Navbharat Seeds already started selling Bt Cotton hybrid seeds three year ahead of government’s decision. Despite efforts to stop the sale of such ‘illegal’ seeds, the farmers were already growing GM cotton in India.

Indian government cleared more applications in 2005. According to various reports, over twelve multinational firms and a number of domestic private companies are interested and have invested in agricultural biotechnology in India which includes subsidiaries of MNCs such as Monsanto, Syngenta (Switzerland), Bayer/Proagro – PGS (Germany), the Tata Group/Rallis (India) Indo American Hybrid Seeds (USA) and also wholly owned smaller firms which include Rasi Seeds, Navabharat Seeds, Hybrid Rice International, Ankur and Swarna Bharat Biotechnics (Ramanna 2006).

GM crops are regulated under the Indian Environment Protection Act, 1986. The biosafety regulatory framework consists of 1989 rules issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, as elaborated and revised by the 1990, 1994 and 1998 guidelines issued by Department of Biotechnology (DBT). From time to time, farmers’ leaders and activists have challenged the government for introduction of GM crops asserting invoking right to protect indigenous varieties of seeds and crop losses experienced by farmers. Despite these efforts, GM trials were extended to major crops like corn, soyabean, brinjal and mustard.

The White Fly and Looming crisis

With a wingspan of less than five millimetres and using underside of a leaf mostly for nesting, the Whitefly did not have much significance in a farmer’s life in cotton growing region of South Punjab. Farmers were prepared for other greater threats that affect cotton cultivation across the world such as the Bollworm.

With a market flooded by a range of hybrid seeds especially transgenic or what is known in the common parlance as genetically modified crops, a cocktail of deadly pesticides and fertilizers, the cotton grower of Malwa region of South Punjab did not anticipate it in 2015. A farmer from Mansa, not wishing to be named in this report, says: “I wish we paid a little more attention to the government advisory. It was written in the fine print. The Bt Cotton advisory warned that the seed can only protect us from bollworm.” The cotton grower was right about the advisory. By end of September, the whitefly attack in Punjab damaged over 75 per cent crop. The damage to the cotton crop, over 95 per cent of which is Bt cotton, was estimated at Rs. 4,500 crores. The cotton growing area accounts to about 0.43 million hectares. According to an estimate of losses prepared by Punjab government in 2015 due to the white fly attack, the cotton yield reduced to 197 kg of lint per hectare as compared to 543 kg of lint per hectare in 2014 and production reduced from 13.42 lakh bales to 3.93 lakh bales (one bale is equal to 170 Kg each). In last two years, 18 farmers unable to cope up with the losses took their lives (Sabesh 2006).

With the state elections around the corner, the previous ruling coalition of Shiromani Akali Dal-Bhartiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) did try to compensate the farmers but the state government’s own flawed compensation policies proved to be disaster. In several places, the farmers received compensation as low as Rs. 11 [1], even as the state government announced compensation not just for the farm owner but also for the farm hands. Acting on the complaints by the local farming unions, the state government also arrested a senior bureaucrat from the agricultural department for supplying spurious pesticides and insecticides further worsening the crisis (Singh 2015). The Punjab state elections held in 2016 saw farmers’ lost livelihoods take on centrestage in election campaigns. Almost a year since the Congress Party came to power in the state, the newly elected Chief Minister has not been able to compensate the farmers. Instead after a field visit, Capt. Singh said that with the use of correct pesticides and seasonal rainfall, the whitefly attacks would stop. However, both the scenarios as imagined by Singh looks unlikely.

Whitefly (Bemisiatabaci) has been known to carry a deadly Cotton Leaf Curl Virus (CLCV) which was first noticed in Rajasthan in 1993. According to a paper published by entomologists of Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), by 2004 the CCLV disease spread to all the cotton growing regions of North Western India which is usually marked by the infestation of white fly (Gopal 2015). However, all these years, it’s impact was negligible. In 2015, the climate in Punjab was drastically altered. The dry months of March and April saw heavy downpour which delayed the sowing in several parts (Cotton growers in this region are advised to complete the sowing by April). In June, when temperatures should have touched 47 degrees, with hot summer winds (the famous loo) gusting across the state, the region experienced rains, when the temperatures stayed below 40 degrees Celsius. It barely rained in the traditional monsoon months of July and August. The first three weeks of September stayed dry as well, followed by heavy rains towards the end of the month.

PAU experts say whiteflies emerge around March and are active till winter sets in. “Most years, they are a minor pest preying on most crops, their numbers kept in check by the loo and then the rains. In 2015, however, the skies stayed overcast but the earth saw little rain; temperatures stayed relatively low and humidity relatively high, creating conditions where whitefly numbers began rising earlier than usual,” stated one news report chronicling the outbreak in 2015 (Gupta et al 2010). This led to the exponential spread of the virus. In the peak of the infestation, there were six pests per leaf of the plant in the affected district, which was above the Economic Threshold Level (ETL: The pest density at which management action should be taken to prevent an increasing pest population from reaching the economic injury level.)

