by Mark Edwards

Algae producers considering GE crops might learn from India’s lessons. India will overtake China as the largest population within the next decade and may have trouble supplying sufficient good food for 1.2 billion people. India was food independent for nearly a decade, partially due to the adoption of GE food crops. Now, due to a combination of environmental and economic factors, amplified by GE crops, India must import millions of tons of grain to sustain its population.

The US exported its “Green” Agricultural Revolution in the 1980s and sent money and technical support to India. This was a gift that many of India’s farmers came to regret. India’s government supported farmers with low-cost chemicals and new genetically engineered (GE) seeds in the 1990s. In the years since, India’s farmers have discovered that the Green Revolution was not green in the sense of supporting sustainable food crops. Today, many farmers in India can afford neither the GE seeds nor the substantial fossil resources required to support high yield crops.

Farmer in India

Farmer in India

The root of the problem

Land plants made a major compromise when they evolved from green algae—the development of roots. Roots were necessary to hold land plants in place, as well as to create a plumbing system to extract water and nutrients from the soil. Unfortunately, roots created a heavy production drag for plants because growing and maintaining root structures consumes about 30% of a plant’s energy. Roots also anchor the plant in place, creating a dependence on the soil moisture and bioavailable nutrients present in the plant’s root zone or rhizosphere. The rhizosphere is the narrow region of soil that is directly influenced by soil microorganisms where roots can absorb them.

A living plant has only so much energy and divides that energy among competing components; including roots, shoots and fruit. In their quest to create higher yields of heavier fruit, genetic engineers stole energy from the roots and shifted it to the fruit. The unintended consequence of this high yield design is that GE farmers must compensate for the diminished plant foundation, the deep root system, with extra fossil resources. These additional inputs are not cheap and include fuel, fertilizer, fresh water and cultivation as well as additional herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. These fossil resources add substantial production expense, which forced many farmers out of business when they found the crop inputs unaffordable or unavailable. India’s experience with GE crops illustrates catastrophic intended consequences.

Over 8 million Indian farmers quit farming during the 1990s due to rising GE crop input prices that escalated farmer debt. In the decade ending in 2007, 183,000 farmers in India committed suicide because their farms could no longer provide for their families. Government sources note that farmer suicides are substantially under-reported. Additional millions of farmers and family members have died or become disabled from agricultural chemicals and poisons. Trains from the city of Chotia Khurd in northern India are now called cancer trains because so many people from the farming villages must go to the city for cancer treatments.

India’s brutal lessons from GE crops provide a useful case study for issues to avoid. India’s experience with GE crops has been repeated in many developing and even developed countries. Many small and medium sized farms in the US have stumbled over the same cost, resource availability and pollution obstacles that have plagued India.

GE seed prices escalate. India’s farmers saved their best seeds every growing season for centuries but the use of GE seeds changed the culture. Now farmers must buy new GE seeds from a labyrinth of middlemen. Only a few companies produce GE seeds and they tend to practice oligopoly pricing. Some GE seed companies have doubled the prices in a single year, forcing many small farmers out of business. Farmers typically had to take out loans to buy the GE seeds and to make the infrastructure improvements necessary for GE production. With their heavy debt burden, farmers were often unable to return to non-GE seed farming for fear that their crop yields would not support their debt repayment. Experience shows that higher seed prices were only a small percentage of the total cost of GE crop production.

GE crops require intense fertilization. India’s success in expanded food production comes at the high cost of increased N-P-K fertilization that has increased 219, 723 and 804 times respectively over two decades. GE crops are designed to be spaced very tightly, which restricts root breadth and depth. Therefore, farmers often must apply increasingly expensive fertilizer multiple times during the growing season.

India farmer applying fertilizer

India farmer applying fertilizer

Fertilizer subsidies escalated and then failed. India’s government recognized that farmers needed fertilizer subsidies for their high maintenance GE crops. Subsidies in 2005 totaled $4 billion but rising costs for fertilizer imports and diminishing supplies increased subsidy costs to $22 billion in 2008. The ballooning costs have prompted calls to reform the program that India depends on to maintain its food supply.

