Is the BT Brinjal debate really so cut and dried?

RAVI KRISHNA REDDY writes: The debate for and against BT brinjal cultivation is on in full swing in Karnataka and also in some other parts of the country.

With the Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa announcing that BT brinjal will not be allowed in the State and that it will be conveyed to the Centre, the opposing group has scored a big win.

A good deal of people have joined this anti-BT bandwagon and are spreading everything that they can think of in the name of nature and farmers’ interests, without considering the scientific facts and environmental costs of conventional agriculture and its burden on farmers.

By considering some key facts, this whole episode can be termed anti-democratic, anti-scientific, and ignorant blabbering.

Even though it sounds like it is pro-farmers’, it is against the interest of farmers.

Karnataka’s ryot leaders are opposing BT cultivation either because of their ideological opposition to globalisation and corporatisation of agriculture.

Or, they falsely think it is against the interests of farming community.

By doing so they are pushing the farmers to the same old labour intensive, pesticide and chemical fertilizer based, highly expensive, and lesser or no-profit occupation.

Also, they may be least aware of the possibilities of this new knowledge field and its positive implications on farming.

***

Today’s farmers are more informed and are exposed to choices. It is they who should decide what they want to plant and what not, depending on the supply-demand of modern economics, rather these self-proclaimed leaders making decisions based on their political and ideological compulsions.

Any demand for banning certain crops is anti-democratic and stepping on the farmers’ freedom.

While some environmentalists term GM crops “anti-nature”, saying it is against the ecosystem, in fact their opposition to Genetically Engineered (GE) crops can be termed as an act of support for the ongoing environmental degradation.

They want global warming to be contained. But they have no pragmatic farming solutions for sufficiently feeding the today’s world population without greatly hurting the climate and sustaining it.

A section of our society opposes these new breeding methods in the name globalisation and rich corporations controlling the lives of poor people. They do so in the name of pro-poor and economic equality. They seem to have genuine love for the downtrodden and poverty stricken people.

So they should know GE can cure malnutrition among the poor in the third world countries, including India, without people changing their diet and the quantity of food they consume.

***

Stewart Brand is an ecologist living near the Silicon Valley of America. His previous work, the Whole Earth Catalog, has helped promote and popularise organic farming in its own way in the beginning.

To minimize the impact of his living on climate, he has been living with his wife in a 450 sqft tugboat in the bay for the last 25 years. He is 73 years old now and has written a new book, Whole Earth Discipline – An Ecopragmatist Manisfesto.

I suggest to the people who are opposing BT brinjal to read this book immediately.

Stewart Brand is a lifelong environmentalist and a liberal and has genuine care and concern for the poor and disadvantaged. So, we can safely assume that this book is not written by a scientist or a spokesperson of a multinational company with some vested interest in the success of GM crops.

According to Peter Raven, a botanist and environmentalist, who was also recognized as one of the “Heroes for the Planet” by Time magazine, “Nothing has driven more species to extinction or caused more instability in the world’s ecological systems than the development of an agriculture sufficient to feed 6.3 billion people.”

Today, 40 per cent of all the land surface is used for food crops. And, soil holds more carbon in it than all living vegetation and the atmosphere combined. Tilling releases that carbon.

Jim Cook, a plant pathologist and sustainable-agriculture evangelist says: “Carbon disappears faster if you stir the soil. If you chop the crop residue up, bury it, and stir it-which is what we call tillage-there’s a burst of biological activity, since you keep making new surface area to be attacked by the decomposers. You’re not sequestering carbon anymore, you’re basically burning up the whole season’s residue.”

He also says, “The fact that at least 40 percent of the land surface is used for crops is hardly ever taken into account in our current approach to climate change. A self-regulating planet needs its ecosystems to stay in homeostasis. We cannot have both our crops and a steady comfortable climate.”

Stewart Brand writes, ploughed land is the source of gigatons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Cultivated soil loses half of its organic carbon over decades of plowing.

