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Notwithstanding the resounding failure of its Bt cotton, Monsanto has begun to introduce another genetically modified (gm) crop into India, its proprietary maize variety called Roundup Ready corn. The government's Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation has given permission for Monsanto to bring in breeding material and start work. It clearly appears the government has no coherent policy for gm crops. Transgenic crops are being introduced whimsically.
Roundup Ready corn is a herbicide-tolerant maize variety which offers no advantages to the Indian farmer with respect to yield, protection against disease, an ability to tolerate saline soils, drought tolerance and improved grain quality (all usually the reasons new varieties are introduced). The maize will tolerate the herbicide Roundup, which will kill weeds in the field. So after spraying Roundup in the field, the Roundup Ready variety will be the only vegetation left standing. Everything else will die.
Roundup is a herbicide that also belongs to Monsanto, which until recently held the patent on it. This means that the farmer must go in for a package: Roundup Ready corn and matching herbicide Roundup. Herbicide tolerance is obviously a clever strategy. It allows Monsanto to make a double killing, on the seed and then on the herbicide. Monsanto has succeeded in promoting its herbicide-tolerant crops to the extent that globally, herbicide tolerance is the single most prevalent trait in gm crop cultivation (in 2002, of the total gm crop acreage, over 80 per cent was devoted to it).
Herbicide tolerance as a trait in crops suits industrial countries, where landholdings run into a few thousand acres and where there exists practically no labour for farm operations. With just two to five per cent of the population in farming, agriculture is largely mechanised. The preferred way to kill weeds is aerial spraying, a wasteful and ecologically destructive method. The wastefulness makes it expensive, but in the oecd countries -- where agriculture subsidies exceed one billion dollars a day -- cost is hardly an issue! In countries like the us and Canada, agricultural fields are large monocultural tracts with little natural vegetation around. Thus aerial spraying would essentially spew herbicide on the planted area. Natural vegetation would not be affected on the same scale as in a developing country.
In developing countries, agricultural holdings are small and densely packed. Fields with different crops neighbour one another, and are set within, or border, natural ecosystems with natural biodiversity. So, spraying the Roundup herbicide on a patch growing Roundup Ready would affect neighboring crops and natural vegetation, and kill them. What kind of a leap in gm technology -- undesirable for farmers and biodiversity alike -- is this?
In India or other developing countries, weeding is a source of many benefits to the rural community. A weed is only a plant that is growing at the wrong place. It is not a useless plant. Weeding provides wages to agricultural labour, usually landless farmers. In addition, weeding is mostly done by women, providing them a direct, often sole, income source. Using the Roundup Ready approach will kill this income off. So in India, rather than the chemical route of herbicide-tolerant plants and the double deal for the proprietary company, the socio-economic interest of the community lies in manual weeding.
More importantly, rural households consume all the plants collected as weeds. Many of these are leafy greens, like amaranth (the same plant that contributes the protein gene in efforts to make a protein-rich gm potato), a rich source of vitamins and minerals. This highly nutritious source of food is available for free and goes into the cooking pot of poor rural families. What the family does not consume serves as fodder for the livestock a family maintains as an additional source of income.
Thus, the last thing rural India needs is Roundup Ready, or any other herbicide tolerant crop. If gm technology is to be used in India, it should be directed at the real needs of Indian farmers, on crops like legumes, oilseeds and fodder and traits like drought- and salinity-tolerance.
Suman Sahai is president of Delhi-based Gene Campaign