India has no domestic mines for phosphorus and several other important agricultural chemicals and must pay import prices. Import prices are a function of foreign governments’ willingness to export their diminishing fossil chemical reserves at reasonable prices and the political and weather stability necessary to transport chemicals long distances.

GE crops consume substantially more fresh water. Irrigation increased over 600% over the last two decades because transgenic crops (high-yielding GE seeds) require substantially more water. The additional water improves seed germination, fertilizer absorption and plant growth. The shallow roots of GE crops limit root zone depth, which necessitates additional irrigation when water percolates below the root zone. Many farmers had to acquire debt to drill wells and install expensive pumps and irrigation systems. Farmers then had to take on more debt to pay for the electricity to run the pumps. Many of the irrigation systems worked for less than two decades and then ran dry. With mounting debt and no irrigation water, farmers face the disgrace of having no way to making a living or providing food for their family.

Over 60% of India’s grain production depends on irrigated land. More than half of this irrigation water comes from groundwater aquifers that are being depleted at 300 times the natural replacement rate. India’s 100 million farmers have drilled 21 million irrigation wells over the last 30 years and over half of those wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already gone dry. In many areas, moving water for irrigation consumes 80% of the grid energy and power outages are very common.

Irrigation pump in India

Irrigation pump in India

Competing weeds develop resistance. GE crops are designed for yield and cannot compete with natural weeds. GE crops, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready™ seeds have been marketed with the promise that these transgenic plants can be sprayed with Roundup™ without harm to the crop but would kill competing weeds. Unfortunately, some invasive weeds have become resistant to Roundup™, defeating the transgenic advantage.

GE crops require substantially more cultivation. GE crops are so vulnerable to natural weeds that farmers have to break up the topsoil before planting in order to remove competing weeds. Unfortunately, the weeds sprout right next to the target crop, forcing farmers to cultivate fields multiple times and use herbicides. Even though farmers applied tons of herbicides, some weeds have become resistant and swarm through fields. The additional cultivation increases production cost and amplifies soil erosion and ecosystem pollution.

GE crops need substantially more agricultural chemicals. Some GE seeds are extremely vulnerable to insects, worms, fungi, mold, mildew and blight.  Even though farmers applied tons of pesticides, insects and other pests have become resistant and typically destroy larger portions of each crop in India than they did two decades ago.

India farmer spraying pesticide

India farmer spraying pesticide

Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other agricultural poisons have created havoc in India as monsoon rains moved massive amounts of soil and embedded chemicals into waterways. Monsoon rains flood fields and enable agricultural chemicals to migrate into surface and groundwater where they poison aquatic life, farm animals and farm families.

India’s experience with GE seeds is not unique. Every farmer who plants transgenic crops knows that the fossil resource input costs will escalate—along with the prices of seeds. Farmers also know that farming their fields is only sustainable as long as all the fossil inputs required for GE food production are affordable and available when they are needed. When the first fossil resource becomes too expensive or runs out, farmers have no choice but to abandon their fields.

Algal producers who decide to use GE algae can avoid these problems with two strategies. First, the algae industry should avoid oligopolistic access to GE algae and pricing. Some GE algal biomass should be made available to all producers to avoid severe social inequity and monopolistic practices.

GE seeds for terrestrial crops improved yield at the substantial cost of increased fossil resources. Companies producing GE algae should engineer algal strain designs that maximize the use of non-fossil resources that are plentiful, inexpensive and will not run out. Cultivation systems should use lifecycle assessment to maximize useful algal biomass while minimizing energy and other fossil inputs. Lifecycle assessment can also assist in devising tactics that minimize or eliminate resource waste and ecological pollution. Lifecycle assessment can provide substantial value for growers of both GE and non-GE algae.