Hamara Beej

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Banana fibre in Bihar: the remarkable story of an industry and an entrepreneur!

Patna: Bihar farmers plant banana in around 28,000 hectares of land every year. The banana plant is the largest herbaceous flowering plant. The plants are normally tall and fairly sturdy and are often mistaken for trees, but their main or upright stem is actually a pseudostem that grows 6 to 7.6 metres (20 to 24.9 ft) tall, growing from a corm.
Each pseudostem can produce a single bunch of bananas. After fruiting, the pseudostem dies, but offshoots may develop from the base of the plant. Many varieties of bananas are perennial.
banana fibre arrangedbanana fibre arranged
The relevant point here however is, the stem invariably goes waste. On the whole 22 districts in Bihar grow banana, some of them on a vast scale. Each acre of banana plantation may have up to 1300 tress. This may give you some idea of the banana waste output of entire Bihar. So what should be done?
According to standard data, not widely known in Bihar, a full 1 km of fibre may be extracted from 12-15 banana trees. A plantation thus with 1300 trees can give a producer 85 kms of fibre length. But what are the uses of the banana fibre? And this is where the producer may hit the jackpot.
banana fibre matsbanana fibre mats
Banana fibre is used in a variety of industries starting with high quality paper to weaving of saris in South India and Gujarat. The fibre also finds use in high quality security/currency paper, packing cloth, ship towing ropes, wet drilling cables etc.
India also occupies the largest area under Banana cultivation in the world covering approx. 11% of world area of Banana. Banana fiber can partially replace the consumption of Cotton and Jute fiber in India. It has excellent potential for export to Far-east Asian and South Asian countries like Singapore,Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
Banana farmers and entrepreneurs in Bihar are thus sitting on a gold mine that they are not aware of. There is one person however who has taken the initiative in Bihar. Virendra Dayal who has a small scale unit in Bidupur, Vaishali took the trouble to get himself trained in the technique of fibre extraction before he put up his industry. He now says he has captive clients who pick up his produce and he doesn’t have to go chasing after them – a major advantage in the case of Bihar where farmers often find tough to seek markets.
Mr Dayal lays down a simple calculation to explain the profitability of the industry – one acre of land will give you 1200 stems approximately. Roughly 12 stems give you around 1 kilo of fibre. Companies willingly pay Rs 150-200 for a kilo of fibre. He started his industry with a machine he bought for the royal sum of Rs 80,000 and a large room as a factory. He is now planning to upgrade the machine with an investment of Rs 150,000. Does that give you an idea of the scale of investment?
banana basket bihardaysbanana basket bihardays
You can do the rest of the calculation yourself. Mr dayal does not forget to add that the banana stem juice may be processed into high value molasses as well.  So far we have thought of banana fibre from the entrepreneur’s viewpoint. Once you include the farmer and the local labour employed, you get a complete picture of the potential of this industry.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

New WikiLeaks Cables Show US Diplomats Promote Genetically Engineered Crops Worldwide

