Why Himachal should remain GM-fee
Faced with challenges on multiple fronts, civil society groups within Himachal Pradesh are learning to react timely to issues requiring immediate attention. The interactive session on genetic modified (GM) crops organized under the aegis of National Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (NASA) and attended by a number of Himachal-based groups in Shimla was a welcome step considering the seriousness of the issue. As suggested during the interaction, Himachal, having about 7.32 per cent of the national biodiversity, has much to lose in case its eco-system is contaminated due to the introduction of GM crops. The demand put forward by Dr Pushpa Mittra Bhargava for a 15-year moratorium on introducing GM crops seems justified, considering that there are still lots of uncertainties regarding how these GM crops would behave in natural surroundings.
Himachal has a wide variety of flora and fauna, including a wide array of medicinal plants etc. Nearly 3295 of the 45000-47000 floral species in India are to be found in Himachal Pradesh. 95% of these are estimated to be endemic with only 5% being exotic species introduced over the past 150 years. To lose or mutation in even a few of them would be a great loss to the ecology of the place.
Himachal Pradesh’s agro-diversity is also important. There are strong arguments that the Western Himalayan Region should be designated as an Agricultural Biodiversity Heritage Site given the large number of species cultivated here based on indices developed by Singh and Varaprasad (2008)1. In this context, it should be noted that the MS Swaminathan-led Task Force on Agri-Biotechnology had stressed upon protection of important centers of origin and diversity of agro-diversity and said that in such areas, cultivation of GM crops should be prohibited. Further, the report recommends that mega-biodiversity centers and agro-diversity hotspots should be declared as ‘organic regions’.
The traditional mixed-crop farming systems such as those of Himachal Pradesh are more sustainable, as even international assessments like the IAASTD point out. The entry of GM crops in several locations has led to more monocultures and consequent problems; this does not bode well for the environment or the livelihoods of farmers in the state. For sustainable livelihoods as well as environment, it is imperative that the mixed crop farming systems of Himachal Pradesh be protected. This is all the more important in the context of climate change, where resilient systems are risk-insurance in the adaptation mechanisms for poor farmers.
The safety of GM crops and foods has not been conclusively proven despite decades of commercialization in a handful of countries. Further, the commercialized GM crops clearly show that there is no need for GM crops in the first instance, especially given the existing knowledge related to pest management and skills of weeding with our rural communities. Both insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant GM crops will only leave their socio-economic and environmental impacts on our farming communities if allowed into our state. Such technologies are irrelevant for our socio-economic realities.
It should be remembered that worldwide, a majority of countries do not allow/cultivate GM crops and any foray into such cultivation will have an impact on trade security of a given state and country; this applies to Himachal Pradesh and India too. Jeopardising our export markets in turn will leave its impacts on the farming community.
It has also been seen that GM seeds are exorbitantly priced given the proprietary nature of the technology and the exponential increase in seed prices is bearing down on the livelihoods of farmers worldwide. This is true for Bt Cotton in India too. To make matters worse, there are no ready legislations which give the authority to fix seed prices to state governments in India and the few that have attempted the same, have been dragged to the Courts by powerful multinational corporations on this issue. The burden of exorbitantly priced Bt Cotton seeds has been noted as one of the factors for the rural distress in Vidarbha of Maharashtra by a Planning Commission Fact Finding Team. It is well known that even as Bt Cotton never delivered farmers from the deep distress they are mired in, the number of suicides have actually increased in the years after Bt Cotton has been introduced in the region.
It is also nearly impossible in a country and state like ours to uphold the basic right of a consumer to know what they eat; entry of GM would violate this right forever since labeling of all GM foods by segregating them from non-GM would be virtually impossible. Himachal Pradesh also recognizes that open air trials of GM crops are also a source of irreversible contamination as experiences the worldover have shown and therefore, prohibits any open air trials in the state.
Given that agriculture and health are state subjects under the Constitution of India and given that the state has both the authority and responsibility to protect the farming of the state and the health of all its citizens, for sustaining farmers’ livelihoods and in fact, benefiting from the competitive advantage of non-GM and organic farming, Himachal Pradesh should choose to remain GM-free.