Interview with an Indian GMO farmer

Sudhindra Kulkarni at his farm

Sudhindra Kulkarni at his farm

Dear Reader, at this point I’m starting to think that Bt cotton is quite popular among Indian farmers. I got my first hint when I realized that there is a black market for Bt cotton seeds. If you think about it, there isn’t usually a black market for undesirable goods. The second hint came from the reading I did for this post, where I realized that Bt cotton improves yield for the farmers and reduces insecticide use, overall.

The third hint came a couple days ago, but this time it was bigger than a hint, it was more like someone setting off an alarm clock in my ear, kind of like this:

That was this. A Bt cotton farmer from Karnataka state contacted me after seeing my post and wanted to tell me his story. I had a half-hour long conversation with him in Hindi (second language for both of us) and he gave me permission to put his story on The Odd Pantry. Not to put too fine a point on it, he LOVES GMO cotton.

Background:

Sudhindra Kulkarni is a farmer in the Gulbarga district of Karnataka state. He sounds like a progressive and savvy farmer who has improved his lot far beyond the grinding poverty of his ancestors, all of whom were farmers. In 2012 his name was recommended by someone, he doesn’t know who, to join the Global Farmer Roundtable in Des Moines, Iowa. He was also sent to China as a progressive farmer by the Karnataka government. He had a lot of difficulties communicating because his English is not strong but it sounds like he did make a few good contacts there. He sent me this letter, that he calls his autobiography. I’m not sure why he wrote it, but it is also found on another website, exactly as the one he sent to me.

Interview:

(OP is The Odd Pantry, SK is Sudhindra. His answers translated by me)

OP: How long have you been farming?
SK: This is our family trade. I have been farming since my childhood. In my father’s days we grew wheat, cotton, sorghum. We also kept bullocks [OP: Indian cattle]. He practiced traditional farming methods and faced a lot of poverty. I stayed in the farming line when I grew up. My brother is an entomologist in the Dharwad University. I supported him with my farming. He himself was hardworking and smart and got scholarships. I learnt about modern farming methods and was able to pay back debts. I also built a pakka house for my family [OP: Pakka house is a cement house as opposed to a hut].

OP: How much land do you farm and what do you grow?
SK: I have 25 acres that I inherited from my forefathers and I lease about 25 more for Rs. 8000/= per acre per annum. I grow Bt cotton then rotate with pigeon pea and chickpea. I also grow sorghum for cattle feed [OP: I’ll take some too, please]. I have bullocks.

OP: How did you learn about modern farming methods?
SK: I learnt from my interest in improvement. The government has agriculture programs. I learnt from watching programs on TV. I leveled my land and got better yield. Now I use micronutrients for the soil and urea, potash and DAP. But I use organic methods too. In April we spread cowdung on the fields for manure. I used to practice purely organic methods but I had to give that up. In the old days we never tilled the soil, now we do. But we are still completely dependent on the monsoon. Four or five months of the year we get canal water. The rest of the time we depend on the rains.

Sudhindra's Bt cotton farm

Sudhindra’s Bt cotton farm

OP: How has your experience with Bt cotton been?
SK: I have been growing Bt cotton for ten years. It gives me excellent yield. I get one-and-half to two tons per acre. A farmer that I know is getting excellent yield with Bt cotton with purely organic methods. My cattle eat Bt cotton plants with no problems.

OP: Who helped you write your letter in English?
SK: My brother helps me with English. My 9th standard daughter helps me with Facebook and email. My language is Kannada. I don’t speak English well so it is difficult for me to get my message across.

OP: What is your message for my readers?
SK: My message is this. I have a sincere request. Please think about the economic condition of the farmer. Without good yield a farmer is nothing. Without good yield, a farmer cannot survive. My family would be destroyed. Without good yield, we are zero. Please do not listen to all the stories about farmer suicides. This is not just my story, it is the story of my whole village. [OP: He repeated this request five or six times throughout our conversation.] I don’t have good English so I cannot convince anyone. All this talk that the farmers will become slaves, this is all wrong. We need good yield.