by: Mike Ludwig, Truthout | Report 
Dozens of United States diplomatic cables released in the latest WikiLeaks dump on Wednesday reveal new details of the US effort to push foreign governments to approve  genetically engineered (GE) crops and promote the worldwide interests of agribusiness giants like Monsanto and DuPont.
The cables further confirm previous Truthout reports on the diplomatic pressure the US has put on Spain and France, two countries with powerful anti-GE crop movements, to speed up their biotech approval process and quell anti-GE sentiment within the European Union (EU).
Several cables describe "biotechnology outreach programs" in countries across the globe, including African, Asian and South American countries where Western biotech agriculture had yet to gain a foothold. In some cables (such as this 2010 cable from Morocco) US diplomats ask the State Department for funds to send US biotech experts and trade industry representatives to target countries for discussions with high-profile politicians and agricultural officials.
Truthout recently reported on front groups supported by the US government, philanthropic foundations and companies like Monsanto that are working to introduce pro-biotechnology policy initiatives and GE crops in developing African countries, and several cables released this week confirm that American diplomats have promoted biotech agriculture to countries like Tunisia, South Africa and Mozambique.
Cables detail US efforts to influence the biotech policies of developed countries such as Egypt and Turkey, but France continues to stand out as a high-profile target.
In a 2007 cable, the US embassy in Paris reported on a meeting among US diplomats and representatives from Monsanto, DuPont and Dow-Agro-sciences. The companies were concerned about a movement of French farmers, who were vandalizing GE crop farms at the time, and suggested diplomatic angles for speeding up EU approvals of GE Crops.
In 2008 cable describing a "rancorous" debate within the French Parliament over proposed biotech legislation, Craig Stapleton, the former US ambassador to France under the Bush administration, included an update on MON-810, a Monsanto corn variety banned in France.
Stapleton wrote that French officials "expect retaliation via the World Trade Organization" for upholding the ban on MON-810 and stalling the French GE crop approval process. "There is nothing to be gained in France from delaying retaliation," Stapleton wrote.
Tough regulations and bans on GE crops can deal hefty blows to US exports. About 94 percent of soybeans, 72 percent of corn and 73 percent of the cotton grown in the US now use GE-tolerate herbicides like Monsanto's Roundup, according to the US Agriculture Department. 
A 2007 cable, for example, reports that the French ban on MON-810 could cost the US $30 million to $50 million in exports.
In a 2007 cable obtained by Truthout in January, Stapleton threatened "moving to retaliate" against France for banning MON-810. Several other European countries, including Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria, have also placed bans on MON-810 in recent years. MON-810 is engineered to excrete the Bt toxin, which kills some insect pests.

Friday, August 12, 2011

GM crops by backdoor

Apart from issues related to seed monopoly and rural livelihood, there are serious biosafety concerns the world over.

Across the world, there is huge controversy around the introduction of genetically modified/engineered (GM/GE) crops. On one hand there are a few biotech crop developers and scientists recommending the use of GM technology as solution for food security and on other there are concerns about its impact on human health, environment and socioeconomy.

Added to that is the unpredictability and irreversibility of genetic engineering and the uncontrollability of GM crops once let out in the environment. One of the major concerns about GM crops is that they only serve the purpose of multinational seed giants. All GM technologies come along with Intellectual Property Rights and patent tags of multinational seed companies which would ensure their monopolies as has happened in the case of Bt cotton, the only GM crop commercially cultivated in India.

While there were 619 varieties of Bt cotton approved for release until Aug 2009 in the country, 514 of them are owned by Monsanto, the US multinational seed giant, which also holds a global monopoly in the total seed sales of Bt cotton.

One has already seen how Monsanto has armtwisted the state governments in India to increase the cotton seed prices this season. Bt Brinjal, the first GM food crop to have reached commercialisation stage in our country, also had a Cry 1Ac gene owned by Monsanto and licenced to Mahyco for developing Bt Brinjal. There is a threat of GM crops becoming the tool for control of the seed and thereby the agriculture sector by multinational seed corporations.

Apart from issues related to seed monopoly and rural livelihood, there are serious biosafety concerns being debated world over. Different studies have consistently indicated the possible ill-effects of GMs on health and environment. There is a clear need for an independent report on various effects of GM crops, including long term studies and chronic toxicity studies. Biosafety concerns must be addressed before any open air release of GM crops including field trials.

It is in this context that one should look at the growing debate on GM crops in India. The crisis in Indian agriculture needs no further statement, but to attribute it to just technology lag and promote technofixes, like GM crops, as the only solution to it is not only myopic but also criminal and this is precisely what the Indian government seems to be doing.

The debate in India on GE crops started with Bt cotton, the only commercially approved GE crop in the country (March, 2002) and had become loud and visible around the approval of Bt Brinjal.

During public consultations organised by the Union ministry of environment and forests last year on Bt Brinjal, there were concerns raised by farmers, civil society, and health and environment experts against GM crops and also against the existing regulatory system in the country, the government then rolled back the approval validating these concerns.

Field trials 
While Bt Brinjal is under moratorium, numerous GM crops are being released in to the open fields in the name of field trials, which could lead to contamination of our regular crop varieties by these GM crops whose biosafety is yet to be ascertained. Efforts are also on by GM crop developers like Monsanto to push herbicide tolerant corn and cotton in India. Field trials of these crops have been happening and are expected to come up for commercialisation soon.

