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Modi sits on fence on GM food

Dabhadi, March 23: Narendra Modi has cleaved an opening in the farm fence, just as he has left ajar the door to the retail store.

Modi last week took his advocacy of genetically modified (GM) crops to a Vidarbha belt scarred by farmers’ suicides but skirted a direct question on his stand on the infusion of the technology into food crops.

At a Chai pe Charcha interaction with a group of farm widows and family members in Dabhadi, a village in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, a farmer asked Modi if he would introduce Bt brinjal, the genetically modified version of the vegetable.

Modi, whose government had opposed field trials of Bt brinjal though it supports GM commercial crops, ducked the question.

He gave a general reply in line with his carefully crafted public positions on contentious policies such as foreign direct investment in retail. Modi has given an impression that he is in favour of FDI in retail, which the BJP’s trader vote bank opposes, without either explicitly saying so or closing the door on room for manoeuvre in future.

On Thursday, Modi said there were different opinions on GM technology. But Bt cotton immensely benefited farmers in Gujarat and even in some parts of Maharashtra, he added.

“I am all for technology,” Modi said. “We should not discard a technology that helps farmers; we must have faith in science…. We must put technology and science to use, with regulations, and add value to produce.”

GM crop is a controversial topic. Although GM cotton has been cultivated across the country for over a decade, India has not approved commercial cultivation of any GM food crop yet.

Confined field trials have been permitted for some food crops like brinjal, potato and mustard. While a government panel of experts had recommended cultivation of GM brinjal, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh had blocked the move after consultations with sections of scientists and anti-GM activists.

The Union agriculture ministry as well as the department of biotechnology are in favour of cultivation of GM food crops but the Centre has not taken a decision because of the sensitivities involved.

It is against this backdrop that Modi has pitched for “science” and “technology” in farming.

The BJP-run governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had stoutly opposed field trials of GM crops two years ago, joining others such as Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Rajasthan.

In the 2009 election manifesto, the BJP had said that if it came to power, “no genetically modified seed will be allowed for cultivation without full scientific data on long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers. All food and food products produced with genetically modified seeds will be branded as ‘GM Food’”.

In a resolution on agriculture during a national executive meeting in Mumbai in May 2012, the BJP had asked the central government to immediately impose a moratorium on GM crops in the country because they “will not increase productivity”. The crops will pollute traditional seeds through cross-pollination, the resolution added.

Several farmers’ organisations in Vidarbha have been vehemently opposed to the adoption of GM crops, saying Bt cotton has added to the growing list of causes that have made farming non-remunerative.

The opposition stems from a feeling that Bt cotton pushed up the production cost dramatically but did not result in a commensurate rise in productivity. Nearly 97 per cent of cotton grown in Vidarbha is rain-fed, or grown in non-assured irrigation conditions, according to studies by the Maharashtra government.

Scientists feel that Bt cotton is more suited for areas where farmers have assured irrigation from wells or canals.

Several farm groups are also opposed to Bt cotton because of the growing domination of multinational corporations in the seed and input markets.

In the hailstorm and incessant rains that have affected 40 lakh hectares across several states, the standing winter crops in Dabhadi were also devastated. At least nine farmers had committed suicide in the village over the past 10 years.

“Agriculture is in a serious condition and any calamity leaves the farmers devastated,” Modi said. “But taking the extreme step is not a solution; we will fight together to overcome the crisis,” he said.

Vidarbha’s cotton growing areas have seen over 11,000 farm suicides in the past 10 years. Over 300,000 farmers had committed suicide between 1997 and 2012, according to the national crime records bureau (NCRB). Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh are among the big states with the highest incidence of suicides.

Proponents of biotechnology in agriculture have long cited India’s land constraints, climate change challenges, and rising demand for food as reasons to pursue GM crops.

They point out that GM food crops such as maize, papaya, and canola have been grown in many countries for several years and the global cultivated area under GM crops has had an annual growth rate of 6 per cent.

‘OUTSIDER’ BRAWL

A war of words has broken out between Amritsar rivals Arun Jaitley and Amarinder over who is a son of the soil

Jaitley at an event in Amritsar on Sunday to commemorate the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh. (PTI)

Jaitley: Despite my ancestral roots in Punjab, Captain Sahib (Amarinder) called me an ‘outsider’ and a ‘pseudo’ Punjabi. Will he be kind enough to tell me which state
in India does (Congress President) Mrs Sonia Gandhi belong to?

Amarinder: I always thought Jaitley was a gentleman, but I am sorry to read about his shameless attempts to question the statehood of Gandhi.... But let me remind Jaitley of our great Indian culture and tradition which accept the daughters-in-law as the real inheritors of the house and not the daughters, irrespective of which place they come from.

Jaitley: The blood of Amritsar is running in my veins. Then how can I be an outsider?
My grandparents belong to Amritsar and I spent my childhood in the holy city.

Amarinder: Jaitley’s newfound love for his Punjabi roots is sheer opportunism. And let Mr Jaitley tell me when he last visited Punjab, leave aside contesting an election from here.

Jaitley: Will he ever be available to the people of Amritsar at all? His availability is only for a few hours since, otherwise, his palace is always inaccessible to the common man.

Amarinder: I don’t want to say as to whose accessibility should be questioned: the one who has been in electoral politics for the last four and a half decades or the one who has always chosen backdoor entry to the legislature (a reference to Jaitley’s Rajya Sabha route till now).