`India needs a biotechnology policy'

Print edition : May 21, 2004

Interview with Dr. Suman Sahai.

The prestigious Borlaug Award this year went to Dr. Suman Sahai of the Delhi-based think tank Gene Campaign for generating awareness among farmers in 17 States about threats to food security and livelihoods from patents and intellectual property rights. The greatest handicap, according to Suman Sahai, is lack of information. People should first know the issue, understand its impact, and only then can they decide if they want it or not. "That is why Gene Campaign took the issues to the people, giving them all the technical information in a simple, accessible and understandable form," she says. Gene Campaign's major contribution was to concretise the concept of farmers' rights. It also helped the government in drafting a Bill on it, which is now law. The organisation managed to codify farmers' rights in the same law that provides for plant breeders' rights, which is acclaimed the world over as one of its kind that provides explicit and strong rights to farmers.

Creating that space and getting support from various sections of the people - academics, activists, farmers, scientists, politicians and students - was a major contribution of Gene Campaign. And that, according to Dr. Suman Sahai, is what the Borlaug Award recognised.

In Chennai to attend a seminar on "Future of rice" organised by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Dr. Suman Sahai spoke to Asha Krishnakumar on a number of issues including the implementation of farmers' rights, the role of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Indian agriculture, and their future in India. Excerpts from the interview:

What role did Gene Campaign play in actually drafting the policy on farmers' rights?

One of the most significant things we pushed for and got is the right of farmers to continue to sell seeds. This was generally interpreted as the right [of farmers] to be able to save and plant their own seeds. We want farmers to have the right to sell seeds, even of a protected variety. Intellectual property rights should not be limited to a single sale. The right to sell seeds was opposed by the seed industry. But we finally managed to get it through. And it is there in law. Many others such as the ban on the terminator were much easier to get through.

What does the right to sell seeds mean to the farmer?

It means a lot to local food security. Farmers are seed producers and they supply to the local needs. The bigger farmers who have access to technology and better and newer seeds bring them to their area and sell them. The technology dissemination happens quickly and, most important, outside the cash economy. Often, seeds are purchased without any money changing hands but with a promise to pay back later. This allows farmers to function without being forced to go to the moneylender. We saw this advantage during the Green Revolution.

Whatever the ills of the Green Revolution, it led to the dissemination of the high-yielding varieties, which actually led to the doubling of cereal production. There were no intellectual property rights and there was no control over seeds. The seeds moved freely. And that is the secret of technology dissemination. Therefore, farmers' rights had to include the right to save and sell seeds granting that it does not violate the rights of the breeder.

What are the other farmers' rights that you think are important?

The benefit-sharing right is important. One thing we were very conscious about from the beginning is that we should draft a piece of legislation that moves away from the UPOV (Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) model.

Why do you oppose UPOV?

Because UPOV does not have any notion of farmers' rights. It is a breeders' set-up to protect their interests. It is legitimate if you have invested money and you want to protect your interest. If it does not threaten your food security, then it is fair. But that is not the case here. It is my money and yours that is going into breeding. I would not like any monopolisation. There is no concept of farmers' rights, protection, or food security in UPOV. Why, then, should we accept UPOV?

Benefit-sharing that came out of the Convention on Biological Diversity was included [in the legislation]. This was also opposed by the seed industry, as the breeders would then have to pay for use of older varieties. It was, however, not as viciously opposed as the right to save and sell seeds.

The other thing that is a good inclusion in the farmers' rights legislation comes from practical experience in the rural areas. In the rural areas people take any old bag, sack or box that could be of Monsanto's or Syngenta's to store and sell seeds in. That should not be construed as a violation as it is obvious that the farmers are not trying to pass the seeds off as Monsanto's but just using a bag lying around. So, there is a clause to protect against innocent infringement.

Are you happy with the draft legislation on farmers' rights?

What has come out is good. But what is appalling is that six months after this law was legislated by both Houses of Parliament, at the behest of the Agricultural Ministry an application was made to join UPOV (in May 2002). This took everybody by surprise.

If India joins UPOV, what happens to the farmers' rights legislation?

It cannot be implemented as that and UPOV contradict each other. UPOV has made it clear to the Indian government that if India wants to join UPOV it has to change the farmers' rights law.

Are you planning another round of awareness generation in response to this?

We tried to have a dialogue with the government. But nothing came out of it. In October 2002 Gene Campaign filed a public interest litigation petition in the Delhi High Court, saying the government should not take any step that would mean a dilution of farmers' rights. The case is still in court.

Can the public interest litigation stall the government's move to join UPOV?

Till the case is decided, the government cannot join UPOV.

So what is the status of farmers' rights now?

It was a law that was celebrated by developing countries, which were enormously pressured to join UPOV. When India came out with this alternative, they were happy. But, unfortunately, our own people are undermining that.

What are the other concerns of Indian farmers with respect to food and livelihood security?

Most important is GM technology. There are many things you need to be clear about. For instance, we are talking about GM rice. India is the centre of origin of rice - the Jaypore tract in Orissa and the Northeastern States are the centres of origin of rice. Rice diversity in India is very large. But we are not doing any baseline work on how the gene flow happens in rice, what its impact is, what can be done about it, and so on. We are doing work only on GM rice.

Unfortunately, we do not have a biotechnology policy. And the former Secretary of the Biotechnology Department, Dr. Manju Sharma, has gone on record as saying that India does not need a biotechnology policy. Nothing can be more appalling.

This is the way we are working. It is dangerous. For example, Mexico, which is the centre of origin for corn, has a policy in place since 1998 - no transgenic corn and no research on transgenic corn. It found corn populations contaminated and hence banned transgenics. Why cannot we do it for rice? Rice feeds more than half the world's population. It is the centre of our food security. And we are not willing to have a policy to protect it.

