Mumbai: Lalit Bahale, 58, has about 60 acres of farmland in Akoli Jahangir village in Vidarbha’s cotton-growing Akola district. But Bahale hasn’t grown cotton in years as he says it involves spraying large amounts of pesticides. He largely grows bananas, lemons and oranges.
On Monday, Bahale changed that.
The 58-year-old and several other farmers planted Herbicide Tolerant (HT) cotton seeds, which are banned in India, on two acres of his land as a protest against the embargo on Genetically Modified (GM) seeds in India.
“Today’s plantation of HT cotton is mainly to register my protest against the government for capping this technology,” Bahale told ThePrint. “We don’t want any subsidies or loan waivers, just give us our independence.”
The HT seeds are genetically modified to tolerate some specific herbicides. So even as herbicides kill the surrounding weeds, they leave the cultivated crop intact. Farmers have used such unapproved herbicide-tolerant seeds to save expenditure on manual labour for weeding.
“Any excessive government control results in anti-social elements,” Bahale told ThePrint. “The Gold Control Act created the likes of Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim. The same thing is happening with GM seeds. In the last two-three years, HT cotton sowing has surged but the farmer doesn’t know what variety the seed is or the technology used. Sometimes it works, but when it doesn’t, technology gets a bad name.”
Bahale is a farmer leader with the Shetkari Sanghatana, an organisation founded by former Rajya Sabha member and farmer leader Sharad Joshi, which has always been in favour of GM technology.
The organisation has been gathering farmers’ support for GM technology in agriculture by holding workshops and discussions on the technology across Maharashtra and reaching out to farmers for solidarity through social media forwards.
Workshops and discussions on GM technology for farmers
Even as Bahale was planting the HT cotton seeds, leaders of the Shetkari Sanghatana have been holding discussions on various aspects of the GM technology from 9 am at Akot taluka.
The sessions comprised talks and discussions on what GM technology is, why some people are opposed to it, what different environmentalists and scientists have to say about it and attempt to help farmers reach the right decision with regard to the crop.
Ajit Narde, a Shetkari Sanghatana leader, told ThePrint that the organisation is willing to support more farmers who plant the banned crops.
“Bahale raised the call and a number of farmers have decided to support it,” Narde said. “We are telling farmers that we are willing to support anyone who wants to openly plant GM seeds and raise awareness that farmers need technology.”
Narde added that so far, the protesting farmers haven’t been stopped by law enforcement agencies. “We just got a call from the local talathi (a person who works in the tehsildar) asking us exactly what we were planning to do on Monday,” he said.
There is ample opposition to introducing GM food in India with activists, environmentalists and politicians raising fears of it adversely affecting food safety and biodiversity in the country.
On the other hand, its proponents have been stressing on the increased yield, lower use of pesticides and thus lower production cost for farmers as advantages of having GM technology.
Currently, cotton is the only GM crop that the government has allowed to be sold in India. There were attempts to commercially release Bt Brinjal, a GM variety of the vegetable, but former environment minister Jairam Ramesh imposed a temporary moratorium on it.
Bahale said he wanted to plant the prohibited GM Brinjal seeds too as part of his protest Monday, but added that it was tough to procure them on time.
The Shetkari Sanghanata’s protest comes less than a month after the government uprooted half an acre of Bt Brinjal illegally planted by a Haryana farmer.
Members of the Shetkari Sanghatana, including Bahale, had visited the Haryana farmer after the incident and met the district government authorities concerned who had ordered the crop to be uprooted.
Protest backed by scientists
The protest is backed by a number of scientists, agricultural researchers, and biotechnologists.
Several scientists told ThePrint that a common concern is that the toxins the Bt plants produce to fight pests are harmful to humans and the environment. The Bt crops work by the use of Bt toxins. These are found in the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and affect larvae of several insects and worms. The genetic code for producing this toxin is programmed into the cotton or brinjal, which then uses it to protect itself from the pests.
“The myth that Bt is poisonous needs to go,” said T.M. Manjunath, an agricultural entomologist who has been involved with Bt cotton from its inception in India. “Bt is not a poison to humans or mammals or any other animals other than the group of pests which includes bollworm. It was specifically designed to be that way.”
Manjunath is a former director of Monsanto, which owns the patent to Bt Cotton.
The moratorium on Bt Brinjal cited the need for more tests to ensure increased assurance of safety.
The scientists, however, contend that safety has already been established through studies. Indeed, Bangladesh has been commercially cultivating and consuming Bt Brinjal.
“If it’s human tests that are needed, we just have to look at Bangladesh, where they’ve been safely consuming Bt Brinjal for years now,” said Jagadish Mittur, a biotechnologist and consultant. Mittur is also a former director of Monsanto, Bengaluru.
A new, oft-cited concern that crops up is the purported increase in the use of fertiliser for Bt cotton. But according to the scientists, it’s not the Bt aspect of the plant that’s contributing to it.
“There hasn’t been enough conclusive evidence to say that fertiliser or water usage has increased,” explained Bhagirath Chaudhary, who runs South Asia Biotechnology Centre, New Delhi. “But if it has, it is not because of the genetic engineering itself but because of hybridisation.”
The Bt cotton available in India is a hybrid: Scores of farmers emasculate a line of cotton by removing the male pollen by hand and then pollinating it with the other line. The resulting hybrid is then inserted with the Bt protein.
“Hybrids are very responsive to fertilisers and farmers know it,” said Chaudhury. “Even when there is no Bt involved and hybridisation takes place, it is accepted practice to add fertiliser as it highly increases yields.”
Food safety and biodiversity concerns are unfounded, stressed Mittur, adding that decreased use of pesticide by Bt crops actually decreases the loss of other insects and life, lowering the loss of biodiversity. He added that the low amount of pesticide use also increases food safety.
Activist Vandana Shiva writes to PM over the violation
Environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate, Vandana Shiva, has now written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Health and Family Welfare Minister Harsh Vardhan and Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar urging them to take action against those violating the GM crop ban.
“Monsanto is not Gandhi and crimes against nature and society are not a satyagraha,” she said in a press release.
“Bt crops such as Bt Cotton and Bt Brinjal have a gene for producing a toxin inserted in the genome of the plant, thus producing the toxin in every cell all the time,” she has added. “Our research has shown that Bt Cotton is affecting soil organisms and destroying the soil food web. Since Bt is a toxin which the plant produces in every cell it is affecting biodiversity, soil health and pollinators.”
- The copy has been updated to correctly reflect the number of farmers and to incorporate Vandana Shiva’s letter.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.