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Explained: Economics of GM crops and what authorities need to know

Barun S Mitra

For the past few years, a lot has been said about "doubling farmers' income." Yet successive governments have either ignored or suppressed every attempt by farmers to improve their own income and welfare. The rapid spread of the Kisan Satyagraha illustrates the desperate plea of farmers for freedom to seek the technology of their choice. The satyagraha brought to the fore the concerns of some of the smaller farmers, and an opportunity to highlight their reason to demand access to new technologies, including GM crops. Here are two of their stories.

Budgeting for Bt brinjal

Jeevan Saini, a small farmer in Fatehabad district in Haryana, captured attention in May 2019. His half-an-acre of brinjal crop was ploughed, burnt and buried 15 feet deep by the local administration, on the charges that he was growing unapproved Bt brinjal. Jeevan, and his father Ishwar, own two acres of land in Ratia tehsil, and rent 4-5 acres more, growing a number of crops.
Jeevan had no idea of what GM was! He paid a high premium to buy saplings of brinjal in late 2017, from a seed vendor. The vendor told him that this new variety of brinjal attracts less pest and, therefore, reduces costs and improves productivity. So, Jeevan wanted to try it out on a half-acre parcel of rented land.

Brinjal and chilli are two crops that are very vulnerable to pests. Often, 50-80% of the crop would be lost due to pests. Pesticide consumption for these two crops is the highest among vegetables. Farmers often spray pesticides every 2-4 days-that's a total of 30-40 sprays per season.

Jeevan reckons that compared to traditional brinjal, his brinjal required to be sprayed with pesticides only once in 15 days, significantly lowering his costs. Low pest infestation meant the marketable yield doubled compared to traditional varieties. The brinjal was healthier and larger, and, therefore, fetched a premium of 20-30% at the local wholesale market.

Jeevan and his neighbours sat down to work out the costs and benefits of the two varieties of brinjal. They agreed that Jeevan's brinjal cost a third less to grow. Accounting for labour and other related costs, the net profit for Jeevan ranged from `1-2 lakh per acre. In contrast, his neighbours incurred a net loss ranging from `0.7 lakh to `1.2 lakh per acre.

Curiously, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), which tested sample from Jeevan's field, found the brinjal to be genetically modified, and yet failed to identify the Bt protein in it.

Economics of HTBt cotton

A few months ago a small farmer from Yavatmal in Maharashtra explained his decision to sow HTBt cotton for the first time on the two-acre plot he owns with limited access to water in 2018. With the use of herbicide, his labour cost declined significantly, and weeding helped boost the yield. And for the first time he harvested over 26 quintals of cotton, and earned over `1.2 lakh. His productivity per acre was 13 quintals, which was more than double that of his neighbours.

Burdened with debt, this man survives more as an agricultural labour, than as a farmer. It is in this desperate situation that HTBt cotton has provided him, and many others like him, a ray of hope.

Labour cost, at 40%, is the most significant part of operational cost for growing cotton. Weeds pose a serious challenge. They compete for nutrition and moisture, denting productivity of crops. The cost of weeding is significant, particularly in view of serious labour shortage in villages when they are needed the most. HTBt fits in well in that context.

Sitting along with his neighbours, this farmer detailed the various components of his costs for growing cotton over 5-6 months. From ground preparation and sowing, which begins usually in mid-June, to final harvesting in the first half of November, the cost per acre came to be around `30,000. His earnings from sale of 13 quintals of cotton per acre came to about `60,000. So, the farmer was happy to net a profit of `30,000 per acre.

Here lies the rub! Very few farmers are able to incorporate the monetary value of their own labour and that of their families towards farming. Which is why he has to rely on wages he earns as farm labour to provide for his family for the rest of the year.
Nevertheless, the experience of this small farmer, who didn't want to be named, shows the enormous difference HTBt cotton had made in his life. It had doubled his earnings. His enhanced cash flow meant that he could partly repay his loan to the moneylender, and expect a fresh loan for the next season.

His was a desperate gamble that paid off in 2018. Inspired by this experience, many of his neighbours are keen to sow HTBt in the current year. Yet the scarcity of seeds coupled with uncertainty about the quality means that all of them may not be as lucky this time.

The proof of the pudding

Indian farmers have repeatedly shown that they are far ahead of policymakers. Farmers' understanding of the science of genetics may be limited, but their assessment of whether it works in their condition or not is usually not off the mark. Their life depends on it.

Lakhs of farmers have been trying out HTBt over the past few years, and their experience and expectation is reflected in the growing demand for the next-generation GM technology. Likewise, Jeevan is unlikely to be alone. Hundreds, if not thousands, of farmers are probably growing Bt brinjal even without knowing it.

Indian farmers have let the gene out of the bottle. They are the true masters of the field they survey, and of the genes they want. The only question is: How long will it take for the authorities to realise the futility of trying to put that gene back into the bottle? (Concluded.)