Organic versus transgenic

Print edition : July 02, 2004

THE report of the Task Force on Application of Agricultural Biotechnology has brought to the fore a crucial issue: organic farming versus transgenic technology. The Task Force's suggestion of conserving "organic farming zones" while promoting transgenic technology has invited criticism from experts, who argue that the two forms of agriculture cannot coexist in the same locale, given the problem of cross pollination and lack of adequate mechanisms to segregate strictly seeds cultivated using organic methods and transgenic technology. Thus, the crucial question to be addressed is whether areas such as Darjeeling district in West Bengal (cultivating organic tea), Kodagu district in Karnataka (organic coffee) and Idukki district in Kerala (organic spices) should be declared organic farming zones and the use of transgenic technology should be prevented in those areas.

An organic cabbage plantation at a farm in Peermedu in Idukki district, Kerala.-K.K. MUSTAFAH

The global market for organic food is worth $37 billion and is growing. Ironically, the United States, considered a world leader in transgenic technology, is the largest importer of organic foods, followed by the European Union. The "organic craze" is spreading worldwide. The $14-billion global market for organic herbal plants and medicines is growing at 15-25 per cent a year and is likely to be worth a mammoth $5 trillion in 2050, according to the World Health Organisation. The global trade in processed herbal medicines and food supplements is estimated at $60 billion. Unfortunately, India has not yet benefited much from exporting organic foods or herbal medicines, despite its potential. India's export of organic food is worth hardly Rs.90 crores and its herbal medicine export fetches Rs.2,300 crores.

India's organic farm produce - tea, coffee, spices, fruits, vegetables, cotton, rice, oilseeds, pulses and sugarcane - has already found markets in several countries. Though organic agriculture accounts for a negligible portion of the country's total farm produce, there is great demand for it in the international market. According to the Exim Bank, India accounts for one-third of the global organic tea production. India's share in the $150-million global organic coffee market is hardly 1 per cent; its share in the $3.2-million organic spices market is 3 per cent. India also exports some organic basmati rice to the E.U.

ORGANIC farming is a way of agriculture that preserves the ecosystem. It does not use harmful chemicals and fertilizers. Symbiotic life forms are cultured, ensuring weed and pest control and optimal soil biological activity, which maintains fertility.

By default, poor farmers practise organic farming in many parts of India. Although much of the country practises the traditional system of organic farming, the government has declared only 5,347 farms covering 37,050 hectares as organic. Uttaranchal, Sikkim, Nagaland and Meghalaya have declared themselves organic-farming States and Madhya Pradesh has declared 3,300 villages as being under organic farming. The total cultivated area in these States would aggregate to more than the official figure of 37,050 ha. Moreover, over 65 per cent of the cultivated area is rain-fed, where the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is negligible.

A number of research studies have shown that organic farming ensures better yield and fetches more income. For instance, in 1998, a paper, "The Greening of the Green Revolution" (David Tilman, Nature 396), showed that not only were the yields of organic maize as high as those of maize grown with fertilizers and pesticides, but the soil quality in the organic fields improved dramatically.

Field trials in Hertfordshire (United Kingdom) reported consistently higher yields in the case of wheat grown with manure than wheat grown with artificial nutrients.

Prof. Jules Pretty of Essex University ("Feeding the World", SPLICE - a genetic research magazine, Volume 4, 1998) has shown how farmers in India, Kenya, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras have doubled or tripled yields by switching to organic or semi-organic techniques.

Cuba, forced into organic farming by the economic blockade, has now adopted it as policy, having discovered that it improves both productivity and the quality of the crops ("Castro Topples Pesticides in Cuba", Renee Kjartan, Washington Free Press, August 2000).

Why has the government been slow in declaring larger areas organic? Does it reflect the inability of the government's certifying agency? Or, does the government want the fertilizer, pesticide and transgenic seed industries to benefit?

The Dr. M.S. Swaminathan panel, while recommending various measures for boosting transgenic technology in the country, has tried to draw a dividing line. It has suggested that crops for developing transgenics should be selected carefully, keeping in view the export potential. The suggestion is justified in the context of a number of countries rejecting genetically modified (GM) food imports. The panel has also suggested that "the alternatives available for meeting food and nutritional needs should be viewed comprehensively before resorting to transgenic technology."

Experts agree that the panel's recommendation for protecting organic farming areas and agro-biodiversity sanctuaries from potential cross-pollination by GM crops is excellent, but difficult to implement. The country has not been able to contain the spread of illegal varieties of Bt cotton seeds - though inadvertently developed - in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. "In this context, how can there be a guarantee that organic farming areas and agro-biodiversity sanctuaries will be protected when transgenic technology is introduced on a large scale?" they wonder.

The basic concerns are increasing the potential for farm exports and farmers' income. The crucial question is: Which method - organic farming or transgenic technology - will give the desired result? At least the States that have declared themselves organic should be allowed to focus on organic farming. There is the need for a public debate on the issue.

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