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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Photograph: Karnataka Photo News