The havoc wrought by the multinational corporations (MNCs) and FIIs (Foreign Institutional “Investors”), who have been given a red carpet welcome by our government is best illustrated by what Vandana Shiva calls a new form of pollution from genetically engineered crops. Genetic pollution is destroying biodiversity and devastating farmers’ livelihoods. The chemical corporations are the ‘gene giants’ who now control seed. Instead of being the voice of the poor and vulnerable farmers, says Vandana Shiva, the Prime Minister has become the voice of powerful global corporations (through his repeated reference to genetic engineering as the second Green Revolution). Neoliberalism to which the government is passionately addicted is leading to the privatisation of seed and land, water and biodiversity, health and education, power and transport — in fact, it is leading to the privatisation of government itself!
A few words will not be out of place to drive home the horrors perpetrated by the Seed Corporations whose depredations, the government wants us to believe, will bring about the “Green Revolution”. The deepening agrarian and food crisis has its roots in the changes in the seed supply system, brought on by the erosion of seed diversity and the farmer’s loss of rights to seed, which include the right to save, breed and exchange seed, to have access to diverse open–source seeds which are not patented, genetically modified, owned and controlled by giant corporations.
The last 20 years have seen the concentration of the control over seed by a very small number of giant corporations. It was reported in the Plant Genetic Resources Conference — organised by the U.N. at Leipzig in the year 1995 — that 75% of all agricultural biodiversity had disappeared because of the introduction of “modern” varieties! Corporations are patenting climate–resistant seeds evolved by farmers, thereby robbing farmers of their right to use their own seeds and knowledge for climate adaptation.
Another threat is genetic contamination of the seed. India has lost its cotton seeds because of contamination from Bt. Cotton. After contamination, Biotech Seed Corporation sues farmers, slapping infringement cases on them. Hence, more than 80 groups came together and filed a case to prevent Monsanto from suing farmers whose seeds had been contaminated. India, the home of cotton, has lost its cotton seed diversity and cotton seed sovereignty. 95% of the cotton seed is now in Monsanto’s Bt. Cotton, and the debt trap created by being forced to buy seed every year, has pushed hundreds of thousands of farmers to suicide; of the 250,000 cases of farmers’ suicide, the majority are in the cotton belt. Should not the government be held responsible for this horrendous state of affairs?
The disappearance of biodiversity and seed sovereignty is creating a major crisis for agriculture and food security. On the other side, corporations are pushing (the ever so willing!) governments to use public money to destroy the public seed supply and replace it with unreliable, non–renewable patented seed which must be bought every year.
Monsanto states, “it draws from a collection of germ plasma that is unparalleled in history” and “mines the diversity in this genetic library to develop elite seeds faster than ever before” — which is nothing but gibberish and a market slogan. What the seed corporation is offering is not “improvement” of genetic resources but their degradation. Agri–business is the only sector in which the U.S. has a positive trade balance, with GM seeds bringing hefty royalties to the U.S., which, in turn, are transforming into debt traps and suicide for farmers, and disappearance of biodiversity worldwide.
The government has signed a US–India “Agricultural Knowledge Initiative”, with Monsanto. States are being pressurized to sign agreements with Monsanto. The MoU signed with the Rajasthan government envisaged Monsanto getting intellectual property rights on all genetic resources and research on seeds falling within the purview of the MoU. It took a campaign by Navadanya and a Bija Yatra with the slogan “Monsanto Quit India”, to get the government of Rajasthan to cancel the MoU!
Narayan Lakshman has reported that a 300,000 strong trade association filed a class–action suit–type action in the Southern District Court of New York against the common defendant — the agri–business giant, Monsanto. Seeking pre–emptive protection from law–suits by Monsanto, and seeking relief from what they said was Monsanto’s rapidly expanding use of genetically modified seeds and herbicides near their farms, the plaintiffs, representing a group of organic farmers from at least 21 States and Provinces across the U.S., under the umbrella of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Associations (OGSATA), made a fervent plea to the Judge that Monsanto’s use of the chemicals anywhere near their organic farms was contaminating the quality of the organic products, and they adduced oral arguments before the Court on January 31, 2012. Speaking after the hearing, OGASTA President commented: ‘Monsanto’s threats and abuse of family farmers stops here. Monsanto’s genetic contamination of organic seed and organic corps ends now. Americans have the right to choice in the market place — to decide what kind of food they will feed their families — and we are taking this action on their behalf to protect that right to choose.” Can the Indian farmers and the Indian citizens expect such type of protection from Monsanto, from ‘our own’ government? We can be sure that ‘our government’ will be right on the side of Monsanto.
How serious the threat is can be seen from the havoc brought by the introduction of genetically modified (GM) Bt. Cotton in the country. Angry farmers urged Parliamentarians to hold a special session to discuss the issue and ban the technology. Charging a few seed companies, particularly Monsanto, with monopolising the seed industry and setting the agenda for the government, social activists urged “policy makers” (the great ‘brains’ in our government, whose earth–shaking decisions even the Supreme Court is barred from questioning!) and farmers to reject the hype around Bt. Cotton, and demanded a comprehensive review. The Delhi Alliance for Safe Food held a protest demonstration at Jantar Mantar; similar protests were held in the cotton belts of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. A technology that was meant for irrigated areas, says the Columnist Gergi Parasai, was pushed in all cotton–growing states, including rain–fed ones, resulting in higher rate of suicides of cotton growers, particularly in Maharashtra. The protests were intense and widespread in the state, where farmers burnt Bt. Cotton in several villages.
“Ten years ago, permission was granted to the U.S. based ‘seed giant’, Monsanto for experimental cultivation of (bollworm–existent) GM Bt. Cotton in 18,000 hectares in different parts of the country. Today, with the push given to it, the acreage has gone upto over 12 million hectares, and the crop is sown by 90% growers, especially after Maharashtra permitted commercial cultivation trials of Bt. Cotton from June, 2005”, points out Kishor Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. A coalition for GM–free India report released recently said that the government’s own data proved that Bt. cotton had resulted in stagnant yields, pest resistance and the evolution of new pest and disease attacks. Yet, its use has spread because the creditors in the informal sector, who double up as seed agents, promote the Bt. seed and deprive farmers of the traditional variety of the seeds. In Andhra Pradesh, the state government estimates show that out of 47 lakh acres planted with Bt. cotton during kharif 2011 season, the crop failed in 33.73 lakh acres (71% of the area). The state government reported that 20.46 lakh farmers suffered from cotton crop failure and lost Rs.3071.60 crore. Bt. cotton is considered to be the reason for “deep agrarian crisis” in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The protestors have demanded that the government should rejuvenate the production of conventional cotton seeds and advise farmers about the risks of Bt. cotton. There should be strict action against false claims and misleading advertising by seed companies.
In fact, there should a class action against the seed companies for damages in millions of dollars, and also action against the culprit central government and the state governments. One wishes that there is a popular movement against such depredations.
By C A Balasubramanian
Additional Controller of Accounts (Retd.), Government of India