ILLEGAL FARMING OF GM CROPS IN INDIA: DESPERATE FARMERS ADOPTING DESPERATE TECHNIQUES
Author: Shivangi Pandey, I Year of LL.M (Intellectual Property Laws specialization) from Rajeev Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law, IIT Kharagpur.
Co-author: Shalini Tiwari, I Year of LL.M from University of Petroleum & Energy Studies, Dehradun.
The current population of India in 2021 is 1,393,409,038, which was a 0.97% increase from 2020. Similarly the current population of World in 2021 is 7,874,965,825, a 1.03% increase from 2020. If one compares these statistics to the time when the traditional agricultural methods were evolved there will be a rapid growth observed. The statistics are necessary so as to realize that the world has evolved a lot from the time when the traditional methods of agriculture were developed, leading the world to adopt more developed tactics to feed the enormous population this world has. This again puts an added burden of those who make a living out of it.
The fact is that this additional burden is not an issue for the developed nations like U.S.A considering that they have already adopted a variety of technologies and added developments to their respective techniques of cultivation of crops. Their production has so far turned out to be sufficient for their respective population. Above all agriculture is not an integral part of their economy as compared to the Indian scenario. But in India the situation is different, India has always been dependent on agriculture and for a major portion it is the main source of livelihood. Agriculture is “only” ~16 % of GDP but the largest sector for employment. Officially farmers are only a few hundred million, but adding family members who help or occasionally farm, as also wage labourers, the number of farm workers is likely to be closer to half a billion people. As a nation which is largely dependent on agriculture with a slow rate of progress in the arena of adoption of new technologies for this sector, it is an issue already for the nation that feeds such a huge population.
The problem is not just that the farmers are apprehensive about the adoption of new technologies, it’s also about affordability. A majority of Indian farmers are smallholders who rely on traditional resource-intensive farming techniques. They have limited access to modern machinery, logistics and storage facilities, and information such as data on weather patterns, soil health, and protection of crops. Due to this a lot of times, the variety of technology that are available in other nations are not easily accessible to the farmers’ considering their position in the financial domain and because of this factor a lot of times these innovations are not even available in the Indian market.
Though now, India is trying to create a revolution by bringing in a new wave of technology and making the whole process way more cost efficient by the introduction of AI, modern software technology etc. But it cannot be denied that creating awareness to an extent where every farmer is aware about such technologies, implements them and above all could afford them is still a goal that will take time to be achieved. For now the only option that these farmers’ have is to utilize the options available to them.
But this is where the problem arises, with a lot of viable crops being seasonal, the burden is increased on the farmers and the need to increase the productivity gets even more important. Also it cannot be denied that India’s productivity is good only for selected crops and the farmers can’t grow every other crop and that is why they are required to make best use of the one season that is provided to them for the growth of crops. But the question that can be raise here is that if they restrict themselves to only 2-3 crops every year and try to double their productivity by traditional techniques can they succeed? There are other issues in India’s agricultural domain like lack of proper cold storage facilities, poor transportation facilities. These all issues are present along with the factor that the farmer has to focus on his earnings as well and he has to optimize his profits accordingly.
GM CROPS & INDIA
To solve these issues with respect to agriculture which were witnessed by other nations as well, the concept of genetic modification of food products was evolved after the introduction of genetic engineering in 1970’s. GMO” (genetically modified organism) has become the common term consumers and popular media use to describe foods that have been created through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is a process that involves:
Identifying the genetic information—or “gene”—that gives an organism (plant, animal, or microorganism) a desired trait
Copying that information from the organism that has the trait
Inserting that information into the DNA of another organism.
It was observed that traditional methods of modifying the food products would take long time and the specific problem that was faced with the crop like increased productivity or pests’ attack could never be solved. The most common GMO crops that are currently being used by a variety of nations and are being sold extensively were evolved to help the farmers’ from the impediments created by the traditional methods. These developments didn’t just protect farmers but also went on to help the other participants in the market including the consumers. For example, a GMO soybean that is used to create healthier oil is commercially grown and available. GMO apples that do not brown when cut are now available for sale and may help reduce food waste. All these developments along with the main objective of increasing productivity with better quality to feed the increasing population are the many positives behind the GM Crops. Food crisis is growing at an alarming rate as it is getting difficult to keep pace in agriculture production with the rate of population growth; therefore, scientists are looking for modern biotechnology to provide food security.
Other nations like U.S.A are enhancing their productivity by embracing these new technologies every day. The recent introduction of GM eggplants signifies this development as this introduction has helped farmers increase production, thereby increasing their earnings. These modified varieties are also resistant to pest attacks making them even more profitable, considering the aspect of reducing the costs of usage of insecticides and pesticides. This even makes the quality better making the consumers free from consuming such crops which had harmful chemicals thereby helping the quality as well. However when it comes to developing countries there are some issues with the adoption of GM crops. Ideological beliefs, political reasons and lack of scientific knowledge are the major reasons for resistance to GMOs in many developing countries while psychology, emotions and politics are some of the reasons for opposition to adopt GMOs in developed countries.
But the situation in India is quite different. India fails to adopt such technologies and has approved only one variety and that is BT cotton. Other than this variety all other varieties are either rejected or not approved to be introduced in the Indian market. Though there are discussions going on with respect to the clinical trials in India with respect to the introduction of BT brinjals, considering that the neighboring country Bangladesh introduced them and had positive results, but for now it is only BT cotton that is approved in India. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests, in its report on ‘Genetically modified crops and its impact on environment’, submitted to parliament on August 25, 2017, recommended that GM crops should be introduced in the country only after critical scientific evaluation of its benefit and safety, and also recommended restructuring of regulatory framework for unbiased assessment of GM crops. There were certain reports that even highlighted that Bt cotton has not improved the socio economic condition of cotton farmers in the country but further deteriorated especially in the rainfed areas of the country after consulting various stakeholders across the country.
