Indo - US Wheat Row - Weeding Out Wheat
It is a queer case of double standards. Claiming highest quality standards in the world when it comes to agricultural imports, the United States has no qualms in exporting sub-standard wheat to India. In fact, diplomatic pressure is being built upon India to import weed-infested wheat.
Failing to reach an agreement after recent bilateral discussions on plant health, a statement from the US Embassy in New Delhi said “… Substantial hurdles still remain, as the US cannot agree to import standards that are impossible to certify and are not in line with international norms.” At the heart of the row are the quarantine norms that do not allow wheat consignments with dangerous weeds beyond the permissible limit.
The American wheat comes laced with 21 obnoxious and alien weeds, which are not known to exist in India. As per the weed risk analysis done by the Ministry of Agriculture, all these weeds are of quarantine importance and carry high risk. More worrying is the presence of two weeds Bromus rigidus and Bromus scealinus -- better known as foxtail wheat, which is similar in appearance to wheat and therefore difficult to identify.
Already, surreptitiously imported along with wheat, several weeds and pests have turned into a national menace. India is spending crores of rupees every year in fighting these alien invasive species.
Earlier too, India had in 1996 rejected wheat imports from America on reasons of inferior quality, and had instead imported one million tonne from Australia. In 2006, when India imported 5.5 million tones of wheat from Australia and some other countries, the US was unable to find a foothold into India’s burgeoning wheat market. Aware that India is likely to turn into a major wheat importer in the years to come, the US has stepped up diplomatic and political efforts to exert pressure.
Not that the Australian wheat is much superior. In 2006, bending backwards to allow the highly contaminated wheat shipments from Australia, Indian Food and Agriculture ministry had turned a blind eye to the presence of 14 weeds, two fungal diseases and one insect pest that the import consignments contained. Of the 14 weeds, 11 species are not found in India.
Interestingly, while the US accepts that its wheat contains 21 weeds, it has expressed its helplessness in cleaning wheat shipments to bring it in tune with the Indian threshold limits. At the Portland port from where much of its wheat is exported, the US grain merchants were unable to clean wheat of the menacing weeds. The US is seeking import norms of 0.3 per cent weed infestation, India is insisting on not more than 100 weeds in a consignment of 200 kg of wheat.
At 0.3 per cent weed infestation, the total number of weed seeds per 200 kg of wheat comes to a massive 12,000.
Although the US is publicly claiming that its “wheat is among the highest quality in the world and is safely shipped to over 110 nations including every importer of significance except India”, the fact remains that much of the American wheat imported by rich and developed countries like Japan is actually for milling purposes. In India, wheat imports are used as grain by farmers and therefore the worry that the weeds will take roots.
Several of the minor weeds that came along with PL-480 wheat shipments into India in past have turned into biological nuisances, often the weed becoming a national menace. Lantana camera was among such weeds, which entered India three decades ago. Today, it has spread wide and wild, and has withstood all control measures. Being poisonous, not even the cattle feed on it. Phalaris minor too came with the wheat consignments from the United States. This weed, already resistant to chemicals in the US and Australia, has established itself as a strong competitor of wheat in India. The weed has also become resistant to chemicals in India and is responsible for reducing wheat yields by an estimated 25 per cent.
It is not the first time that the US is trying to export sub-standard agricultural products. In September 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent a delegation to press for opening up the Indian market for what would have turned into the first major import consignment of genetically modified soybeans. If allowed, the soybean imports would have brought along five exotic weeds and at least 11 viral diseases, of which two are economically dangerous. The US did insist that the accompanying pests would not pose any problem for Indian agriculture.
Earlier too, during 1998-99, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) had received 359 samples of transgenic soybean from the USA for quarantine. Nearly 143 of these were rejected because of the presence of downy mildew fungus (Peronospora manshurica), which is known to cause serious losses and is not known to occur in India. Bulk imports, however, fail to eliminate the threat of import of nematodes, viruses and several fungi.
For reasons unexplained, the Food and Agriculture ministry appears more eager to allow for sub-standard imports. In 2006, it relaxed most quality norms for Australian wheat by asking the exporting country to provide a certificate saying that the imports are “essentially free from weeds”. At the time of tender, the requirement was “free from weeds”. Over-ruling all objections raised by the plant quarantine directorate to import of exotic weed species, the Food and Agriculture Ministry has relaxed the provisions of Plant Quarantine Order 2003.
After the din dies down, India might relax quality norms for American wheat. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has already been quoted as saying: “It is true that talks have been held with the US government. We want that the US should also participate in our wheat import process.” What is however not being perceived is that the US participation cannot be at the cost of softening the quarantine standards.
At a time when international quality parameters are being tightened the world over to ensure that invasive alien species do not use the vehicle of commodity trade to enter into a country, India should not relax the quality norms thereby opening the floodgates to noxious weeds, deadly insect pests and dreaded plant diseases.
What Sharad Pawar needs to understand is that the same wheat that we imported from Australia (or we plan to import from America) if exported back would not be accepted for reasons of the same quality standards that we are being asked to do away with.