The National Public Radio in US will be broadcasting a 21-minute special
report on the debate over GM crops in India on Tuesday, December 26 in
their "All Things Considered" program: "Engineering Crops in a Needy
World." NPR's call-in show, Talk of the Nation, is also planning to
devote an hour to the topic one day next week. The website
http://www.americanradioworks.org/ has added features such as animation of
gene splicing, audio streaming of interviews (with Indian farmers,
protestors, Vandana Shiva, Suman Sahai, and me among others). I reproduce
the story along with GM Pros and Cons and the reporter's notes below.
Engineering Crops in a Needy World
By John Biewen
In Europe and the United States, the debate over genetically modified (GM)
crops has focused on questions about the environment and food safety. But
in developing countries, the questions are different and the stakes are
higher. For farm families just barely surviving, the possibility that GM
crops could make things better—or worse—is a question of life or death.
India has emerged as a leading hotspot in the worldwide battle over GM
crops. The nation is home to one-fourth of the world’s poorest people.
Most poor Indians are farmers. Whether those farmers should start planting
genetically modified seeds is the subject of an impassioned argument among
Indian politicians, scientists, and activists. But the people who will be
most affected by the outcome—farmers themselves—are rarely heard.
Venkat Reddy saw only two terrible choices: to commit suicide, or sell a
piece of his body.
Reddy is 38—a small man and very thin. He used to grow cotton and chilies
on four acres of rented land in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
But a year ago he bought worthless seeds from a dishonest salesman. His
crop failed. To survive, he borrowed from a moneylender, but with no
cotton crop to sell he couldn't make the payments. He was trapped. Every
year Indian farmers in similar straits commit suicide by the hundreds.
Reddy says he thought about that option. Then a man came through the
village looking for desperate farmers in need of cash. The man was
offering a deal: a thousand dollars for a kidney.
"To clear the loans," Reddy says through an interpreter, "I thought it was
better to donate something rather than kill myself and leave my family. So
when the broker came, I agreed to actually sell my kidney rather than, you
know, kill myself with insecticide." Hundreds of destitute Indian farmers
have committed suicide in recent years. Farm groups say Reddy is one of
ten men in his part of Andhra Pradesh who've sold kidneys. Reddy pulls up
his shirt to reveal the scar where the surgeon cut him open. The thousand
dollars allowed Reddy to erase his debts, but the surgery left him too
weak to work. Now his wife supports him and their three children by doing
labor on neighboring farms.
Venkat Reddy's story doesn't seem to have anything to do with genetically
modified (GM) seeds. He's never used them. Such crops have not been
approved in India. Reddy just got swindled. But he illustrates just how
vulnerable the world's poorest farmers can be. And why the debate over GM
crops is especially wrenching, and important, in the developing world. In
India, 70% of the nation's one billion people live or work on farms—mostly
tiny farms that generate a marginal living. So for hundreds of millions of
Indians, desperation is just one failed crop away.
"Two hundred million [Indians] are below the poverty line, even now.
Eighty-five million children below five years of age are undernourished,"
says Manju Sharma, head of the Indian government’s Department of
Biotechnology. In a speech at a conference in New Delhi, Sharma points out
that crops fail not only because of bogus seeds; the more typical culprits
are hungry bugs, plant viruses, or rain—too much or too little. She
highlights the potential of modern genetic engineering to produce crops
resistant to pests, disease and drought. It’s a simple equation, she
suggests: if you could put these miracle GM seeds in the hands of India’s
peasant farmers—people like Venkat Reddy—you’d be putting more money in
their pockets and more food on their plates.
It’s not that India lacks food. Starting in the 1960s, amid horrific mass
hunger and “boat-to-mouth” food aid from the West, India embraced the
“Green Revolution.” That international campaign brought high-yielding
hybrid seeds and intensive use of irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides.
Indian farmers quadrupled their production of wheat and rice. Today India
is a net food exporter. Indians who go hungry do so not because there’s no
food to buy, but because they're too poor to buy it. But many
agricultural experts and Indian government officials warn that overall
food shortages could return. The world is expected to add two to three
billion more people in the coming decades, most of them in poor regions
like Africa and South Asia.
