India's second Green Revolution 'orphaning crops for poor'

Posted: 26 May 2005

Author: Keya Acharya

India is on the verge of a second Green Revolution. The first made post-colonial India food self-sufficient. But the second, critics say, is driven by the slogan 'profit rules' and appears to focus on biotechnology and India's export economy, ignoring crops that can feed India's poor.

With pockets of hunger threatening to erode its much-admired success on the farm, India is now eyeing a 'second Green Revolution' in order to feed its growing population.

Women farmers transplanting rice in a trial field. Photo: FAO
Women farmers transplanting rice in a trial field. Photo: FAO
Women farmers transplanting rice in a trial field.Photo: FAO
Food production remains independent India's most spectacular success. From being a famine-endemic nation under British rule, India today is not only food self-sufficient but also has large reserves with which to feed its population of over a billion, though many still cannot afford to buy adequate nutritious food.

Reports of malnutrition as well as some hunger deaths in recent years have led the government to pin its hopes on biotechnology to usher in a Green Revolution similar to the one that put India on the path to self-sufficiency in the 70s.

Disparate views

There is, however, a problem: unlike in the 1970s, when high-yield varieties of seeds, gigantic dams, irrigation projects and pesticides were welcomed uncritically, the attempt to launch a new round of science-led transgenic farming is being met with scepticism by non-governmental campaigners. The debate is marked by a clear polarisation of views: the government and most scientists show only unbridled enthusiasm - echoed by the mainstream media - while protesters complain about a lack of transparency, information and knowledge.

Farmers, particularly poor peasants, remain desperate enough to try anything.

Many environmentalists take a measured view of the first Green Revolution these days, saying the high yields came at a high price: soil salinity from water-logging, pesticide and disease resistance, soil degradation from chemicals and even rural inequalities.

'Suicides are common'

As evidence they point to the distress faced by many farmers in parts of India: having taken out loans to finance the use of expensive chemicals and other inputs, they have been bankrupted by crop failures due to drought, disease and poor soil. Suicides are common and anger on the farm is blamed for the fall of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at general elections this year.

A report by a government-appointed task force headed by Professor M. S. Swaminathan, the agricultural scientist who led the first Green Revolution, says:

"Our agriculture now faces the challenge of having to produce more farm commodities for our growing human and farm animal populations under conditions of diminishing per capita arable land and irrigation water resources, and expanding [environmental] stresses."

To achieve these, it says, India's nearly 110 million rural families - mostly peasant farmers owning up to two hectares of land - will have to be provided with the "best available technologies such as biotechnology and information, space, nuclear, renewable energy, and precision farming technologies and scientific organic farming methods."

Science & Technology Minister Kapil Sibal goes a step further, anointing transgenic research the "most crucial component of Indian agriculture," mindful, no doubt of the Indian Council of Medical Research's (ICMR) estimate that the global market in transgenic plants may grow to six billion dollars by 2005.

Clearly, the Second Green Revolution is being pegged around the new realities of development in the 21st century.

Self-sufficiency is no longer the buzzword. Rather the aim appears to be to position the humble Indian farmer as a player - albeit a small one - in the international trade in agricultural produce so that agriculture can contribute substantially to India's economic growth.

Gene revolution

Private companies, including giant agricultural multinationals, are the new stars on the Indian countryside. But they are also controversial.

Swaminathan, in an article written some years ago, warned: "The Green Revolution has so far helped to keep the rate of growth in food production above the population growth rate. The Green Revolution was, however, the result of public good research, supported by public funds. The emerging gene revolution, by contrast, is spearheaded by proprietary science and can come under monopolistic control."

The challenge was "take the fruits of the gene revolution to the unreached".

Campaigners say this is not happening - indeed, they are worried about the kind of research being undertaken. What is the point, they argue, of conducting genetic research on tomatoes, an expensive fruit, in a country where the basic need is to improve the nutritional content of food grains, which is eaten by the poor. They say the research agenda is being driven by the private sector, for whom profits alone matter - not ending hunger or poverty.

