India was once a prosperous nation, abounding in its cultural heritage and moral values. But I am more interested in the ‘prosperous’ part! Being a prosperous nation, she not only attracted traders from various parts of the world but also invaders who looted her riches. History shows that we have been plagued by invaders throughout the time. However, they were not able to loot one thing – Land. The British did exploit our natural resources, but the land remained. They couldn’t take it away. India is blessed with fertile lands capable of feeding billions. Unfortunately, at present India is facing a serious food crisis, amidst a raging debate on Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Let’s delve a little deeper and investigate.

A major part of India’s disability to feed its population stems from the mismanagement of the agricultural system during the colonial rule in the 18th century. The partition made matters worse. The areas that were well irrigated were lost during the partition. India was left with more population but more importantly less food production capacity.

After gaining Independence, the educated middle class increasingly gravitated to the idea that ‘science and technology’ alone is the answer to India’s poverty. In the 1960’s the government started importing food from the Americans under their ‘Food for Peace’ program, failing to understand the need to develop India’s ancient cultivation methods. Obviously the domestic food production was way too short to meet the demand, especially when some of the major food producing northern states were reeling under famine. The Indian government had misplaced its priorities by focusing on industrialization, rather than achieve self sufficiency in food production.

Timely intervention by private philanthropists saw successful implementation of new agricultural practices in select farming regions, in the country. The Indian government was finally goaded into bringing about “The Green Revolution”. It consisted of cultivating high yielding varieties of crops that required high use of fertilizers. However, the Indian government was hasty in adopting this technology without proper planning. Seeds of High Yielding Varieties (HYV) that were developed for a different geographical region were imported in large quantities. These varieties required very high nitrogen content in the soil to grow and the use of large amounts of fertilizers became necessary. The HYV’s lacked in-built local resistance (to flood, drought, disease, pest and frost) and hence pesticides had to be used. In order to provide for all this to the peasants, at an affordable price, the government subsidized fertilizers and to some extent the pesticides too. Taking advantage of the Indian government subsidies, number of international and local fertilizer and pesticide manufacturing companies sprung up in India.

The overuse of fertilizers eroded the natural soil fertility. Un-abated use of pesticides resulted in the pests acquiring resistance to it. The results are telling. India has the lowest yield per hectare in Asia for certain food crops. Farmers are resorting to the costlier and complex pesticides to overcome the resistance. This raises the health hazard not only to the consumers of such food crops, but also to the local fauna. The subsidies are a huge burden on the Indian financial resources and many companies are resorting to fudging records to rake in the moolah.

In the 90’s, the stage was ripe for multinational seed companies to introduce their patented, genetically altered plant varieties as the solution to India’s fast becoming nightmare. They started with cash crops, more specifically cotton. If that gets accepted and successful, it would then lay a very strong platform to introduce genetically modified food crops. However, it took quite sometime for the Bt cotton to be approved by the regulatory authority amidst a raging storm over ‘terminator’ technology. The volume and nature of protests against GM Crops sent a strong message across to the multinational companies, that getting established in the Indian market would be anything but cakewalk.

What the multinational companies failed to gauge is that there was a lot at stake. The GM crops would require no pesticides, less fertilizers (when compared to the HYV’s). Hence, the fertilizer companies and the pesticide companies would lose out as the government would no longer subsidize them. This would mean that there is no longer a level playing field. Competition would result in cut-throat pricing when compared to the luxury of fixed government subsidies. However, having the advantage of entrenching themselves in the country for decades before the arrival of the new upstarts (read multinational seed companies), the fertilizer and the pesticide lobby played dirty. On one hand, they lobbied the government to withhold granting permits to the upstarts; on the other hand they spread false rumors about the technology among the un-educated farmers. However, they did not count on nationalists, anti-globalization groups, environment protection groups and several more joining hands to protest against GM crops. It was certainly a blessing in disguise and it enabled the fertilizer and pesticide lobby to work behind the scenes. They have been quite successful as they have not been exposed yet!

The GM crops not without issues either. There is a possibility that they can transfer the foreign gene to the native flora around the fields where they are grown, a phenomenon called gene pool contamination. Can they be safely used as fodder? What are the effects of consuming the meat and other products from animals that feed on such fodder? In the case of GM food crops, what are the effects when consumed by humans, both in the short and the long term? Is it safe for multiple generations of human beings to feed on such crops? The scientific community still feels that there is a need for a more in-depth study to be conducted before the above mentioned fears can be allayed.

The GM Crops were designed for the developed countries like America where the farms are huge and mechanized. It becomes futile to expect the GM crops (those that have been introduced so far in our country) to deliver similar benefits in a country like India, where the lands are highly fragmented and would cause many people (like farm laborers who weed) to lose their livelihoods.

However, GM crops have the potential in them to do wonders for India. In fact, they have the potential to be the proponents of a second “Green Revolution” in India. India can make do with crops that survive drought and saline conditions. They can be further enhanced with vitamins, proteins and other essential nutrients which would help in combating malnourishment. Even though it is far fetched right now, Edible Vaccines makes a lot of sense in a country like India!

Sources:

Confronting Agrarian Crisis: Historical Food Insecurity, the Indian State, and the Green Revolution By Joseph A. Arena

Genetically Modified Crops: Issues For India By Dr. Suman Sahai

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