"The challenge for the agricultural scientist during the next decades is
therefore very clear,” says Sharma. “Double the food production by 2025
and triple it by 2050, on less per-capita land, with less water, under
increasingly challenging environmental conditions.” It’s recognized “the
world over,” Sharma insists, that the way to achieve those goals—perhaps
the only way—is through the use of genetically modified crops.
But many people the world over—and in India—passionately oppose genetic
engineering. India's debate on the technology sometimes sounds like the
one in Europe, or Seattle—where GM seeds are condemned as a symbol of
global corporate domination.
On a bright, sticky September day in Bangalore, the capital of the state
of Karnataka, 2000 farmers rally near the central train station and start
a three-mile march through the city streets. Most of the marchers are men;
they wear sandals and either trousers or the traditional loincloth, the
dhoti. Each has a green cotton shawl draped over one shoulder as a symbol
Asked what they're protesting, the men offer a range of grievances about
government farm policy: low commodity prices, cuts in fertilizer
subsidies. A few say they have no idea what message they’re supposed to be
sending. The group they belong to, the Karnataka State Farmers
Association, just gave them a train ticket and asked them to come. But at
the sight of foreign journalists with microphones, rally organizers lead
the marchers in chants against the World Trade Organization and
multinational corporations. One company in particular. "Monsanto!" a man
shouts. "Dhikkara!" (“Down with you!”), a crowd responds.
Monsanto, the St. Louis-based chemical and biotech giant, developed an
insect-resistant cotton seed called Bollgard—the first GM crop approved
for large-scale field trial in India. The government announced the permit
just weeks before this rally. To help make their case against Bollgard,
protest leaders brought Venkat Reddy to town—he’s the cotton farmer who
donated his kidney in desperation. By allowing in the multinationals and
their high-tech seeds, these farmers say, the Indian government will push
more farmers into debt, causing more kidney sales and suicides. The fear
seems partly based on confusion—or misinformation. The Monsanto cotton
contains a bacterial gene, the Bt gene, that makes the plant itself toxic
to a major pest, the bollworm; it's designed to save farmers money by
cutting their need to spray insecticide. But an organizer with the
Karnataka State Farmers Association, C.D. Mahade, has it backwards. "It
needs more pesticides,” Mahade insists over and over, unwilling to be
convinced otherwise. “That is why we are opposing Bt cotton seeds enter to
But the broader fear these farmers are expressing is real: that widespread
adoption of GM seeds could add to the risks faced by India’s most
vulnerable farmers. Many Indian farmers—generally the smallest and
poorest—never adopted the intensive practices of the Green Revolution;
they still use traditional seeds that can be saved from one crop to plant
the next. Those farmers may get smaller yields and profits than their more
modernized counterparts. But because they use free seeds—and, often,
little or no chemical fertilizers or pesticides—they rarely take on debt.
If GM seeds become the norm, some opponents warn, traditional seeds might
become hard to find—or could get contaminated by engineered crops in
neighboring fields. Then the big multinationals would control the market
for seeds—the most basic source of a farmer's livelihood and, indeed, his
life. In this nightmare scenario, Indian agriculture becomes a wholly
owned subsidiary of Biotech, Inc.
"Their purpose [is] only to cheat us, loot us,” says a Punjabi farmer.
“This is a new colonial phenomenon of all these multinationals." It’s no
accident that leaders of the march carry a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. The
farmers' chant—Down with you! Shame on you!—echoes Gandhi’s message to
British colonizers more than a half-century ago.
"Monsanto!" C.D. Mahade yells. "Dhikkara!" comes the response.
"Globalization!" "Dhikkara!" "Privatization!" "Dhikkara!"
To put this protest by a couple thousand farmers in context: the Karnataka
State Farmers Association (KRRS) is just one of many regional farm groups
across India. Leaders of some other farm groups favor the introduction of
GM crops, saying they would help farmers. Even in Karnataka, independent
observers say the KRRS and its anti-corporate, anti-GM position represents
a minor fringe of the farm population. Most Indian farmers are simply not
engaged in the GM debate. Indian elites dominate that debate—and the
broader ideological one that seems to drive it. Now that both the British
Empire and the Cold War are history, some Indians want to keep the West at
arm’s length and hold onto their country’s quasi-socialist economy. Others
can’t wait to climb aboard the global capitalist juggernaut.