According to scientific studies, sustained no-till farming can bring the carbon content back to a level the equal of wildland soil, such as in tallgrass prairies. More and more of GE agriculture is shifting to no-till (to give an example, 80 per cent of soya bean acreage), because it saves the farmer time, money, and fuel. We now know the role of fossil fuel in global warming. According to experts, about 5 per cent of all fossil fuel use is by agriculture and most of this goes on weed and pest control.

And why is this weed and pest control important? About 40 per cent of crop yield in the world is lost to weeds and pests every year. The main success of GE crops is in lowering these losses; herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

In 2007, Science magazine reported, “Over the past 11 years, biotech crop area has increased more than 60 fold, making GM crops one of the most quickly adopted farming technologies in modern history.” Supporting this view, Stewart Brand writes in his book, “Farmers want GE technology for their crops; nonfarmers want them not to want it… In 2006, when two hundred French anti-GE activists destroyed fifteen acres of GE corn near Toulouse, eight hundred local farmers marched in a nearby town to protest the attack and petition the government to support GE research. In 2000, GE soybeans were legal in Argentina but outlawed in Brazil. The difference in productivity was so obvious that Brazilian farmers smuggled the seeds across the border, until their government relented and legalized GE agriculture.”

So we can safely assume that at least some of the protesters in Hyderabad and Bangalore who heckled Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh in favour of BT brinjal had farmers’ interest in their heart and were not in the payroll of any multinationals.

Not only it helps to contain global warming, the new breakthroughs and advancements in Genetic Engineering is helping farmers and poor alike.

According to World Health Organization, “An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.” And, a report by UN Children’s Fund states, “Vitamin A deficiency is compromising the immune systems of approximately 40 percent of the developing world’s under-fives and leading to the early deaths of an estimated one million young children each year.”

In his book, Stewart Brand writes about a new breed of rice, “golden rice”, which is being developed. Scientists added two genes from a daffodil and one gene from a bacteria creating this golden rice which is rich in Vitamin A.

In July 2000, Time magazine put Ingo Potrykus, the scientist behind this breakthrough, on its cover, with the headline, “This rice could save a million kids a year.” And this golden rice is not in the hands of any MNC. It has been managed by the Humanitarian Golden Rice Network, chaired by Potrykus.

Any farmer making less than $10,000 a year could get the seeds for free and own the right to breed and sow them year after year. Field trials of this are being conducted in the Philippines by the International Rice Research Institute with the goal of freeing the GE rice for public use by 2011.

In the October of last year, North Karnataka has seen the wrath of nature in the form of unruly floods. Thousands of acres of rice crop was lost to it. In India and Bangladesh alone, 4 million tons of rice a year is lost to flooding. And, that is enough to feed 3 crore (30 million) people.

Using GE techniques, writes Stewart Brand, scientists introduced a single submergence tolerance gene into locally adapted high-yielding rice varieties where it makes the plants able to “hold their breath” for two whole weeks under water. The submersible rice has now been tested in farmers’ fields (the last stage before release for public use) in Bangladesh, India, and Laos.

Before banning the cultivation of BT brinjal, government needs to consider all these facts. It is not BT brinjal that is at stake here. It is the possibilities of GE and its role in human welfare that is at stake.

While China and some other African nations are embracing it, we should not shut our doors on it by succumbing to pressure groups. Man needs to employ every available tool to fight the climate change and correct some of his past wrongdoings. Avoiding or stopping the progress of GE will only make the matter worse.

Sensible and progressive people need to sit and think about feeding the world population without hurting the ecosystem, before venturing to protest GM crops. There is no discounting of the facts that there may be some genuine issues like dependency on multinationals and monopoly of knowledge. But a decent effort is going on in the field to make GM and GE freer, like open-source software, and that should be least of our concerns.

***

The author is from a farming family and is now working as a software engineer in the United States. He has ME in Computer Science. His mother was able to take care of most of his engineering college expenses by selling the milk of a single hybrid cow. His family has grown commerical food crops in the early 1990s and he has the first-hand knowledge of its expenses, the benefits of good hybrid seeds, back-breaking farming, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, losing a crop to floods, and the fluctuations in prices.

***

Photograph: Karnataka Photo News

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26 Responses to “Is the BT Brinjal debate really so cut and dried?”

  1. Not A Witty Nick Says:

    One question, who’s going to sell these GM crop seeds?

