Battle royal over GM in India (7/2/2007)

1.CLIVE JAMES IN INDIA: Critics of GM are selfish fanatics with violent thoughts!
2.Farmers/GP tie up against GM rice - Business Standard
3.Growing pains of India's GM revolution - BBC
4.IDRC study on GM crops - Ashok Sharma
5.Controversy surrounds Bt cotton - NDTV
6.Golden rice - BBC

EXTRACT: 'Between 2001 and 2003, India had a record grain surplus of wheat and rice amounting to 65 million tonnes.

'If you could have stacked the bags of grain one on top of another there would be enough bags to walk to the Moon and back; that was the quantity of food lying in India, and yet 320 million people went hungry.

'So let's be very clear; no-one is interested in eradicating hunger.' - Devinder Sharma (item 3)


1.'Critics of GM crops are selfish people'
Sudhir Chowdhary
Financial Express, February 5 2007


Industry calls him voice of the global biotech crop industry. Some even refer to him as the bookkeeper and for good reasons. Each year, Clive James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), undertakes the daunting task of preparing an exhaustive report on the adoption of biotech crops around the world...

[Sudhir Chowdhary] But, there have been instances in India of people burning the fields with GM crops.

[Clive James] I am aware of this. In society, you always tend to get people that seem to be on the fanatic side. They are violent in their thoughts. I believe that in India like many other countries, one would find this element. They are opposed to almost everything - globalisation, technology and what not.

2.BKU, Greenpeace tie up against GM rice in Haryana
Business Standard/ Chandigarh February 8 2007

Greenpeace, the environmental activist group, has joined hands with the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) to campaign against field experiments of genetically modified (GM) rice in Haryana.

While releasing a report, 'Rice Industry in Crisis', a Greenpeace spokesperson said here that rice exports had been severely hit 'due to the contamination by GM rice' all over the world, and that India should refrain from such experiments.

Greenpeace and BKU activists said the GM rice was persuading the less-educated farmers in the Indo-Gangetic plains to look only at high returns, at the cost of sustainable agriculture and the environment.

They also alleged that crossing GM rice with traditional rice could begin a chain reaction to 'contaminate' traditional crops.

The BKU Haryana president, Gurman Singh, said his party and Greenpeace had begun contact programmes with sarpanches of 6,000 villages in the state, to educate the farmers about the risk of GM rice cultivation.

Last October, BKU-led farmers set a testfield near Karnal on fire to protest against cultivation of GM rice.

3.Growing pains of India's GM revolution
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, India

'Indian farmers are clamouring for genetically-modified seeds'; so said India's agriculture minister Agit Singh five years ago.

If that indeed was the case then - which is open to dispute - much has changed since.

Genetically-modified varieties of crops such as rice, wheat, and mustard developed at home and abroad have not gone through commercial trials as their developers anticipated.

The only GM crop now being grown commercially might put a shirt on your back but is absolutely guaranteed not to alleviate hunger - it is cotton.

For the moment, India's biotech dream lies wilting on the wastelands of a farmer's degraded backyard.

Hopes razed

For the reason why, look no further than Rampura village in Haryana state.

In October last year, local farmers and activists from the Bhartiya Khisan Union (BKU) razed fields of experimental GM rice plants to the ground.

The company behind the trials was Mahyco, a close ally of the multinational Monsanto; the fields they hired belonged to Paramjit Singh.

'They (Mahyco) came to me and said 'we're going to trial a hybrid seed,' he recounts. 'They said 'if you can provide two acres of land, we can pay you 30,000 rupees (GBP350, $680) and you also provide the irrigation'; they mentioned hybrid seed, not GM,' he says.

standout quote: 'Let's be very clear; no-one is interested in eradicating hunger' - Devinder Sharma, Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security

How the local community and the BKU discovered these were GM plants is not entirely clear; but discover they did, and the fields went up in smoke.

Paramjit Singh admits he knew nothing about genetic modification before the BKU officials came along; but his opinion is now clear.

