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Of GM food crops, Bt cotton and an honest committee in India


The Lok Sabha (the 15th Lok Sabha) of the Parliament of India has released the report of the Committee on Agriculture (2011-2012) on ‘Cultivation Of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects And Effects’.

Cover of the report. Click for the full report (pdf, 6.35 MB)

The report stands as a comprehensive indictment of the genetically modified food crops industry and its attempts to wrest control of India’s foodgrain and commercial crops production. The Committee sought views and suggestions on the subject from the various stakeholders and 467 memoranda, most of them signed by several stakeholders were received. In all, the Committee received documents running into 14,826 pages. The Committee also extensively interacted with various stakeholders including state governments, farmers organisations, NGOs, and also with farmers and their families during study visits during this period. Altogether, 50 individuals and organisations gave oral evidence before the Committee. Verbatim records of the proceedings of the oral evidence runs into 863 pages.

This small extract is from pages 24 to 29 of the 532-page Committee report:

GM crops are released in environment only after stringent evaluation of food/biosafety protocols/issues. To have a holistic and comprehensive view on the pros and cons of application of bio-technology on agricultural sector the Committee took on record IAASTD Report as it is an authentic research document prepared after painstaking effort of four years by 400 scientists from all over the world. India is a signatory to this Report which has been extensively quoted in a subsequent Chapter of the present Report of the Committee. Amongst various recommendations germane to all spheres of agriculture and allied activities and sectors, the following recommendations on bio-technology caught the attention of the Committee in all context of their present examination:

Conventional biotechnologies, such as breeding techniques, tissue culture, cultivation practices and fermentation are readily accepted and used. Between 1950 and 1980, prior to the development GMOs, modern varieties of wheat may have increased yields up to 33% even in the absence of fertilizer. Even modern biotechnologies used in containment have been widely adopted. For example, the industrial enzyme market reached US$1.5 billion in 2000. Biotechnologies in general have made profound contributions that continue to be relevant to both big and small farmers and are fundamental to capturing any advances derived from modern biotechnologies and related nanotechnologies. For example, plant breeding is fundamental to developing locally adapted plants whether or not they are GMOs. These biotechnologies continue to be widely practiced by farmers because they were developed at the local level of understanding and are supported by local research.

Much more controversial is the application of modern biotechnology outside containment, such as the use of GM crops. The controversy over modern biotechnology outside of containment includes technical, social, legal, cultural and economic arguments. The three most discussed issues on biotechnology in the IAASTD concerned:

o Lingering doubts about the adequacy of efficacy and safety testing, or regulatory frameworks for testing GMOs;
o Suitability of GMOs for addressing the needs of most farmers while not harming others, at least within some existing IPR and liability frameworks;
o Ability of modern biotechnology to make significant contributions to the resilience of small and subsistence agricultural systems.

The pool of evidence of the sustainability and productivity of GMOs in different settings is relatively anecdotal, and the findings from different contexts are variable, allowing proponents and critics to hold entrenched positions about their present and potential value. Some regions report increases in some crops and positive financial returns have been reported for GM cotton in studies including South Africa, Argentina, China, India and Mexico. In contrast, the US and Argentina may have slight yield declines in soybeans, and also for maize in the US. Studies on GMOs have also shown the potential for decreased insecticide use, while others show increasing herbicide use. It is unclear whether detected benefits will extend to most agroecosystems or be sustained in the long term as resistances develop to herbicides and insecticides.

Biotechnology in general, and modern biotechnology in particular, creates both costs and benefits, depending on how it is incorporated into societies and ecosystems and whether there is the will to fairly share benefits as well as costs. For example, the use of modern plant varieties has raised grain yields in most parts of the world, but sometimes at the expense of reducing biodiversity or access to traditional foods. Neither costs nor benefits are currently perceived to be equally shared, with the poor tending to receive more of the costs than the benefits.

The Committee note with great appreciation the fantastic achievements of India’s farmers and agriculture scientists leading to an almost five times growth in food grains production in the country during last six decades or so. From a paltry 50 million tonnes in 1950 the Country has produced a record 241 million tonnes in 2010-11. In spite of this spectacular achievement that has ensured the food security of the nation, things continue to be bleak on several fronts. Agriculture sector?s contribution to GDP has slid down from 50% in 1950 to a mere 13% now, though the sector continues to provide employment and subsistence to almost 70% of the workforce. The lot of the farmer has worsened with increasing indebtedness, high input costs, far less than remunerative prices for his produce, yield plateau, worsening soil health, continued neglect of the agriculture sector and the farmer by the Government, dependence on rain gods in 60% of cultivated area, even after six and a half decades of Country’s independence, to cite a few. All these factors and many more have aggravated the situation to such an extent that today a most severe agrarian crisis in the history is staring at us. The condition of the farming-Community in the absence of pro-farmer/pro-agriculture policies has become so pitiable that it now sounds unbelievable that the slogan Jai Jawan – Jai Kisan was coined in India.