    Big Corps.

    Each time and everytime, you have to buy from them and you are at their mercy.

    Can you share the seeds or share the seeds out of your crops?

    No. You’re contractually bound not to sell these crops’ seeds.

    These big corps are also lobbying for govts to lift the morartorium on gene sterilisation or as it is popularly called “terminator” seeds, where seeds do not germinate after the first use.

    Bring ‘em on, but wrap each Bt-Brinjal in some coloured recycled paper, so that I don’t buy it even by mistake.

  2. harkol Says:

    A fantastic and thought provoking post.

    I never understood why we are so scared of GE food products! We are an evolving species and it is a fact that the process of change will see our progeny being radically different than us, irrespective of what we do.

    In fact, we can’t stop it even if we tried.

    1. One way of stopping evolution is not to evolve: i.e. enhance the lifespan of existing humans to 300-400 years or more, thus retard the generational mutations that lead to evolution. Of course this needs to accompany a program for population control.

    But, this is unlikely to succeed, for the organisms that prey on us, keep evolving at a rapid rate, and will find abundant hosts that haven’t evolved thus aren’t resistant – we will be attacked by these super viruses at some point and the population would be reduced drastically, perhaps wiped out.

    2. We accept that we’ll evolve by adopting genetic change (natural as well as engineered) as a way of fighting the constant change in environment and earth. This is the best course, for we’ll stand a better chance. This also can take care of rapid population growths, with increased lifespans. I think Hominids 100-200 generations from now will probably be having ways to directly assimilate sun’s energy directly into the body, instead of having to consume calories thru grown food.

    But, till then we may have to make do with Genetically Engineered food.

  3. Badanekaayi Banta Says:

    Sir,

    nice to see this article and thanks for presenting this point of view. I do not agree with several of the opinions expressed here for reasons mentioned hereunder.

    Firstly, regarding the contribution of tilling to atmospheric carbon. It maybe that the total carbon released by this process amounts to several gigatons (sic) over a period of time, does it however constitute a significant chunk of the global carbon? Tilling of the land started 10,000 years ago and global warming has started only after heavy industrialization. There are several other factors which have laid the culpability for global warming at the door fossil fuels rather than activities like tilling.

    Secondly, The fear of multinationals is a very true one and it will be dangerous if the government allows these multinationals into the country in a big way without providing for safeguards. One documentary I would advise you to watch is Food Inc.

    One point I agree with you on is that Yeddyurappa shouldn’t have succumbed to the pressure groups. He should have waited till at least Feb 10th when the scientific advisory committee will present their report of the issue to Hon’ble Minister of Environment and Forests.

    And I think you are oversimplifying the issue here by comparing GM with hybrid cows but I agree with you that our distrust of “foreign” crops is also misplaced. A lot of the fruits and vegetables that are now part of our daily lives were brought into the country by occidentals. I could not imagine life without Tomato, Potato, Pineapple, Papaya, Maize etc. which all come originally from South America.

  4. A. R. Char Says:

    This author gives too much one sided argument. The main items he overlooks include:

    1. No one knows the long range effects on humans of Genetically Engineered crops (GE corn battle is still going on in USA and Europe);

    2. One company owns the patent on the seed. Therefore, using GE seeds, all farmers will be dependent on that one company for ever (rather than self sufficiency in seeds as it stands now); and

    3. Instead of varieties of crops now grown and enjoyed by the consumers, everyone will be getting one standard GE variety.

    Untill all these matters are settled, it is too premature to jump on the GE wagon.

  5. sathya Says:

    Are these people who are shouting against Bt Brinjal are really farmers? The real farmer knows what to grow and what to select. He toils in the field come what may. Sitting in ac seminar halls and just talking will not help. Probably people might have had doubts when HF and Jersey varieties were introduced. Badanekaayi puraaNa saakagideyappa.

  6. Balaji Says:

    ppl opposing GM crops for loony liberal reasons shud be fed the pesticides taken by farmers to commit suicide.

    i bet the same liberal gangsta wud have opposed the IR rices and Norman Borlaug in the 60s. can any old journalist here comment abt it?