'GM technology is bad, so I had no problem with the idea of burning the field,' he says. 'It's not good for the farm, for the environment, for human life; I'm happy to see it burn.'

Near-identical scenes were played out last year in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Mahyco says it did not mislead farmers and also denies it broke biosafety rules, another allegation from farmers' unions.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of these individual cases, two things are clear; activists are beating biotech companies and the government in the public relations game, and farmers are voting with their matches.

'No hunger'

Fuelled by the pyres in Haryana and Tamil Nadu, campaigners led by Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security won a Supreme Court decision suspending commercial trials of GM crops.

Mr Sharma insists that the drive for biotechnology has absolutely nothing to do with a desire to solve India's hunger problems.

'About 320 million people go to bed hungry in India each night; not because there is no food, but because they cannot buy that food,' he says.

'Between 2001 and 2003, India had a record grain surplus of wheat and rice amounting to 65 million tonnes.

'If you could have stacked the bags of grain one on top of another there would be enough bags to walk to the Moon and back; that was the quantity of food lying in India, and yet 320 million people went hungry.

'So let's be very clear; no-one is interested in eradicating hunger.'

And with suspicion of genetic modification running high in certain quarters, another of India's prominent activists, Vandana Shiva, is promoting a radically different approach to increasing yields and providing essential nutrition; organic farming.

Farmers' knowledge

'Our surveys show that on average, with biodiverse organic farming, farmers can get double the yield without spending money on untested seeds and toxic chemicals,' she says.

'Consumers get a quality product; and contrary to the myth propagated by the genetic engineering lobby that you need to destroy biodiversity and monopolise seed in order to get more food produced, we are able, through farmers' own seeds and farmers' own knowledge combined with scientific research, to grow more food, remove hunger and remove poverty without putting the environment at risk.'

Dr Shiva's organisation Navdanya publishes guides and advice, gives support to experimental farms, and sells what are by Indian standards expensive organic vegetables to Delhi's burgeoning middle classes.

How relevant her arguments are to the less affluent parts of India is open to question; but they do not appear to be making a dent in the government's commitment to high-tech agriculture.

'Technology-based agriculture is the solution,' maintains SR Rao, scientific advisor to the government's Department of Biotechnology.

'Whether it is GM technology, marker-assisted breeding, whether it is a nanobiosensor to detect water residues - all are required. People think that we are talking of GM as though it is the solution; it is one of the solutions.'

Changing times

As in other parts of the world, no-one making plans for agriculture in India can ignore what computer models of climate change are predicting about the future.

One recent study forecast that rising temperatures and diminishing rainfall would shrink South Asia's wheat-growing area by half by the middle of the century.

Professor P Pardha Saradhi is perhaps the country's leading plant biotechnologist. His research at Delhi University now concentrates on using genetic modification to make plants more adaptable, more capable of survival in a potentially warmer and dryer future.

'What we are seeing is unexpected changes in the environment; sometimes we have high temperatures, sometimes temperatures suddenly go down,' he says.

'Last year, in the case of chick peas, there has been severe damage and the yield went down to about 25% to 30% (of normal).

'So we want to make genotypes of crop plants to withstand any kind of environmental situation, and we're trying to take genes from some of the wild relatives of crop plants and introduce them into crop plants in order that at least we will have good productivity.'

If his research is successful and the testing moratorium is lifted - which seems unlikely in the short term, given the ongoing wrangles between biotech supporters and anti-GM campaigners over the composition of the government's regulatory panel - it would still be years before Professor Saradhi's creations could be used.

Farming culture

'You have a lot of uncertainties in the basic research stage, and that takes maybe three to five years,' observes SR Rao.

'Then you enter into regulatory field trials, which takes again maybe three to four years, and then you have to do performance trials; it's a big process of product development.'

Dr Rao believes that pro-biotech forces ought to be planning something equally serious on the social front.

And perhaps if the government and the biotech companies could develop crops which people wanted to grow, if they could repair the distrust which has mushroomed between farmers and themselves, if they could involve rural communities in the development of new varieties, former minister Singh could see his biotech vision come into fruit.