There is, therefore, a pressing need for policies and strategies in agriculture and allied sectors which not only ensure food security of the nation, but are sustainable and have in built deliverable components for the growth and prosperity of the farming community. It is also imperative that while devising such policies and strategies the Government does not lose track of the fact that 70% of our farmers are small and marginal ones. As the second most populous Country in the world, with a growing economy ushering in its wake newer dietary habits and nutrition norms, a shrinking cultivable area, a predominantly rainfed agriculture, the task is indeed enormous.

In the considered opinion of the Committee biotechnology holds a lot of promise in fructification of the above-cited goals. Several of conventional bio-technologies viz. plant breeding techniques, tissue-culture, cultivation practices, fermentation, etc. have significantly contributed in making agriculture what it is today. The Committee note that for some years now transgenics or genetical engineering is being put forward as the appropriate technology for taking care of several ills besetting the agriculture sector and the farming community. It is also stated that this technology is environment friendly and, therefore, sustainable. Affordability is another parameter on which policy makers and farming communities world over are being convinced to go for this nascent technology.

The Committee further note that in India, transgenics in agriculture were introduced exactly a decade back with the commercial cultivation of Bt. Cotton which is a commercial crop. With the introduction of Bt. Cotton, farmers have taken to cotton cultivation in a big way. Accordingly, the area under cotton cultivation in the Country has gone up from 24000 ha in 2002 to 8.4 million ha at present. Apart from production, productivity has also increased with the cultivation of the transgenic cotton. The Committee also take note of the claim of the Government that input costs have also gone down due to cultivation of transgenic cotton as it requires less pesticides, etc.

Notwithstanding the claims of the Government, the policy makers and some other stakeholders about the various advantages of transgenics in agriculture sector, the Committee also take note of the various concerns voiced in the International Assessment of Agriculture, Science and Technology for Development Report commissioned by the United Nations about some of the shortcomings and negative aspects of use of transgenics/genetical engineering in the agriculture and allied sectors. The technical, social, legal, economic, cultural and performance related controversies surrounding transgenics in agriculture, as pointed out in IAASTD report, should not be completely overlooked, moreso, when India is a signatory to it.

The apprehensions expressed in the report about the sustainability and productivity of GMOs in different settings; the doubts about detected benefits of GMOs extending to most agro-eco systems or sustaining in long term; the conclusion that neither costs nor benefits are currently perceived to be equally shared, with the poor tending to receive more of the costs than benefits all point towards a need for a revisit to the decision of the Government to go for transgenics in agriculture sector. This is all the more necessary in the light of Prime Minister’s exhortion on 3 March, 2010 at the Indian Science Congress about full utilisation of modern biotechnology for ensuring food security but without compromising a bit on safety and regulatory aspects. The present examination of the Committee, as the succeeding chapters will bear out, is an objective assessment of the pros and cons of introduction of genetical modification/transgenics in our food crops which happened to be not only the mainstay of our agriculture sector but also the bedrock of our food security.

Do Gooders and Guilt Tours in Luang Prabang


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Sheila lives in Luang Prabang, Laos. She runs a shop, and has a little dog that is fiercely protective when strangers come around. But the little dog has nothing on Sheila. “Don’t get me started,” Sheila warns. Then she starts.

“The government organizations; the UN organizations; the NGOs — they come to Laos, piss millions of dollars against a wall. They bring their families, they have their four-wheel drive vehicles, and they drive around visiting Vietnam and Cambodia and Thailand and have a wonderful time. Then they go home. And they’re useless.

Countries are starting to tell them to stay away. These organizations are now paying countries to let them in so they can do their great work. Now they’re all leaving Laos for Myanmar — that’s their next big project.

“NGOs send kids over here, lots of good intentions, but without any of the skills or talents that might be of some use. My friend Jane calls them ‘blancmanges.’ They’re just bland, ordinary kids with none of the abilities they require to make a difference — especially in a country like this one that has essentially jumped from the 16th century to the 21st. And the kids don’t last — they’re gone in a hurry.”

Sheila is a 50-ish Australian ex-pat who has lived in Luang Prabang for 15 years. Upon learning that she was conversing with a Canadian writer, she asks not to be identified. “I have to live here,” she says. And she has plenty to say about some of her imported neighbours. “All of these businesses started up by ex-pats that promise to ‘give back’ to the community,” she snorts. “Please. Almost nobody gives back. There are perhaps a couple of good organizations here and the rest are lining their pockets. Like those ‘Western guilt‘ tours, where people pay money to come and paint an orphanage. Does the orphanage get the money? No. The tour company pockets the money. And I talk to the orphanage workers — they say, ‘How many new coats of paint do we need?’ They ask for money to feed the kids instead. But no. They get more fresh paint. And the tour company gets paid.”

Penciled in progress

Ryan Young is not quite so dyspeptic. Young manages Joma Bakery Cafe, one of the few Luang Prabang joints that offers travelers a real espresso and an English language newspaper. The cafe, co-owned by former Vancouver residents Michael Harder and Jonathan Blair, is active in supporting a local charity called Pencils of Promise. And he says they do give back. “One per cent of our sales goes to Pencils of Promise and one per cent goes to Hagar International, which helps women escape from sexual slavery. We also hire those women. And we participate in a lot of projects with Pencils of Promise. This week our staff members, who are from the local community, were out helping kids find healthier ways to prepare some favourite local dishes.”

