When Enough Farmers Plant Unapproved Seed, Official Approval Will Follow

Date Posted: February 20, 2012

When enough farmers smuggle and plant unapproved seeds, government officials eventualy have no choice but to authorize its use.

Indian brinjal

(February 20/ -- In the next 24 months, genetically modified food crops will enter India's neighbourhood. And that will trigger changes in our own agriculture, like it or not.

Between now and 2014, Bangladesh will introduce BT brinjal; Pakistan will introduce biotech corn; Philippines, that already grows biotech corn, will also adopt BT brinjal and biotech rice; Vietnam will adopt biotech corn; and Indonesia will allow biotech corn and biotech sugarcane, according to ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications), a non-profit think tank that monitors adoption of biotech crops globally.

These new crops are designed to attract farmers. The seeds fight off pests, diseases, and yield more from the same farm. In short, they reduce the risks and raise the returns - every farmer's dream.

Not too long from now, families in West Bengal and Bihar will see pest-free brinjal flourishing across the border while they struggle with a dozen pesticide sprays. They will see their Bangladeshi cousins make ten times more money from the same acre. What are the chances that some BT brinjal seed will not be 'borrowed' and sown in India? Nil. Such 'borrowing' is commonplace in farming. Farmers routinely exchange seeds with each other to ensure varietal health. When the borrowing becomes large scale, the impact on the market and local agriculture can be dramatic.

Indian farmers smuggled basmati rice and Bt cotton

Two instances in the last decade are classic. Farmers in Punjab liked Super basmati a popular variety in Pakistan and started growing it in their own fields. Within a couple of seasons, Super basmati (now lovingly called Shabnam) had replaced many of the government-authorized basmati varieties. That's when agriculture ministry and the Punjab Agriculture University woke up to the 'illegal' crop growing under their noses.

Since it was impossible to make farmers give it up, government took the practical approach. Super basmati can be legally exported from India as a basmati (else farmers would be on the warpath) but it is still not recognised as a basmati by the agriculture ministry, much to Pakistan’s consternation.

BT cotton, introduced in 2002, is another case. Initially no variety was approved for north India. But that didn't stop Punjab farmers from planting it. Helpless against BT cotton's tide of popularity, by 2005 government had 'released' 60 varieties just for Punjab. Pakistan found BT cotton borrowed from India flourishing so widely in Punjab and Sindh that in 2010 it was forced to officially approve it.

Farmers in Brazil and Argentina smuggled RR Soybeans

It is a universal phenomenon. Brazil’s biotech soyabean spread to neighbouring Argentina before it was officially permitted. Argentina’s law was forced to catch up. Examples abound.

Truth is agriculture does not respect political boundaries or red tape. Politicians, bureaucrats and activists can't halt the spread of profitable farming technology. The spread is invariably faster in the east-west direction (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, for example) rather than north-south because weather and growing conditions don't alter significantly within the same latitude.

India last year shelved BT brinjal (eggplant) after loud opposition by activists and state-level politicians. But once Bangladesh introduces BT brinjal, no chief minister can guarantee it won't sneak in. Instead of becoming wiser after the event, the smart option is to introduce the biotech brinjal varieties designed by India for India. Else, the stealth and ignorance could be more harmful to the cause of food safety and consumer choice.

Resistance to biotech crops is anyway out of sync with rest of the world. Sixty countries, including fastidious Japan, now allow import and use of biotech food and feed crops. Even in the European Union, often upheld as the last bastion against GM food, eight countries - Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Sweden and Germany grow BT corn or biotech potato.

Like corporate managers, farmers exchange seeds and tips on cultivation because it helps business. Such exchanges possess enormous economic and social value. Across the world, farm input and consumer goods companies, agronomists and district administrations harness the power exercised by progressive farmers to spread their message. Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, and agricultural tourism have accelerated the exchange of ideas, followed by exchange of seed.

Policy makers and regulators have to recognize this and ensure our seed laws keep pace with the times. Ideally, they should stay ahead. Biotech corn, rice, brinjal and sugarcane will soon be growing tantalizingly close to home. Who can blame Indian farmers if they get tempted?