The same day as the march, at one of Bangalore's best hotels, men and
women in business suits browse among exhibit booths and renew
acquaintances. It’s the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Seed
Association. The protest by farmers was aimed at this gathering of
agricultural business people.
One booth is that of Mahyco, the India-based partner of Monsanto. On a
video running non-stop in the booth, the deep-voiced narrator boasts that
Mahyco provides "the latest technology through high quality seeds. So that
the farmer and consumer can have the bright future they deserve." At its
booth, a seed company called Nunhems ProAgro displays perfect, shiny
vegetables produced through conventional hybrid breeding. GM vegetables
are coming soon, says Managing Director Arvind Kapur. "Tomato, eggplant,
cauliflower, and cabbages. And we are now doing experiment in these crops,
in cauliflower and cabbages we are doing field trials, limited field
trials, for the insect resistance."
GM technology simply gives farmers new choices, Kapur says—just like the
modern hybrid seeds that some Indian farmers have planted for years. He
insists that those who want to save and plant traditional seed varieties
will always have that option. A French conglomerate, Aventis, owns Kapur's
company, but the protesters across town aren't complaining about him, he
says. "All our people are from India. We have not put any person which
have no knowledge of Indian operations," says Kapur. "We know what we are
doing for India." It's not clear that anti-GM forces would take comfort
in knowing that Indians staff the local branches of multinational
companies. But the man who runs the Monsanto Research Center in Bangalore
thinks it's worth pointing out, too. "No doubt Monsanto is an American
company, says T.M. Manjunath, "but people who are working in India for
Monsanto, we are all Indians here."
Manjunath is former agricultural entomologist at a Bangalore university.
He joined the American company in 1998 when it opened this facility. The
research center is compact but architecturally striking: curved stairways,
Indian art on the walls, thick wooden doors with hand-carved Indian
motifs. And that's before you get to the world-class labs and greenhouse.
Seventy-five scientists work here. They're compiling data on the genetic
make-up of various crops and designing GM cotton for the Indian market,
company officials say. "There used to be a complaint that there has been
a brain-drain in India," Manjunath says. "We have been able to attract the
Indian scientists, and they are working in this country. It's a positive
aspect and in the long run it is going to benefit our country."
Biotechnology will improve the lives of Indian farmers, too, says
Manjunath. GM seeds will make for more reliable and profitable crops,
reducing tragedies like that of the cotton farmer who sold his kidney.
Manjunath's eyes actually well up at this thought: that high-tech seeds
could help India not to become dependent on developed countries, but to
join them. Given its vast agricultural land, he says, India has "all the
potential to become a superpower in agriculture."
Would genetically-modified crops—or, as they’re sometimes called,
’transgenic’ crops—would they save India, or enslave it? Most people
active in the debate take one extreme position or the other. One exception
is Suman Sahai. She’s a geneticist and the head of Gene Campaign, a
non-profit group based in New Delhi.
"Unfortunately, in this debate on transgenics, there has been massive
polarization for the 'for' and the 'against' people, both of whom are
compromising a little bit with the truth," Sahai says. She expresses deep
concerns about the possible environmental effects of engineered crops—and
the patenting that goes with them. She wants Indian lawmakers to reject
the Western notion that intellectual property rights can apply to seeds.
At the same time Sahai argues that some opponents exaggerate the dangers
of genetic engineering and too quickly dismiss its potential. "Sometimes
it seems that this debate is taking place in some ethereal kind of area
where real people, real hunger, real starvation, is not visible," Sahai
says. "If it is a technology that can give me something, and if it is a
technology that is safe, there is no earthly reason for me not to accept
it." Most commercial GM crops now on the market are designed mainly for
the benefit of more affluent Western farmers, Sahai argues.