Young, who came to Luang Prabang from Portland, Oregon, about 18 months ago, does not discount Sheila’s points. “If there’s no commitment after the project,” he says, “if it’s just about having a picture of yourself posing with a brown kid to put on the fridge at home, well, that’s always a red flag.”

“When Pencils of Promise goes into a community to build a school we ask for 25 per cent contribution from the community, whether that’s labour or cement or whatever. We make sure the building is one that they want and one that fits into the community, whether it looks good in a photo or not. We make sure there is a teacher in place and ongoing program support, or we don’t do it. Since the ‘Three Cups of Tea’ controversy there’s more awareness and more scrutiny — you need to make sure there’s going to be a school functioning after the builders leave.”

That contrasts with Sheila’s description of one international aid project. “We asked the EU people to come and build a new three-room high school at the orphanage so kids wouldn’t have to leave at age 14 or so. The orphanage people told me, ‘Sheila, come see our new school.’ So I did. I asked, ‘Where’s the furniture? Where’s the electricity? Where are the blackboards?’ Well, the EU people didn’t do that. They get kudos for four walls and a ceiling and that’s the end of it. The orphanage had to raise another $8,000 to get equipment. Same thing when the hospital got built — no equipment. They don’t care. They do their little bit and take off.”

Read closely

Sheila does mention an organization that she believes does good work in Luang Prabang — Lao Kids, a group that raises money for local schools, orphanages, and hospitals, with all members working for free.

Not every local do-gooder group is volunteer run. Big Brother Mouse is a self-described non-profit that publishes children’s books and promotes reading parties at local schools to help Laotian kids develop reading skills. They sell their books directly to the public, and also ask for donations to fund the reading parties at a cost of $300-$400. They’ve received plenty of great publicity. But when hearing about their work it’s easy to miss the fact that they are not a charity.

“To be fair,” Young says, “Big Brother Mouse never claims to be a charity. And really, the responsibility is on the giver. If you’re not just trying to make yourself feel good — if you want your money to be used effectively — it’s up to you to check out the financial statements of an organization.”

Young is also more forgiving of big NGOs in Laos. Groups like Save the Children and World Vision have to deal with the Laotian government. “I’m told there are 16 different government departments and they don’t recognize each other,” Young says. “There are turf wars — they all want to sign off on the project. They send government representatives out to supervise, and they all have to be paid per diems by the NGO. After a school gets built I’m told that sometimes the costs of hosting government officials is greater than the cost of building the school.”

One of Sheila’s stories seems certain to inspire a mix of anger and pride in a Canadian listener. “There was a Canadian government operation back in the early part of this century — maybe 24 or 28 young Canadians came over here. They were going to promote waste reduction and recycling in Laotian schools. The kids spent the first few months learning the language, and then they were sent off to the provinces. It was supposed to be a two-year program. By the end of, I think, a year, there were only three of the Canadians left in Laos. The others had all run home.

“But those three were wonderful. They had each of them figured out that this program was never going to work. So they decided to figure out what they could do to actually help. One guy asked the locals, ‘What do you need?’ And they said, ‘Water supply systems.’ So he put together a program that not only helped the village water supply but eventually had them making money by selling water systems to other villages. It was great. But all the while he was sending these bullshit emails back to the Canadian government people, saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m executing the program, it’s going great.’ And meanwhile he was doing something completely different, but useful.”

Sheila can’t remember the name of the Canadian woman who had been assigned to Luang Prabang. But this young Canadian too figured out that the plan wasn’t working. “She was supposed to be teaching the kids to gather paper waste,” Sheila says. “But then what? There was no place for it. They actually ended up burning the stuff because they didn’t know what else to do.”

‘Can I just vent?’

The Canadian realized that recycling facilities were needed and began lobbying the government. Eventually a plant was built and contracts signed with China and Vietnam, so that today there is some recycling going on, with local women being paid to collect plastic containers.

Little credit for that goes to our government. “At one point they sent over a bunch of consultants to speak to the Laotians,” Sheila recalls. “The Canadian girl told me, ‘Sheila, I have a master’s degree in this stuff. But I couldn’t understand what these people were saying. And they were talking to the Laotians this way — nobody understood a word.’ Then the consultants got back on their plane — probably had a nice vacation as well — and they went home. The Canadian government must have spent a lot of money to send them — more money pissed against a wall. If I was a Canadian taxpayer I’d be pretty angry.

“That young woman used to get so mad at the Canadian government. She would come in here and say, ‘Can I just stand here and vent?’

“That’s the kind of person you need to get something done here,” Sheila says. “Not these wimpy kids they keep sending.”

If the mysterious Canadian ever does return she’ll be pleased about one thing — Joma Cafe has Nanaimo bars.

via The Tyee – Do Gooders and Guilt Tours in Luang Prabang.

via The Tyee – Do Gooders and Guilt Tours in Luang Prabang.

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