This case study is the result of field visits undertaken by SA PPLPP in District Kandhamal, Odisha, where PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action) has supported goat based livelihood interventions in five of the fourteen gram panchayats of the Balliguda block.
Earlier this month, India’s Parliamentpassed a bill aimed at delivering subsidized food to around 800 million people. While well-intentioned, the law is expensive and has raised questions about whether India produces enough food to meet demand.
Proponents of genetically modified food say GM technology will boost production to meet India’s food requirements, but critics argue that it is unsustainable, and that the main challenge is not one of production but distribution.
Dilnavaz Variava doesn’t believe that GM food will address India’s food crisis. She is honorary convener for consumer issues for the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, an alliance of farmers, scientists, economists, non-governmental organizations and citizens who advocate for ecologically and economically sustainable agriculture.
Ms. Variava has worked for a range of organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund India, where she was chief executive, and the Bombay Natural History Society. She has also served on several federal government committees as well as one in Maharashtra for the development of agriculture.
Ms. Variava spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time about GM food in India. Edited excerpts:
The Wall Street Journal: Parliament’s passage of the Food Security Bill reflects the urgency of addressing the food security challenge. Would genetically modified food do this?
Dilnavaz Variava: India has enough food grain — almost two-and-a-half times the required buffer stock — and yet 200 million Indians go hungry. The problem of sufficiency is not one of production, but of economic and physical access, which the Food Security Bill attempts to address. Poverty, mounds of rotting food grain, wastage and leakages in the Public Distribution System are the real causes of food insecurity. GM food cannot address this.
WSJ: Is there evidence from other countries that GM food improves food security?
Ms. Variava: Macroeconomic data for the largest adopters of GM food indicate the opposite. In the U.S., food insecurity has risen from 12% in pre-GM 1995 to 15% in 2011. In Paraguay, where nearly 65% of land is under GM crops, hunger increased from 12.6% in 2004-06 to 25.5% in 2010-12. In Brazil and Argentina, GM food has not reduced hunger. In any event, GM does not increase yields, as the Union of Concerned Scientists established through a review of 12 years of GM in the U.S.
WSJ: How does GM food differ in quality from non-GM food?
Ms. Variava: About 99% of all GM crops have either one or both of two traits that make food unsafe: a pesticide-producing toxin (Bt) present in every cell of the plant and a herbicide tolerant trait that enables the plant to withstand herbicides used to kill weeds. While food safety regulators have cleared GM foods as safe, many independent scientists disagree. Their studies point to health risks: allergies, cancer, reproductive, renal, pancreatic and hepatic disorders. They say regulators give safety assurances based on studies which the GM industry conducts for a maximum period of 90 days on lab rats. This corresponds to a human life span of less than 15 years, which is too short for long-term health effects such as organ damage or cancer to manifest.
WSJ: In India, why did the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee call for a moratorium on field trials of GM crops in July?
Ms. Variava: The TEC majority report by five scientists from the fields of molecular biology, toxicology, nutrition science and biodiversity called for an indefinite moratorium on field trials, stating that ‘the regulatory system has major gaps.’ They concluded that the quality of information in several GM applications was far below that necessary for rigorous evaluation. They recommended a moratorium on field trials for Bt in food crops until there was more definitive information on its long-term safety, and for crops for which India is a center of origin/diversity. They also recommended a ban on the release of ‘herbicide tolerant’ crops, which are inadvisable on socioeconomic grounds in a country where farms are small and weeding provides income to millions of people.
WSJ: Does the report take food security into account?
Ms. Variava: Yes, the report notes that although India has a food surplus in production terms, one-third of the world’s malnourished children live here. It does not see GM as the answer to this.
WSJ: Does it make sense to ban even field trials of GM food?
Ms. Variava: Field trials involve open-air releases of GM. Given that rice and wheat survived their supposed destruction after field trials in U.S. and caused import bans leading to losses of millions of dollars to U.S. farmers, field trials are not harmless scientific experiments. Banning field trials makes sense until a strong biosafety and liability regime is in place.
