Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Musings: Pesticides in India

The dogs of India, of which there are many, don't howl like their American counterparts. Instead, their nighttime chorus begins with a sharply anguished aaar-aarp, followed by a deep-throated wail, almost a dirge, that woke me in the night and left me lying there, reflecting on this vast and teeming country.
We are in Sirsa, a farming town about 270 km, or six-hours' drive, north of Delhi, in the Punjab region that is literally India's breadbasket. Fields of wheat, guar, barley and mustard are intermixed with lush rice paddies, vegetables like okra, bittermelon, eggplant (which they call brinjal), peppers, potatoes and cauliflower, fruit orchards, the chick peas that provide protein for the many vegetarian diets.

Broad canals channel the region's many rivers, fed by Himalayan rainfall, into the fields, giving farmers the production boost of irrigation. In many other parts of India, the fields are rainfall dependent, which is always a risky venture, especially in this time of changing climate.

Sirsa is newly prosperous, its residents enriched in large part by the profits of Bt cotton, which rescued a cotton industry that had been so plagued by insect pests, especially bollworm, that an entire field could be destroyed overnight if farmers skipped even a day of spraying pesticides.

Though pesticide applications have been dramatically reduced, some farmers told us they are still paying off the pesticide bills they racked up in the pre-Bt era, a time when farmers were indeed committing suicide because they could not earn enough from their ravaged cotton crops to pay off loans they'd taken out to buy seeds, fertilizer and chemicals.

Pesticides are ubiquitous in Indian farming. Prior to coming to Sirsa, we spent time with farmers in Nadia, outside Kolkata, where they grow rice, vegetables and fruit in a landscape that looks a lot like Hawaii and sell it to wholesalers in bustling roadside markets.

Many of these farmers grow brinjal, a popular Indian vegetable that brings a high price — 20 rupees per kilogram — if it's perfect, and much less — 5 to 6 rupees per kilogram — if it's not. 
So they spray, to make sure their fields survive the devastation of the fruit borer, which sometimes damages 50 percent of the crop.
The farmers begin spraying when the crops are just one inch tall, and admitted that sometimes they spray right up until the day of harvest, even though at least a week should elapse between application and consumption. But they can't risk incurring damage that lowers their profit in that time.
They also spray to control weeks. This farmer is using paraquat as weed control, applying what in America is a restricted use pesticide, with no protective gear and bare feet.

The farmers told us of burning eyes, back pain and even scars from carrying the sprayer, itching skin, trips to the hospital. But given the intensity of the pests, they feel they have no choice, even though they do so many of the things that Westerners think they should: crop rotation, applying micronutrients to the soil, adding animal manure to supplement chemical fertilizer.
"I cannot see my crop die without giving spray,” one farmer told me.

They see Bt brinjal, which has been genetically engineered to resist the fruit borer, as offering them relief from the pest, reduced pesticide use, higher profits. Field trials are currently under way in neighboring Bangladesh, and they are eagerly awaiting the results and hoping that is approved for use in India.

"The farmer has heard the Bt brinjal will lessen the number of sprays," one grower told me. "We are ready to accept it."

Added another: “We're wondering when we the brinjal farmer can grow brinjal successfully with profit. We want the seed.”


Anonymous said...

Bangladesh is the first country to cultivate the Bt brinjal although it has been barred from India and the Philippines because of risks for both human and nature.
Their government has appeared as a service provider of Monsanto and Mahyco. The companies have failed to release Bt brinjal in India and the Philippines but the government is using political influence to release it among poor farmers. At a press conference at Dhaka Reporters’ Unity, they alleged that they were ‘fooled’ and used as ‘guinea pig’ for the cultivation of the genetically modified Bt brinjal by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, but they were not compensated for the losses.

