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

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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 of solidarity.

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 India."

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.

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