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Shifting to organic breeding

Devinder Sharma, Feb 7, 2014 : 22:55 IST

Instead of reducing the usage, molecular breeders are conveniently dovetailing pesticides tolerance into GM crop varieties.

It’s a strange paradox. While the demand for organic food is rising unequivocally in the rich and developed countries as well as in the major developing countries, the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture is also growing at a phenomenal pace.
The organic food industry in the US is relatively new. At a time when nearly 20,000 pesticides products are being sold in the market, the US organic industry is poised to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14 per cent between 2014 and 2018. In India, beginning with a relatively low base, the organic food market is expected to grow at a compound rate of over 19 per cent between 2012 and 2016. According to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2013 the global sale of organic food and drinks grew by more than 25 per cent since 2008.

Over the years, as pesticides began to disturb insect and bird equilibrium, build resistance in insects and plants, poisoning the environment besides contaminating the food chain, agricultural scientists promised to phase out deadly chemicals with the advent of GM crops. But instead of reducing the usage, I find that molecular breeders are conveniently dovetailing pesticides and multiple genes of herbicides tolerance into the new GM crop varieties. This helps the GM companies to merrily expand the sales of their own brands of chemical herbicides and pesticides. No wonder, the top 3 GM Companies control 70 per cent of the seed market and also dominate the production and marketing of chemical pesticides.

Contrary to what is claimed, in just four countries, which among themselves occupy more than 95 per cent cultivable area under GM crops, I find the pesticides usage has multiplied over the years. Take the United States, the Mecca for GM technology.
Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook has shown that between 1996 and 2011, farmers in US are applying an additional 400 million pounds of pesticides. In 2012, on an average 20 per cent more pesticides were applied by GM farmers as compared to farmers not growing GM crops. And with US Department likely to approve commercialisation of the next range of GM crops, sales of a cocktail of herbicides including the deadly broad-spectrum chemicals are expected to go up by 25 per cent.

In a personal communication, Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Union for Concerned Scientists says that his own estimates are that over 100 million acres in the US alone is infested with super weeds (weeds that are very difficult to control) and herbicides use in corn areas has multiplied after Bt corn was introduced. Moreover, over 90 per cent of corn and soybean crops is treated with neonicotinoid insecticides and fungicides which are blamed for killing honey bees and other
beneficial insects.

Problems galore

Super weeds are also becoming a problem in most countries where GM crops are in vogue. In Canada, for instance, over a million acres is now infested with super weeds. In Latin America, Brazil and Argentina are two major cultivators of GM crops. In Argentina, the application of chemical pesticides has risen from 34 million litres in the mid-1990s when the GM soybean crops were first introduced to more than 317 million litres in 2012, roughly a ten times increase. On an average, Argentine farmers use twice the quantity of pesticides per acre than their American counterparts. In Brazil, which has recently taken over Argentina as far as the spread of GM crops is concerned, pesticides use has gone up by 190 per cent in the past decade.

In China, which has been promoted as a silver-bullet case, the bubble burst when a 2006 joint study conducted by Cornell University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed that seven years after the introduction of Bt cotton, Chinese farmers were spraying 20 times more pesticides to control pests. Initially, as it happened everywhere else, pesticides consumption fell on cotton, but subsequently with the emergence of secondary major pests, the application of pesticides increased.
In India too, the story is same. The Director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR), the institute that monitors cotton research, has said: “No significant yield advantage has been observed between 2004-2011 when area under Bt cotton increased from 5.4 to 96 per cent.”

Regardless of industry claims, the fact remains that the usage of pesticides too has gone up in India. In 2005, Rs 649-crore worth of chemical pesticides was used on cotton in India. In 2010, when roughly 92 per cent area under cotton shifted to Bt cotton varieties, the pesticides usage in terms of value increased to Rs 880.40 crore. Considering this, I would like to make two suggestions: First, plant breeders so far have been focusing on developing crop varieties responsive to fertilizer and pesticides use. They must now shift to organic breeding.

Secondly, there is a great potential to move to non-pesticides management like what Andhra Pradesh has demonstrated. More than 3.5 million acres are under cultivation sans chemical pesticides, a task performed by Society for Elimination of Poverty. This is now being expanded to Maharashtra and Bihar by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

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