But plant geneticists are at work in university, government, and
non-profit labs around the world creating GM crops specifically for
subsistence farmers, with traits like improved nutrition. The best known
is "golden rice." Swiss scientists engineered the rice to contain
beta-carotene, which the human body turns into vitamin A. Vitamin A
deficiency causes death and blindness in hundreds of thousands of Asian
children every year—half of them in India. With help from a London-based
biotech corporation, AstraZeneca, the inventors hope to give golden rice
to poor Asian farmers.
Another non-corporate scientist is C.S. Prakash, a 43-year-old Bangalore
native now based in Alabama. Prakash is a compact and intense man with a
mustache and wire-rim glasses. In his modest lab at historically black
Tuskegee University, Prakash picks up a petri dish and points to the small
glutinous blob lying in the middle of the dish. It's embryonic tissue that
will soon turn into a sweet potato plant.
"We have completely focused on this crop for the last ten or so years in
our research," he says. "It's a crop of tremendous importance to
developing countries." Millions of subsistence farmers in Africa,
Southeast Asia, and parts of India rely on sweet potatoes as a staple. But
for children who eat little else, sweet potatoes don't provide enough
protein. "That's one of the reasons why…when you see a child from Africa,
a 15-year-old child will look like an 8-year-old American child, because
they simply lack these essential, vital nutrients in their diet," Prakash
Borrowing an artificial gene developed by a colleague—one that mimics
protein-building genes in other crops like corn—Prakash introduced the
gene into sweet potatoes and got a result beyond his expectations: a sweet
potato with five times the usual protein content. He hopes that with help
from governments or philanthropists, he'll be able to give his seeds to
subsistence farmers in places like Africa and Vietnam within a few years.
GM sweet potatoes could not trap poor farmers in debt or dependency,
Prakash says. Potatoes are self-germinating, so farmers given the seeds
would never have to buy them again, from a corporation or anyone else. But
the opposition's blanket condemnation of GM crops may well stop Prakash
and other non-corporate scientists from ever getting their seeds to
"It's been a very startling experience," Prakash says, to find himself and
his colleagues attacked as a "mad scientists run amok" and their
inventions labeled "Frankenfood." It's because of his conviction that such
charges are "grossly unjust," he says, that Prakash has emerged as an
outspoken advocate for GM crops. Among his many press interviews and
public speeches in the past year, Prakash flew to New Delhi in August for
a debate with Vandana Shiva on Indian national television—on a show called
"Crossfire." Shiva is a former physics professor and one of India's most
outspoken opponents of GM crops. In their debate, Prakash and Shiva
clashed repeatedly on the safety of GM crops and the foods produced from
those crops. Prakash pointed to the thousands of field trials done by
companies seeking regulatory approval for GM crops, and to reports by
eight National Academies of Science (or their equivalents) arguing that GM
crops are safe. Shiva replied that she didn't trust the sources of those
If you ask Shiva, Prakash is shilling for powerful foreigners. He returns
the accusation. At her office in New Delhi, Shiva points out that Prakash
is an adviser to the US Department of Agriculture; he travels the world
speaking at US government expense. The pro-biotech camp is using
"humanitarian" GM scientists as a Trojan horse, Shiva insists—especially
Prakash and another high-profile crop geneticist from the developing
world, Kenya's Florence Wambugu. "It's a hoax," Shiva says. "Now these are
suddenly brown skins and black skins like us, so they're suddenly supposed
to be speaking for the Third World." Poor Indian farmers don't need
genetically modified crops—or, for that matter, the chemicals and
"high-yielding" seeds that came with the Green Revolution, Shiva argues.
They could feed themselves and their country using traditional,
mixed-crop, chemical-free methods, she insists. "When you have an
agriculture of that kind, the poorest people, who are rural people ...
don't go hungry. They have diversity of healthy, nutritious crops for the
That argument keeps Shiva busy on the global lecture circuit; she's well
known among green, anti-corporate groups in the West. C.S. Prakash argues
bitterly that Shiva's fans and financial backers in rich countries owe
their abundance to the tools of modern agriculture. They may think they
have the luxury to reject those tools, he says, but Indian farmers don't.
