The Global Politics of FoodEngineering Crops in a Needy World
STORY : Reporter's Notebook
By John Biewen

John Biewen in IndiaSeptember 29, 2000
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 step off onto the side of the quiet, shoulderless 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 palm trees.

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 speak for themselves.

September 25
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 moment.

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 busy.

September 26
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 US.)

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.

September 27
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.

Sepember 29-30
Back in Chikka Sabenahally, the answers to my questions are strikingly consistent. Most farmers have heard little or nothing about the farmers' protest fifty 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 crop.

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.  

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