The much hyped genetically modified (GM) crop varieties are thankfully still within the bounds of research stations with only four crops namely soyabean, maize, canola and cotton getting commercialized mainly in USA, Argentina, Canada, Brazil and China. Despite stiff resistance, Bt cotton made commercial entry in India in 2002 and that too under a strange situation. AP farmers committed suicide and Mahyco-Monsanto took advantage of this sad situation and pushed the argument that Bt cotton would benefit farmers through bollworm control and higher productivity. No such luck to Golden rice so far and its proponents may be awaiting similar grave incidence of blindness among the poor!

Nevertheless research is on the full swing in India with millions of dollars poured in by international communities to work on virtually all mainline plant crops - rice, corn, mustard, chick pea, pigeon pea, black gram, groundnut, wheat, tobacco, cotton, sugarcane and vegetables like potato, cauliflower, cabbage, brinjal, tomato, fruits like banana, muskmelon etc.

The International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is also in the same league of biotech developments and is conducting research on transgenic varieties for five crops under its mandate -- pigeon pea, chickpea, groundnut, sorghum and pearl millet; these form the staple food for one billion people in the semi-arid tropics (SAT) of Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. ICRISAT is headquartered near Hyderabad and has six regional operations in Africa.

ICRISAT’s mission statement “Help the poor of the semi-arid tropics ….” reads almost like rhetoric. It sets out to justify its biotech research efforts quoting Johansen and Nigam who stated “in groundnut, losses (due to drought) estimated to be $520 millions of which $208 millions could be recovered by genetic enhancement” and “estimated losses due to drought are 3.7 million tonnes for chick peas of which 2.1 million tonnes could be recovered by genetic enhancement.”

It is easy to extrapolate experimental gains under perfect conditions to entire acreage all over the world which is far from the perfect environment setup for experiments. Even Bt cotton seed companies made tall claims of high productivity. However, a season long impact study of Bt cotton during Kharif 2002 in Warangal district, Andhra Pradesh by none other than ex-ICRISAT scientist Kiran Sakkhari and former joint director of agriculture department Abdul Qayum bared the fact that for Bt cotton the cost of cultivation was Rs 1092 more than that for non-Bt cotton; there was 35 per cent reduction in the total yield of Bt cotton while there was a net loss of Rs 1295 in Bt cotton cultivation in comparison with non Bt cotton where the net profit was Rs 5368.

Thus, the performance of Bt cotton in its first year of its commercial cultivation was disappointing with 78 per cent farmers saying they would not go for Bt cotton next year. Initially sucking pests were absent but when the crop was 80-90 days old, its infestation was heavier on Bt than on non-Bt cotton crop. Later, bollworm and pink bollworm were predominant in both Bt and non-Bt crop, thus defeating the very purpose for which Bt variety is being introduced.

So for whom is the GM technology? Is it really for the poor? Are poor farmers from semi-arid tropics really worried about global loss figures like $520 millions of groundnut and 3.7 million tonnes of chickpeas?

Ask Anjamma – a dalit, once landless woman from Gangwar from Medak district in Andhra Pradesh whether drought so much bothers her and takes a third of her crop away? She says “rains bring me bounty but even if there is no rain, I do not bother. A little water is enough for sorghum and millet grows on dew, which is enough to feed my family.” For Anjamma and 5000 dalit women like her from 70 villages around Zaheerabad in Medak district, Andhra Pradesh, these are God’s grains – crops of truth that have assured them food security even in worst times.

Why should she shoulder the responsibility of generating surplus when she does not need to turn to anyone for her needs other than soap, salt and clothes? Sustenance farming is a way of life for these so called ‘poor’ marginal farmers, which is so diverse from the concept of market oriented agriculture. Anjamma also plants guavas, sitaphal and lemons. If she sells them, she would easily supplement her income by Rs 1000-2000. But fruits are meant for everybody and are not sold, she says. Simple!

The Deccan Development Society (DDS) started working among these dalit, landless women about 20 years ago. The NGO found that the illiterate farmers have a mine of traditional knowledge. The onslaught of modern agriculture with hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides had destroyed the biodiversity of this region. The 5000 women who were helped to acquire fallow land and given a small grant to develop it, worked hard to retrieve almost 85 seed varieties that were grown 25 years ago but were lost or drowned as these women put it. Today, Anjamma treasures over 60 different varieties of grains and pulses. DDS set out with an objective that focussed on the women, but the men of the house are also involved.

