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Herbicide-tolerant plants: Not in India, please!

By Suman Sahai

Herbicide-tolerant crops contain a gene that makes them resistant to the herbicide that is sprayed to kill herbs and weeds. The herbicide-tolerance trait is essentially labour-saving and will have economic implications were it to be introduced in labour-surplus developing countries like India

Herbicide-tolerance and insect-resistance (the Bt trait) are the two traits that dominate the field of genetically-engineered crops. According to the data for 2005, of all GE (genetically-engineered) crops planted in the world, 82% carry the herbicide-tolerance trait and the remaining 18% carry the Bt trait. The biotechnology industry, which owns both these traits, is therefore extremely keen to promote them as much as possible.

Herbicide-tolerant crops contain a gene that makes them resistant to the herbicide that is sprayed to kill herbs and weeds. The company that owns the herbicide-tolerant crops (in this case, Monsanto) is also the company that owns the herbicide that the particular crop variety will tolerate. Hence, the company promoting herbicide-tolerant crops makes a double killing: one on the sale of the herbicide itself; two, on the sale of crop varieties that are tolerant to that proprietary herbicide.

Controlling weeds by using chemicals like herbicides becomes necessary in large land-holding, labour-starved agricultural conditions in industrial countries. In developing countries like India, weeds are controlled manually.

Weeding is an assured avenue for earning casual wages in rural areas, especially for women. Sometimes it is the only source of income. Farm operations like sowing, weeding, harvesting and winnowing are key sources of rural employment. Agricultural labour constitutes the largest section of the labour force in developing countries; in India and other South Asian countries, the agricultural labour force is growing at the rate of 6-7% per annum.

The herbicide-tolerance trait is essentially a labour-saving (hence, labour-displacing) trait and will have economic implications were it to be introduced in labour-surplus developing countries like India.

Weeds are considered a nuisance in the monoculture agricultural systems of industrial nations where several thousand hectares of wheat or corn are planted solely for the cereal. In the case of developing countries, where fields are surrounded by local flora, the so-called 'weeds' have several useful functions critical to the wellbeing of rural communities.

What is collected by those doing the weeding in an agricultural field fulfils two important nutritional roles. The plants that constitute weeds are largely nutritious leafy greens, which are a valued source of nutrition in the family's diet. A typical wheat field in India or Bangladesh yields at least 20 different types of leafy greens over the cropping season. These greens provide nutrition in a fresh and easily available form, at no cost. This has to be seen in the context of rural poverty, where many farm families are unable to buy too many vegetables from the market but are able to access them freely from fields and field boundaries. This access to free nutrition is one of the reasons why nutritional status is better among the rural poor than among the urban poor who have to buy all their food.

Plants collected during weeding that are not consumed by the family serve as fodder for the livestock that rural families maintain as an additional source of income. India has a very large livestock population; it has the largest cattle population in the world. India is also a fodder-starved country, and increasing fodder availability is one of the key concerns of the agricultural research system. For rural families, livestock is critical for increasing incomes either through milk or the sale of animals for meat. The fodder that is collected during weeding is fodder that is obtained for free. If rural families had to buy all the fodder needed to maintain their cows, goats and pigs, many would not be able to afford keeping animals and would have to forego the extra income.

Apart from this, using herbicide-tolerant crops would make it impossible to plant crops on field borders and raised bunds, as is done in many parts of Asia for additional food and to increase farm incomes. Typically, farmers grow crops like yam, ginger or vegetables on the bunds surrounding their rice fields. Thus, two or three kinds of produce are available from the field during the same season. This advantage would be lost if the package of herbicide-tolerant crop varieties and herbicide use is implemented.

In addition, the practice of intercropping and mixed farming would suffer a setback. Traditionally, farmers plant more than one crop in the field. Sugarcane, for instance, is interspersed with lentils or mustard and it is not uncommon to find farmers planting mustard along with wheat, to be harvested one after the other, or linseed together with lentils. Mixed cropping is widely practised, with different crop combinations depending on the region.

In addition to the supplementary food and fodder that they provide, a number of 'weeds' are also medicinal plants that rural families depend on for their and their animals' health and veterinary needs. The introduction of herbicide-tolerant crops, with accompanying herbicide use, would kill the surrounding vegetation and deprive rural communities of medicinal plants that form the basis of indigenous healing traditions. It is well known that around 80% of rural communities across the world are dependent on medicinal plants and indigenous systems of medicine.

Therefore, destroying the vegetation around crop fields would deprive village communities of crucial healthcare opportunities, especially in a situation where the formal system does not adequately address the health and veterinary requirements of all people.

The implications of introducing herbicide-tolerant crops in India are grave and negative. The socio-economic impacts include changes in family income due to loss of wage labour from weeding, loss of income from products derived from additional livestock, man-days lost in collecting fodder from elsewhere, or expenditure incurred on buying fodder. This loss of income, or additional financial burden, will have an impact on other aspects of a family's life; less money could mean pulling girl-children out of schools, less money for school books, or fewer clothes.

(Suman Sahai has a PhD in genetics. She is the Director of Gene Campaign, a leading research and advocacy organisation working on farmer and community rights, bio-resources, IPR, indigenous knowledge and GE food and crops)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2007