  7. narayana Says:

    Thanks Ravi Krishna Reddy,

    Here are some questions.

    “Any farmer making less than $10,000 a year could get the seeds for free and own the right to breed and sow them year after year.”

    The above line from your write up may not be true in the case of BT Brinjal.

    1) Monsanto owns the patent and wants perpetual royalties
    2) Further I am not sure if Terminator gene embedded in this new BT Brinjal if yes.. seeds will be useless. Most likely this will be the scenario

    If someone wants to grow and eat GE food he should be allowed to do that. But problem is that the very introduction of GE crop in the field threatens the native variety by cross pollination and hence people who do not want to grow GE food will be forced with no choice when GE replaces the native variety.. That is what happened in Maharashtra.. now BT cotton constitutes 97% of cotton crop and that led to farmer suicides because they could not afford the cotton seeds which now cost ten times more but fail as much as the native varieties. BT cotton was supposed to have disease fighting gene but something went wrong and whole BT cotton in India is susceptible to leaf curl virus. Introduction of BT took away poor farmers right of using native seeds!!! Are you advising that!!!

    Also your note that non farmers do not want BT and farmers want BT is lopsided. It is only rich farmers want BT and not all the farmers..But poor farmers are so poor that they can not reach Jairam Ramesh’s discussion and only rich farmers who want BT and non farmers who do not want BT reach there.

    Take that chip off your shoulder that you are a farmer and you have a right to grow BT. Yes .. as much you have right I ( non farmer) too have a right to demand non BT because of health reasons. BT Brinjal has genes from bacteria which act as poison for insects.. Why should I inject that slow poison in my body just because it makes life easy for you!!!.

    Going by your reasoning you should be free to grow as much cannabis as your farm can produce.. but would you do that. Or you can have a crystal meth lab in your kitchen as long as your neighbor does not object to the smell. You can not claim defiance saying that your family was a chemist’s family and what you are doing alleviates mood in your house!!! Or in other words, go feed yourself and not me.

  8. Karihaida Says:

    Wow churumuri will go to any length for madam’s cause :)

    Mr Jairam Ramesh will take a decision on Bt brinjal on Feb 10 it seems. So he would have conducted hundreds of experiments/tests in a matter of couple of weeks, which has not been done so far to arrive at his decision. And what about the control of the GM seeds in the hands of Monsanto, ADM etc ?
    I thought crooks like Congra, General mills taking over most of the food consumables was bad, but the big entry of Monsanto, ADM is making me very afraid.

    Looks like its time to grow my own food or mutate into some crazy &*$% in 20yrs time (if i’m still alive).
    Can anyone here tell me how I can buy agricultural land for cultivation ?

    PS: Why brinjal ffs? They could have distributed g13 for “testing”, to show how good GM stuff can be :)

  9. Karihaida Says:

    While he is at it, Mr Jairam ramesh should ask monsanto to make one more modification, so that a fully grown brinjal will have a kaangi symbol on it :) just in case anybody forgets who was responsible for it.

  10. Klem Says:

    My question is: Why did climatologists wait 3 years before they spoke up about the AR4 report? Why did Copenhagen need to be a failure for them to feel safe enough to say something? These people are professional scientists, they don’t wait even 3 weeks to shoot some bad scientific publication down. But in the climate science world they wait 3 years! This is unprecedented in my lifetime. What kind of pressure we these scientists under to remain silent for 3 full years?

    I guess the science wasn’t settled after all; it was silenced.

  11. Sexist Stay-at-home Dad Says:

    Interesting. I’m trying to learn more about the subject, because I think there are pros and cons to genetically modified crops. We should proceed with caution, but at the same time we should not block what potentially can be a means of increasing food production. Penn & Teller, the libertarian pundits, offer some food (pardon the pun) for thought (Norman Borlaug is a Nobel Prize winning scientist):

  12. Narayana Says:

    Ravi Krishna Reddy.

    One fact probably you underplayed explained here for the benefit of churumuri readers.