On her 4 acres, Anjamma grows about 4 quintals of four varieties of sorghum, half quintal chickpeas, about a quintal of hardy wheat, about a quintal of safflower, mustard and linseed. Why take so many crops on such a small holding? Why not grow one or two crops sufficiently in large quantities? Anjamma philosophises then who will protect this biodiversity? Who will take these seeds ahead in next generation if we do not grow them on our land? Besides, Anjamma and her fellow farmers do not need to buy anything from the market other than soap, coconut hair oil, salt and clothes. They grow ginger, chillies, turmeric, tamarind, cumminseeds, ajwain, til, corianderseeds and yes also take a small of sugarcane crop just enough to make jaggery for the household. Besides onions, garlic and all sorts of vegetables are grown for home consumption. Anjamma planted along the border of her fields varieties of fruits like sitaphal, guava, lemon, cashewnuts as also neem, tamarind etc.

Ask Anjamma what she does if there is a pest attack. She says, the pest problem exists only with the pigeonpea crop. So she simply shakes plants and collects pests fallen on the ground and burns them. Also she mixes a big basketful of cow dung with about 5 litres of cow urine in 5 litres of water, ferments the mixture and further dilutes in 20 litres of water and sprays on the crop. Occasionally they use neem oil for pest control.

The Anjammas around Zaheerabad have zeroed their dependence on market forces. Why buy substandard rice from the ration shop, when we have enough nutritional and tasty varieties, they quip.
 •  Crops of truth, 2002
What do they do about the weeds? Modern agriculture says weeds suck nutrients meant for crops. Anjamma says they do not consider weeds as enemy, they pluck them at tender age which provides fodder for the cattle, some leafy vegetables for household consumption and much valuable biomass. Besides it creates work for daily wage earners. Weeds are not unwanted. In fact everything that grows has some use or the other. Weedicides not only put chemicals in the soil but take away nutrition for the cattle and human as also employment opportunities for farm labourers.

Thus, the Anjammas of this area around Zaheerabad have zero dependence on market forces. Why buy substandard rice from the ration shop, they quip. We have enough of nutritional and much tasty varieties of food grains, vegetables and fruits, they say. But they have not stopped at achieving food security alone. They have created their own market and here too, there is no reliance on the outside market to lift surplus grains and cheat over prices.

DDS helped the dalit women form a marketing cooperative and set up a distribution centre at Zaheerabad where surplus grains are bought at one rupee above the market rate and sold at one rupee below the market rate. (For e.g., if the outside procurement price for a grain is at Rs 10 per quantum, the price is Rs 11 at the society; if the outside consumer/retail price is Rs 15, it is Rs 14 at the society. So profit margin for traders at the society's market is Rs 2 less that outsiders, but still there is a profit of Rs 3.) Thus, farmers here sell surplus and buy what they need. Also people from Zaheerabad and also from Hyderabad are regular buyers of these grains, some products like flours and ready to cook items.

These five thousand women have achieved autonomy over their food production, autonomy over their seed requirement and autonomy over their market besides the overall autonomy over their natural resources and management. No interference from outside market, government agencies and modern seed, fertilizers, pesticides companies! Anjammas of the world would make scientists eat their words like “low productivity tends to perpetuate rural poverty in the developing countries”. Does low productivity matter so much to them than food security? And who thrust low productivity on them? Modern technology when they were not ready for it.

This is not to belittle the role of technology. High tech agriculture brings bounty, agreed, but the scale should be suitable. But the yardstick of such agriculture cannot be used for marginal land holdings where there is no capacity to invest in technology. Besides, many concerns about the ill-effects of the Green Revolution remain.

ICRISAT has been carrying out contained field trials of groundnut since 2002 and pigeon pea since 2003. It has an Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBSC) which monitors potentially hazardous biological research and ensures compliance with national biosafety procedures. Depending upon the nature of the work, a Biosafety Level is assigned – for transgenic plants the level required is P1 to P2 and all ICRISAT labs and facilities dealing with transgenic research conform to these requirements. The IBSC also regularly interacts with regulatory bodies like Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Besides health risks like allergies, major concern is over environmental risk like gene transfer to non-target species, unintended harm to other organisms, pest developing resistance to transgenics. And scientists agree it is too early to resolve these issues.

Scientists are upbeat on their research work on transgenic varieties, but ask them how ultimately their findings will help farmers and consumers. They have no answers, since their job is to develop the GM variety and not so much to evolve strategies how it will go from lab to land. But they toil hard with conviction over their mandate. Still, one thing is sure, the Anjammas of the world want GM pushers to keep away from them.

At this juncture, there is some distance to go before the large scale commercial release of GM crop varieties. Policies and strategies must leave the choice to the farmers rather than persuading them to accept methods that require market dependence under the garb of relieving them from poverty.