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The Narendra Modi government has allowed 21 new varieties of GMO crops for field trials in India. This decision was made based on the recommendations of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). This is the new GEAC. The old GEAC had the first item listed under "Main functions" on its page as "To permit the use of GMOs and products thereof for commercial applications." This one has "approval of activities involving large-scale use of hazardous living microorganisms and recombinants..." and they are making decisions that will impact our food, here. This is rather like the world's nuclear "watchdog" being created to promote nuclear power.

It is rather strange that a body implies evaluation, but is actually created to proliferate. This GEAC rejected 1 application out of 28 it received. In a world where more and more countries are banning GM crops, India naturally is fertile grounds for yet another reject of the West, where opposition to genetically modified food is increasing. And of course, it helps that if anything can be centralized and made money out of, Indias political cartels will have takers.

In a country where farmers quit farming as a full time profession at a rate that amounts to 2000 less farmers each day over a decade and over a quarter of the country is below an insanely low poverty line, replacing seeds collected from harvests to seed next years crops with expensive genetically modified varieties that need to be purchased each year alone is an economic nightmare, even if GM crops were safe, which I'm going to show below that they are not. It is no coincidence that there are very few suicides among rice and wheat farmers in comparison with cotton farmers whose lives have been devastated by BtCotton.

First, raising some quality concerns. GM crops are not reversible. They introduce new traits into the ecology of the fields where millions of lifeforms live in a symbiosis. The impact of changed traits of crops on other life forms including essential microorganisms in the soil to beneficial insects and contamination of adjacent fields or wild plants is impossible to determine when there are no long term tests of any sort including direct impact on humans. The assumption that it is safe is naive at best and unleashes irreversible changes which cannot be erased with an "oops. Sorry, we thought..." in the future if uncontrolled hybrids emerge.

Additionally, when GM seeds like these - that are resistant to specific poisons are grown in a region, the adaptations of pests to survive result in pests of the region becoming more and more resistant to pesticides and requiring greater applications of chemicals to control crops (including on the GM crops). This has happened in India. In Modi's own Gujarat. India approved Bt Cotton in 2002. In 2010, it failed pest tests in Gujarat. By 2013, the five year decline in cotton production was being blamed on everything from lack of innovation to climate change by GM apologists in media. Anything but GMO. By 2014, Modi who was CM in Gujarat when above failure happened is Prime Minister and opening more crops like wheat, rice and maize for GM field trials.

And guess what Monsanto did? It blamed the farmers for not following the "fine print" like planting refuge areas. A refuge area is basically a strip of ordinary cotton planted around the main crop of BtCotton. Guess why? Because when pests susceptible to the Bt gene die, the ones that survive are those that are resistant to it. So the idea is that they will breed with the pests from the normal cotton and thus lose some of their resistance. And if this doesn't happen (and tough to imagine how that would work effectively given that species breed to become stronger and survive and most of the field is Bt allowing most pests to find their Bt resistant dates on hand, without going to the other crops), it is apparently the farmer's fault. In other words, GM is not responsible...

Of course, that isn't what they had said when promoting BtCotton.

It [traditional methods of farming] has been a complete failure, because you have to modify infrastructure, you have to re-educate them as to how to modify their farming practices themselves. But with biotech, the technology is in a seed. All you have to do is give them the seed.

Because of course the guy with the powerpoint presentation understands agriculture better than the guy who doesn't even understand English and is too dumb to read instructions.

While there is little evidence of safety on various issues, the evidence that GM crops are not safe is mounting.

About a year and a half ago, a farmer in Oregon, USA found some wheat growing in an empty field. He tried to kill it with a herbicide. IT DIDN'T die. Astonished, the farmer sent the wheat to the Oregon state University for testing and it was found that it was genetically modified wheat containing Monsanto's a Roundup resistant CP4/maize EPSPS gene. The USDA confirms this. When this happened, there was no GM wheat approved for use anywhere in the world. Field trials had ended in 2005 on the wheat that was not expected to be viable for more than 2 years. Do the math.

Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto, Robb Fraley tried damage control "It seems likely to be a random, isolated occurrence more consistent with the accidental or purposeful mixing of a small amount of seed during the planting, harvesting or during the fallow cycle in an individual field." However, that doesn't solve the problem that wheat had turned into what basically amounted to a weed. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan postponed wheat imports from the region to avoid the contamination.

This basically shows that GMO food crops are not a choice as advertized. Seeds propagate, and the best intentioned organic farmer may still end up with GM contaminants.

Speaking of GM maize, in Hesse, Germany, many cows in a slaughterhouse died when they were fed Syngenta’s genetically engineered maize cow food. The remaining cattle were slaughtered on the decision of the authorities to... you guessed it... prevent spread of contamination. Syngenta withdrew the "protein" (not one of the better associations with this word) after being charged for covering up livestock deaths including those on the farm of a tenacious farmer who participated in trials and his cattle developed diseases and five cattle died. Syngenta paid him forty thousand euros basically as hush up money and other cover ups, including in tests. In India, maize is not cattle feed, but consumed by humans for the most part. Remember your "makki roti and sarson saag"? Now Modi sarkar has allowed field trials on GM maize in India.