In my view, GM crops should not be grown in their centres of origin. It is all right for Peru to grow GM rice and India to grow GM potato as long as safety assessments and so on are made. But not vice versa. Why do we need to do research in GM rice? Who do we sell it to? We need to think through all these issues and that is why we need a policy. That is one set of concerns.

The other set is that we have a singularly atrocious regulatory system. If you do not have a policy, you do not have transparency, and if there is no transparency there can be no accountability.

Of equal concern is the issue of competence of the regulatory agencies. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the highest decision-making body on a very technical subject such as genetically modified crops (which takes difficult decisions regarding the release of the GM crops), has as its head `whoever' happens to be the Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Environment. And in one year if there are five changes in that Ministry, then the GEAC has five chairpersons that year. Can a mature and responsible scientific establishment function like this? The answer is no.

Our demands and pleas have fallen on deaf ears. We would like to know on what basis a decision was taken to introduce Bt cotton in farmers' fields. We are asking for an open discussion as it concerns all of us.

What is your position on GM crops?

Gene Campaign is neither pro- nor anti-GM. We want the government to take a rational and informed decision. If you can run away with a market in GM products, which will not destroy the environment and be safe, then do it.

Nevertheless, we are very concerned. We need competence, transparency and public participation.

Over half of India's research is on Monsanto's Bt gene. India is jumping onto the GM bandwagon and concentrating all its efforts on it while its conventional breeding has led to phenomenal results. There is hardly any research on agronomy, system-based research and so on, which we need most.

We are not against GM technology but our major concern is that India should do the right thing by itself, for its farmers and its food and livelihood security.

What are your concerns about GM crops?

The main concern is that India is the centre of origin of many crops. GM crops may contaminate them. Forty per cent of the research programmes in both public and private sectors use Monsanto's Bt gene. Is that a viable position? In every rabi and kharif crop there is some Bt crop. How long will the resistance last? This is why we need a policy. Should you not go in for educating farmers on growing a refuge? Nobody is told about the refuge, so nobody grows it. How long will the Bt resistance last without a refuge is a concern (see box).

The concern about the lack of transparency, of course, is very grave. Often the argument is that the farmer will decide. You do not provide insurance, subsidy or credit, and you prevent him from even surviving. But you say, the farmer will decide. When the crop fails, who will take the responsibility? Who is liable to compensate the farmer? All this needs to be discussed.

If you put out a GM product that is adequately tested, then stand behind the product. And if you do not stand behind the product, it should not be allowed. It is the most unethical argument to say, let the farmer decide. It sounds very grand. But you have left him in the lurch in the worst possible way.

Of equal concern is the lack of consumers' right to choose between a GM crop and a non-GM crop. For, if India becomes a GM nation, it will be a total GM nation because contamination will happen as our farming systems are such that segregation cannot be maintained.

In the ultimate analysis, one needs to sit down with this technology, first determine a policy and then see whether it actually works for you. You have to do a rigorous economic analysis to see if your USP (unique selling proposition) is to remain GM-free or it is to join the GM bandwagon. What is your competitive advantage in either situation? Finally, this should determine your decision.

For example, our soyabean production peaked this year at 3.4 million tonnes. We sold every soya grain we produced, as there is no other nation where one can get certified GM-free soya. Even if we double our production, we will still sell all of it as there is a big demand for non-GM soya in the world market. In this case, our USP would be non-GM soya. For, once we become GM, there are shiploads of them from all over the world. There is thus a clear-cut advantage if we remain non-GM. This is what should inform our decision on GM crops.

What GM crops exist commercially? Can India benefit from using them?

There are four crops - conola, corn, cotton, soya - and two products - herbicide tolerance and insect resistant. They were developed for industrial agriculture. Developed countries have the problem of labour, so they developed herbicide resistance. We do not have a problem with labour. On the contrary, we are surplus. Why then do we need herbicide resistance?

What does herbicide tolerance do? It kills all other crops except those resistant to herbicides. In India, women in particular, earn through weeding, which is their only source of cash income. These are the weeds you will destroy with herbicide tolerance.

Weeds in India are either food or fodder. Women earn wage labour, eat the green leafy weeds and also use them as supplementary fodder for cattle. These weeds are also medicinal plants, which the woman uses often as her family is hardly covered by the healthcare system. This is what is being destroyed with herbicide-tolerant crops. Should we be adopting herbicide-tolerant crops? These are my concerns with GM. And raising these concerns does not mean blanket opposition.

What is the kind of GM crop that India needs?

Give me a lathyrussativous (kesar dhal, a legume that grows in marginal soil), which is toxin-free. This is a high-protein legume, which is an excellent source of nutrition. This is a real boon for the poor. But the problem is that it has toxins. If you eat too much of it, it leads to a form of paralysis, which is called lathyrisism. Why does the Indian GM research not concentrate on this and knock off the toxin from this protein-rich, high-nutrition crop and produce a lathyrus that grows in marginal soils?

Thus, there is a need for cost- and risk-benefit analyses to be done on every GM crop. For this we need to prioritise our interest and concerns. And to do that, we need a clear-cut policy and we need a multi-stakeholder process. We do not like going to the courts; that is only the last resort. We went to the Supreme Court this February asking for better regulation of GM crops. And till we get that we want a moratorium on commercial release.

Given that nothing is happening to address the concerns regarding the GM crop, how do you see the future?

I am very hopeful. The resistance will build up. Ultimately, what I think will happen is that the radical fringe will gain greater currency. The government must realise that if it is not interested in a dialogue, it will have to face the music.

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