    No till farming is an organic farming concept. It has nothing to do with GE. Fukuwoka started this and there were some no till farms in unified dakshina kannada in early 90s..No till farming involves use of cover crops ( crops which are grown just to cover the land so that weeds do not grow ) and rotation of crops ( rice alternated with soy –Soy needs nitrogen.. rice does not .. but paddy plant left on the farm after harvest can be very good fertilizer for Soy and so on ). You do not need GE crop for no till farming..we do not know if no till farming reduces the global warming.. do not believe in ipcc kind of reports.

    What Monsanto is trying to do is ( probably you read some of their brochure) associate GE with no till farming. But if you want to really do no till farming the way Monsanto is advising you have to inject some of the genes into your body too.. Let me explain.

    Monsanto has developed a variety of Soy that can withstand poison. What Monsanto is advising is to grow that variety of Soy and not to worry about tilling. After sometime Soy as well as weeds grow on the land. Now time to go to market and buy poison ( I do not remember which one.. but Monsanto will tell you) And spray this poison on to the whole farm(Soy included). All the plants in the farm die except Soy.. which has a gene to resist the poison. The dead plants on the farm now provide nutrition to Soy and Soy grows stronger. This is no tilling as per Monsanto.. and it reduces the global warming..At this rate Monsanto may ask all of us to take poison and die so that we need not let out carbon dioxide and contribute to global warming.

    Please retract your association of GE with no till farming. Again.. about your claim on Brazilian farmers smuggling Soy from Argentina..this too is out of context..That is a whole new story..

    ***

    Farmer turned software engineers should use google to till the Internet before smoking on the weeds published by Monsanto. Churumuri needs to to be associated with IPCC for allowing junks like this as valued opinions..

  13. CurryHurry Says:

    “There has been much controversy about the performance of Monsanto’s Bt cotton varieties. Gene Campaign’s field study (Kharif-2002) in AP and Maharashtra has clearly shown that the Monsanto Bt cotton has performed very poorly. Several reports in the media (Frontline, Outlook,
    Businessworld) have also reported the same. Yet Monsanto continues to repeat that their Bt cotton has done well. In this light it is important to see what the AP govt. report has to say.
    The results of the AP report are in fact, very similar to that reported by Gene Campaign, said Dr. Suman Sahai, Director of Gene Campaign.”

    Please do some due diligence about the MNC behind terminator gene, agent orange, rBGH, DDT etc …
    People seem to be misled that the MNC is interested in farmer’s prosperity. Wrong. An MNC is only interested in it’s shareholder’s returns.

  14. ekdanta Says:

    Who will get how much for favouring Monsanto ? To party funds or personal swiss Bank account ?

  15. Innocent Says:

    Jairam Ramesh put a pertinent question. How come the scientists give certain opinion while they are in service and once they retire, come out with exactly opposite views. What knowledge they have gained just after retirement. This needs to be answered by the scientists.

  16. Minanath Says:

    Little Humour

    http://caricaturehome.blogspot.com/2010/02/to-b-or-not-to-bt-bringal.html

  17. Sudhir Says:

    10 years to free up Golden Rice and no one knows when it will be grown in a farmer’s field. Sure, it is a technological breakthrough but what use is such an advance when neither scientists nor consumers or politicos cannot agree on its benefits.

  18. My3 Says:

    A very basic google search for Monsanto, US Farmers will give reams of data.

  19. SHREE Says:

    Well Mr.Reddy… In your writeup, you have referred too many scientists, many thoughts regarding surrounding countries etc. For a global man like you, this is quite suitable, and may be expected out of you too. Referring people from here and there is just a game… we can see what we want to see and refer what we want to refer… But that doesn’t mean what or whom we refer to is the ultimate fact.

    Please come to India now… go to the villages where farmers already suffer the ill-effects of getting seeds from MNCs, sometimes from Desi companies too. One year they sow it, next year they have to buy it again. Sometimes newly bought seeds don’t come up as crops, and the company which gave the seeds isn’t accountable at all. Farmers are not given compensation either by the companies, or by the governments who allowed the companies to sell their seeds. Do you think in such situation we should allow our crops to be controlled again by someone else from some other country? It might be an internal problem of our system, but without solving it how can we take a risk?

  20. Narayana Says:

    Innocent,

    To answer Jairam Ramesh’s question.

