TCS Daily

A Tale of Two Seeds

By Pramit Pal Chaudhuri - October 20, 2003 12:00 AM

India and Brazil are continents apart, but human aspirations are universal. The experience of farmers in both these countries illustrates their common desire to access new technologies, improve productivity and reach new markets. Indeed, the future of agriculture biotechnology may rest on what happens in these two large agriculturally significant countries. The increasing demand for GM seeds by farmers is forcing the hands of the governments in both these countries.


Brazil Basics


In a hectic 36 hour period last month, Brazil twice lifted and once restored a ban on the use of genetically modified (GM) soybean seed. In the end, the ayes had it and the leftwing government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva returned Brazil to the biotechnology fold.


The reasons Brazil took this step are many. A severe economic recession, powerful agribusiness lobbies and a determination to overtake the US to become the world's number one soya exporter all fed into the decision. But a key reason the ruling coalition of worker and farmer parties decided to let GM soya out of its cage was the fact that farmers were loosening the latch with their own hands.


An estimated 20-30 percent of Brazil's soybean crop is GM. In neighbouring Argentina, GM soya is legal. Smuggling such seeds across the border is common. In those parts of Brazil bordering Argentina, as much as 70 per cent of the soybean crop is GM.


Though the ending of the ban was portrayed in the media as a victory for big farmers and Western multinationals, the use of GM seed is also widespread among landless peasants and small farmers who like the seed's lower production costs.


The Cotton Club


Brazil's experience reflects that of India's with Bt cotton, another genetically modified crop plant. The Indian seed industry believes about half the cotton crop in the state of Gujarat and an increasing share of the crop in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab is being grown from GM seeds. And not unlike the case of Brazil, most of the seeds are pirate products.


Bt cotton seeds were first discovered in Gujarati fields in 2001, though at the time no such seeds had been approved by India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). The most popular variety, Navbharat-151, was released by D. B. Desai, a local plant breeder who didn't bother to wait for India's vacillating regulators. In fact, he did not even claim his seed contained the Bt gene, but it became the flagship of new generation of cotton seeds when it very successfully withstood the attack of ballworm in the 2001 growing season. His seed has since been banned and Desai charged with violating the law.


Neither the ban nor the case are making any progress because they have both achieved the status of folk legends with Gujarati farmers. Today dozens of pirate Bt cotton seeds are available in all the major cotton-growing states of India. They are openly advertised in local newspapers. Only their distribution networks remain shadowy.


After the invasion of Navbharat-151, the India government, in a knee jerk reaction, sought to destroy thousands of hectares of cotton in the state of Gujarat. However, it soon became apparent that such a decision would be impossible to implement politically. GEAC hastily approved three Bt cotton seeds in 2002. However, there are question marks over the performance of the legal varieties. They cost twice as much and are seen as less effective in resisting pests than the pirate ones.


The Gujarat government, sensitive to farmer sentiment, has turned a deaf ear to the central government's demands that it crack down on pirate GM cotton seed. In Punjab, farmers' demands for Bt cotton seeds have become politically impossible to oppose.


Avoiding the Worst of All Worlds


In many ways, what Brazil and India are experiencing is the worst of all worlds. Wholly unregulated genetically engineered crops are open to a greater likelihood of failure or becoming a health hazard. A major public health crisis from a GM crop would be a major setback for biotechnology in general. Indian scientists fear pirate Bt cotton could discredit the technology because the lack of proper cross-breeding allows pests to develop resistance faster than would be the case. Poor performance by pirated or spurious seeds could potentially ruin many farmers' lives.


Pirate seeds also pose a long-term problem in terms of research and development. Illegal players like Desai cut costs by using seed lines developed by firms like Monsanto. But GM technology won't progress if it can't attract private sector capital. Such capital won't be forthcoming if local breeders ensure that corporations can't get profits from the sale of their legal and safer seeds.


What these two tales of GM seeds say is that there is an enormous and undeniable demand among third world farmers for such fruits of  biotechnology. No matter what governments or environmentalists may attempt through regulations, court injunctions or simple dilly-dallying, a supply of such seeds will be forthcoming. It can either come from corporate suppliers who will ensure their seeds jump through all the necessary safety and corporate hoops. Or it will come from Desai and other garage-based entrepreneurs. What cannot work are bans and moratoriums based on ideology rather than science.


The author is the foreign editor of The Hindustan Times, the leading English language daily in Delhi. He also specialises in trade, technology and security related issues.

TCS Daily Archives