"There is nothing more insulting to the poor than glorifying poverty,"
says Prakash. "And it just flies so well in terms of the Western audience
with their [guilt], with their affluence, when someone from the Third
World comes and says, 'Hey, no, we want to stay like this. This is, you
know, our old way of doing it! We want to be poor, we want to be
backward.' And I think it's absurd. And so if you talk to any farmer in
India—and go ask them this question. They are not against any technology."
On a fertile plateau an hour east of Bangalore, a barefoot, 60-year-old
farmer named Ramachar (many South Indians use only one name) steers a pair
of oxen as he plows his one-and-a-quarter-acre field. He prods the animals
by shouting "Ba!" or "Che!" or by making a duck-like squeaking sound with
his mouth. Under the hot sun Ramachar wears blue denim shorts and a white
towel over his shoulder. His steel-bottom plow slices through the reddish
Of the thirty farm families who live in the village of Chikka Sabenahally,
only the three richest have tractors. But farmers here have embraced
modern innovations when they could. For example, most no longer save seeds
from one crop to plant the next as their ancestors did for thousands of
years. Ramachar is getting ready to plant carrots. He switched to hybrid
seeds three years ago and now buys them every year from a seed company.
Why? They give him a better yield than the old seeds did, he says.
That evening a much-needed rain starts falling, pleasing the men who stand
in the village square talking. About a dozen farmers, most in their 20s
and 30s, step under a roof beside a house. I ask them about the
demonstration a few days earlier in Bangalore at which some farmers
denounced multinational companies and genetically modified seeds. These
farmers all shrug and shake their heads—except one. Narayanswami, 29,
says he saw an item about the protest on the TV news. He gathered from the
report that the members of the Karnataka State Farmers Association were
objecting to Monsanto seeds. But through an interpreter Narayanswami says
he has no objection to Monsanto or other "outside" seed companies selling
their products in India. If they're good seeds, he says, he's happy to
Do any of the farmers here not feel that way, I ask; does anyone feel
uneasy about using a seed from, say, a big American multinational company?
It's certainly not a scientific survey, but it's unanimous. The farmers in
this village square all say they'll buy seeds from anyone if it means
better crops and bigger profits. The same goes for seeds containing genes
from other organisms. "If it is not harmful for the farmers, they [don't]
mind anything," says my interpreter, summing up the comments of several
farmers. In a park in Bangalore, at an event organized by anti-GM
activists, farmer Venkat Reddy sits in a blue plastic chair and answers
questions from a French journalist. He tells his story again—how, pressed
into debt by a failed crop, he considered suicide but instead made what he
thought was the more responsible decision: he sold his kidney to pay the
moneylenders. The cruel irony is that the surgery left Reddy so sick that
he guesses he'll be dead in a couple of years anyway. His back aches. He
feels weak. His digestive system is failing, he says.
So now India cautiously considers whether to let farmers plant genetically
modified seeds. In a country where desperate farmers kill themselves or
sell their internal organs, and where millions of children don’t get
enough to eat, maybe the question is, which would be more costly—indeed,
more careless: opening the door to the new high-tech seeds, or rejecting
© Copyright 2000, Minnesota Public Radio
GM CROPS: THE ARGUMENTS PRO AND CON
1. Is genetic engineering fundamentally new?
Pro-GM: Genetic modification is nothing new. People have manipulated foods
and food crops for millennia, through methods ranging from fermentation to
classical selection. Genetic engineering is just the latest form of
biotechnology—the most precise method yet.
Anti-GM: Genetic engineering is fundamentally different from traditional
methods of plant and animal breeding because it crosses biological
barriers, transferring genes from one species to another.
2. Are foods from GM crops safe?
Pro-GM: There are no inherent differences between foods produced from
genetically modified (GM) plants and those from non-GM crops. All living
things contain DNA, and all DNA consists of the same four building blocks,
known as nucleotides. By moving a piece of DNA from one organism into
another, scientists are not introducing a "foreign" substance. The new
gene merely prompts the modified organism to express a desired trait.
Companies that wish to release a GM seed or the product of a GM crop are
required to test the safety of that product. If the product is made from
an organism containing a known allergen, it must be tested for safety. No
one has substantiated a single human death, or even illness, as a result
of consuming GM foods.
