01 July 2012

Satyamev Jayate on Toxic Food: Some Concerns

The eighth episode of Satyamev Jayate on toxic food was one where I saw many familiar faces Ramanjanayelu and Kavitha. In the background, one also saw Mr Raidu who has been looking into Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture of Andhra Pradesh. The two organisations selected for receiving funds donated by people are Ramanjanayelu's Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and Umendra Datt's Kheti Virasat Mission. I had met them, a couple of weeks ago at a Bt review meeting (see press note and a write-up along with a comment from the other perspective in Down to Earth). I use this to write a couple of related things.

Both pesticides production and organic exports have good business propositions. Moral and ethical concerns are outside the realm of these decisions. Hence, those into agri-business can enter into both the domains and there is no contradiction in that.

The Non Pesticidal Management (NPM) movement of Andhra Pradesh is to make the cultivation less costly by largely using locally available resources and by following a list of practices without applying pesticides.  This does lead to the product being organic, but we keep the business of labelling it aside so as to keep the farmer away from the associated costs and risks. It also keeps the onus of contamination from groundwater, air or through any other means outside the purview of the farmer. Of course, they are equally important and need to be appropriately dealt with, but it definitely does not call for reprimanding the farmer.

A related point about the success of Andhra Pradesh is the existence of institutions of women through Self-help Groups (SHGs) of women that have been federated to village, mandal and district level community based organisations. These have been indicated in my co-authored paper Persistence of Crisis in Indian Agriculture: Need for Technological and Institutional Alternatives, in Dilip M. Nachane edited India Development Report 2011, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp.48-58, see pre print version. This institution building of farmers is relevant because in its absence their bargaining power against large market players become weak - these players could either be the sellers of external inputs or the buyers of the products.

The issue of farmers' suicides came into the discussion. I have written about it elsewhere (see Suicides of Farmers in Maharashtra with links to the report as also the executive summary). One thing which is relevant for the current purpose is that pesticide consumption continues to be the single largest method of committing suicide by farmers. This assumes importance because many pesticides that are banned elsewhere in the world are still available and that there are no regulatory mechanism about control their sale or even their usage. Globally it has been seen that checks and controls on fatal methods of committing self-harm have led to reduction of incidences. However, such controls will not address the Agrarian Crisis in India, but will reduce the loss of lives. 

An aspect related to farmers suicides among cotton farmers is the use of Bt seeds, which have become popular since its legal introduction about a decade ago. Their large scale usage and increment in production is cited as success by some, but in the absence of appropriate counterfactuals nothing much can be said about their yield increases. Today, most of the cotton farmers who commit suicides would have used Bt seeds, and hence, these seeds become an associated risk factor or one can at least state that their usage has not reduced such risks. Based on a study comparing bad or drought years, one can state that in some situations Bt has added to the risk of the farmer (see To Bt or Not to Bt, a co-authored working paper of mine).

In the Bt review meeting, mentioned earlier, one speaker compared the success of Bt with that of mobile phones. The analogy begins with both being new technological developments that were rarely used even a decade ago and today both are very popular. Fair enough!

We would  like to bring in some other dimensions of comparison. Usage of mobile phones, which were quite costly to begin with have become cheaper, even much cheaper than the landline and the (nominal) prices of the latter has not increased while Bt seeds continue to be costlier than the traditional alternative. The reduction in prices in mobiles was because of an introduction of  competition by bringing in many players whereas in Bt seeds the intellectual property right is owned by a single company who charge a royalty for it at a flat rate for each packet of seed and thereby increasing the cost. Mobile phones have facilitated communication and in that process access to knowledge, but use of Bt seeds brought in a new paradigm leading to deskilling of knowledge among farmers. An aspect of commonality, as indicated by concerns raised by some, is the possibility of health risk arising out of the radiation in mobile technology (more so from towers) as also from the toxicity in Bt plants.

Before I forget, those who want to sign the petition to the Union Agriculture Minister on India for Safe Food may sign and send the petition here.

For some of my other related writings see:

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