Recommendations submitted by the Swaminathan Task Force on Agri-Biotechnology, whose report was accepted by the government in 2004, clearly stated that India should  adopt  such technologies as genetic engineering only where alternatives do not exist. It also categorically rejected technologies that would be detrimental to agriculture labour like the herbicide tolerant crops.

To top it all the government is proposing a new regulatory system for GM crops called the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) which is supposed to be tabled in the monsoon session. From what one has seen of the media leaked versions of its drafts, BRAI is going to lower the bar for approvals of GM crops. The problems with the proposed bill starts with the grave conflict of interest where the regulator is proposed to be located in the ministry of science and technology which also has the mandate  to promote GM crops in the country.

The last version seen in the media paints the picture of a centralised technocratic body with pretty much no role for the elected representatives of the people of this country. It did not have longterm biosafety assessments and also maintains the current system of letting the GM crop developer do the biosafety assessment.

It also proposed to circumvent the Right to Information Act, 2005, and went even to the extent of proposing imprisonment and fines for those opposing GM crops without scientific evidence. Thus the BRAI that government plans to put in place, at its onset looks like a non transparent, unquestionable authority.

Given that the existing regulatory system is defunct, what needs to be immediately done is stopping the release of any GM crop in to our environment be it for commercialisation or for research. We should not fail to ask fundamental questions like whether there is a need for this technology and whether safer and sustainable alternatives exist for a proposed product.

This is what the existing and proposed regulatory systems for GM crops fail to do in India and the fact is that for any GM crop that is being developed in any part of the word right now, there exists ecological alternatives which are economically and socially sustainable.

(The writer is the chairman of parliament’s standing committee on agriculture)

Legal action against two firms in BT brinjal case

NEW DELHI:  The BT brinjal case just got murkier.Government's National Biodiversity Authority has decided to take legal action against Mayhco and Monsanto for using Indian varieties of the vegetable without mandatory permissions. 

The authority, meant to govern use of Indian genetic resources by business and research groups, decided in its meeting in June to initiate legal action against the companies and their collaborators for violating the Biodiversity Conservation Act and using the genetic material from India without the mandatory permissions from either the state or central board authorised to permit such work. 

The last meeting of NBA recorded, "A background note besides legal opinion on Bt brinjal on the alleged violation by the Mahyco/Monsanto, and their collaborators for accessing and using the local brinjal varieties for development of Bt brinjal without prior approval of the competent authorities was discussed and it was decided that the NBA may proceed legally against Mahyco/Monsanto, and all others concerned to take the issue to its logical conclusion." 

The move comes after a Bangalore-based NGO, Environment Support Group, filed a case before the state authority - Karnataka Biodiversity Board -- against the companies and consortium of research organizations for using the Indian varieties without mandatory clearances. 

Environment Support Group complained to the Karnataka Biodiversity Board on February 15, 2011. The state authority investigated the matter and in May 2011 reported to the national board that six local varieties had been used for development of Bt Brinjal without permissions. Mayhco and its collaborator, the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, defended themselves before the state authority for not seeking permissions stating that the project did not involve profit making or transfer of genetic resources. 

Under the Biodiversity Act, violations of this nature can attract up to three years of imprisonment and Rs 5 lakh penalty.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Save our onions from seed predators

  | August 11, 2011

An internationally reputed entomologist, Petr Svacha, was arrested and put behind bars in a Darjeeling jail a couple of years ago for allegedly violating the Biodiversity Protection Act 2002. His crime: he was found collecting some moths and insects in forest areas. None of them were endangered species nor was Svacha in a protected forest.

Now contrast this with another case of biopiracy. A multinational seed firm is accused of 'accessing' nine local varieties of eggplant and using this plant material to develop a genetically modified brinjal variety - popularly known as bt brinjal.

One of the state biodiversity boards finds prima facie violation of the Act and forwards the complaint to the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) for further action. NBA not only sits on the complaint for over a year, but also processes a fresh application by the same company to 'access' indigenous germlines of onions. In one case, a scientist is summarily jailed allegedly for being a biopirate, while in the other no action is taken even after evidence of biopiracy is found against a powerful commercial entity.

These two incidents demonstrate how India has made a sham of its biodiversity regulation.

NBA had to be set up to fulfill obligations after India signed the Convention on Biological Diversity. It took a long time for the authority and state boards to become functional.

