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Technology Has Its Pitfalls


In a desperate effort to seek a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has signed a deal with the United States. Addressing recently a joint session of the US Congress, he said: “The Green Revolution lifted countless millions above poverty…. I am very happy to say that U.S. President George Bush and I have decided to launch second generation of India-US collaboration in agriculture.”

Voted to power by an angry rural protest vote in May 2004, Dr Manmohan Singh leads the UPA Coalition. Reiterating time and again that his government’s top most priority is to increase the growth rate in agriculture, he follows the same technology prescription that led to the collapse of the green revolution. Without first ascertaining the reasons behind the terrible agrarian crisis, much of it the result of imposing environmentally-unfriendly alien technology, the prime minister embarks on the faulty promise of a ‘second’ green revolution.

Technology too has its pitfalls. Much of the crisis today that afflicts every nook and corner of rural India is the result of an unsustainable technology that did not integrate well with the social milieu. Nor is any effort being made to see through the dirty politics of technology, whether these new technologies are relevant given the farm size, varying agro-climatic conditions, environment and above all the needs of the farming community. Let us try to examine a few of the known technologies and the trail of woes it left behind. While the companies that marketed these technologies have made their profits, millions of farmers are paying the price for such unwanted technologies, all backed by government support.

The controversial Seed Bill 2004 introduced in India, which has now been referred to a Parliamentary select committee, lays emphasis on ensuring quality of improved seed being supplied to farmers. It seeks to make it mandatory for farmers to grow seed that is registered, a proposal that has come under severe criticism from the farmers as well as the civil society.

Seed quality is an important aspect of crop production. For ages, farmers had traditionally been selecting and maintaining good quality seed. They knew and understood the importance of quality seed in production. With the advent of green revolution technology, based primarily on the high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat and rice, the mainline thinking changed. Agricultural scientists, for reasons that remain unexplained, began to doubt the ability of farmers to maintain seed quality.

Aided by the World Bank, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a National Seeds Project in 1967. Under the project, spread into three phases, seed processing plants were set up in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa. Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were covered under phase III. All that the huge processing plants were supposed to do was to provide ‘certified’ seeds of food crops, mainly self-pollinating crops, to farmers.

A majority of these plants have since emerged as white elephants. It was primarily for the lack of demand for certified seeds of self-pollinating crops that a majority of these seed processing plants slid deep into red and often remained burdened with carryover stocks. Farmers refrained from buying the ‘certified’ seeds, and if the seed replacement ratio is any indication, they preferred to save and clean a part of the grain harvest for sowing in the next season.

Studies have subsequently shown that there is hardly any difference in the quality and productivity of processed ‘certified’ seed and the normal seed of self-pollinating crops like wheat and rice. In fact, what remains relatively unknown is that the 18,000 tonnes of dwarf wheat seed that was imported in 1966 from Mexico, which ushered in the wheat revolution, was not ‘certified’ processed seed. It was cleaned wheat grain collected from Mexican farmers. If the cleaned grain could bring about a record production what was the need to push expensive ‘certified’ seed to the farmers?

Not only the quality of seeds, even the traditional method of sowing paddy was dubbed as inefficient and thereby considered to be the cause for low yields. Agricultural scientists urged farmers to discard the traditional way – through broadcasting — of sowing paddy. Farm extension machinery was mobilised to disseminate the improved technology of transplanting from a paddy nursery. Within a few years of the advent of the high-yielding varieties of rice, paddy transplantation changed the rural landscape.

Transplanting paddy required additional farm labour and therefore increased the cost of production. The crop was transplanted in rows which made it easier for the tractors and other mechanised instruments to operate in the rice paddies. It also forced farmers to go in for more irrigation thereby resulting in the increased withdrawal of groundwater.

In mid-1980s, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines concluded in a study that there was hardly any difference in the crop yields from transplanted rice and from the crop sown by broadcasted seeds. Puzzled, I asked a distinguished rice breeder: “If this is true than why in the first instance were the farmers asked to switch over to transplanting paddy?” He thought for sometime, and then replied: “We were probably helping the mechanical industry grow. Since rice is the staple food in Asia, tractor sales could only grow if there was a way to move the machine in the rice fields. ”

No wonder, the sales of tractors, puddlers, reapers and other associated equipment soared in the rice growing areas. Tractors became a symbol of a proud farmer. With the banks manipulating the loans lucratively, tractors have now turned into a symbol of distress and suicides.

Farmers spraying insecticides on crops have also been a usual feature of modern farming. Pesticides on rice (and others crops) were deemed necessary since the fertiliser-responsive dwarf varieties would attract horde of insects. To make the pesticides reach the target pest, farmers were advised to use ‘knap-sack sprayers’ mounted on their backs. These sprayers came with varying kinds of nozzles – different sizes for different crops. Tractor driven sprayers were also promoted for various crops.

Although David Pimental of the University of Cornell had concluded in early 1980s that only 0.01 per cent of the pesticides reached the target pest, whereas 99.9 per cent escapes into the environment, yet farmers were asked to go in for more sprays. International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) also came out with a study on the efficiency of pesticides application. The study concluded that there was no difference in pesticides efficiency from ‘knap-sack sprayers’ and if the chemical was kept at the source of the irrigation flow in a crop field.

