Does Bt cotton cause impotency? This startling claim was made by Rajasthan's minister for agriculture, Prabhu Lal Saini, while talking to reporters on the sidelines of the Global agritechnology meeting at Udaipur.
The minister, while trashing GM mustard technology, said the mere touch of Bt cotton caused impotency. He said the Bt gene was extracted from a soil bacterium found in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after atomic bombs were dropped on the two cities during the Second World War.
He overlooked the fact that a Japanese scientist had discovered the insecticidal properties of the Bt soil bacterium in 1901 and Bt formulations had been used in bio-pesticides since 1938.
Bt cotton is genetically-engineered to be toxic to bollworms, a deadly pest. It has been extensively grown in India since 2002 and covers about 90 per cent of the cotton-growing area. Six institutes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research had told a parliamentary committee earlier this year that fish, chicken, goats, sheep and cows fed with cottonseed or its derivates like oilcake had not come to any harm.
The minister, from the state which is the largest producer of mustard -- with nearly 47 per cent of the national output -- is also dead set against the genetically-modified mustard hybrid, DMH-11, which the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the regulator, had recommended for cultivation, in May. However, environment minister Harsh Vardhan seems to have put a deep freeze on the decision which is now marked "Pending Further Review".
Saini asserted that he would make a determined effort to ensure that no trials of GM crops took place in the state. He said if one hurried with new technology one would have to repent at leisure, ignoring the fact that GM crops have been cultivated for two decades without reports of any harm to humans, animals or the environment.
When told that DMH-11 did not have any toxic gene and genetic modification technology was being used to produce more efficient hybrids in a plant which was self-pollinating, Saini said new technology usually began with promise but gradually the side-effects overwhelmed the benefits. Aspirin, he said, was prescribed as a blood-thinner for cardiac patients, but apparently that is no longer the case. The Green Revolution, he said, had "oppressed mother Earth" with chemicals and that's the reason why he was emphasising the use of organic farming.
Saini said Rajasthan's farmers were getting a yield of 30-32 quintals of mustard per hectare with existing seeds so there was no need to introduce GM mustard hybrids.
According to the agriculture ministry's statistics, the state's five-year average was 12.33 quintals per hectare, despite about 90 percent of the mustard crop being irrigated.
At the four-day meeting from November 6, multimedia presentations and slogans on standees emphasised that Rajasthan wanted to advance with new thinking and new crops (nayi soch, nayi faslein).
Saini boasted about how, despite starting just a few years ago, the state had bested traditional olive-growing countries like Spain, Israel and Morocco in some quality parameters of its extra virgin oil. He pointed to the cultivation of dates and super-foods like moringa (drumstick), quinoa and chia seeds as examples of a progressive outlook.
But in a traditional oilseed like mustard, where it can make a big difference to a large number of farmers, no new thinking is allowed. Rajasthan seems to have decided that it will be choosy applying any new thinking to only select crops.