Even for BT brinjals, Union Minister for Environment and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar said in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha that seed makers’ proposals for scientific field trials of GM crops, including Bt brinjal, will not be taken up for consideration by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) — the apex panel handling GM matters — without recommendations from states/union territories where the trials are proposed to be undertaken. Even for the GM mustard the decision is still pending. These developments are enough to reflect the take of the policy makers with respect to the GM crops and their introduction in India.
India has it’s own concerns with the GM crops and they are related mainly to the qualitative concerns. Other issues are mainly related to environmental effects, long term impact on biodiversity, the eventual impact on the soil and above all the long term impact on the citizens after consuming such modified versions. Some apprehensions are legitimate and it cannot be denied that the policy makers are legitimately trying to protect the interests of citizens by imposing such restrictions. But the solution behind these apprehensions is not to bar these products without any scientific evidence and not giving them even a chance to prove their benefits. The fact that India has adopted a tiresome pathway for even approving these products for clinical trials is not a positive route that definitely needs to be changed.
ILLEGAL FARMING & THE CONSEQUENCES
Now, it is clear that India has a serious problem with GM crops, the burden again fall on the farmers. Considering that the demand for crops are huge and the cash giving crops are seasonal, farmers are again burdened with the aspect of giving in to the demand as well as making profits. Also due to the repeated farming on the same land and the excessive usage of insecticides have again started to make the lands infertile and started to affect the quality of crops. There are certain farmers who are aware of the profits that can be incurred by the introduction of GM crops and thus this is where the illegal farming starts. It is clear that the GM crops usually provide efficient qualitative & quantitative results, though the long term effects are unknown and desperate farmers have no other option in India specifically considering that they do not have access to a lot of efficient technologies.
The results can be analyzed through a variety of incidents. Thousands of farmers across states, some of them in open defiance of the law, are embracing illegal genetically modified (GM) crops — from Bt brinjal to herbicide tolerant (HT) cotton.
There also have been protests conducted across the nation challenging the decision of India’s ban on GM crops and the demand to provide this right to the farmers so that even they can earn profits. Organizations like Shetkari Sangathana constantly fight for the rights of farmers and how government should adopt a liberal approach to this form of advancement. A similar incident was again found in Haryana where Bt brinjals were found to be grown in a farm which was clearly illegal. The government suspected that Bt brinjal seeds had been illegally imported from Bangladesh, where the cultivation of the GM crop is allowed. It also suspected leakage of the seeds from Mahyco, the developer of the variety, which had deposited hundreds of kilos of seeds after a moratorium was imposed on the commercialisation of Bt brinjal in 2010. However, the eventual lab reports on the tests of such brinjals and their seeds have lead that these assumptions are false. A lot of times it has also been observed that farmers are not even aware while buying seeds that they are GM crops and are often manipulated to buy such seeds and grow crops.
There was a report on this incident which maintained that "Taking advantage of the collapse of the regulatory regime miscreant organisations and individuals are inciting and misleading farmers, across several states, who may not be aware of the gravity of their action, to plant Bt Brinjal, HT (RR) cotton, and HT Bt cotton", said the plea citing the illegal planting of Bt. Brinjal in Haryana, which was identified in April 2019.
There have also been allegations against the government precluding that the bar on GM crops is not a pro-health move rather it is adopted as a result of political interests. It has been alleged that the tests conducted by nations like U.S.A are far more developed to Indian testing standards and thus if they are approving such crops than obviously Indian authorities have some ulterior motive behind such ban which cannot be for the welfare of the farmers. The only results of all these assumptions are agitated farmers who have no other option.
Naturally these activities have lead to instances of prosecution as well. These prosecution cases have also lead to the farmers clearing out their farms and eliminating evidence. There is a provision under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 which clearly provides for punishment in the case of growing illegal crops. But the truth is that the Indian regulatory system has no solid ground and is clearly lacks efficient implementation policies.
“If the regulators had acted decisively in the past with severe deterrence, against illegal Bt cotton and later, HT cotton cultivation and other illegal imports of GM foods, this situation could have been prevented to a large extent. The government has to think of a serious overhaul of the entire setup and significant improvements in the inter-agency coordination required for ensuring that no illegal GM cultivation or sales take place in the country,” said the Coalition in a statement issued in 2017 after illegal GM soya cultivation was found in Gujarat.
There have been PIL’s filed leading to the guidelines issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court but the eventual truth is that due to no detailed guidelines issued by the Centre yet, the problem is increasing and the farmers are being lead to no other option. The Ministry of Environment & Forests, in consultation with the apex scientific body that recommends cultivation of any GM crop - the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) - is learnt to be working on a mechanism and strategy to deal with illegal GM crop cultivation. But these guidelines are still in progress and they will take time for implementation.
India has recently progressed in innovations related to agricultural sector as well. The world needs high yielding varieties today and the Centre has adopted a lot of strategies to ensure that agriculture in India gets the benefit of technical advancement. However India has still a long way to go, considering that the farmers in India are still suffering. A clear streamlined process for the approval of GM crops is necessary for such future and the government will have to take a decisive effect. India needs to exploit it’s production capacity to the fullest and these policies will certainly help it in attaining such profits. India needs awareness policies as well so that atleast innocent farmers are not manipulated to give in to growing such crops without any knowledge about the eventual impact, as punishing such farmers who clearly have no knowledge about such varieties will be of no use.