[OP: He ended the conversation with inviting me and my family to stay at his farm, as is the Indian way. Perhaps someday. Then, I sent him one last question by email because I could not understand on the phone. What follows is his answer verbatim, not translated by me.]

OP: What difficulties did you face while practicing organic methods?
SK: # Ans: Animal Manure & cow dung not easily available ( Jeevaamruta )..varmi compost . pest control not possible..because environment not help # After that yield not getting..what we expected.. # Cost of production,overheads..all expense..after calculation..i didn’t get rate. # For me not possible to store my agri products till high rate,because i have also financial commitment .whatever rate i should sale.

Thoughts

So there you have it. Before I talked to him on the phone, my husband and I wondered the usual things one has to: like, is he telling the truth? Has he been coached? Or bribed? Once I talked to him, I immediately felt ashamed for wondering those things. He is clearly an intelligent and committed farmer. To think that he must have been coached to have certain thoughts smacks of condescension. Even to think that he is coachable smacks of condescension.

But in a sense, I am surprised at myself for being surprised at his story. The main beneficiaries of agricultural technology from the start have been farmers. This is true for GMO as well. American farmers have certainly voted with their feet to buy these seeds. Indian farmers are not that different, I guess. We are not Martians, after all.

Obviously, he may love Bt cotton for the high yield it gives him and it could still have other problems. The bollworm could develop resistance to it. Or there could be ripple effects in the environment. Or perhaps there really are no other problems, or if there are, they are better than spraying general insecticides. All or any or none could be true. That would be a different post, however.
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The GMO debate as a fable

IMG_2365[1]The other day my daughter and I did a fun kitchen project which had nothing to do with food — we made beeswax hand lotion at home. Never having done this before, I found myself a little befuddled. I had to stir in stuff while the beeswax was still melted. But how to keep it warm and not let it stiffen up while the whisking is going on? Luckily, my experience with a completely different recipe — chocolate frosting — helped me. I stole a step from that very different recipe. I set up a double boiler and kept the beeswax warm in that. It took a while but it worked.

I hope that did not raise any eyebrows. How dare I steal a step from one recipe to another? Did my hand lotion start to smell chocolatey? Of course not, I didn’t add any chocolate to it. Is my hand lotion now forever tainted as being somehow impure? Or unnatural? No — I demand that my misbegotten hand lotion be given its proper place in the pantheon of hand lotions. I ask that my hand lotion be accorded the same respect as other hand lotions, which means, please judge it on its traits. Does it smell good? Does it make your hands feel soft? And so on.

What does this have to do with genes? Everything.

DNA

DNA is a recipe. It isn’t really a recipe for living beings — it is a recipe for proteins, which in turn are a recipe for us. Sometimes biologists stress that all life on earth is related. So every weed you see growing in a sidewalk crack, or every bacteria that you can’t even see — is your cousin. Mostly we know that because all of our DNA’s are written in the same language.

I’m going to call this language Dnaelic, just to irritate my science readers and my Gaelic readers in one stroke. Where English has 26 letters, Dnaelic has just four: A, T, C and G. Words in Dnaelic are made up of 3 letters and are called codons. So CCC is a codon, TGT is a codon, and so on. Just like a sentence in English is a sequence of words that expresses a complete thought, a gene in Dnaelic is a sequence of codons that expresses a complete protein. Dnaelic even has punctuation marks like English to mark the start and end of genes.

Gene splicing

OriginalHandLotion

DNA for hand lotion

Imagine if the chocolate frosting recipe had been written in say, Choctaw, while the hand lotion steps were in English, I would find it pretty difficult to transfer steps from one to the other. Since they were both in English, it was easy. In fact, I will show you what I did.

On the left is my original recipe. I’m going to call it the DNA for hand lotion. Now I am going to ‘cheat’ and drag in an instruction from the DNA for chocolate frosting.

