Page last updated at 00:00 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Indian GM crops battle heats up

By Tinku Ray
BBC News, Andhra Pradesh, India

Government buildings Ne Delhi
India's health minister is considering a ban on all GM seeds

Driving through Warangal in India's southern state of Andhra Pradesh, you pass row upon row of cotton fields.

It is one of the region's traditional crops but these days almost all of it is genetically modified (GM).

Introduced in 2002, there are now over 17 million acres of bacillus thuringiensis (BT) cotton grown in India - making the country the second largest cotton grower and exporter after China.

Genetically modified cotton is the only commercially approved GM crop in the country today.

Allergy fears

Mr Virender has four acres of land, all planted with BT cotton.

"I used to grow non-BT cotton, but had to use much more pesticides so I'm very happy with this," he says.

"I still have to spray pesticides but only five or six times - a lot less than the 15-16 times I had to spray the non-BT variety."

However, he is disappointed with the new seeds he has been asked to try out.

I'm allergic to BT cotton, a problem I never had with the non-BT variety
Farmer's wife Rama Devi

"I'm not very happy with these new seeds. I prefer the old BT cotton seeds as I got a better yield from them," he says.

This year the crop has not been as good and Mr Virender says they have seen different problems - with new insects now attacking the leaves.

He blames the weather and not the seeds themselves, but his wife Rama Devi has a completely different problem with the new cotton.

"I'm allergic to BT cotton, a problem I never had with the non-BT variety. I get a cough and blocked nose as well as other respiratory problems," she says.

But she adds that she tolerates the allergy because of the good yield the crop produces.

stall hoder in Bangalore selling vegetables
Genetically modified food is not yet readily available to the public

About 80% of India's cotton farmers are growing BT cotton and the seeds are distributed through the US firm Monsanto's partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco).

While no scientific research has been done on the latest reports of allergies, the deputy managing director of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, Raj Ketkar, says the technology has to go through rigorous allergy tests before getting approval.

"In India we've been growing this for seven years, millions of farmers are growing it. Around the world this technology has been grown for twelve years and we have not had any instances of animals or people having any type of allergic reaction."

The company also claims that the success of its seeds means cotton farmers in India have better lifestyles and can afford things they never dreamed of.

Suicide reports

But there are still many activists opposed to GM crops in India.

Some argue there is a direct link between the thousands of suicides among cotton farmers in Maharashtra and the introduction of BT cotton in the area.

A recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute concluded there was no evidence of a direct link, but said the cost of BT cotton may have been a contributing factor in specific cases.

But environmental activist Vandana Shiva is still not convinced.

"The more recent escalation of suicides has been in the region of Vidarbhah and if you look at the data of expansion of BT cotton the highest expansion has taken place there," she says.

"In Vidharbah, one farmer is killing himself every six hours and the separation of suicides from BT cotton is the worst lie because if you do a suicide map of this country and you do a BT sales map of this country - you have a one-to-one co-relation in terms of the districts," she maintains.

Usha Barwale Zehr of Mahyco strongly denies the allegation and argues that farmers are doing extremely well with BT cotton.

The farmer does not come back if the product does not perform
Mahyco's Usha Barwale Zehr

"The first year the farmer may buy our seed, but the farmer does not come back if the product does not perform," he says.

It is mandatory in India for cotton farmers growing BT cotton to plant 20% of their land with the non-BT variety. This helps prevent the BT plants from losing resistance to bollworms - a pest that can be devastating to the plants.

Some farmers say it is getting increasingly difficult to buy non-BT cotton seeds on the market, although Usha Barwale Zehr denies her firm has a monopoly and says it is giving farmers more, not less choice.

"The opening up of the markets allowed many foreign companies to come into India and provide products, as a result of which even the Indian companies had to be more competitive and come up with products which were competing," she says.

Engineered aubergines

Options for farmers might be about to expand as Mahyco is on the verge of getting approval for a new BT brinjal, or aubergine seed.

Whilst some Indians consume BT cotton in the form of cottonseed oil, the approval of brinjal will directly introduce a genetically modified food to the Indian population for the first time.

So what do ordinary Indians think?

"From an average person's perspective how would you know the difference? You can't actually examine it. It's just based on what someone says," say sone man.

"I might even stop buying brinjals because I'm not sure," says one man, while a woman tells the BBC she does not think they will be very good for her health.

I wouldn't want to buy a GM food or a vegetable for myself, they might play havoc with the body system
Woman shopper

"I wouldn't want to buy a GM food or a vegetable for myself. They might play havoc with the body system. We just haven't done a long term research on GM food," she says.

Another man said he would accept the products depending on their components.

"If it's healthy then I can go for it, if it's a registered product then we can go for it."

That question of approval is one that many Indians are now asking, including the health minister Anbumani Ramadoss who is considering a ban on all GM seeds.

With biotech firms and some farmers arguing for approval, and activists and other farmers against the idea, the lines seem to be drawn for a prolonged battle.

This feature can be heard on the Business Daily podcast dated 17 December

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