WSJ: Isn’t India taking regulatory steps to promote the safe use of modern biotechnology, for example with the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill?
Ms. Variava: The BRAI Bill appears to be promoting rather than regulating GM. It proposes a single window clearance, with power to clear GM crops dangerously concentrated in the hands of just five people. All its other committees are merely advisory. It will overrule the constitutional powers of state governments over agriculture and circumscribe the Right to Information and legal redressal. It does not mandate long-term studies, assure labeling and post-release health monitoring, or have adequate punitive provisions. There is no mandatory consideration of safer alternatives or preliminary need assessment based on socioeconomic factors. GM crops are input intensive, requiring adequate fertilizers and timely irrigation. With over 70% of India’s farmers being small and impoverished, and 65% dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon, GM is a high cost, high debt and high risk technology for India. The BRAI Bill does not ensure caution for this unpredictable and irreversible technology.
WSJ: What would economically and environmentally sustainable agriculture for India look like?
Ms. Variava: A World Bank commissioned study found that agro-ecological approaches and not GM provide the best solution to the world’s food crisis.In March 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food also reported that small scale farmers could double food production within 5 to 10 years by agro-ecological farming.
An Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India study for West Bengal found that organic farming could increase net per capita income of a farmer in the state by 250%, lead to wealth accumulation of 120 billion rupees ($1.9 billion), generate exports worth 5.5 billion rupees ($87 million) and create nearly two million employment opportunities over five years.
In Andhra Pradesh, Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture was started in 2005-06. It promoted ecologically and economically sound agriculture with state government and World Bank support. About 10,000 villages with one million farmers practice non-pesticidal management on over 3.5 million acres. Pesticide use in the state has decreased by more than 45%. Net income increases were 3,000 to 15,000 rupees per acre, in addition to meeting a household’s food needs.
The emergence of market-based instruments (MBIs) in the field of ecosystem services has been spectacular but still lacks a clear conceptualization. Terms are overused and abused in discourses, and contrasted policy instruments are referred to as market-oriented albeit with few characteristics in common. Realities on the ground differ substantially from attractive yet misleading propositions supported by public and private discourses. Both advocates and opponents to these approaches thus propose arguments poorly relying on facts and fueling confusion. Payments for environmental services (PES) have flourished and constitute the emblematic and perfect example of a policy instrument that proves more complex and polymorphous than usually acknowledged. Born from the promises of spontaneous agreements between beneficiaries and providers of services for their mutual interest, it has been viewed by most analysts as a popular MBI. We challenge this view by confronting 73 peer-reviewed articles to a typology of MBIs.
Background: Methyl bromide, a fungicide often used in strawberry cultivation, is of concern for residents who live near agricultural applications because of its toxicity and potential for drift. Little is known about the effects of methyl bromide exposure during pregnancy.
Objective: We investigated the relationship between residential proximity to methyl bromide use and birth outcomes.
Methods: Participants were from the CHAMACOS (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas) study (n = 442), a longitudinal cohort study examining the health effects of environmental exposures on pregnant women and their children in an agricultural community in northern California. Using data from the California Pesticide Use Reporting system, we employed a geographic information system to estimate the amount of methyl bromide applied within 5 km of a woman’s residence during pregnancy. Multiple linear regression models were used to estimate associations between trimester-specific proximity to use and birth weight, length, head circumference, and gestational age.
Results: High methyl bromide use (vs. no use) within 5 km of the home during the second trimester was negatively associated with birth weight (β = –113.1 g; CI: –218.1, –8.1), birth length (β = –0.85 cm; CI: –1.44, –0.27), and head circumference (β = –0.33 cm; CI: –0.67, 0.01). These outcomes were also associated with moderate methyl bromide use during the second trimester. Negative associations with fetal growth parameters were stronger when larger (5 km and 8 km) versus smaller (1 km and 3 km) buffer zones were used to estimate exposure.
Conclusions: Residential proximity to methyl bromide use during the second trimester was associated with markers of restricted fetal growth in our study.