Anti-GM: There are too few independent (non-industry) studies of the
health effects of GM foods to have confidence in their safety. In an
experiment in Scotland, rats fed GM potatoes containing a gene for a
protein, lectin, fared poorly and suffered internal organ damage. Pro-GM
scientists have attacked the study, but at the very least it highlights
the need for more research. The mistaken release into the food system of
"Starlink" GM corn approved only for animal feed illustrates another
danger—that of allergens being introduced into otherwise non-allergenic
foods through genetic engineering.
3. What is the impact of GM crops on the environment?
Pro-GM: As it's practiced today, agriculture damages the environment more
than any other human activity. Genetically engineered crops will ease that
negative impact. Insect resistant GM crops, such as those containing the
bacterial Bt gene (which makes the plant itself toxic to key pests), allow
farmers to dramatically reduce their use of spray insecticides.
Next-generation seeds may allow farmers to maintain high yields while
using less water and chemical fertilizer. Potential problems with GM
crops, such as the creation of “super weeds” and “super pests,” are
overblown by opponents, but to the extent those dangers are real they can
be managed and prevented. For example, farmers can avoid promoting
Bt-resistance in insects by planting non-GM acreage near each GM plot.
Anti-GM: Bioengineered crops will do wide-reaching damage to the
environment. Insect-resistant crops may harm species that are not their
target, such as monarch butterflies. On the other hand, the insects that
GM crops are designed to kill could develop resistance to those crops,
ultimately requiring farmers to use more aggressive control measures, such
as increased use of chemical sprays.
More research is needed on the potential of GM crops to transfer their
genes to other crops or wild relatives. Transfer of pesticide-resistant
genes to related weeds may produce "super weeds" —those immune to commonly
used control methods. Likewise, viral genes added to a plant to confer
resistance may be transferred to other viral pathogens, leading to new,
more virulent strains of the viruses. Gene transfer could also cause
non-GM crops to be contaminated by GM crops in neighboring fields,
threatening the rich crop diversity of many developing countries.
4. Could GM crops reduce world hunger?
Pro-GM: Through GM seeds even the smallest subsistence farmers can produce
bigger, more reliable crops. GM seeds will help poor farmers grow more
food for themselves and more profitable crops for the marketplace.
Nutrition-enhanced GM crops now in development can directly address the
effects of malnutrition, both for the farmers who grow those crops for
themselves and for poor consumers in developing-world cities.
In the long term, GM crops may be the only way to ensure that worldwide
food production keeps pace with the growing population—which may double to
12 billion by the year 2050. After decades of dramatic increases in food
production, the rate of growth has declined in the past ten years. The
last round of increases came from “green revolution” methods such as
high-yielding hybrid seeds and intensive use of fertilizers, irrigation
and chemical pesticides. Those technologies can’t produce the food
production growth that’s needed in the coming decades without doing severe
environmental damage. GM crops can.
Anti-GM: The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality, and lack of
access to food and land. Bioengineering will do nothing to alleviate these
problems. Most GM crops available so far do not address the needs of food
production in developing countries. They offer conveniences to the
farmer—the ability to apply more or less pesticide spray—but do not
produce higher yields. Adoption of GM crops by farmers in the developing
world will actually increase hunger by making poor farmers reliant on the
few multinational corporations that control the market for those seeds. A
better way to improve the lives of subsistence farmers is to teach them
ecological farming methods by which they can grow better crops without the
expense associated with GM seeds.
5. Should food products made from GM crops be labeled?
Pro-GM: Labeling would incite fear and needlessly hinder public acceptance
of these products. The US Food and Drug Administration requires labeling
based on food content and nutrition but not on the process by which the
product was created. That policy is appropriate.
Anti-GM: Consumers have the right to know whether the product they are
purchasing is genetically engineered or contains ingredients from GM
crops. Consumers may object to consumption of GM foods on the basis of
health, religious, or ethical concerns. Lack of evidence proving that such
products are not safe should not be taken as proof that they are safe.
