EDITORIAL: Crops of wrath – Why are farmers turning rebels

Friday, Jun 21, 2019


Thousands of farmers in Maharashtra's Akola and Jalna districts last week decided to sow unapproved genetically modified Bt brinjal and Herbicide Tolerant cotton in their fields.


One of them was arrested this week for possession of HT cotton seeds under the Environment Protection Act. The law provides for a jail term of up to five years and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees for growing unapproved genetically-modified crops.


Why are the farmers, then, willing to face jail time to grow these crops? This is the question the government should be pondering over instead of arresting the farmers or razing their fields.


India allowed cultivation of genetically modified Bt cotton in 2002, but has since been indecisive about approving more such crops, especially food crops.


In 2010, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh announced a temporary moratorium on commercial release of genetically modified Bt brinjal citing lack of independent studies on its impact on health and environment.


Nine years later, the moratorium still stands, but no large-scale independent toxicity or multigenerational study has tested the long-term efficacy of Bt brinjal.


Farmers opt for genetically-modified crops as they offer a cheaper, less labour-intensive and more effective way of dealing with pests, ensuring better yields and returns.


The government can look at meeting these objectives, even without the help of genetic modification, by strengthening public farm research bodies and creating a conducive environment for private investment in the sector.


Unfortunately, it is failing on both these counts.


The government's budgetary outlay on farm education and research was only 79.5 bln rupees in 2018-19 (Apr-Mar), less than 6% of its total spending on the agriculture sector. In a letter to prime minister earlier this year, former farm minister Sharad Pawar pointed out that of the 103 research institutes under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, 63 were without a regular director for over three years.


This is a clear indication of the government's apathy towards public-funded farm research.


Its attitude towards private research is even worse. Over the past couple of years, the government has capped the royalty paid by domestic seed companies to Monsanto for its proprietary Bt cotton technology and reduced the price of Bt cotton seeds, purportedly to protect the farmer.


After this, Monsanto decided not to introduce its latest technology to combat bollworm–HT cotton–in India.


The loser in this case was clearly the farmer. The two Bt cotton variants released earlier in India are losing their efficacy and with Monsanto withholding release of HT cotton, it is no surprise that farmers have illegally planted the variant over 15% of the cotton area, even though its seeds are 60-70% costlier than Bt cotton.


India's contentious laws on plant patents and contract farming that came to the fore recently when Pepsico India threatened to sue farmers in Gujarat for cultivating its registered FC5 potato variety, too, are preventing global companies from introducing improved seeds in India.


The government is running behind time to meet its goal of doubling farmers' income by 2022, and may well miss the deadline if it fails to enable technologies that increase productivity or reduce farming costs.  End


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