FIRST HAND REPORT GM crops sprout in an Indian village

Posted: 4 October 2007

Aarkavaadi is a typical Indian village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. It has a population of 1870, with women very much outnumbering the men. The main source of livelyhood is farming of rice, groundnuts, tapioca and sugarcane. But now some farmers are being approached to grow geneticaly modified cotton. Natasha Garyali sent this personal report from Aarkavaadi.

"This is our first time", said Murgeshan pointing towards a small area where round cotton balls could be seen. In the same breath he adds, "they are paying us to grow it ". Murgeshan is talking about 'Rasi', a company that is supplying Genetically Modified (GM) cottonseeds to the farmers of Aarkavaadi. The officials from 'Rasi' visited the village few months back and supplied the farmers with the GM seeds and the initial capital needed. Some of the villagers have taken up cotton cultivation. though, at present, only one and half acres of the land in the village is under cotton cultivation.

Chennandurai, is another farmer who has grown cotton on about a third of an acre. He is expecting a yield of about 3 to 4 quintals of cotton. The seeds cost about Rs 18500 (£222) per quintal 100 kg). These seeds have to be taken back to the Rasi seed company in Salem, since the villagers have no idea on cotton cultivation and separation of cotton from seeds. As the GM seeds are sterile, the farmers will be forced to go back again to the company for the seeds every year. The impact on the land due to continued cotton cultivation is not questioned by the seed companmy. Another worry the farmers have is the rains, which might spoil the whole crop. Who will pay for their losses then?

Driven into debt

Whether to use the GM seeds or not has been hotly debated around the world, but in this remote village nobody would ever raise a finger. Well-known activist and journalist, Vandana Shiva, says, "farmers worldwide are turning to genetically modified seeds to increase their crop output and in the process are destroying traditional crops and methods of organic farming". Some farmers have also been driven into steep debt buying expensive seeds. The seeds must be bought anew every year since they cannot be replanted like organic seeds. They also have to invest in costly irrigation systems and pesticides to accommodate the new system that, she says, often wipes out their savings. She also relates this to the farmer suicides in India and the debt they run into. She argues that bioengineered crops may work in the short term, but they cannot be sustained because they are costly and deprive the soil of moisture and nutrients. In April 2004, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in India approved another Bt cotton variety of Rasi Seed Company for the central and southern regions. There were reports that the go ahead came without adequate scientific testing. In agriculture research, it is mandatory to hold crop field trails for at least three years before any commercial approval. The approval for Bt cotton from Rasi Seeds Company, has come after just one year of field trials. Moreover the GEAC, had in 2003, allowed field-testing for Rasi seeds in an area of 100,000 acres, which seemed unprecedented considering that even under the All India Crops Research Projects of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), field experiments are not conducted in such a large area. By allowing such huge field trials, the GEAC had practically given them a license for commercial cultivation.

"While the rest of the world is stopping GM research because of public rejection of the genetically engineered food, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research merrily continues to encourage agricultural exports thereby jeopardizing the future of domestic farming.But then, who cares for the farmers as long as GM research ensures the livelihood security for a few thousand agricultural scientists" says Devinder Sharma who chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security.

Natasha Garyali has made a study of life in Aarkavaadi and reports on South Asia media for Asia Media, a University of South California (UCLA) publication.

Farmers protest

To publicize the demands of thousands of Vidarbha cotton farmers who have committed suicide, a unique protest rally by more than 10,000 cotton farmers from the Vidarbha regionof Maharasthra was held this week in honour of Mahatma Gandhi, who was born on October 2, 1869.

The rally kicked off a national highway blockade of non-violent resistance that will start on October 11, 2007 and last indefinitely to press the main demand of the Vidarbha cotton growers - to obtain higher prices for their cotton.

Full story from the Environment News Service (ENS) can be seen here