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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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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. Itís 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 Asia-Pacific Seed Association conferencethe 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."

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