A research paper published by Dr. Judy Carman last year showed marked increase in abdominal inflammation and on an average a 25% heavier uterus among female pigs fed GM feed. In 2009, American Academy Of Environmental Medicine called for Immediate Moratorium on Genetically Modified Foods stating a whole list of health risks related with GM food.

Citing several animal studies, the AAEM concludes "there is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects" and that "GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health."

I could go on listing studies that have clearly shown the danger, but then what is my voice in the face of an all party (including BJP MPs) Parliamentary Standing Committee that overcame attempts of the state government to prevent them interviewing farmers and recommended against GM in its report?

The Central Electricity Authority issues an annual report describing the electricity situation of the country. The latest available information is the monthly power supply report for February 2012, which says our total Peak (MW) requirement was 128,680MW, availability was 113,086MW, so we had a shortfall of 15,594MW or 12.1%. Our Energy (MU) requirement was 861,591, availability 788,355 and shortage was 73,236 or 8.5%.  Our requirement during 2010-11 was 122,287MW, availability was 110,256MW, which means a shortage of 12,031MW or 9.8%. The projected needs for 2011-12 are requirement 136193MW, Availability 118676MW, Shortfall 17517MW or 12.9%. This obviously excludes un-electrified areas. Here is an alternative.

Cutting down on Transmission and Distribution losses

This is a biggie. Seriously. Transmission and distribution losses currently amount to 34% of our electricity production (2010). According to World Bank data, here is the profile of our transmission and distribution losses over the years till 2009. [table id=6 /] To make it graphically clear:

Transmission and distribution losses in India over the years

But this, gory as it looks, is not the worst of it. in 2008, the government created the Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme APDRPwhich became the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme. Current data from it is really unclear.

Particularly significantly, there is no overall number for Transmission and Distribution losses or Aggregate Technical & Commercial (AT&C) losses as it calls them, so there are gaps in information and uniformity. However, there is something very useful. They have the AT&C losses by region and utility, which is very telling. The table has data for only half the places, but it is current. I was able to find data for 415 towns. Utilities with more than 50% AT&C losses in 38 towns:

TownAT&ClossesData period
Bhind81.98Dec09 to Feb10
Porsa80.92Apr10 to June10
Sabalgarh78.39Jun10 to Aug10
Joura75.51Apr10 to June10
Damoh71.05Feb10 to Apr10
Sironj69.74Apr10 to June10
Ambah68.9Apr10 to June10
Gohad68.81Dec09 to Feb10
Morena68.77Apr10 to June10
Karauli67.72Sep09 to Feb10
Sheopur67.6Dec09 to Feb10
Kodinar67.55Aug 09 to Jan 10
Kodinar67.55Aug 09 to Jan 10
Sarangpur64.12Dec09 to Feb10
Shivpuri63.85Dec09 to Feb10
Bari63.23May10 to Oct10
Gwalior63.16Dec09 to Feb10
Datia61.99Dec09 to Feb10
Mungeli61.97Jul10 to Sep10
Chhatarpur60.55Apr10 to June10
Dabra60.33Dec09 to Feb10
Aland60.15Apr10 to June10
Bhalki59.85Apr10 to June10
Shajapur59.5Nov10 to Jan11
Khetri59.27Jul10 to Dec10
Medak59.09May 11 to May 11
Rewa57.62Jan11 to Mar11
Narsimhapur57.41Feb10 to Apr10
Sehora56.27Dec09 to Feb10
Kaman53.63Sep10 to Feb11
Pipar City53.19Nov09 to Apr10
Khurai52.83Feb10 to Apr10
Shahabad52.51Apr10 to June10
Maihar52.44Feb10 to Apr10
Nowgaon51.89Nov10 to Jan11
Phalodi51.19Mar11 to Aug11
Jaora50.84Jan10 to Mar10
Panna50.72Apr10 to June10

I am not joking - the highest on this list has an 81.98% loss. What does it mean to waste more than half of the electricity produced? This is ridiculous. Like filling a vessel with a hole in the bottom. This will not do. And reducing transmission and distribution losses is possible. South Korea had T&D loss of 4%. It had offered to help us get better during a Power Ministry delegation's visit to Seoul in 2010. However, as it quotes the article:

The official said, "They have reduced their T&D losses by wheeling high voltage current. Now we want to do the same, but there is no testing facility in the country."

At present, power is wheeled into the country at 700 KVA. Though the voltage needs to be scaled up to 1,200 KVA for reducing T&D losses, the country lacks testing facilities for such high-voltage transmission equipment.

"As it would be unviable to get the high voltage transmission equipment tested abroad, we want to set up this facility here in India for which we would need South Korea's help," the official said.

At present, the country faces 30 per cent T&D losses, and the government is making every effort to reduce it to 15 per cent.

As per government estimates, T&D losses in the power sector amounted to Rs 45,000 crore for the fiscal ended March 31, 2010, and were likely to touch Rs 68,000 crore by the end of the current fiscal (2010-11).

This article was 2010. Now it is 2012 and the T&D losses are 34%. What has been done? But here's the deal, we have been able to get our AT&C losses very low in many towns too. Here are the single digit AT&C losses from the APDRP list.

