FEATURE - Indian farmers caught in war over GM crops
MODASA, India - When Ambalal Patel\'s cotton field stayed pest-free this year, he thought it had more to do with favourable planetary positions than the hybrid seeds he had planted.
But Patel\'s joy over the success of his cotton crop planted in his tiny, one-acre plot proved short-lived.
Authorities have found Patel and hundreds of other farmers in India\'s western Gujarat state - a major cotton growing belt - used genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, banned by the government.
Now they say the crop will have to be destroyed because it is bacillus thuringiensis cotton, otherwise known as BT cotton.
\"It\'s not our fault. The government should have woken up earlier and stopped the company from selling the banned seeds,\" said the semi-literate farmer, who has to support a family of seven growing cotton, groundnut and corn.
The discovery of illegally grown BT cotton has triggered questions about the wisdom of delaying the introduction of commercial production of genetically modified crops in India.
The country devotes more land to growing cotton than any other, but it produces far less than in other parts of the world. Each hectare (2.4 acres) produces just 300 kg (660 lbs) compared with a world average of 650 kg.
Patel bought his seeds from a relative, who had been growing BT cotton for the past three years, using seeds supplied by a private company.
The firm sold the seeds to farmers as a hybid research variety and did not specify it was transgenic cotton.
He is not alone. The government has ordered the procurement and destruction of cotton on an estimated 10,000 hectares of land in Gujarat, India\'s largest cotton-growing state.
In the farm next door, Patel\'s neighbour, Amrit K. Patel, who had sown locally bred seeds, was pouring money into pesticides to save his crop from bollworm that causes heavy damage.
The growing of genetically engineered crops is banned in India, though the government has allowed a private firm and agricultural research institutes to undertake research and field trials of transgenic cotton.
Meanwhile, government officials say, destroying cotton grown in Gujarat is impossible since more than two-thirds of the crop has already been picked and ginned.
\"It\'s an uphill task to distinguish between transgenic and non-transgenic varieties. So the whole exercise would be futile,\" said Arvind Aggarwal, Gujarat\'s agriculture commissioner.
Authorities in Gujarat have so far bought some 120 tonnes of BT cotton from farmers and have begun steps to prevent farmers from storing the seeds for re-sowing next year.
\"The objective behind the exercise (of buying and destroying cotton) is to prevent farmers from using the seeds for re-sowing,\" said P.K Ghosh a senior Environment official.
While a large section of the farming community is pitching hard for access to GM seeds, environmental activists are calling for a 10-year moratorium on field trials and production.
\"We need to study the possible impact of GM crops on environment and humans before thinking of commercialisation,\" says Vandana Shiva, a green activist at the forefront of India\'s anti-GM campaign.
But farmers allege that people who oppose genetically altered seeds are acting in concert with domestic seed and pesticide companies trying to protect their interests.
\"Given a chance, I would grow BT cotton in my whole farm. It\'s sure to give me higher output and I will need to spend less on pesticides,\" said Amrit K. Patel.
He spent about 15,000 rupees ($313) this year on pesticides to save his cotton in a two-acre (0.9 hectare) plot from the attacks of bollworms, but is not sure of making any money in the end.
\"Had I planted BT cotton, I could well have saved at least half the money spent on pesticides,\" he told Reuters.
Despite heavy spraying of pesticides throughout the year, Patel said he did not expect his cotton crop to yield enough to recover the cost of pesticides. He is contemplating growing a different crop.
Farm scientists estimate that almost half the country\'s pesticide usage goes to protect cotton crops from pest attacks.
Story by Thomas Kutty Abraham
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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