In India testing has shown the consumption of genetically modified brinjal can make you sick. If eaten regularly, it can adversely hit the immune response of the body, cause liver damage and lead to reproductive disorders. This has emerged from toxicity studies done by Mahyco in rats fed on Bt brinjal for up to 90 days, but the company either suppressed these facts or misrepresented them while submitting data to the regulator - the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).
Based on this data, the GEAC approved the commercial release of Bt brinjal, but the approval was subsequently put on hold by environment minister Jairam Ramesh in February 2010. The moratorium remains in force till now. An analysis of raw research data done by an independent expert has revealed that major health problems arising in test animals were ignored and standard research protocols set by the department of biotechnology (DBT) were not

Joan Conrow said...

Your comment is wrong on so many counts, starting with the first line. Bt brinjal is not being cultivated anywhere. It's still in field trials. That's why it hasn't been released in any countries. It's not yet deregulated for commercial use. No studies anywhere have shown health or environmental harm, or it wouldn't have progressed to field trials. The GEAC did not approve it for commercial use but field trials in India. But that was subsequently put on hold due to political pressure by groups like Greenpeace, which distorted info and fanned fears, as you are doing.

Anonymous said...

@11:18 AM, it is obvious you are just copying and pasting from activist websites. You clearly think your understanding gleaned from the Google surpasses anybody else's firsthand experience or scientific knowledge. But then again, you obviously think you know better than anyone else how others should live their lives!! Hey, you've got your expensive organic food you can pay for from your urban-based income, f*ck those poor brown people, right???

Anonymous said...

11:18 Absolute nonsense. Bt is harmless to mammals , birds, reptiles and fish. You yourself likely ingested it by accident, as have most. It is common and found in soil and dried grains that have moistened over time. It has been successfully used as a spray insecticide for almost a hundred years and is in the safest class of such.
Which is the very reason that the effective Bt gene was selected. There is zero reason to think it would develop a sudden toxicit when added to edible flora, but not impossible. Which is why it is being tested.

Anonymous said...

Joan, from what you've seen how much do you think pesticide manufacturers in India are spending to oppose these gm crops? Conventional brinjal farmers can spray 140-180 times during the season. Even India's agriculture minister has publicly questioned the link:

Anonymous said...

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee's approval of Bt brinjal, the first genetically modified crop for human consumption in India, has sparked off protests across the country. This article questions the so-called benefits of GM crops and highlights some major concerns. These include: inadequately addressed health and environmental risks, inadequate safety guidelines, a lack of transparency in sharing test data, the implications to seed sovereignty of farmers and the lack of informed choice for consumers. Some concerns about field testing by Mahyco, the developer of Bt-brinjal, and the process of evaluation by GEAC remain unresolved. With inadequate information about the crop's long-term safety, a precautionary approach is advocated before national policy allows commercial release of the seeds. A fair process is also needed in the public consultations being proposed by the minister of state for environment and forests. In addition to issues of procedural justice, a basic ethical question remains: do humans have a right to dominate the land and make expendable those creatures that they deem "undesirable"?

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 11:18, what is YOUR experience and scientific knowledge? Or are you just copying and pasting from "Food Democracy Now!", "GMO Free Kauai", and other like non fact based sources. You clearly think you're right so why not just post your real name and let readers know what qualifications you have in terms of a science based background and sources?

Anonymous said...

Joan. It is amazing while you're in India. The anti gmo comments aren't trashing your observations like they did while you were home in the islands. The silent majority knew better that the pesticide use here is a whole lot more responsible than other countries. All your reviews there are great. It give your viewers a whole different prospects to Hawaii ' agriculture. We really got it great here in the islands. It's a great mission your on. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

12 comments, 5, 15, 5, 13, 2, 8, and 3 respectively. Those comments are chump change to your anti gmo fans. Keep on killing it!!!

Joan Conrow said...

10:05 citied an opinion piece that includes:
Do humans have a right to dominate the land and make expendable those creatures that they deem "undesirable"?

While I would agree with that sentiment to a certain extent, the question, is how far do you go? No treatment of water with harmful microbes? No pest control at all for crops, so that much more land must be cultivated to produce food, thus eliminating habitat for other creatures? If that is the argument, it actually works in favor of GM crops, as they are highly targeted to specific pests, rather than broad spectrum like some pesticides that are used.

