India embroiled in bitterly contested GM debate

Dead farmer in Vidarbha Thousands of farmers have taken their own lives in recent years

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In the cotton fields of Vidarbha in central India, grief is a constant companion. Wherever you turn, there are heart-breaking stories of suicide.

In the village of Mangi, friends and family are preparing the body of Laxman Tekam for burial. Women are wailing and men have tears streaming down their cheeks.

Laxman was a cotton farmer who hanged himself from the roof beam of his small house after his debts spiralled out of control. His young family will now have to fend for themselves.

"He borrowed money to buy genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds," says his neighbour Bapuji Atram. "There was no rain and his crop failed. So he killed himself."

Suicide epidemic

In this dry zone, life without irrigation is a struggle. Critics say GM cotton needs more water to succeed, a claim the seed producers dispute.

Cotton harvesting in Vidarbha The margin of profit in cotton farming is narrow

But the depressing cycle of failing crops and mounting debts is a lethal one. In the past few years thousands of farmers in this region have killed themselves in an epidemic of suicides.

And that awful statistic has given rise to a bitterly contested debate, at a time when the Indian government is considering authorising the commercial cultivation of the first GM food crop, aubergine.

Has the introduction, and monopoly, of GM cotton seeds contributed to this tragedy? As ever, it depends who you ask. There is little middle ground.

The companies which produce the seeds emphatically deny it. They say there are broader social issues which have to be addressed.

But some farmers emphasise that the price of seeds has risen dramatically, and they now need more water... which leaves no room for manoeuvre when times are bad.

"When we used the old seed our production levels were a bit lower, but it cost us an awful lot less," explains Suresh Ganganna, as he watches cotton being picked in his field.

"We used less pesticide and less fertiliser as well. Now with the GM crop, the costs keep on mounting."

Passionate

At the local market, bullock carts piled high with cotton are lined up in long rows. This is where farmers come to auction their crops and it soon becomes clear that some of them hold a different view.

Anti-BT protester Several Indian states have already said no to BT brinjal

They love GM seeds, and their profits are up.

"GM cotton is good, I like it," says Laxman Shambarna. "Our yield used to be much lower with the old seeds - now it's two and half times higher."

Countrywide India has doubled cotton production since the introduction of GM seeds, to become the second largest producer in the world.

And that has helped persuade the authorities in Delhi to think about the next step - a GM version of a food crop, in this case aubergine.

The government is now considering allowing commercial cultivation of a GM aubergine seed known as BT brinjal. But the campaign against it has been organised and passionate.

For weeks protesters disrupted meetings addressed by India's Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, the man who has to decide on the future of GM crops in this country.

'Deprived of technology'

The intensity of the opposition gave him pause for thought. In February he delayed a decision on BT brinjal even though India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had already recommended going ahead.

Start Quote

People are crying and people are dying. But still the government is promoting this killer seed”

End Quote Kishor Tiwari Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti

But big business is confident that in the end Mr Ramesh will rule in its favour.

"He has clearly said he's supporting the science and he's acknowledged that biotechnology will play an important role in improving productivity in agriculture," says Gyanendra Shukla, a director of Monsanto India.

"Farmers cannot be deprived of technology," he argues. "Our land is limited, we have limited water and we have to produce more for every crop.

"Tests are being carried out on a variety of crops - brinjal just happens to be one of the early ones."

In a small lab on the edge of the Vidarbha region, run by a company called Ankur seeds, you can see the science in action. An experiment is taking place on a GM version of rice. They're also looking at okra, cabbage and cauliflower as well as brinjal.

"It has been proven beyond doubt that it is absolutely safe for human beings," says VS Dagaonkar, the vice-president for research at Ankur seeds.

"And food security is one of India's biggest issues. GM can help us feed our people."

Others have put forward similar arguments. The British government's chief scientist Sir John Beddington has said that GM crops will have a vital role to play in feeding billions around the world.

And the Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates made the same point during a trip to India this month.

"Technology properly applied," he said, "is the reason, if you like, why nine billion people can live on this planet without destroying it."

'Killing itself'

But in Vidarbha's cotton region, there are still people who will fight against GM technology in all its forms. Their experience with cotton, they say, must not be repeated elsewhere.

Anti-BT protesters The debate over GM crops is highly emotive

"The government's own survey says most of the farmers are in distress and despair," points out an angry Kishor Tiwari, who runs a farmers' advocacy group, Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti.

"People are crying and people are dying. But still the government is promoting this killer seed.

"We have been demanding that it be banned from this area, to save the farming community from killing itself."

Many environmental groups agree. Mr TVidarbha Jan Andolan Samitiiwari says 416 farmers have committed suicide so far this year in Vidarbha alone.

So this polarised debate will rage on.

But it's too late for farmers like Laxman Tekam. His body now lies buried in his field, which failed to give him the means to live.

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