When genetically modified cotton (Bt cotton) entered the market around 20 years ago, things changed for Anil Kamlaker Ambhore, a farmer in the Selgaon district of Maharasthra.
At the time, cotton plants were being wiped out by pests like bollworms across the country, but Bt cotton offered a solution and as farmers planted the genetically modified crop, yields across the country almost tripled. It was a welcome relief.
That was until the drought began in Maharashtra around five years ago. Bt cotton yields in the region dropped and couldn't cope with the water stress.
This is the harsh nature of the agricultural world. Farmers are constantly at the mercy of external factors that they cannot control, from pests to weather to disease. All they can do is use their knowledge of their soils and crops and try to get the best yield possible.
Every year, farmers have to decide which seeds to plant based on the conditions they expect nature to throw at them. And extreme and irregular weather patterns are getting worse every year, making it more difficult for them to predict.
For Ambhore, it's been five years of reduced cotton yield. The strong monsoon didn't bring the relief he and other farmers in Maharashtra hoped it would.
Instead, it flooded their fields.
In the face of these rapidly changing climate conditions, farmers want seed options that will keep their businesses afloat. Ambhore says he looks for seeds that can cope with drought, pests, and disease, and that will flower sooner so he can plant two rounds in one year.
At an event organised by seed and biotech company Mahyco, Ambhore and several thousand other farmers from Maharashtra looked through 22 varieties of both genetically modified and specially bred cotton plants that catered to different needs the farmers might have. (Side note: travel expenses for this reporting were paid by Mahyco. But that will not influence this piece – alternative viewpoints to GMOs will still be offered and discussed.)
Among Mahyco's seed options, there were plants that flowered sooner, but had smaller cotton bolls, while others flowered a little later but had larger bolls. Many of the genetically modified plants had hairy leaves, which act as a deterrent to sap-sucking pests. Traits like these allow farmers to cut down on pesticide use, which is good for their pockets and for reducing chemicals in the food production industry.
Though companies like Mahyco are constantly testing plant varieties, the process of getting a new seed on the market is lengthy.
But farmers can't afford to wait for these regulations, Ambhore said in Hindi. They want better seeds now.
Politicians are under the impression we don’t need [agricultural] technology. We need tech, but we don’t know how to go ahead with it.Anil Kamlaker Ambhore
But it isn't just the regulatory processes that have stopped or slowed down the new seed market. Environmental activist lobbies have major concerns about genetically modified organisms.
Wading Into The Controversy
When a whitefly infestation triggered by drought swept across the country, Bt cotton couldn't keep up – it wasn't bred for this particular pest.
Activists jumped at this opportunity to point out why biodiversity in nature is important.
Here's how it works: Defence mechanisms vary from one plant species to another, so this variety means that some plants are able to resist specific environmental factors. Those plants survive when that specific factor wipes through large chunks of the population, and then pass on their genes to subsequent generations, which will tolerate the same conditions. However, if all the plants share the same traits, then their ability to resist new environmental factors that they aren't bred for is diminished.
Concern about biodiversity is one of the main arguments against genetic modification. But it's not that simple, because within GM crops like cotton there are multiple varieties, which are bred to withstand different conditions.
Plus, just because there are different plant varieties, doesn't mean they are going to survive. Still, having different plant varieties out there means that scientists can have more traits to chose from when developing new varieties, so preserving seed varieties is still necessary.
That's why a holistic approach to agriculture is important, said Dr Bharat Char, the leader of biotechnology at Mahyco. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the world's agricultural challenges. Environmental conditions and farmers’ needs always need to be accounted for in the development of new products.
In some cases, GM might be the best way forward, while in others, traditional breeding to favour certain plant traits is sufficient, added Char. And farmers want to be able to make their own choices.
The Ever-Changing Nature of Things
Farmers around the world have adopted genetic modification for a variety of crops like corn and soy, but in India, Bt Cotton is the only genetically modified crop in use.
Activists halted the implementation of Bt brinjal, and now they're hoping to block genetically modified crops. Among their list of concerns, activists say that genetically modified crops could lead to the development of super-weeds and super-pests as weeds and pests learn to bypass the defense mechanisms selected in genetically modified plants.
But nature is always evolving. Much like software developers need to keep up with new computer viruses and hackers, weeds and pests are developing a resistance to pesticides and herbicides that are used in agriculture, whether it’s GMO or not. It's a constant battle between technological development and plant evolution.
And bio-technicians like Char of Mahyco, know this. They recognise the importance of variety.
Where Are All The Farmers?
In the midst of all the controversy surrounding GMOs, many farmers feel they are being left behind. Recent years have been challenging, and they're looking to the government to expedite solutions.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is still deciding what to do about GM mustard. In a hearing on Monday, the government agreed not to release the new seed until the Supreme Court gives the green light. The next hearing will be in November.
For farmers like Ambhore, processes like these are too slow.
No one listens to people who are on the ground. We know companies have the solutions, but we’re not getting any of it.Anil Kamlaker Ambhore