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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 fertile plateau an hour east of Bangalore, a barefoot, 60-year-old farmer named Ramachar (many South Indians use only one name) steers a pair of oxen as he plows his one-and-a-quarter-acre field. He prods the animals by shouting "Ba!" or "Che!" or by making a duck-like squeaking sound with his mouth. Under the hot sun Ramachar wears blue denim shorts and a white towel over his shoulder. His steel-bottom plow slices through the reddish soil.

Of the thirty farm families who live in the village of Chikka Sabenahally, only the three richest have tractors. But farmers here have embraced modern innovations when they could. For example, most no longer save seeds from one crop to plant the next as their ancestors did for thousands of years. Ramachar is getting ready to plant carrots. RamacharHe switched to hybrid seeds three years ago and now buys them every year from a seed company. Why? They give him a better yield than the old seeds did, he says.

That evening a much-needed rain starts falling, pleasing the men who stand in the village square talking. About a dozen farmers, most in their 20s and 30s, step under a roof beside a house. I ask them about the demonstration a few days earlier in Bangalore at which some farmers denounced multinational companies and genetically modified seeds. These farmers all shrug and shake their heads—except one.

Narayanswami, 29, says he saw an item about the protest on the TV news. He gathered from the report that the members of the Karnataka State Farmers Association were objecting to Monsanto seeds. But through an interpreter Narayanswami says he has no objection to Monsanto or other "outside" seed companies selling their products in India. If they're good seeds, he says, he's happy to plant them.

Do any of the farmers here not feel that way, I ask; does anyone feel uneasy about using a seed from, say, a big American multinational company? It's certainly not a scientific survey, but it's unanimous. The farmers in this village square all say they'll buy seeds from anyone if it means better crops and bigger profits.

The same goes for seeds containing genes from other organisms. "If it is not harmful for the farmers, they [don't] mind anything," says my interpreter, summing up the comments of several farmers.

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