Once NBA was set up, it was promptly converted into a convenient parking lot for bureaucrats from agriculture and environment ministries. All its chairmen since 2003 have been serving or retired babus, and members are all joint secretary level officers from different ministries.

One can call it a committee of joint secretaries rather than NBA. Even so-called nonofficial members are also drawn from the same pool. In fact, for the first time NBA will have a Chairman from outside the babudom this week. The problem with these people is that they consider the authority as an extension of the government, and have reduced it to a clearing house of applications from multinationals for accessing India's biodiversity.

While applications from commercial firms for accessing biological material are processed with alacrity, complaints against them are not handled with the same level of efficiency. The time taken by NBA in dealing with the complaint of biopiracy against Monsanto, which now wants to access onion parental lines, is a case in point.

The Monsanto application for the use of onion plant material for developing commercial grade onion hybrid seeds also raises some fundamental issues.

How do you arrive at value of plant material and who decides this? The company is going to pay Rupees ten lakh to the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research for 25 grams each of Male sterile (A line) and Maintener (B line) of MS 48 and MS 65 as 'onetime license fee'. Is this the right price for a plant material which would perhaps spin a multi-billion dollar hybrid onion business for Monsanto? Should it be Rs 10 lakh or Rs 100 crore? (the export market alone of Indian onions is in excess of Rs 1000 crore a year).

When hybrids are already being developed in state-funded Directorate of Onion and Garlic Research, should a predatory seed firm be allowed entry at all? All these questions need convincing answers. Onion prices can bring tears in the eyes of politicians at the time of elections and bring down governments.

Hope the issue of biodiversity of onion will be dealt with the same level of gravity.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Kisan Swaraj Yatra enters Bihar – interacts with farmers, farmer leaders and intellectuals in Patna

The Yatra entered Bihar today and the 3-day trip in Bihar began with a public meeting at Srikrishna Vigyan Kendra, Patna. The meeting was attended by farmers, farmer leaders with various unions, students from schools and colleges, urban consumers, media representatives and an ex-Minister, ex-MLA and so on and was chaired by the Chairperson of the State Farmers’ Commission, Dr Upendranath Verma (an active person in his 90s), who was also a former Minister for Rural Development.
Bihar State President of BKU, Mr Ramanuj Singh observed that no political party included any farmers’ issues in their election manifestos in the recently-concluded election, which is a worrisome factor. He lamented at the fact that lakhs of masoor was lying with very poor price support for farmers. He also questioned the institutional credit policies in relation to farmers – why is it that for every tractor that a farmer gets, the mortgage is worth eight to ten times, whereas it is not the same credit policy for other sectors, he asked. He also told the Yatris that if there is hope for a true farmers’ struggle rising up again in the country along the lines that Gandhiji dreamt of, it would happen from Bihar and West Champaran! Mr Dhirendra Narayan Sharma of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, said that the “Green Revolution in Eastern India” should be aptly called as “Loot ki kranti” (“exploitation-revolution”). He pointed out that this country never saw even one political leader who said that they will not accept any hikes in their salaries and emoluments unless farmers get proper remunerative prices and that is the misfortune of the farmers in the country. He also questioned the so-called organic farming implementation in the state of Bihar.
Mr Gowrishankar Nagdansh, an ex-Minister in the Bihar government also spoke. He raised issues related to sharecroppers and talked about a sahityakaar Pharmeshwar Nath “Renu” who did not send his children to school – “he understood that sending children to our education institutions will pull them out of farming I guess”, he remarked.
Mr Vijay Pratap of SADED, well known social activist, emphasized on the need to focus on rainfed agriculture – he reminded everyone that the rainfed belts are the ones which provide nutritious food for everyone. He also pointed out that other regions in India will have to experience the same plight as Punjab today, if we don’t correct our path and learn lessons from the earlier Green Revolution. He also questioned the government’s faith in the American farming models and pointed out that these have been proven to be unsustainable and adding to climate change. We have to come out of our aping of the western notions of development and change our thinking with regard to our farming. He said that the nation has to focus on the revival of the rural economy.
Dr Upendranath Verma raised his concerns against Monsanto being given an official status in India. Our decision makers are corrupt and I have no hesitation saying that here, he remarked. He hoped that the fire that will spread from this Yatra will consume the foreign companies in India and make them flee from here. “We need at least hundred such public meetings in Bihar to be organized after this Yatra leaves – we have to go to the villages with this message – let us get everyone here to shun GM seeds and to save their own seeds”, he said.
Yatris explained why the western influenced intense agriculture can never be a solution for the Indian model of small / individual and marginal farmers. The symbiotic relationship between organic farming and small and marginal holdings was explained. That the current crisis in Indian farming is also an issue for the non-farmers like the urban consumers was also explained in detail.
Other farmers, especially from Bihar Kisan Sangharsh Samiti who spoke in the meeting urged the ASHA people to stay away from (party) politics to ensure that farmers’ issues are carried forward in a non-partisanal manner. Pankaj Bhushan of Tara Foundation explained the nature of ASHA and assured them that this is not linked to political parties.
They also pointed out that there has been large scale failure of maize and matar (green peas) and nothing has been done to compensate farmers for the losses that they incurred.
The whole house rejected the Green Revolution proposals in Bihar by the Union Government. The Yatra put forward three main demands to the yet-to-be-formed government in Bihar:
  • Promote organic farming in the state
  • Not allow any GM seeds in the state including open air trials and make a legislation to that effect
  • Pick up lessons from the earlier Green Revolution and ensure that the Green Revolution proposals are in the benefit of farmers and in a sustainable livelihoods framework
There was a rally afterwards uptil Gandhi Statue where Yatris and others paid homage to the Mahatma. “Mahatma Gandhi ka naara goonjega, is desh ke kone kone mein”, was the slogan that rented the skies. Then we moved to Taru Mitra Bioreserve, an ecological ashram set up by thousands of students across the globe. This place which was a rice field till 1996 was converted to the green heaven it is today by sheer labour from students. There is so much thrust on having as many local species of trees as possible and the fact that the students were not only enlightened about the need of such a spread but also other eco-sensitive issues. We interacted with students from different schools in Patna here.
The day ended with a fantastic public meeting in the Musallahpur bazaar with literally thousands of people listening to the Yatris. Leaflets flew in thousands and it was fantastic to watch people read the leaflets with great interest and do slogan-shouting along with us. The best part was that as we closed the meeting, we did not find a single leaflet dropped on the road – people carefully folded the handbills and put them in their pockets and left. We left for Muzaffarpur after this.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yatra against mutated food, crops