But even then, pesticides were promoted blindly. It has now been accepted by IRRI that pesticides on rice were a ‘waste of time and effort’. Farmers in central Luzon province of the Philippines, and in Vietman and Bangladesh, have clearly established that what agricultural scientists were telling them all these years was simply wrong. Rice yields are higher in areas where pesticides are not sprayed.

Now let us take a look at the emergence of the cutting-edge technology. First of all, let us be clear that those who promoted and gained from the unwanted use and abuse of chemicals in agriculture have moved onto life sciences. One of the genetically engineered products being pushed with impunity is Bt cotton. Scientists and economists have joined the industry bandwagon in the sole quest to perform well in the Stock market. As of this is not enough, governments are rolling the red carpet for the biotechnology industry. And you guessed it right. Politicians and bureaucrats are bending backwards hoping to have a finger in the profit pie of the so-called sunrise industry !

Bt cotton occupies only 1.3 million acres in India in 2004. This is only a fraction of the over 22.5 million acres being planted with cotton. In China, Bt cotton now occupies some 1.25 million acres, which again is a fraction of the total acreage. Incidentally, Bt cotton does not increase the crop yield. All it does is to reduce the dependence on pesticides in some areas. One thing is clear, both pesticides and Bt only reduce crop losses. If Bt cotton increased yield than how come the use of pesticides on the remaining acreage under cotton is not considered as also responsible for increasing crop yields? After all, roughly 55 per cent of the total pesticides used in India (like elsewhere) for instance are applied on cotton alone. Why don’t scientists say that pesticides also increase yields? Further what is little known is that in the past 40 years or so and despite the use of chemicals, number of cotton pests multiplied. In 1960s, there were hardly seven pests on cotton that were a matter of concern, today the number of pests that worry the farmers have increased to nearly 70. Interestingly, Bt cotton had failed miserably in large parts of India. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, which cultivated nearly 70 per cent of the crop in the first three years of commercialisation have already informed the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of its failure. In China too, Bt cotton sowing had initially saved farmers some 28 kg of pesticides per hectare. Within two years, pesticides use had increased to 14 kg. This was the figure available till 2002. In the next two years — 2003 and 2004 — going by the same yardstick (since no official studies are available), pesticides use is almost back to the earlier figure of 28 kg per hectare. Why are the farmers then buying Bt cotton? Well, why did the farmers earlier buy all kinds of chemical pesticides? Isn’t it surprising that even though farmers knew that pesticides were harmful, they went on purchasing and applying still more potent chemicals. They even used them in all kinds of combinations and cocktails. Why blame the farmers? Didn’t the educated and the elite continued to smoke cigarettes even though they knew that smoking was harmful. Wasn’t it prescribed in bold letters on the cigarette packs that smoking is harmful for health? And yet, cigarette smoking was on an upswing. If it were not for the state intervention in clamping bans on smoking in public places, cigarette sales would have still multiplied. Bt cotton sales are picking up the same way. It is the market, stupid. This is how the markets can lure you to sure death. Millions have been attracted to the propaganda of the markets in the past and millions will be driven by it in future. What is not being realised is that the same pesticides that were promoted by the US Department of Agriculture and the agricultural scientists during the past three decades, has taken a human toll of at least 600,000 people from pesticides poisoning. How? Well, the World Health Organisation (WHO) tells us that some 20,000 people die every year from pesticide poisoning. Multiply that figure with 30 years (this is on a conservative scale, green revolution began around 1966-67), and you get the staggering death toll. Isn’t that mass murder? How could the USDA promote a technology all these years that killed 600,000 people worldwide? Much of these pesticides were applied on cotton. Bt technology too is primarily commercialised for cotton. But by the time the world realises the grave mistake in promoting Bt cotton (for the sake of commercial profits of a handful of private companies), the farmers would have paid a price, as they did earlier with chemicals. What is the way out? Ask the farmers. The USDA needs to look closely at a remarkable turnaround brought about by a tiny village in the heart of the killing fields of Andhra Pradesh in India. This village has stopped using chemical pesticides and has therefore no need for Bt cotton, and therefore is not worried about pests. Isn’t that the way forward? Isn’t sustainable farming the best way forward? Haven’t farmers all over the world proved that low external input agriculture is the best option to have a bountiful harvest without leaving a scr on environment?

Much of the agrarian crisis therefore is the result of such ‘unwanted’ and ‘cost-intensive’ technologies that have been forced on the farmers. Isn’t it obvious that scientists were unknowingly trying to promote the commercial interests of the seed, tractor and the pesticides industry? Blindly introducing alien farm technologies without ascertaining its utility under the Indian farm conditions has cost the farmers dearly. In fact, the lure of such unwanted and expensive technologies, has fleeced the farming community. The savings from crop harvests have actually gone towards the cost of purchasing and maintenance of these irrelevant technologies. This has compounded the plight of the farming community thereby aggravating the farm crisis.

Politics of technology is no less tricky. It is time the politics behind the new agriculture technologies, including biotechnology and nano-technology, and farming systems like like ‘contract farming’ and corporate agriculture are first examined and analysed in depth before pushing it on to unsuspecting farmers. #

(The writer is a New Delhi-based food policy analyst)

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