TownAT&ClossesData period
Kurnool9.85Jul11 to Sep11
Ilkal9.61Apr10 to June10
PETLAD8.8Nov09 to Jan10
Chirmiri8.57Feb11 to Apr11
Samalkot8.49Oct 10 to Dec 10
Tuni8.07Oct 10 to Dec 10
Peddapuram7.94Oct 10 to Dec 10
Kovvur7.4Jun11 to Aug11
Bhiwadi6.97Sep10 to Feb11
Anakapalle5.75Oct 10 to Dec 10
Salur5.72Oct 10 to Dec 10
Pithampur4.53Nov10 to Jan11

So, on one end we have a need for better technology, on the other, it is clear that in many places simply not enough is being done. This should be made a priority. Even if we can bring down our T&D losses to half, it covers our deficit. Right there. Nothing further needed. Even if not half, as long as it is over 8.5% on an average, we can solve our energy crisis. Considering the vast amounts of money we have been pouring into nuclear energy, this shouldn't be such an impossibly expensive alternative.

The expensive technology from South Korea would be very nice, but for most of India, we will be able to learn from our own places in India that do well, while leaving the expensive tech for cities, where the density and quantity would mean that the higher investment is used with maximum impact.

The real problem is in the doing. The APDRPhas been formed in 2008. So far, we don't even have statistics from all over India on the site, leave alone the possibility of planning change.

Smart Grid in India

A smart grid is a two way communication between the producer and consumer of electricity allowing for intelligent supply of electricity based on needs. A smart grid also provides some capacity for storage, thus blunting outages. India has been hot on the pursuit of smart grids too. The India Smart Grid Task Force is a collaboration between ministries to enhance all aspects of smart grids in India. It also has five working groups focusing on:

  • WG1 – Trials/Pilot on new technologies.
  • WG2 – Loss reduction and theft, data gathering and analysis.
  • WG3 – Power to rural areas and reliability & quality of power to urban areas.
  • WG4 – Dist Generation & renewable.
  • WG5 – Physical cyber security, Standards and Spectrum.

Smart grids are already a part of India's reality with enthusiastic entrepreneurship invited and collaborations seeked. The first renewable energy based smart grid in India went into operation on the 1st July 2011 at TERI Retreat building in which a 3.2 kW wind generator, 10.5 kW solar PV power, 1 kW thin film, 2 kW SPV systems, 100kW biomass gasifier and diesel generator have been integrated to demonstrate optimal evacuation of renewable power. This is an area that will revolutionize the distribution of electricity in India and should be implemented with urgency.

Smart Grid Solutions in India by Arvind Patravali outlines some of the possibilities and potential for the future. And though it is early days yet, there are initiatives taking off as we speak. Echelon is developing a micro smart-grid at Palm Meadows in Hyderabad, an 86-acre integrated gated community with 335 homes and residential services. The Ministry of Power has said that it is finalising eight smart grid pilots worth Rs 500 crore with a focus on building a distribution business that is smart grid compatible and connects the proposed smart grid to the end consumer through smart metering and related technological interventions. Around 14 state utilities are expected to submit plans for pilot projects related to smart grid technologies.

On the 10th March 2012, Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (BESCOM) launched smart meters to track power consumption in thecity, which faces T&D losses of 15 percent. BESCOM is expected to deploy one million smart meters in the following year. However, this is not without its own concerns, as smart meters can be hacked into and power supply disrupted leading to blackouts. Functionality also comes with its price. It is important to disable unused functionality and secure networks - an area that should be developed urgently. Another interesting thing Japan has done as its electricity supply gets lowered drastically

Improving Electricity Storage

While much research has gone into producing energy, the fact is that the energy requirements are not constant throughout the day. Combining Smart Grids with efficient storage, surplus electricity can be stored and released back to the grid in times of high demand. This is an area that will become important in the future, because as the role of renewable energy increases, making efficient use of the energy produced will require ways of balancing out excess production and low production from the fluctuations in natural resources. This is less of a problem with thermal or nuclear energy, though it still is important with them, because even if production is stable, demand fluctuates.

Siemens has come up with electrolyzer plants as a way of managing this more efficiently than existing solutions. The idea is to divert excess electricity production to the plant, which would use it to generate hydrogen gas from electrolysis of water and store the gas to be used to power gas driven thermal plants during times of low production or increased demand.

Something like this could also be incentivized to the consumer. With smart grids, it may be possible to identify times of low demand when the cost of electricity can be cheaper, and homes can charge inverters at such times to minimize cost of using more expensive electricity during load. This opens the possibility of devices that can be smart - refrigerators that do most of their cooling and store some energy for intermittent cooling at programmed times or possibly directly communicating with the grid? Home electricity managing inverters that can help you save on your electricity bills?

But this is way into the future. Taking a leaf out of something Bangalore did recently (more on that in the article on solar power), it may be possible to offer routine inspections and efficiency certificates for household wiring and devices that translate into reward discounts in the bill in addition to the lowered costs from the efficiency?

Clearly there is much potential to transform our rather inefficient use of the electricity we do have.