Bt Cotton imbroglio

A failure of our scientific preparedness. Where are our scientists?

Published: Friday 30 November 2001

The entire transgenic cotton episode has exposed the weak underbelly of the government. Dragging its feet on a crucial issue has now landed the authorities in an inextricable mess. And has brought the world crashing around the poor farmers. It simply shows that not only can the powers that be not take decisions but are unwilling to take them. With the result people end up paying for this laggard attitude.

Farmers will grow crops and will look for the best means to reap the most. The genetically modified (gm) crops -- in this case cotton -- is profitable as it cuts pesticide use substantially and thus reduces input costs. Pesticide use is, in particular, a crisis area in cotton farms. We have seen deaths of farmers in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka because of spurious pesticides leading to crop failure. Moreover, they have to bear huge debts for inputs. So, whose fault is it anyway if the cotton farmers in Gujarat chose to grow crops resistant to bollworms -- the farmers, the seed companies or a government that chose to keep at abeyance decisions over a crucial issue like gm crops?

And now, the problem is no longer limited to Gujarat alone. Latest reports say gm cotton may have been grown in Andhra Pradesh too. Moreover, how on earth does the government expect to rake in all the gm cotton and destroy them?

The issue of gm crops has not appeared overnight. Bt cotton is not new. It has been grown across the us, China and other nations like Australia, Mexico, Argentina. Why have we not done our research till now. The last time the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (geac) met, the reason it could not take a decision was because the "research" was faulty and incomplete. This is the height of incompetence. In any case, why is research on such a crucial public health issue being conducted by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (mahyco), a commercial undertaking, albeit with so called public sector funding. Why is it that the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (icar) is not being directed to conduct trials, and to conduct them in time. We boast about having one of the largest scientific humanpower in the world. But they all seem to be missing every time there is a scientific policy decision to be taken. There are critical issues in gmos that cannot be ignored. We have to have a very strong legislation and monitoring system in place. The seed packets sold by any company, whether Indian or multinational, must have cautionary warnings about these seeds. But who will ensure this is followed? While everyone agrees that stringent labeling measures must be adopted the moot question is how many of our farmers will understand the implications of this or even take cognizance of the warning?

Right now, we have no option. We have to take a decision. On one hand, there is a major environmental advantage of reducing pesticide consumption, on the other there is a possible health and environmental fallout against which we must guard. This is the challenge of the balance. But dithering and lack of credible research will not help the problem go away. We need to come to grips with the issue. Understand the uncertainties and then decide. And fast. In all this there is a lesson for the government. If it does not reform its systems then it is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Seed companies will supply, farmers will plant. Lobbies will protect.

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