Friday, December 28, 2012

Tweaking our food, making us pay?

There have been some interesting developments in the tweaked food department.

Maharashtra has admitted that cotton yield is likely to reduce by nearly 40%. Bt Cotton has allegedly ‘failed’ in more than 4 million hectares of land. A report sent by the state agricultural department to the Centre says that the estimate of the net direct economic loss to cotton farmers in the state will be in the vicinity of Rs 6,000 crore, but that actual losses are much higher because with Bt. Cotton, the cultivation cost also rises.

Naturally, farmers aren’t very happy. According to Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti, about 5 million cotton farmers from Maharashtra want Rs 20,000 per hectare as compensation for the failure of Bt Cotton failure. The question of who should be coughing up the money is an interesting one. One certainly hopes it will not be the government, because that actually just means you and me – the taxpayers.

Some reports also say that a ‘consortium of farmer organizations’ is demanding the right to cultivate GM crops. Some new reports quote S Jaipal Reddy as saying that Andhra Pradesh has actually benefitted from GM crops. And Maharashtra, where such massive losses were reported, has set up a committee headed by a nuclear scientist, Anil Kakodkar, to advise the government on field trials of GM crops. It is interesting that the state already had a committee that included agricultural scientists or academics.

So far, Bt cotton has been the only GM crop allowed in India but private corporations have been lobbying to bring in GM rice, tomato, wheat and so on. Bt Brinal was attempted too, but the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had stopped the release in 2010.

A parliamentary standing panel had also released a report earlier this year where it criticizing Bt cotton and GM food tests. The panel had reportedly been sent 467 memoranda and 14,862 documents, and evidence from 50 organizations.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court does not ban open field trials of genetically modified (GM) food crops even though the TEC (Technical Experts Committee) recommended a ten year moratorium on field trials. The TEC was set up after a petition was filed by Aruna Rodrigues and the NGO Gene Campaign to stop field trials until independent experts have assessed the risk of GM crops’ corrupting traditional seeds.

About a hundred scientists and several farmers groups also wrote to ask the Supreme Court to accept the TEC’s interim report. But then, the committee itself was modified to include a state-appointed person. As it is, India has been crying hoarse about the purity of its exports, after the European Commission suspected genetically modified organisms (GMO) contamination in our Basmati rice.

But the Centre has told the Supreme Court that we need GM food to feed hungry people. “India is unlikely to meet the target of cutting the proportion of hungry people by half if recourse to advanced and safe biotechnology tools are not adopted,” the government affidavit said.

This, despite the fact that the godowns are overflowing and there are farmers clamouring for the state to acquire foods – more than just wheat and rice – to ensure a minimum support price. The Supreme Court had, in fact, asked that the government open its godowns rather than allow citizens to starve. Clearly, the Court is aware that overflowing godowns exist. Perhaps, the government could look at those? 

In any case, I wish the government would decide who pays compensation to farmers if GM crops fail, or they contaminate non-modified crops, or if they damage our health. I’m hoping it will not be me.
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