6. Who benefits from GM crops?
Pro-GM: Farmers benefit from GM crops that deliver enhanced production
traits. For example, pesticide resistance reduces the need for the farmer
to mix and apply dangerous chemicals. Consumers will soon benefit from GM
products offering traits such as enhanced nutritional content, taste, and
shelf-life. If it's allowed to flourish, GM technology will eventually
provide widespread benefits for virtually all people, including the poor,
as well as the global environment.
Anti-GM: Biotech companies themselves reap the benefits of GM technology.
Farmers pay a premium, a “technology fee,” when purchasing GM seeds. Crop
yields are not greatly improved. In the future, because of wariness by
consumers, farmers may not find a market for their GM crops. Consumers get
no benefits and are all but forced to eat foods with uncertain long-term
7. Should patenting of GM crops be permitted?
Pro-GM: Protection of intellectual property is necessary to foster the
research and development of new, beneficial products. Patents also
encourage dissemination of new discoveries—of genes and bioengineering
processes, for example—by giving inventors an incentive to share their
Anti-GM: Patenting of life forms is unethical and offensive on its face.
Furthermore, it encourages bio-piracy, that is, the virtual theft of
natural resources from developing countries. A biotech company may take a
plant from a public seed bank, for example, a seed variety that's been
saved and protected by the stewardship of local farmers for many
generations. After introducing a new gene into the plant, a biotech
company can gain a patent on its “creation” and profit from it. Developing
countries, especially, should ban the patenting of seeds.
© Copyright 2000, Minnesota Public Radio
The South Indian city of Bangalore is making a name for itself as a hotbed
of information technology talent and software startups. In reality,
though, the percentage of people in India whose lives have been altered by
the Computer Age is almost negligible. India remains, by and large, a poor
agrarian society. Its hundreds of millions of farmers will be the ones
most affected—for better or worse—by the nation's decision whether or not
to permit the planting of genetically-modified (GM) seeds. I wanted to see
the real India—the kind of village where most Indians live. I was told it
was readily accessible just an hour from Bangalore. Accompanied by a guide
and interpreter, I first take a rickety bus forty miles east to Malur, a
town of 30,000 or so. From there, we get on another bus and go seven more
miles into the flat countryside and get off on the side of a road. All
around for miles is a patchwork of crops in tiny plots—rice, millet,
mulberry, cabbages, tomatoes. Some are separated by rows of eucalyptus or
Chikka Sabenahally, a town of about 200 people, is not on any map. To get
there from the bus stop you have to walk the last half-mile down a
one-lane paved road—or be lucky enough to have a villager give you a lift
on the back of his motor scooter. There are seven scooters in Chikka
Sabenahally, a local boasts, along with the three tractors owned by the
biggest landowners—those with, say, 20 acres instead of the typical two or
three or five. But there are no cars and certainly no computers.
Over the next 24 hours my guide and I motor around the edges of this
village and a couple of neighboring ones. We visit a couple dozen farmers,
more or less at random. I ask them about their crops and their lives;
about the fears expressed by some activists that multinational seed
companies are trying to take control of Indian agriculture; and about the
debate surrounding genetically modifed (GM) crops.
This is my most direct attempt to gauge the views of Indian farmers, but
by no means the only attempt. Curiously, some of the people who claim to
speak for farmers in the GM debate don't seem especially eager to have
farmers themselves speak to journalists directly.
My colleague Deborah George and I spend half a day at a "Seed Tribunal" at
a park in Bangalore. Vandana Shiva, the prominent anti-corporate, anti-GM
writer and activist, is host of the event. She invited speakers from India
and elsewhere to give "testimony" on the damaging effects of corporate
agriculture in general and GM crops in particular. Most of the speakers
this morning are activists and scientists from the US and Britain.
Deborah and I have not traveled to India to hear speeches by Westerners,
so we step outside the hall to interview Indian farmers who've come to
town for this event and a protest march the following day. If you ask
Shiva whom she represents, her answer is unequivocal: Indian farmers. But
when she sees that Deborah and I are talking to farmers instead of
recording the speech of a British anti-GM scientist, Shiva scolds us and
threatens to ask us to leave if we don't cover the formal presentations
from the podium.