Genetically modified DNA for hand lotion

Genetically modified DNA for hand lotion

Can you spot the difference? My DNA for hand lotion now has an instruction spliced in. It will make better hand lotion, I promise. It will be softer (because the ingredients mixed in better) and will be way easier to grow. Sorry, I mean, way easier to make. And you will certainly be able to sell more of it.

I’m going to call that dragged in step the trans-step. As you can see, it does not look any different than any other step. Theoretically, I could have just thought it up out of the blue (mutation) or, possibly, I might have got that inspiration to use a double-boiler by watching other hand-lotion makers at work (cross-breeding). Nevertheless, I got it from chocolate frosting, and to mark that special history, I will call it a trans-step.

GMO on the Interwebs

No doubt the example I gave above is a bit of a fable and much simplified. But as I read the commentary on GMO all over the Interwebs I find a weird dichotomy; the debate between the science folks proceeds at a very sophisticated level, while the debate between laypeople shows no understanding of the basics of genetics. Once in a while when there is cross-communication between the two communities, the debate devolves into accusations of idiocy and political hackery. The two communities cannot speak to each other! Our DNA’s may speak the same language but we certainly don’t.

As laypeople, we need to understand the basics of this very important debate. We are all voters. So let me reframe some common GMO debates in the light of my hand lotion fable.

The Debate!

Layperson: “Genetically engineered foods have not been proven to be safe or healthy. You keep asserting over and over again that they are safe, but that does not convince me.”

Scientist: “I only keep saying that because I want to keep things simple. In reality what I mean is, ‘genetically engineered food’ is not a useful category. It is like saying all recipes that have borrowed steps from very different recipes are suspect. This is not a useful way to look at it. One has to study each genetically modified creature on its own to see if the introduced traits are good or bad (and, we have). In the hand lotion example, the borrowed step made a good hand lotion. But we could have as well borrowed a step that ruined it — say, a step that said ‘now throw it down the drain’. That would make a terrible hand lotion or actually, not make a hand lotion at all.

“There are many genetic engineering research projects ongoing. Let’s judge each on its merits. Here is one that will control the mosquito population to prevent them causing malaria. Here is one that could help Vitamin-A-blindness in the tropics. Aren’t those good things?”

Educated layperson: “I do actually think that genetically engineered food as a whole is something to worry about. I worry that you don’t understand the recipes of living beings well enough to be tweaking them. What if you put in a gene and it produces a protein as expected but it also has another unexpected effect? I also worry that your actual process is not very precise.

Scrambled instruction

Scrambled instruction

Transgene

Transgene

What if instead of the clean splicing that you showed in the hand lotion above, the spliced gene actually goes in scrambled (left) or like this (right) where the transgene is ‘loose’ inside the DNA or somehow different? What if you are introducing proteins into a creature that has never had a protein quite like that before — does it matter? It is as if you put in a step in the hand lotion recipe to add something no hand lotion has ever seen before — like, say, I don’t know, Coca Cola. Would that cause allergies? Would it still be hand lotion?

The Odd Pantry (moderator): “Good points, Educated Layperson. I might have to do a post on each of your concerns.”

Layperson: “Genetically engineered foods are unnatural. Nature should not be meddled with.”

Scientist: “I find it amusing that you are typing this out on a keyboard and sending me this over the Internet. Did that not strike you as ironic? Everything natural isn’t good. The dinosaurs were wiped out by a perfectly natural asteroid that they would have loved to have meddled with.

“You seem to have insufficient respect for how much humans have meddled with nature already, even before GMO.

Teosinte to corn (source: http://www.kukurydza.org)

Teosinte to corn (source: http://www.kukurydza.org)

We have turned corn from this (left) to this (right) with just conventional breeding (and some help from nuclear technology). No, I’m not joking.

“On the other hand, you have insufficient respect for the tricks that nature gets up to already with DNA. The usual thing of a mother and father mating to produce offspring is one thing. But our DNA is being constantly altered by completely random mutations, most of which are fatal. Did you know that while scientists carefully selected a bacterial gene to put into corn for a specific purpose, nature does this all the time? Bacteria not only transfer genes to each other (without mating), but have known to transfer genes to insects, and even humans. In a completely random, unpredictable way.”

