DNA | Last Modified - Feb 13, 2013, 05:47 AM IST
Ahmedabad: The debate over genetically-modified (GM) crops has taken a nasty turn across the globe because a veteran anti-GM activist, Mark Lynas, has switched sides and is now campaigning in favour of the technology.
Indian consumers do not directly consume GM food as the government has not allowed such crops after Bt Brinjal debacle. But as Bt Cotton is present in the country, consumers are passively eating GM food through milk of an animal fed cottonseed meals and food cooked in cottonseed oil. Bt Cotton is not totally pesticide or insecticide-free. All mammals are indirectly vulnerable due to the pesticides used in cotton farming, say scientists.
The debate has gone public in the European Union as the European Commission's Agriculture and Rural Development is conducting a survey. Noting that genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are considered incompatible with organic farming, the survey asks participants whether they specifically buy organic products because they are "GMO-free". It also asks whether consumers would put up with higher prices if it meant the accidental, low-level presence of GMOs in organic products was clearly labelled.
It should also be noted that though the direct use of Bt food is not allowed in the country, consumers are already exposed to their ill-effects indirectly because of the use of Bt cottonseed as edible oil. Of the total cottonseed production, 90% goes into expeller for production of cottonseed edible oil. What is left after the expeller process — the residue — goes as cottonseed meal which is a widely used as feed for animals.
“There is no doubt that use of pesticide has gone down after the use of transgenic variety but it is not completely free from pesticides. The number of sprays used to grow cotton has come down but it has not stopped attacks by sucking pests,” says Dr KR Kranthi of Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR).
Before the introduction of Bt Cotton, the fibre crop was susceptible to 162 varieties of pests and insects. In 1995, 54% of the total consumption of pesticide in the country was in cotton farming. The ratio had come down to 44% in 2001. After the introduction of two varieties of Bt Cotton seeds, the use of pesticide has further come down to 21%.
“Bt cotton does not need pesticides to protect the plant from bollworms pests. Bollworms were the key pests damaging 80% of the cotton losses in the country. Bt variety has an inbuilt mechanism to protect the plant from these pests. However, the problem of sucking pests is still there,” says agriculture scientist, Dr TL Dholaria.
According to various research studies, the total number of pesticide spray required for cotton has declined from 15 to 9 per crop season earlier.
“The number of spray needed has declined. It has also resulted in lowering the cost of farming. However, no one can claim that cotton farming has become completely pesticide free as farmers must continue to spray pesticide to control sucking pests,” said Dr Kranthi.
If one looks at the value chain of cotton farming, cotton seed is used for production of edible oil as well as cattle feed. Cottonseed is most widely used in cattle feed. These animals produce milk meant for human consumption. Consumption of cottonseed edible oil has also increased in the country.
“We all use milk and edible oil which may have some pesticides in it. As of now, we do not know the effects of this indirect consumption. However, we are also exposed to the consumption of hazardous chemicals used in manufacture of pesticides,” said Dr Dholaria.
“Insecticide costs as a proportion of total costs declined perceptibly in the post-Bt Cotton period, from 8.30% in 1996 to about 5.86% in 2008,” a study by Bhartiya Krishak Samaj and Council for Social Development concludes.