On 9 June , the Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers’ group in Maharashtra, marked its protest against the government ban on genetically modified (GM) crops by planting Bt brinjal and HT cotton. The first farmer satyagraha led by Mahatma Gandhi was in Champaran, protesting against an oppressive government that took away farmers’ choices and forced them to grow a crop (indigo) that increased their food insecurity and financial stress. Unfortunately, not much has changed over the century except the colour of the oppressors. Now, farmers must fight against their own, as the Indian government denies them their right to choose and innovate.
A lot has been said about Bt and HT cotton, but little is known about brinjal, which is India’s second most consumed vegetable after potatoes. This highly nutritious crop is grown by 1.5 million small and resource-poor farmers, making India the world’s second-largest producer with a 26% production share. The traditional brinjal crop is threatened by a number of pests and diseases but most seriously by the fruit and shoot borer (FSB), which causes about 60-70% yield losses, even after extensive insecticide use.
Bt brinjal (developed by Mahyco in collaboration with the University of Agricultural Sciences and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University) has a gene that produces a protein that affects FSB larva but no other animals or humans. On average, insecticide requirement for Bt brinjal is 80% less than its non-Bt counterpart for the control of FSB. This translates into a 42% reduction in total insecticides used for control of all insect pests in Bt brinjal, making it more environment-friendly. In a 2011 paper, Sant Kumar, P.A. Lakshmi Prasanna and Shwetal Wankhede estimated that a mere 15% rate of adoption of Bt brinjal would improve yields by 37% and a reduction in price by 3%.
Even though the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) cleared Bt brinjal for safety a decade ago, no government approved it for commercial use. If Bt brinjal has such obvious benefits, why is the government against it? The reason is the well-organized lobby against GM crops, comprising some very strange bedfellows.
The green lobby across the world strongly opposes GM foods. Instead of evaluating the risks, costs and benefits of hybrids on a case-by-case basis, they propose a blanket ban on genetic modification due to their ideological stand against corporatization, as research on GM varieties is typically done by large corporations. Perversely, the rich from the developed world, having never experienced food insecurity, block innovations that improve the yields and lives of poor Indian farmers.
The extreme left is joined by the extreme right, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliates Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh opposing Bt brinjal for protectionist reasons. They fear Indian farmers becoming overly dependent on these large corporates for seeds. But this argument implicitly recognizes the improved value of these transgenic hybrids.
The silent but active player is the insecticide lobby. They lose if farmers use transgenic hybrids that reduce their dependency on insecticides. So insecticide manufacturers surreptitiously support activism against GM crops.
Those who benefit, like farmers and consumers, are too dispersed and unorganized to effectively counter these well-funded lobbies.
While protesting parties highlight the environmental risks of GM crops, they ignore the risks and costs of not using GM crops. Insecticide use in India is excessive, and groundwater in most farming communities has unsafe levels of insecticide. Low non-GM crop yields must also be considered in the wake of declining farm incomes and food and nutritional security. There is an asymmetry in their analysis of the costs and benefits. And so they choke innovation by focussing on the few risks of transgenic hybrids.
Therefore, we need permission-less innovation in agriculture. The world has developed because of a presumption in favour of allowing experimentation with new ideas and technologies. Most great ideas would never reach fruition if they need a government bureaucrat’s permission. It is rare to find examples of innovations that are perfect and eliminate all risks and costs. The internet, for instance, grew in its use and application in a completely permission-less and uncontrolled way. It also poses costs, like the staggering amount of pornographic content available online and its effect on society. If this were up to the regulators initially, they might have blocked the internet for commercial use and application because of lobbying by puritanical groups.
Our farmers need a presumption in favour of allowing innovation to improve farm incomes and reduce food and nutrition insecurity by experimenting with crops like Bt brinjal. Despite freedom from colonial rule, the rights of farmers have not improved in areas other than taxation. The government controls virtually every single input market—preventing farmers from choosing how to use their land and labour.
In a world where politicians try to bribe farmers with subsidies, farmer groups like the Shetkari Sanghatana must be applauded. They are only demanding their right to choose and innovate to increase productivity. It is not just an economic necessity, but a moral imperative to support them in their satyagraha for permission-less innovation.