Educated layperson: “You are right, Scientist. Nature is vaster than any of us can imagine and calling something ‘unnatural’ is, well, childish. But I will rephrase my concern. My concern is that GMO foods do not promote biodiversity, on the contrary, they promote an extreme form of monoculture. The corn example you gave — yes, I am aware that we have bred teosinte into corn, a huge distance (and not always for the good). But you know what? The breeding didn’t happen in a lockbox. Corn was always free to spread its pollen far and wide as plants will do. Wild species and cultivated species could mate. With GMO, it is single strain that is expected to be grown in a lockbox and not share pollen with other plants. I’m sorry to go back to that word, but this is unnatural.”

Scientist: “That’s not me demanding that strains of crops grow in a lockbox, that’s Business.”

Educated layperson: “True, but all the fun you have in the lab doesn’t really come to us except through Business.”

The Odd Pantry (moderator): “You are on fire today, Educated Layperson. I might have to do a post on what the problem with monoculture really is, since you didn’t really explain it.”

Layperson: “GMO foods contaminate the environment.”

Scientist: “Oh, that again. Look, I agree with Educated Layperson above that GMO plants will want to cross-breed with wild plants. But whether that counts as ‘contamination’ — doesn’t that depend on whether the GMO plant has good traits or bad?”

Educated layperson: “Good for what, and bad for what? A plant may do exactly what it is engineered to do, for example have insecticide. But if it escapes or mates with wild plants, you now have insecticide plants growing all over (think: superweed). They are going to be quite invulnerable, don’t you think? And what about the decimation of the insect population that might occur? It seems to me that you often ignore the second-order ecological impact of the plants you build.”

The Odd Pantry (moderator): “Oooh, ‘second-order ecological impacts’. Mind if I steal that? Another post, I guess. I better get busy, I have a lot of posts to bore my readers with.”

[Disclaimer: all characters are fictional and not meant to represent any real person. I will admit to having a special fondness for Educated Layperson, though.]

GMO case study: Roundup Ready crops

Herbicide resistant crops in US (source: Colorado State University)

Herbicide resistant crops in US (source: Colorado State University)

If you walk down the aisle of any American grocery store, around four-fifths of the packaged food available for sale to you has some genetically engineered ingredients. And of those ingredients, most have been genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup. So this particular trait is very pervasive, not only in our grocery aisles, but all over the American farmland: most of the corn, almost all of the soybean, most of the cotton is grown to be Roundup resistant. In a sense we are having the debate about whether to label GMO foods quite late; the barn door has been open for a while, the horse has not only exited the barn but is romping around the landscape making daisy chains.

In this particular case, it isn’t the genetically modified seeds that are the issue, but the behavior that those seeds incentivize. The crops have been made invulnerable to Roundup, so that that particular weed-killer can get squirted around with pretty much wild abandon. What does that do?

Roundup

Roundup logo (source: Wikipedia)

Roundup logo (source: Wikipedia)

Glyphosate is a plant poison. It was developed by Monsanto in the 1970’s and, combined with other ingredients (some disclosed, some not) sold as a formulation called Roundup. As a herbicide, it was safer than the others that came before it. The earliest in the 1940’s was 2,4D which formed one half of the ingredients of the defoliant Agent Orange used in Vietnam. Then came Atrizine, which is known to be an endocrine disruptor, and is often found as a contaminant in drinking water.

Glyphosate was a blessing when it was discovered. It works by blocking plants from creating certain kinds of amino acids. Since humans and other animals do not have the ability to synthesize these amino acids in the first place (we must get them from plants), glyphosate simply does not have the power to harm us.

There was another reason why farmers must have rejoiced to have an herbicide like Roundup on their shelves; it is non-selective. A huge variety of plants, whether grasses, leafy plants, woody plants, or conifers, are affected by it. Stepping around on a lawn with Roundup-stained soles will in a few days turn those footsteps into brown patches.

