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Sustainable Agriculture: A World Beyond GM Crops
Devinder Sharma

Indian scientists do not promote sustainable technologies because they are disconnected from the farming community.

There was a stunned silence. For a few minutes they didn’t know how to react. They stared blankly at me, not many of them believing my words. It looked as if the biotechnologists and scientists who do not fail to swear in the name of genetically modified (GM) crops at the drop of a hat were for a change caught on the wrong foot. They had in fact never heard of it.

Growing crops without the use of GM seeds and chemical pesticides and yet getting a bountiful harvest is something agricultural scientists have never been taught to believe. When I told a recently concluded National Summit on GM crops, organised at the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology at Thiruvanthapuram, Kerala, that if there is an alternative and sustainable way of reaping a plentiful harvest, wherein millions of small farmers cultivate a large number of crops without GM crops and chemical pesticides, they accused me of romanticising subsistence agriculture.

When told that millions of farmers in almost all the districts of Andhra Pradesh, in an area extending to 7 million hectares, were actually following sustainable farming systems that automatically takes control of dreaded insect pests and diseases, and does not result in any productivity fall, they began to see the point I was trying to make.  

And when I said that the area under non-pesticides management (NPM) is likely to go up to 12 million hectares this year, and reach a staggering 25 million hectares in a couple of years from now, the resistance they were trying to offer broke down.

Dr P Ananda Kumar, director at the Plant Biotechnology Centre, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, was the first to break the ice. He said that if what I had narrated was correct he was willing to forgo GM crop research and work along with these farmers. Saying that “if a patient is healthy, there is no need for any medication”, Dr T M Manjunath, formerly director of research with the seed multinational Monsanto, which is on the forefront of introducing GM crops, also agreed. Several other scientists also came forward to promote such healthy farming systems.

What becomes abundantly clear is that those who talk of the immense potential of GM crops are not even aware that the same objectives are being achieved without harming the environment and playing havoc with human, animal and plant health. If all what the GM crops assure by way of diseases and pest control (as of now) can be insured by low-external input sustainable agricultural practices (LEISA) that is being practiced by several million farmers not only in AP but throughout the country, why should scientists not accept it as an economically viable and environmentally sustainable option?

Technology does not merely come as a branded product. If Monsanto’s Bt-cotton is a technology, so are the time-tested traditional technologies that farmers have perfected over the years. Why cannot scientists promote safe, reliable, sustainable and healthy technologies?

Just because these traditional technologies do not come with project funding and foreign travel does not mean that these have to be ignored. Already the technologies pioneered by the green revolution have poisoned the land, the underground water and contaminated the environment to such unsustainable levels that they are difficult to resurrect. How much more does modern science intends to pollute the environment and the human body?

It is in this context that the ongoing effort to seek stake-holders’ approval for a single-window clearance for GM crops, in the form of a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA), assumes significance. The entire exercise is being conducted by the Biotechnology Consortium, which is an association of the biotechnology industry. The invitees for these stake-holders dialogue are mainly from the industry and from amongst the plant biotechnologists. For the sake of justifying diverse opinion, a few NGOs and farmers are invited.

There is no need to conduct such stake-holder dialogues when the outcome of the entire exercise is known. Already the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex body for approving and regulating GM crops, is over-laden with pro-biotechnology scientists that the entire exercise has turned into a farce. The GEAC is in fact a rubber stamp for the biotechnology industry. The proposed NBRA is essentially “of the biotechnology industry, by the biotechnology industry and for the biotechnology industry.”

Isn’t it strange that while there is so much excitement and interest among the scientific community in India to provide a single-window clearance to one of the riskiest technologies that mankind has ever evolved, the US – the Mecca for GM crops – has set up three regulatory bodies?

Even then, there are questions being asked about the credibility of the US regulatory process. Why does India on the other hand want to hasten the process of introduction of GM crops and foods at a time when the majority world is questioning its safety?

The fundamental question still remains. Why don’t Indian scientists promote sustainable technologies and ecologically viable farming systems instead? The answer is simple. Over the years, they have disconnected themselves from the farming community.

They are unaware of a silent revolution that is sweeping the country. If only the science and technology minister, Kapil Sibal, were to promote the Andhra Pradesh model of NPM cultivation instead of blindly pushing for GM crops, India could easily turn into a global model for sustainable agriculture and healthy living.