The Global Politics of FoodEngineering Crops in a Needy World
STORY : Engineering Crops in a Needy World
By John Biewen

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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.


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