The scientists also found that it generally sticks to the top few inches of soil  and doesn’t easily run off to pollute groundwater. Microbes are able to break it down while it is bound to soil. A miracle herbicide!

Safer but is it safe?

That is the theory. Reality is usually messier. For instance, given a big enough storm, the soil itself (with bound glyphosate) can run off into ground water, and there, microbes cannot break it down. Once in the water, a study showed that it induces changes in frogs by making them stressed as though there is a predator around, even when there isn’t.

Plus, all the studies that talk about the safety of glyphosate miss the point, because the Roundup formulation contains a long list of other ‘inactive’ ingredients that Monsanto is not required to reveal, that are actually more toxic.

A preservative in it — Proxel — can cause dermatitis. Roundup also contains a surfactant called POEA — this chemical allows Roundup to be properly wet, so that the plant can absorb it all the way to its roots — that has been shown to be toxic to fish. It also was found to kill human cells in a test tube, its power magnified by working in concert with glyphosate.

Glyphosate itself has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto’s rejoinder to that study was basically that the association was weak, and that it proved correlation, not causation, ignoring the fact that while judging the toxicity of chemicals it is difficult to actually prove cause-and-effect without unethically exposing people to high levels of the stuff, just to see what happens.

Plus, one has to remember that while animals don’t create these amino acids, microbes do. So glyphosate has the obvious potential to harm good bacteria in our guts the same way in which it kills plants. In fact, a study found that glyphosate is implicated in celiac disease due to its impact on gut bacteria.

This factsheet from the Oregon state government is a good summary of harms from Roundup.

Despite all this, weed killers have their uses. Environmentalists, forest-management folks, people with the best of intentions, have used Roundup to remove invasive plants and preserve biodiversity. (There is no reason to use it on your ornamental lawn, however. None.) These folks, and farmers, have gotten by with a judicious application of herbicide where needed. Judicious, judicious, judicious, one must emphasize in the manner of realtors.

However, when Roundup Ready crops came on the market, judicious application of Roundup began to sound a little quaint.

Roundup Ready crops

Conventional crops are just as vulnerable to Roundup as any weeds might be. So farmers could not use it with impunity. They couldn’t use a ton of it or spray indiscriminately; for another thing, they couldn’t use it while their crops were growing, it had to be done before they have germinated. Since they didn’t have a magic bullet, they had to use a mix of weed management methods: a mix of herbicides, a mix of crops, and other ways of controlling weeds.

In the meantime, Monsanto’s patent on Roundup expired in 2000, which must have caused quite a bit of fretting among Monsanto’s business centers. They came up with a very ingenious new product that they could patent. They were able to create seeds of soybean, corn, cotton, etc., that weren’t affected by Roundup the way most plants are. How was this done?

It turns out that bacteria need to produce amino acids as well. But the enzyme they use for this purpose is different than the ones most plants use. Different enough that it doesn’t get affected by glyphosate, but similar enough that it can produce the needed amino acids. Scientists were able to take a gene from these bacteria that produces this slightly different enzyme to put into seeds to turn them into glyphosate tolerant crops.

It made the farmer’s life a lot easier, because they could spray Roundup all over without concern for the crops. It was Roundup and only Roundup, and a couple sprays all over did the job. Some called it agricultural heroin for farmers.

For Monsanto, this meant more sales of Roundup and a near-monopoly on sales of seeds.

For farmers, it meant convenience and certainty, at first. But, notice, they are subject to this rather pincer-like business practice of Monsanto — you have to buys seeds from the same company that sells you the spray, and neither can work without the other.

For consumers, it means that we are consuming a lot more herbicide. All samples of GMO soy were found to have residues of Roundup in a study published by Food Chemistry.

What does it mean for the environment? To examine this, we must forget about the marginal toxicities of Roundup that are the subject of endless debates and look squarely at what Roundup is advertised to do.