    What happens on retirement day is that you are free to provide your expert opinion than parrot company’s stated opinion that has ulterior motive.

    Let us keep the individuals out..but only listen to the facts. If a retired individual is willing to share some facts that aid discussion let us hear from him. Rather than mocking at him!!!

  21. kavitha Says:

    Is this the same Ravi Krishna Reddy who contested against Ananthkumar in South Bangalore and lost his deposit because EC changed his election symbol at the last minute and confused the voters.

    I would take any advise from such a person with a bucket of salt.

    Like Narayana says

    >>Farmer turned software engineers should use google to till the Internet before smoking on the weeds published by Monsanto.>> :)

    ***

    AG,

    >>Denouncing sectarian politics, Rahul told an audience at Bhaidas College that the Congress “stands for a united India. There are two kinds of leaders in the country. One who divide and rule and others who collaborate and take everyone along with the objective of a united India and move forward. There are some people here who are trying to divide you on communal and linguistic basis and Congress is against them>>

    By the same yardshtick does not J&K belong to all Indians? Why article 370 then?

    AG you are way to gullible to believe this nonsense, It was the this prince charmings great grand father who acquiesced with british to partition the country and also gave away tibet to China without a whimper.

    It was the grand mother who started the khalistan movement by propping up Bhindranwale against Akali dal, and supported LTTE which eventually killed Prince Charming’s dad and his grand mother.

    Anyway please do not let facts come in the way of your beliefs and assertions ;)

    It was

  22. CurryHury Says:

    It is claimed by the Software farmer engineer that transgenic crops are embraced in China. But to what effect ?

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July06/Bt.cotton.China.ssl.html

    “Although Chinese cotton growers were among the first farmers worldwide to plant genetically modified (GM) cotton to resist bollworms, the substantial profits they have reaped for several years by saving on pesticides have now been eroded.

    The reason, as reported by Cornell University researchers at the American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA) Annual Meeting in Long Beach, Calif., July 25, is that other pests are now attacking the GM cotton.”

  23. Dr. Sree Reddy Says:

    @ the author
    Even I come from an agricultural family background. My grandfather was into agriculture and he always against using chemicals and insisted using natural manure and said we should not hurt bhumithai (earth).

    how much pachauri and jayaram ramesh team got as kick backs?
    I just dont trust these crooks.

    If it is patented one, MNCs will benefit and make profits.
    Havent you seen the plight of our farmers who were forced to buy cotton seeds from MNCs and many of them had to borrow money from banks and could not pay it back, bcoz crops failed. Why did the crops failed?
    Those seeds just not suitable for our indian soil. In the process many our forced to commit suicide. Seeds grown in our environment suits this soil.

    I think, present India has already has enough good varities of brinjals.

    You may be talking about USA. Many other developed countries dont use genetically changed ones. It is manadatory to display if it has any food item genetically changed/coded? ones in many developed countries.
    They think it is against nature and dont use it.

    Let me quote Vandana Shiva. Her slogan is” People before Patents”.

    BT Brinjal will benefit MNCs and whoever has patents.

    Who the hell is this Jayaram Ramesh to decide what seeds should indian farmers would be using? Has he done any farming in his life?
    Let the famers and the users in india decide.

  24. vinod Says:

    I saw a documentary called Food Inc. may be apporpriate to this posting.

  25. ಬಿಟಿ ಬದನೆ – ಒಂದೆರಡು ಉತ್ತರಗಳು… Says:

    [...] ಎರಡು ಪ್ರಶ್ನೆ-ಪ್ರತಿಕ್ರಿಯೆಗಳು ಬಂದಿವೆ. churumuri.com ಯಲ್ಲಿ ಇಪ್ಪತ್ತಕ್ಕೂ ಹೆಚ್ಚಿನ [...]

  26. Ajay Kishore C Says:

    Let Nature take its own course. Manipulation of genetic material by humans, is confronted with many issues (not merely ethical). It seems good for science fiction novels, but may turn out to be a fiasco in reality.
    Here’s my blog post: http://ajaykishoreblog.blogspot.in/2012/02/crossbreed-this-was-topic-given-to-me.html

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