Scientists at government institutions are currently conducing genetic research on 16 food crops: aubergine, banana, black gram, cabbage, cauliflower, groundnut, muskmelon, mustard, pigeon pea, potato, rice, soybean, sugarcane, sunflower, tomato and wheat, alongside two cash crops - cotton and tobacco. The research is aimed at raising productivity and building resistance to pests, disease, salinity, drought and temperature changes.

In addition, private companies have been carrying out their own research.

Poor field trials

NGOs such as the Research Foundation for Science and Gene Campaign say farmers and others are told very little about any of this research. They say the quality of field trials is poor and accuse the regulatory authority, the Genetic Engineering Approval Council (GEAC), of lacking the scientific expertise to deal with complex GM-related issues of environment, health and food security.

In April this year, the government's own ICMR called for an overhaul of the existing regulatory mechanism, citing health and other concerns. An ICMR study, Regulatory Regime for Genetically Modified Foods: the Way Ahead, said: "In a group of rats fed with GM potato damage to immune system and stunted growth was observed and the experiment had generated considerable controversy."

Swaminathan told Panos Features: "It is essential that an autonomous biotechnology regulatory authority, with a high degree of political, public, professional and media credibility be set up urgently."

"We have been trying to engage with the government for a number of years, asking for information on field trial data, bases of approvals and the like, but we face a very strong [information] blockade", adds geneticist Dr Suman Sahai who runs Gene Campaign. Frustrated, she has taken the government to court challenging its rules on the manufacture, use, import, export and storage of GM organisms.

The senior bureaucrat in charge of the Department of Biotechnology, Dr M. K. Bhan, takes a moderate line: "We are changing fast, meeting and co-ordinating more frequently. What I don't see happening overnight is single-window clearance; it's a long process." He claims information on GM issues is readily available.

Away from the laboratories, farmers tend to agree that GM technology is a necessity.

"We will take whatever gives us the best results," says Pakirappa Shivanappa Baikee from Haveri district in Karnataka in southern India. Returns from Bt cotton, he says, have been good: although the seeds were expensive they proved cost-effective in the long run by doing away with the need to buy large amounts of pesticides.

"Previously we suffered from giddiness and burning eyes from frequent spraying," adds his neighbour Kodihalli Nagappa Kodabal. "Now our medical bills have come down."

"There are definite ecological advantages from lower pesticide- and water-usage," says Professor N Nagaraj of the Bangalore-based State University of Agricultural Sciences.

A case for caution

India's best-known development journalist Palgummi Sainath, who writes extensively on the hunger, debt and poverty facing farmers, advocates caution. "Farmers are so desperate they will try anything, not just GM technology, so it's not an informed choice from them. We need to be cautious about GM - we don't know enough yet."

In the capital cities of newly-liberalised India, the stock response from civil servants is that farmers themselves will decide which seeds to use and that the market will dictate which crops will be grown. If the farmer can earn more growing sunflower instead of groundnut, the argument runs, they will do so. And if a villager finds sunflower oil more readily available than the traditional groundnut, they will buy that.

As for the poor, the landless and others on the margins of rural India, the standard bureaucratic response is that the public food distribution system will take care of them.

For some, this is just not good enough.

Dr Jacques Diouf, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation complained in his global State of Agriculture Report for 2003-04: "Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called 'orphan crops' such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and tef that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people."

Sahai warns: "We are creating a proprietary technology, not a public technology."

Trying to plug the gap between the two - to a limited extent - is the India-based ICRISAT (International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics). Its transgenic-enthusiastic scientists are not only experimenting with GM groundnut, chickpea and pigeon pea, they are also making the research public. "We honour the concerns of NGOs," insists the institute's Dr Barry Shapiro. "We are ready to engage with them in a scientific and dispassionate way."

Keya Acharya is an award-winning Indian journalist who writes on environment, population, gender and other development issues.

This feature is published with the kind permission of Panos Relay Features.