Farmers prefer to use GM seeds for cash crops, survey finds

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[NEW DELHI] India’s first survey of farmers’ and consumers’ views on genetically modified (GM) crops indicates farmers are more willing to use GM seeds for cash crops rather than food crops.

Conducted by Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Gene Campaign and the University of Hyderabad, the survey covered more than 4,000 farmers and 2,500 consumers across five states.

The findings, released last week (1 April), revealed that around 40 per cent of the farmers surveyed were willing to grow cash crops with GM seeds, but 80 per cent of them said they would not cultivate food crops from seeds containing a poison to control pests. The response was consistent across big and small farmers and those educated or uneducated.

Farmers valued soil fertility and biodiversity, and were unwilling to sacrifice these for benefits offered by technologies such as better pest and weed control, said Gene Campaign’s Suman Sahai, who led the survey. Farmers also trusted the government and seed traders more than NGOs.

The survey revealed low awareness among urban consumers of GM foods.

Until now, there has not been a single authentic, scientific study assessing the public’s attitude to agricultural biotechnology in India, Sahai said.

The findings follow controversies surrounding GM products. The first was the government’s two-year moratorium on GM brinjal in February (see India says no — for now — to first GM vegetable).

The second involved agricultural company Monsanto, who reported last month (5 March) the "unusual survival" of pink bollworm in GM cotton crops in four districts of the west Indian state of Gujarat in 2009.

Monsanto’s GM cotton contains a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt), which is toxic to the bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) — a pest that is estimated to cause US$300 billion worth of losses each year in India. The Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO), in which Monsanto has 26 per cent stake, was given license for its cultivation in 2002.

Monsanto had refuted warnings of resistance for several years, Sahai observed. Gene Campaign’s field studies in 2003 found "severe" bollworm attacks, necessitating several insecticide sprays.

In 2006, Keshav Raj Kranthi, then senior scientist at the Nagpur-based Central Institute of Cotton Research under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and now its director, had warned of emerging bollworm resistance (see GM in India: the battle over Bt cotton).

Sahai said Monsanto’s conceding to pink bollworm resistance "sets the stage" for the introduction of the company’s second-generation Bt cotton ‘Bollgard II’ that contains two Bt toxin genes.

But a Monsanto–MAHYCO spokesperson denied the charges, saying the company made the information public in the interests of transparency. Also, pre-season seed bookings indicate that more than 90 per cent of Gujarat cotton farmers, and 80 per cent of all Indian cotton farmers, are expected to plant Bollgard II in the 2010 season, she said. "Hence Bollgard II is already a preferred choice of cotton farmers across India."