Maybe it's not that Shiva doesn't want us to talk to farmers. Perhaps she
just thinks the speech by the scientist is more important at that given
Then again, I'm reminded of my e-mail correspondence with Shiva before our
trip to India. It was by e-mail that she agreed to an interview with us at
her New Delhi office. In another e-mail I asked Shiva to suggest farmers
who share her views and who might be willing to have us visit their farms.
She never replied to that request. I put it down to her being just too
When Deborah and I arrive at the farmers' protest march, we step out of
our cab and get our microphones out of the trunk. An organizer with the
Karnataka State Farmers Association (KRRS)—a man we met and interviewed at
the Seed Tribunal the day before—steps up beside us and leads farmers in a
chant against Monsanto, the World Trade Organization, globalization, etc.
(The KRRS was once headed by a former law professor and state politician
who, earlier in the 1990's, led members in ransacking the Bangalore
offices of the US grain-trading giant, Cargill, and a local Kentucky Fried
Chicken outlet. The group has recently splintered, but its two factions
are both allied with green, anti-globalization groups in Europe and the
As the farmers begin their march through the streets, my interpreter and I
stay back in the crowd and try to speak to rank-and-file farmers. I ask a
white-haired man why he made the trip from his village more than 300 miles
away. He shakes his head and says he doesn't know what the demonstration
is about; the KRRS bought his train ticket and asked him to come. A
younger and more articulate man steps in and cuts off the old man. No, he
says, it isn't true. The farmers paid their own way. Later another farmer
echoes the older farmer: he has "no idea" what he's protesting.
I do find a couple of farmers whose answers are consistent with the stated
message of the protest: The multinationals must be kept out of India;
traditional seed varieties are better and must not be replaced by GM
seeds. Others offer general grievances about government policy, such as
low commodity prices and cuts in fertilizer subsidies.
We visit the Monsanto Research Center in Bangalore. Its director, T.M.
Manjunath, insists the company's products will help Indian farmers, large
and small. He also hails the fact that the research center is employing 75
Indian scientists in well-paying jobs. But he admits the Monsanto
scientists inventing crops for India are working mainly on
insect-resistant cotton. Manjunath argues those cotton seeds will help
some small Indian farmers make more money. But given the biotech
industry's insistence that the main benefit of GM crops will be enhanced
food production, it's striking that Monsanto would make GM cotton its
first product in a key developing country. Critics have long argued that
the industry's appeals to the needs of the poor and hungry are nothing
more than a p.r. ruse.
Yes, Monsanto is collaborating on a project to develop virus-resistant
cassava for subsistence farmers in Africa. It recently announced plans to
work with international development agencies to distribute biotech seeds
to the poor. And another biotech corporation, AstraZeneca, has agreed to
distribute the nutrition-enhanced "golden rice" to the poor—in return for
commercial rights to sell the seed to better-off farmers.
But for years the biotech industry boasted that GM crops would help the
poor—while the companies themselves were busy inventing seeds with traits
most beneficial to richer Western farmers (that is, those who could pay
good money for the high-tech seeds). It's a bit like a drug company
touting the potential of medicines to solve malaria while pouring its R &
D budget into cures for male pattern baldness.
Back in Chikka Sabenahally, the answers to my questions are strikingly
consistent. Most farmers have heard little or nothing about the farmers'
protest forty miles away in Bangalore. They know little or nothing about
GM seeds. They do not fear being colonized by multinational seed
companies. One farmer after another tells me that he'll buy seeds of any
kind, from anyone, so long as they're safe and produce a good, reliable
Now, my survey is far from scientific. And even if it does reflect the
typical views of Indian farmers, it doesn't necessarily follow that the
Indian government should permit the commercial sale of GM seeds. Opponents
would argue that the very eagerness of poor Indian farmers to make more
money could lead to shortsightedness—that such farmers might be all too
willing to try whiz-bang seeds whose long-term environmental and economic
effects are impossible to predict.
In any case, though, I will listen even more carefully the next time I
hear someone debating the pros and cons of GM seeds—especially the
potential of the seeds to help or harm poor farmers in developing
countries. I'll want to know how the fate of GM technology would affect
the speaker's bottom line or ideological agenda. And I'll wonder when he
or she last spoke to a typical farmer in the developing world.