DEFENDING THE INDEFENSIBLE

Lately, there has been this funny clamour on online petition sites and twitter, though it is quite feeble, in that it did not actually mobilise numbers. The clamour apparently is for Technology. “Give me technology. I want technology. I want your patented technology because others have some other patented technology in their lives. It is ok if the patent-holder has monopolies and gets to determine when I plant, for how much will he sell, whether he will sell or pull out like a sulking kid, and whether seeds will be available in the quantities that I need. I still want patented technology in agriculture, because that urban activist has a patented i-Phone or other technology. It does not matter if it becomes a life and death question in my livelihood. All agricultural technologies have only been good to me as a farmer and the suicides that I see around me have got nothing to do with technologies, their political economy, their impact, their cost, my investment on them, and my debts because of them”. This seems to be the gist of it. Some agriculture correspondents in some national dailies act as mouthpieces for this clamour.

Sorry, did I hear that right? You want technology and any technology, even though it is not going to deliver anything other than damage? And to hear farmers say that they don’t want any hybrids, but want only GM hybrids is indeed suspect. Really? In the past 24 years of working with farmers, I have never come across a real smallholder farmer who is saying ‘give me technology’. They are certainly saying ‘give me better prices; give me risk cover; don’t take away my land, how do I deal with my high-interest debt’ etc. etc. Why would a farmer ask for hybrids made only through the GM route, unless you are parroting some PR agency’s lines or the industry’s? You are not concerned about your end-profitability but only about GM technology being cleared? Is there any evidence that it is better than existing hybrids, and provides better options for us all? No, none at all! And that is the crux of the matter with GM mustard DMH-11 and its parental lines which are on the verge of approval for commercial cultivation in India. This is exactly where the proponents feel cornered and are therefore coming up with all kinds of obscure and obdurate arguments.

I am reminded of Jairam Ramesh’s famous lines during the Bt brinjal debate that “Bt is a technological solution going around looking for a problem” which is indeed true. Just because you have mastered the technician’s job of tinkering around with genes does not mean that you will begin arguing without any proof that your technology is indeed needed, and that there is a farmer’s right to technology, even if it is living, unstable, irreversible and uncontrollable. And those are precisely the characteristics of transgenic technology however differently the proponents might want to project it. It is a living technology in that it is playing around with the DNA of living organisms and since they are self-propagating especially in the case of plants with the pollen spreading around irreversibly and uncontrollably, there is enormous caution required before any environmental release.

It is in the very nature of this technology that one farmer’s choice of this technology also impinges on another farmer’s choice of not wanting this technology. In the case of herbicide tolerant GM mustard, we are not talking about just contamination of non-GM or even organic crops in neighboring fields, but also herbicide drift possibly damaging the neighboring crop. Both the GM mustard sowing farmer, and the neighboring farmer – if they want to use farm-saved seed for the next crop – will find a certain proportion of their produce as sterile seeds. If the non-GM farmer wants to continue with her/his seed for the next generation too, this proportion is likely to increase. Which means yields affected. So, herbicide drift damage as well as sterile seeds and decreased yields. Wait, that’s not all.

When the HT crop starts impacting unintended beneficial organisms like bees (and there is evidence that they do, while there is clear proof that in India, this has not been tested at all even though GM mustard is a HT crop), yields of farmers will in turn get affected. It will also be a blow to the livelihoods of many bee-keepers and the honey industry.

Now, why would any one want to take these risks? What for? Is there one good reason why GM HT mustard should be released? None. And that is why these defensive arguments which may sound pious on behalf of farmers, but are outright unfounded in terms of their real interests.

There are numerous public sector scientists who are breeding mustard hybrids using CMS technology, which is non-transgenic inducement of male sterility. These are performing quite well, and there is no proof that transgenic hybrids perform better. Further, around the world, the best yields are in countries where CMS hybrids have been used and GM technology has been shunned. Isn’t that technology enough for you?

When the yield claims were busted with meticulous evidence of the scientific fraud adopted to show favorable results in support of GM mustard, the latest argument of all the proponents, drawing mainly from the crop developers, is that this is only a beginning and give us time to improve the performance. Can other Indian scientists say that too, and pass off their researched-varieties and hybrids in the evaluation and seed release system saying, pass it now and release it, notify it and I will improve it later?

Then comes this oft-heard argument from some authors which they repeat ad nauseum since their newspaper gives them space to repeat the same stuff again and again (incidentally, these papers refuse to carry any counterview like this one, because they are too biased) – that we are eating GM edible oil in India, and therefore, we must also allow production of GM oilseeds right here. Unfortunately, there are many who are repeating and saying, ‘yes, there’s a valid point there’. Sorry. It is foolish to equate that risks with consuming 20% of our edible oil in its GM version are similar to cultivating a HT GM crop in the country, with associated environmental and health risks. The health risks are obviously more direct both from the herbicide and the fact that GM mustard is going to be eaten in its leaf and seed forms too, not just oil.

What about the fact that GM HT mustard cultivation here will jeopardise employment to a tune of at least 4 crore women-days, for poor rural women in India, who will never be provided any alternatives? Who will think for them?

And to say that farmers will be the ones to decide is ridiculous. There are farmers and farmers, with agricultural workers also being farmers, and organic farmers also being farmers. Who amongst them will decide? What about consumers, since they will ultimately be the buyers of what the farmers produce and without them, farmers are not likely to find markets? Don’t they have a choice? It is so very obvious that this is a policy decision. To think that some meager dressed up so-called scientific data should be the basis of taking a decision on this is unacceptable. And yes, state governments will engage with this issue and take a stand. Yes, citizens will present their case. All of these factors weighing into any decision-making is being called as “politics”. I think such an understanding undermines the need for responsible and responsive decision-making. Narendra Modi should realize that science is definitely on his side on this one, when he chooses to reject this GMO. States are certainly on his side. His own allies and associates are on his side. Most importantly, there are many successful solutions on his side, that can be deployed with commitment and political will, to resolve India’s oilseeds crisis. It has been done before, and it is possible again. All of this is in policy-making domain, and policies have to have a vision for sustainable development, a vision that creates a win-win-win for all – farmers, agricultural workers and consumers, along with the environment.

Time that

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