Because even if Devinder Sharma is right and there is no political will to eradicate hunger, Indian agriculture still has to find ways to feed a growing population in the face of climatic change and potential water shortages; these arguments, carefully made, could yet win over a reluctant rural population.

'Agriculture is not a business in India, agriculture is the culture of the Indian people,' says Yudivir Singh, regional organiser of the flame-wielding BKU in Haryana.

'We are not against technology, we want more crops, we want more production, this is a necessity; but not like this.'

[email protected]

4.IDRC to conduct study on GM crops
Financial Express, February 8 2007

NEW DELHI, FEB 7: The Canada-based International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in collaboration with the Gene Campaign has launched a research study on the attitudes and perceptions towards genetically modified (GM) crops and foods in India.

The study, launched on Wednesday, is slated to be completed within 30 months.

IDRC has undertaken a similar study in China relating to the agri-biotechnology policy.

The IDRC regional director for Asia, Stephen Megurk said, 'Ten years of experiences of Bt cotton cultivation in China has brought to the fore new generation of technical problems, including pest-ecology problems. There has been a significant increase in use of pesticides in some areas. We feel that the problems will be similar in India.' IDRC is a non-profit independent think tank. It also receives aid from the Canadian government. Gene Campaign, which is slated to undertake the study in India, has already produced a documentary film on Bt cotton cultivation in the suicide-prone Vidarbha district.

'Our study will aim at involving all stakeholders. The study will be divided into 10 stages and aim at identifying the root of the problem and suggest appropriate remedies,' said Suman Sahai, Gene Campaign, convener.
5.Controversy surrounds Bt cotton
Uma Sudhir
NDTV, February 4 2007

(Hyderabad): A study commissioned across five cotton-growing states by the All-India Crop Biotechnology Association has claimed that farmers are satisfied with Bt cotton because it gives higher returns.

It also added that over 80 per cent of them would recommend Bt cotton to other farmers. And that distress among Bt cotton farmers is due to other reasons.

'The reasons for distress include financial imprudence of the farmer, sudden floods and improper irrigation facilities,' said Vivek Khattar, Associate Vice President, IMRB.

Despite controversy around the genetically modified crop, area under Bt cotton has been increasing from about six per cent of total cotton crop area in 2004-2005 to 39 per cent this year.

'There is aggressive marketing adopted by the Bt cotton companies. It is driven by decisions pushed by other farmers and pesticide dealers and so on,'' said Kavita Kurungati, Researcher, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

A study published in the February issue of Current Anthropology also says market share of Bt cotton seeds rose from 12 per cent to 62 per cent in Warangal between 2003 and 2005, not because farmers chose it based on performance but because they were influenced by other factors.
6.Golden rice
BBC World, January 29 2007

The fight over genetically modified food has largely been waged in the West. When corporate giants like Monsanto introduced new types of corn and soybeans to resist pests, and to increase profits, consumers protested… particularly in Europe. In Asia, concerns over genetically-modified food are starting to appear. But this time the target isn't a multi-national corporation, but a non-profit institution that wants to help the poor. The World's Technology Correspondent, Jason Margolis travelled to the Philippines and filed this report.

Listen to the report

[BBC REPORTER: Jason Margolis]
Margolis: The International Rice Research Institute is housed in a cluster of modest two and three story buildings, about a two-hour drive from Manila. It looks like a small college, except the buildings are surrounded by rice paddies. The tall stalks of rice sway in a mild breeze.

International Rice Research Institute

Margolis: Since 1960, thousands of scientists from around the world have worked here. They've developed new varieties of rice and new ways of growing it. And they’ve made many breakthroughs. Research here spurred Asia’s Green Revolution that helped feed a swelling, and increasingly hungry population.

Today, this institute wants to make food not only more available, but more nutritious. Inside a highly secure, locked greenhouse, scientists are growing rows and rows of a new variety of rice that they believe could make millions of people healthier. Parminder Virk is a senior scientist at the Institute. He holds several grains of the new rice. It’s appropriately called, Golden Rice.