The missing monarchs

In the insect world the monarch butterfly is a bit of a prima donna. It is not only the showy good looks, but also how exacting it is in its needs. Eggs must be laid on a milkweed plant, because the emerging caterpillar will eat nothing else. Without it, the caterpillar will simply perish. Every year, monarchs migrate down from Canada to Mexico flying over the Midwest where they seek out milkweed. In recent years this population has dwindled down by 81%. The monarch is such a star that people noticed. Not only does it drive tourist business in Mexico, but is also the state insect for several American states.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have now found the cause to be the rampant spraying of glyphosate across farmlands in the Midwest. Milkweed happens to grow in those ignored areas that us humans don’t have much respect for — on the edges of farms, along highway shoulders. An edge of farmland that looks scrubby and pointless does not get the same respect as say a forest would. Since the advent of Roundup Ready crops, milkweed has declined by 58% with predictable devastation of the monarch population.

I want to emphasize that people only noticed the decline in the monarch population because of its glamour. There very well could be many other species that have been affected because of glyphosate use doing exactly what it is advertised to do — kill weeds.

Superweeds

When I’m pulling weeds in my garden I often find that some weeds have deviously designed themselves to escape me. One such is the dandelion. Its leaves lie flat to the ground and spread out, which makes it hard to get a grip under the plant and pull it. If you manage to, you realize that it is anchored to the ground by a thick ropy taproot with a grip of death. Then as I tug on the root, it breaks off easily, leaving a part of it still underground ready to spring up into a new rosette when I’m gone.

Dandelion (source: http://www.garden.org)

Dandelion (source: http://www.garden.org)

Weeds are called that because they are escape artists. They have developed traits that let them survive whatever weed management you might use on them. If it is a lawn that is often mowed, they might lie flat against the mower (again, like the dandelion). If you mostly get rid of them by pulling, they might give you a false sense of security by breaking off easily but leave underground bulbs behind (like Oxalis, Bermuda buttercup). This is why we are forced to use several tricks to adapt to their adaptations; some by pulling, some by letting loose caterpillars that might feed on them exclusively; some by solarization.

With Roundup, it seems, farmers were not this nimble. With active encouragement from Monsanto they came to depend entirely on spraying of glyphosate since the Roundup Ready crops came on the market. While glyphosate use grew a lot in the years since 1997, the use of other herbicides fell.

Well, that was nothing but an invitation to weeds to independently develop their own resistance to glyphosate. Those farms were basically sitting ducks.

Pigweed (source: Wikimedia Commons user Pompilid)

Pigweed (source: Wikimedia Commons user Pompilid)

Two such weeds — pigweed and waterhemp — have become huge problems in the cotton and soy farms of the Midwest. Because of these and others, farmers were forced to use even more glyphosate, based on advice from Monsanto’s scientists, as says this statement from farmer Troy Roush.

Monsanto’s business practices are culpable here. In their 1993 petition to the US government to deregulate the use of Roundup Ready soybean, they insisted that weeds developing resistance to it was “highly unlikely” (the 1993 petition, page 56), mostly because no weeds had become glyphosate-resistant until then. They assumed that there was something about glyphosate that made it hard for weeds to develop resistance; also since glyphosate does not hang around in the soil, they would not have the time. Were their scientists trying to delude the government, or were they deluded themselves?

Nature is nimbler than you think

This ought to be a lesson to both sides — those that insist that GMO is contrary to nature, and those that insisted (above) that nature could never pull off what Monstanto’s smart scientists had taken ten years of intensive research to do. The trait in question — resistance to glyphosate’s ability to block creation of amino acids.

Interestingly, the first discovery of nature’s glyphosate-resistant weeds did not happen in a corn or soy farm, but in the backyard of Monsanto’s chemical factory along the Mississippi river. There, in ditches where glyphosate residue was often discarded, plants had been fighting this particular enemy for a while. By the 1980’s some weeds had already developed resistance to glyphosate in Monsanto’s own backyard and were growing happily in the sludge. When the scientists bothered to look, they found examples of Roundup Ready genes made by nature in their own ditches that did the job far more effectively than the gene they had spent ten years developing.

Yes, nature was easily able to pull off creating resistance to glyphosate. It just needed a reason.