Anonymous said...

@9:18 PM, can you please clarify and elaborate? Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joan, I'm pro-GMO but have reservations about how the tech has been applied in India, particularity Bt cotton. I was interested in your take regarding Bt brinjal, I'm wondering if you had any info on Bt cotton. I just read a piece by P Sainath who has followed farmer suicides in India since the early 90s. His take isn't that Bt cotton helped, but sunk many growers. "Firstly, Bt Cotton technologies are themselves suspect in a number of ways. However, promoting them in a dry and un-irrigated area like Vidarbha [the main cotton-belt of Maharashtra] was murderous. It was stupid, it was killing. The Bt Cotton packet was costing Rs 1800 to 1850 for a packet of 450 grams. On each packet of Rs 1850, Monsanto was making a royalty of Rs 1250."
Any info or comment?

Joan Conrow said...

I'm not totally familiar with the rollout of Bt cotton, but I'm not sure what P Sainath is referencing with the comment, "Firstly, Bt Cotton technologies are themselves suspect in a number of ways." That's pretty broad.

There was some dry weather when the Bt cotton seeds were first used in Maharashtra, but farmers growing both Bt and hybrid cotton suffered crop losses. It wasn't unique to Bt cotton. And as I've written in subsequent posts and comments, the farmers were driven to suicide not by Bt cotton, but money lenders charging 20-30% interest, compounded, on loans that held their land as collateral.

In the years since rollout, the price of Bt cotton has decreased dramatically, and it's still the widespread cotton seed of choice, even in Maharashtra.

I'm curious why you're concerned about the application of Bt cotton technology in India, but not the US.

Anonymous said...

The US has the educational and technological infrastructure to support the deployment of new ag tech, from fertilizers, pesticides, to new tech like GE crops. If these educational resources are lacking in developing countries and the tech is deployed without support, farmers could be left in worse shape than without attempting "something new". I only recently heard of Sainath (like yesterday), he was hosted on a friends onion farm in NYS. Sainath is a rural reporter in India, his work covers much of what transpired before and during the so called "Monsanto farmer suicides" and didn't have an ax to grind (like Vandana Shiva). I was curious to see what his take was, he certainly listed everything you did as causes, but also said the deployment of Bt cotton was disastrous, not blaming the tech, but pointing a finger at how (by whom) it was done.
I'm going to read more of his works, it is more about the destruction of a rural way of life as "industrial ag" was rolled out in India.
I spend a reasonable amount of time defending GMOs online, I like to have accurate info when I discuss these things.
Thanks. (I can email you off site if that works out for both of us.)

Joan Conrow said...

I'm not familiar with Sainath's work, but I'll check it out. If you have citations, feel free to email or post them in comments.

It's not far-fetched to think there could have been problems with the rollout, when you're dealing with such a large area and so many farmers, and I know that Maharashtra had more problems than other states.

But from what I saw, Mahyco is very active in working closely with farmers to educate them about the technology. It's in their best interest to have it succeed. India has a great many localized educational resources for farmers, and many of the farmers I spoke with take advantage of them.

I think it's simplistic to characterize this as "destruction of a rural way of life as 'industrial ag' was rolled out in India." People have been leaving the countryside in droves, both displaced by dam projects and seeking new opportunities in the city (including villagers sending their kids to schools so they can have non-ag careers. This migration has probably changed rural life more than any other factor. It's also driven a move toward industrial ag, since they no longer have the farm labor and livestock they once did.

Dramatic changes in farming and rural lifestyles have been taking place for decades, ushered in by the Green Revolution. Farmers have been using tractors, chemical fertilizers and hybrid seeds for years. And from what I could gather, they neither want, nor believe it is possible, to return to the 'good old days' of traditional agriculture.

Also, just curious as to how Sainath, a rural reporter, got hosted on your friend's NYS onion farm.

Anonymous said...

I'll email how they met. Like I said I've only read a bit of his works, but his words were very strong. "Destruction" was a word he used, it had to more with the gvot's approach to modernization and its effects on farmers.