Debt ridden farmers

Punjab farming households depend critically on Commission Agents, who provide seeds, pesticides/insecticides and buyers but charge a high interest. Commissioning agents act as middlemen, who are approached by the seed companies and pesticide manufacturers. They also offer loans to the farmers as the input costs for GM cotton are much higher than the regular cotton varieties (Rajshekhar 2015). While Punjab government maintains that there was a scam related to the sale of spurious pesticides was going on during the white fly attack, several farmers in order to escape the debt trap and high price of ‘genuine’ Bt cotton as charged by commissioning agents bought spurious Bt cotton seeds from as far as Gujarat. Mohammad Ghazali, a journalist from Mansa district of Punjab, along with many others who were tracking these issues in the state, said that the stress on the farming households could not be borne by many, leading to 18 cases of farmer suicides in Malwa region of the state.

Activists opposed to genetically modified seeds, on the other hand, blame it on the corporations and government that brings Bt Cotton seeds to states like Punjab. Vandana Shiva, a vocal critic of Government’s tie-up with GM crops manufacturer, Monsanto, maintains that whitefly is a common pest in Punjab for generations of farmers. She noted that whitefly, which earlier did not attack cotton, was now infesting areas planted with Bt Cotton (Damodaran 2016).

While Shiva does not consider the climate factor that affected not just cotton but also paddy in the next two years, economists such as Sukhpal Singh of Punjab Agricultural University in an interview corroborated her statement (Shiva 2016). He maintained that Bt Cotton came to Punjab in 2004, in response to the American bollworm attacks that started in 1997. While the resistance to bollworm lasted 7-8 years, attacks from secondary pests started eventually. This was accompanied by increase in input costs and reduction of subsidies on the same, according to Singh.
In 2017, Central Government announced that Bt Cotton seed usage will be restricted as some of BJP’s own farming factions such as Bhartiya Kisan Morcha were opposed to it. However, Central government, coincidentally, without paying any heed to the ruling party’s farming wing, allowed trials for the mustard, which was vehemently contested by activists like Shiva.

Conclusion

The crop damage caused by white fly, even if argued from a climate change perspective, does not dilute the fact that a genetically modified organism is incapable of adjusting to the surroundings. According to Devinder Sharma, an agro-economist based out of Chandigarh, in 18 villages in Malwa region of Punjab that opted for local varieties of cotton and used a biopesticide, an insect that consumes white flies saved their cotton crop around the same time when the infestation hit the state. With a controversial and somewhat makeshift policy on biotechnology, especially in approving the Bt Cotton, Indian government has put the agrarian economy into a trap. Despite having highest acreage of cotton in the world, Indian farmers are not earning enough from the crop.

While bioengineered crops provide fodder for decades worth of debating the nuances around its science, on the ground, farmers are being displaced from their livelihoods slowly across Punjab as cropping is slowly going out of their hand. With an uncertain weather and bugs acquiring resistance to different treatments, it is the farming household that has to bear the brunt. The need of the hour is to listen to the farmer and create adequate avenues for her to adapt.

References Damodaran, Harish. (2016, October 27). Brown Plant Hopper: A surgical strike that farmers in India’s granary were least prepared for. The Indian Express. Retrieved from: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/brown-plant-hopper-a-surgical-strike-that-farmers-in-indias-granary-were-least-prepared-for-3104750/

Gopal, Navjeevan. (2015, October 7). Punjab pesticide Scam: Different purity on same batch of pesticides. The Indian Express. Retrieved from:

http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/chandigarh/punjab-pesticide-scam-different-purity-on-same-batch-of-pesticides/

Gupta, V K et al. (2010). Efficiency of Bemisiatabaci (Gennadius) populations from different plant-hosts for acquisition and transmission of cotton leaf curl virus. Indian Journal of Biotechnology, 9(3):271-275.

Rajshekhar, M. (2015, November 30). How climate change has sparked political and social unrest in Punjab this year. Scroll.in. Retrieved from:

https://scroll.in/article/772198/how-climate-change-has-sparked-political-and-social-unrest-in-punjab-this-year

Ramanna, Anitha. (2006). India’s Policy on Genetically Modified Crops. Asia Research Centre Working Paper 15. Retrieved from: http://www.lse.ac.uk/asiaResearchCentre/_files/ARCWP15-Ramanna.pdf

Sabesh, M. (2006). Advisory by Central Institute for Cotton Research, 2006-2007.

Shiva, Vandana. (2016, July, 17). The Reason For Farmer Suicides in Punjab Lies Not in the Whitefly But in Bt Cotton. The Citizen. Retrieved from: http://dev.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/4/8243/The-Reason-For-Farmer-Suicides-in-Punjab-Lies-Not-in-the-Whitefly-But-in-Bt-Cotton

Singh, Navrajdeep. (2015, September, 29). Punjab: Farmers get Rs 11 as compensation for cotton crop failure. Hindustan Times. Retrieved from: http://www.hindustantimes.com/punjab/cheque-for-rs-11-for-crop-loss-shames-bathinda-farmer/story-3zVbOjsCf5WLqxPNLmmtgI.html

Notes

[1Farmer leaders say this arbitrary and paltry amount was set by government merely to show the numbers of people receiving compensation, not the actual compensation amount.

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