Key words: birth outcomes, birth weight, fumigants, methyl bromide, pesticides, residential proximity
Developing and developed countries alike need a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a “green revolution” to a “truly ecological intensification” approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation) UNCTAD’s Trade and Environment Review 2013 (TER13) contends.
TER13 highlights that the required transformation is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural system. Rather, what is called for is a better understanding of the multi-functionality of agriculture, its pivotal importance for pro-poor rural development and the significant role it can play in dealing with resource scarcities and in mitigating and adapting to climate change. However, the sheer scale at which modified production methods would have to be adopted, the significant governance issues, the power asymmetries’ problems in food input and output markets as well as the current trade rules for agriculture pose considerable challenges.
TER13, entitled Wake up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate was released on 18 September 2013. More than 60 international experts have contributed their views to a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and the most suitable strategic approaches for dealing holistically with the inter-related problems of hunger and poverty, rural livelihoods, social and gender inequity, poor health and nutrition, and climate change and environmental sustainability – one of the most interesting and challenging subjects of present development discourse.
Agricultural development, the report underlines, is at a true crossroads. By way of illustration, food prices in the period 2011 to mid-2013 were almost 80% higher than for the period 2003-2008. Global fertilizer use increased by 8 times in the past 40 years, although global cereal production has scarcely doubled at the same time. The growth rates of agricultural productivity have recently declined from 2% to below 1% per annum. The two global environmental limits that have already been crossed (nitrogen contamination of soils and waters and biodiversity loss) were caused by agriculture. GHG emissions from agriculture are not only the single biggest source of global warming in the South, besides the transport sector, they are also the most dynamic. The scale of foreign land acquisitions (often also termed land grabbing) dwarfs the level of Official Development Assistance, the former being 5-10 times higher in value than the latter in recent years.
Most important of all, despite the fact that the world currently already produces sufficient calories per head to feed a global population of 12-14 billion, hunger has remained a key challenge. Almost one billion people chronically suffer from starvation and another billion are mal-nourished. Some 70% of these people are themselves small farmers or agricultural laborers. Therefore, hunger and mal-nutrition are not phenomena of insufficient physical supply, but results of prevailing poverty, and above all problems of access to food. Enabling these people to become food self-sufficient or earn an appropriate income through agriculture to buy food needs to take center stage in future agricultural transformation. Furthermore, the current demand trends for excessive biofuel and concentrate animal feed use of cereals and oil seeds, much too high meat-based diets and post-harvest food waste are regarded as given, rather than challenging their rational. Questionably, priority in international policy discussions remains heavily focused on increasing industrial agricultural production, mostly under the slogan “growing more food at less cost to the environment”.
The strategy recommended to developing countries of relying on international markets to meet staple food demand, while specializing in the production and export of ‘lucrative’ cash crops has not produced the intended results, because it relied on low staple food prices and no shortage of supply in international markets, conditions that have drastically changed since the turn of the century. Globalization has also encouraged excessive specialization, increasing scale of production of few crops and enormous cost pressure. All this has aggravated the environmental crisis of agriculture and reduced agricultural resilience. What is now required is a shift towards diverse production patterns that reflect the multi-functionality of agriculture and enhance close nutrient cycles. Moreover, as environmental externalities are mainly not internalized, carbon taxes are the rare exception rather than the rule and carbon-offset markets are largely dysfunctional – all factors that would prioritize regional/local food production through ‘logical’ market mechanisms – trade rules need to allow a higher regional focus of agriculture along the lines of “as much regionalized/localized food production as possible; as much traded food as necessary”.
Climate change will drastically impact agriculture, primarily in those developing countries with the highest future population growth, i.e. in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Against this background, the fundamental transformation of agriculture may well turn out to be one of the biggest challenges, including for international security, of the 21st century. Much slower agricultural productivity growth in the future, a quickly rising population in the most resource-constrained and climate-change-exposed regions and a burgeoning environmental crises of agriculture are the seeds for mounting pressures on food security and the related access to land and water. This is bound to increase the frequency and severity of riots, caused by food-price hikes, with concomitant political instability, and international tension, linked to resource conflicts and migratory movements of starving populations.