Response and Resistance to Corporate-Backed and Promoted Agribiotechnology John Tharakan  

            On August 7, 2006, Dr. Lester Crawford, a former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration visited India sponsored by the United States Information Service (USIS) to promote the benefits of biotechnology, specifically agricultural biotechnology.  It appeared that the main purpose of Dr. Crawford’s seminar was to allay fears that appear to be part of the Indian psyche and response to biotechnology, and to promote more widespread acceptance of agricultural biotechnology, especially in India. He made presentations at several institutions in the states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, two agricultural intensive states in the west and south, respectively, of India.  His talk on “The Risks and Benefits of Biotechnology” was light on the risks and very heavy on the benefits. Although Crawford admitted that there were risks, his contention was that these risks were progressively eliminated as coherent and rigorous regulatory policies were developed, implemented and enforced. It would appear that he should know – after all, he served on the Committee on Biotechnology Policy established by then President Ronald Reagan in 1987 to develop policies for the regulation and monitoring of biotechnology and recombinant DNA (genetic engineering) research at the federal level.  According to Dr. Crawford, once sound regulatory policies were in place in the US, the US public became more accepting of biotechnology (and genetic engineering) as something that would contribute to the public good in numerous ways, ranging from agriculture and food to medicine and health.  As these regulatory policies were established in the US, similar policies were established in the EU, although with much more resistance, and the other nations are following suit, increasing the public acceptability of biotechnology.  Whether this is indeed the case is unclear. Surveys on public acceptance of biotechnology (eg. http://www.nal.usda.gov/bic/Pubpercep/ ) provide quite varied results with as many as 35% of adults not even having heard of it in the US, and other surveys demonstrating that formulating the survey questions even slightly differently results in very different conclusions ( http://www2.unescobkk.org/eubios/Papers/agbio.htm ); quite simply, by no measure and in on country is there a clear majority of for public acceptance of biotechnology as a benign and positive input

What was most interesting about the talk was the response it generated from the students and faculty assembled to hear his lecture. Many benefits that Crawford expounded on were discounted. His contention that ‘golden rice’ – a rice strain genetically modified to increase the amount of vitamin A - would improve the nutritional value of rice-based diets amongst the poor in Asia was shown to be impracticable and ludicrous, with an adult needing to eat around twelve (12) kilograms of rice a day to obtain the daily requirement of Vitamin A (http://www.foe.org/safefood/rice.html ).  In fact, the sometime head of Novartis Seeds, Steve Smith, admitted that if anyone were to tell him that GM would feed the world “…tell them that it is not… To feed the world takes political and financial will – it’s not about production...”

 The benefit of having engineered crops on the 100+ acre farms of giant agribusinesses of the west would be lost on the 1 to two- acre small farms that the majority of farmers in India and Asia cultivate. Further, these farms are rarely single-crop farms as farmers grow the vegetables their family needs as well as other cash/market crops amongst the rice, corn or wheat. Hence, the migration of transgenes to these other crops is much more likely and the effects would be potentially environmentally disastrous in terms of tremendously increasing the breadth of GM gene transfer.

As K.P.Prabhakran Nair describes it, this all seems to be part of the “…US frantically trying to create a market for its genetically modified food and plant materials in India.” He calls this transformation where Monsanto and Cargill are being given seats at the negotiation table while domestic (Indian) farmers are not, the sequel to the failed ‘green revolution’, the ‘gene revolution’. This ‘gene revolution’, like the green revolution before it, will likely only benefit the rich farmers and large agribusiness – the small farmer will be the loser. As Nair reminds us, over 65% of Indian farmers cultivate plots of one hectare – and the introduction of GMO, promoted aggressively by large US ‘agribiz’ conglomerates hand-in-hand with the US government and with minimal Indian government oversight and regulations – portends ill for the survival of the small farmer.(i)

The economics and the regulations under which farmers are expected to utilize the GMO seeds are literally killing farmers. Many farmers in Andhra Pradesh, a southern state in India, have found that the yields have not been as promised and moreover the additional inputs required make the costs of cultivation prohibitive for poor farmers. Finally, the insidious legal requirement that farmers have to buy seeds from the purveyor of the GMO seeds each season, as opposed to the age old practice of saving some seeds from this years crop for planting next years, has broken many farmers resulting in widespread suicides among farmers in that state.

Monsanto, the world’s largest biotech and agrobiotech company responding to public pressure and outrage pledged that it would not commercialize ‘terminator seed’ technologies in 1999. Terminator seed technologies are genetically modified plants that produce sterile seeds, hence forcing farmers to continually and annually buy seeds.  Monsanto then reneged on that pledge, revising its commitment by saying it would develop sterile-seed technologies for non-food crops. Various agribusinesses and countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, started campaigning to have the Convention on Biological Diversity lift its ban on the commercialization of these technologies and instead to review them on a case-by-case basis, exactly what Monsanto wanted to see.  Sterile seed technologies will do incredible harm to the over 1 billion people who depend on small scale farms and agriculture and practice saving seeds (farm-saved seeds) for future cultivation. As the protests from NGO’s, peasant and small farmers appeared and began to grow, Monsanto apparently issued a disclaimer saying it stands by its earlier pledge not to commercialize the sterile seed technology!(ii).

Many farmers are resisting these practices and turning towards organic methods of farming. Companies are also being established responding to this need, promoting concepts such as Integrated Crop Management (ICM) and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) ( http://www.excelcropcare.com/home.asp ) and, and working at the village level in educating farmers and assisting them in implementing these practices. There are also those that argue that IPM is only a stop gap and the move should be towards Non-Pesticidal Management or NPM.  Dr. M.S. Chari, one of the orginal developers of the NPM approach and an Advisor to the Center For Sustainable Agriculture says IPM is still heavily dependent on pesticides and responds to the criticism that NPM is labor intensive by calling it job-oriented, pointing to the fact that wherever these have been adopted, rural women’s self help groups have organized and increased employment while decreasing pesticide loads on their farmed products(iii).  More and more farmers in India are being convinced to move in this direction – reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and replacing the use of synthetic fertilizers with organic fertilizers(iv). This is the only way out of this mess and deception of GM foods and the constant drivel we hear from agribusiness saying how this is the only way to feed the world. More accurately that’s the only way they can feed their bank accounts, make farmers captive to a technology and assure themselves profits for years to come.

[article received August 31, 2006]

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i. K.P.P.Nair, “Marginal Issues: From Green Revolution to Gene Revolution,” Down to Earth, 15 (4) 51 2006
ii. “Monsanto breaks its vow”, Down to Earth, 14 (22), 16, 2006
iii. “No Pesticides”, Down to Earth, 15 (1), 22 – 31, 2006
iv. “Organic Solutions” Down to Earth, 15 (5) 44, 2006
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