Patna Aug. 25: GM Free Bihar Movement, spearheading a countrywide campaign against genetically modified food, today announced that it would launch a Kisan Swaraj Yatra on October 2.
The journey by bus, slated to take two months, would cover 19 states across the country. The bus would pass through Patna, Muzaffarpur, Rajendra Agriculture University, Samastipur, and Champaran on the Bihar leg of its tour between November 22 and 24.
GM Free Bihar Movement convener Pankaj Bhusan said: “Kisan Swaraj Yatra is an effort to reach out towards self-reliant, ecological farming and for securing the rights of farmers.”
Bhusan said that the yatra would also help in creating a platform for state governments which want to assert their constitutional authority over agriculture and health as state projects.
The president of an NGO, Lokyan, Vijay Pratap, said: “It is matter of shame that in a country where nearly 70 per cent of the population is still dependent on farming and food production, hundreds of farmers are being forced to commit suicide.”
Social activist Mihir Kumar, who also took part in the seminar, said BT brinjal, the first genetically modified food crop sought to be introduced in India, has been stopped by the central government.
BT brinjal was developed by Monsanto, a multinational company based in the US in partnership with India's Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company and was approved for commercialisation in 2009 but was withdrawn after a public outcry.
Kumar Shubhamoorty, a member of GM Free Bihar Movement, said: “The yatra requires active participation and support of the people.”
Suresh Gupta, a pioneer in organic farming, said: “Throughout the yatrathe campaign is based on the philosophy of Satyameva Jayate.”
Parveen Amanullah, a member of Hum Log Trust, said: “The yatra believes that genetically modified seeds are dangerous.”
He added: “It would have adverse effects on farmers, consumers and our environment. It needs to be resisted.”
The yatra is being organised by the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture and would be led by the convener of the GM Free Movement, Pankaj Bhusan, and Kavitha Kuruganti from Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab.
The yatra would commence from Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat and would end in Delhi on December 11.