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Sowing seeds of misery

The problem with the second green revolution that the PM has called for is that it envisages using GE technology in agriculture.

india Updated: Feb 08, 2006 00:25 IST

While inaugurating the 93rd Indian Science Congress in Hyderabad, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called upon the scientific community to work towards bringing about a second green revolution. Unlike the first one, this would have a special focus on dryland agriculture and address the needs of small and marginal farmers. At the outset, the idea seems novel, but not when one digs deeper to understand what it entails.

The second green revolution envisages making agriculture technology- and market-driven. Here, the technology in question is biotechnology and more specifically, genetically engineered (GE) technology. There is no doubt that it only operates within a globalised market system. Traditional Indian farming practices, knowledge systems, biodiverse and self-sustaining agriculture have no place in this regime.

Leave alone the arguments around the risks or economics of such agriculture, there are some fundamental, moral and ethical issues that cloud this technology. GE agriculture brings something as basic as a seed, which was always considered to be the right of the farmers, saved on their fields and exchanged freely, into the domain of business. It then becomes private property open to patent and plant variety protection regimes, where royalties have to be paid for the use of these seeds. It increases the dependency of farmers on large corporations and pushes them to operate within an international market.

While there is a section of society pushing the above approach, there is another set terribly concerned. While they have been in discussion for the last three years, finally some of them have come together to collectively react and campaign against the introduction of GE in agriculture. On January 7-8, over 50 representatives from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra came together to reject GE as a solution for addressing the issue of agricultural crisis and hunger. They have called themselves South Against Genetic Engineering (Sage).

Sage has representatives from various sectors, including farmers, farmer’s organisations, NGOs, consumer groups, mediapersons, scientists, academicians and civil society activists. It says it will continue to strive for GE’s deserved death.

But the members of the network are also worried with the pace with which GE is being promoted. As Bharmegowdra, a farmer from northern Karnataka said, “In agriculture, GE is not good for crops, soil, animals or humans. Its introduction leads to the loss of agro-biodiversity. It increases seed costs and use of pesticides continues. Further, the farmers don’t get returns. Since farmers are not literate, they believe whatever the companies tell them. But it is clear these crops have no nutrition, only water and pesticides.”

This is not the voice of a single person but of several farmers across the country. Today, the farmers in the dryland regions (which were ignored by the green revolution) are desperate and willing to take on any option. The propaganda of GE is attractive but gives only one side of the picture. Therefore, when farmers like Kumaraswamy from Andhra Pradesh fall for crops like Bt Cotton, they suffer heavy losses for two years. They finally realise that the best option is to revive traditional agricultural practices, which require low external inputs, no pesticides and also allow for biodiverse farming.

But the government continues to push for GE in agriculture. Perhaps, like many other countries, it is pressured to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing hunger by half by 2015. This is a reality which seed corporations are using to their advantage. GE is being offered as a solution for addressing hunger and nutrition. UN bodies like Food and Agriculture Organisation fall in line and endorse it. The question is, do we need the GE industry to give us solutions for hunger and malnutrition? Or does it require a reinstatement of faith in our own agricultural practices? Which is a more farmer-friendly option — one that makes a farmer dependant or the other that makes him self-reliant?

The problem of hunger and malnutrition is deeply linked with access to food. No amount of technology and market-driven agriculture can address these. It is important to bear in mind that GE focuses on making up for inadequate nutrition from existing crops. It does not deal with the fundamental reasons that lead to hunger. These include the induced crisis in agriculture, issues around distribution and access to food, etc. As was pointed out during the Sage meeting, “Ironically, the largest numbers of people suffering from micronutrient malnutrition live in South Asia, a region otherwise rich in fruits and vegetables.”

We don’t really need the formation of a Sage or the rage of its campaign to prove that GE is not the real answer to hunger and nutrition. Just a little common sense and faith in our own systems can do wonders for the agriculture in the country.

The writer is a member of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group