Virk: 'I have here the polished rice as you would buy in the supermarket. One is the golden rice and one is the normal rice. Normal rice, as you see is white in color, while the Golden Rice, it appears yellow, or deep yellow in color, depending on the content of Beta-Carotine it has.'

Dr. Parminder Virk, a senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute

Margolis: Scientists engineered this rice to contain Beta-Carotine; that’s a nutrient that the body turns into vitamin A. Normal rice provides no Vitamin A. So, scientists hope this new golden rice can help an estimated 125 million children worldwide who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. The ailment can cause blindness; immune system problems... even death.

Golden Rice represents a powerful new approach to nutrition. In the developed world, if we need more nutrients, it's simple: We can take a vitamin to 'fortifiy' our diet.

Parminder Virk says for the developing world, a better option is creating crops that are inherently more nutritious. Scientists call these crops 'bio-fortified.'

Virk: 'Because rice is consumed quite a lot, for example, in Bangladesh, a normal adult eats about 400 to 500 grams of rough rice every day. So if you look at those sort of numbers, and even if you add a little bit of Vitamin A in the rice, that’s going to go a long way in terms of solving the problem. The other thing is the biofortified strategy is a long-term sustainable strategy. Once you put it into the crop, it’s there forever.'

Margolis: Scientists have been working on golden rice for seven years. They expect it to be commercially available by 2010. Many farmers and politicians in Asia are eager for that day to come.

Margolis: But there's a brewing controversy around it, as well. Golden rice was created using modern genetic engineering techniques. Scientists took genes from corn and daffodils and spliced them into the rice DNA. And that means when golden rice goes on the market, it could be met by the same sort of protests and boycotts that greeted other genetically modified crops.

Already, there've been small protests in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Opponents of Golden Rice promise more in the future.

Devinder Sharma is an author and food policy analyst in New Dehli who opposes genetically modified crops.

Sharma: 'Can't we wait for another 10, 20 years until we are very sure that these crops will not create problems?'

Margolis: He says scientists still don't fully understand what effect bioengineered crops can have on the environment. Furthermore, he argues that genetically-engineered rice won’t help people in his country. He says for them, malnutrition is an economic problem.

Sharma: 'In India, people are sitting in front of these huge stocks of rice, which the government has bought and is surplus rice. They can't afford that rice. If they can’t afford the normal rice, please tell me how will they afford the genetically-modified rice, which is Vitamin A?'

Stalks of golden rice

Margolis: Another critic of golden rice is Sister Aida Velazquez. She's a proponent of sustainable agriculture in the Philippines and is a chemist who used to work at the International Rice Research Institute. Velazquez questions why genetically-altered rice is necessary in the first place?

Velazquez: 'There are many sources of vegetables that have Vitamin A. Usually these vegetables abound in the area. For example we have squash here, which is rich in Vitamin A and there are number of other vegetables, which are the poor man’s diet. Why engineer it in rice?'

Margolis: Scientists at the rice institute agree with this point: They say there's no substitute for a well-balanced diet. But the fact is that many poor people can’t afford those vegetables. Instead, they’re eating rice three times a day.

And as for safety concerns, scientists stress that they take extreme precautions in testing genetically-modified rice. They also point out that rice is self-pollinating, so with a proper distance between paddies, of even a football field, the odds of golden rice contaminating another variety is extremely low.

Phillipe Herve heads the biotechnology lab at the rice institute. He says no nation will be forced to accept golden rice if its people don’t consider the crop safe or desirable.

Herve: 'Each country will decide and make the choice. I think it would be quite insane to have a technology, to have a possible product and just keep it, hide it. I think this is our responsibility to work on those technologies, make these technologies available, and let each country decide.'

Margolis: Those countries may have many decisions to make in the years ahead. The International Rice Research Institute hopes in the next decade to complete work on another genetically modified variety of rice – this one rich in iron. Even further out, the scientists are looking to biofortify rice with another essential nutrient: zinc.

For the World, Iím Jason Margolis, Los Banos, the Philippines.

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