Sowing trouble: India’s ‘second green revolution’

Indian farmer in a pumpkin field near Kolkata Copyright: FAO / Bizzarri

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Suman Sahai argues that India’s new agricultural biotechnology deal with the United States will take power away from farmers and endanger a rich genetic heritage.

When US president George W. Bush visited India in March, he announced the coming of a ‘Second Green Revolution’. This was a reference to India’s 1970s Green Revolution, a publicly funded push to improve food production. But the comparison simply does not hold up.

The two are radically different. The proposed ‘revolution’ is a joint US-India initiative aimed at promoting agricultural biotechnology and the interests of private corporations. It has been cleverly packaged under the name of an agro-economic phenomenon still held in esteem by India’s political leadership.

The first Green Revolution produced technologies that belonged to the people. Improved crop varieties were bred with public money to fulfil a public need — increasing food production — and create public goods to which everyone had access.

There were no intellectual property rights or patents. If anyone ‘owned’ the Green Revolution, it was the farmer. They chose where to plant the seeds produced by public research institutions. So despite some faults such as increasing soil salinity and water logging, the Green Revolution addressed farmers’ needs, and India’s food production began to rise.

By contrast, the Second Green Revolution initiative centres on privately owned technologies — genetically modified (GM) plants. Six multinationals — BASF Plant Science, Bayer CropScience, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta — control almost all research in this field, and their products and research methods are shackled in patents.

The technology creates private goods that can only be accessed at significant cost: a bag of ‘Bt’ GM cotton seeds produced by the Monsanto-Mahyco joint venture, costs 1,850 rupees (US$41) in India, compared to US$6.60-8.80 for superior local varieties.

The seeds belong to the company, which strictly controls their movement. ‘Terminator’ seeds, which produce sterile adult plants, would further reduce farmers to being even more helpless consumers — not partners, as they were during the Green Revolution. Back then, scientists bred high-yield varieties in research stations and worked with farmers to produce enough high quality seeds for widespread distribution.

Over the past two decades, GM technology has failed to produce a crop variety with any direct impact on hunger and nutritional needs. The Green Revolution in India, on the other hand, produced the country’s first dwarf, high-yielding, wheat varieties within a few years. High-yielding rice followed, and India has been able to maintain a surplus stock of grain ever since.

The Green Revolution was an open, transparent, collaborative effort. But the contours of this newer revolution — formally called the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Research and Education — have been kept so secret that neither senior Indian politicians nor the scientific community know its details.

Yet the initiative’s board will set the agenda for collaborative farm research with Indian laboratories and agricultural universities. Two board members, Wal-Mart — the world’s largest retailer — and Monsanto, have according to sources within the companies, indicated that they propose using their position to enter into retailing in agriculture and agricultural trade in India.

Currently, farmers can sell their produce at special markets set up by the government but a retail giant such as Wal-Mart would be able to sell food for much lower prices, and so threaten the farmers’ livelihoods.

Gene bank break-in?

What is known about the new Indo-US deal is that it will focus on developing agricultural biotechnology, accessing biological resources in Indian gene banks, and discussing India’s intellectual property rights regime — all of which are of crucial interest to the United States.

To develop the GM crops (and fish and livestock) that will dominate the collaborative research, the US bioscience corporations involved want access to the rich biodiversity in Indian gene banks, research stations and university collections.

Such corporations know that high-quality local varieties are vital for the success of GM varieties. The failure of Mahyco-Monsanto’s Bt cotton will have taught them this important lesson: the cotton varieties that the companies used to make Bt cotton were at best modest performers that failed to compete well with other varieties. The results were crop failure and severe losses to farmers.

But many in India are uneasy about providing the United States with access to its genetic resources. Will, for example, the requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which the United States has not ratified, be met?

Unless the CBD terms are met, India cannot allow US corporations access to its genetic wealth. US failure to meet the CBD provisions would leave India in default of its own convention commitments and violate the provisions of its national law, the Biological Diversity Act.

As for India’s intellectual property regime, the new initiative’s board has discussed rights to products that the planned research programmes will develop. Many fear that this means that India’s Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act — the only law in the world granting legal rights specifically to farmers — could come under threat from US pressure.

Along with multinationals such as Monsanto, the United States has been lobbying for a change in India’s intellectual property laws to introduce patents on seeds and genes, and dilute the provisions protecting farmers’ rights.

A combination of physical access to India’s gene banks and a possible new intellectual property law that allows seed patents will in essence deliver India’s genetic wealth into US hands. This would be a severe blow to India’s food security and self-sufficiency.

And this is not all. The US negotiators have asked for restrictions on imports of US farm products into India to be removed. This amounts to asking for the right to export GM crops and foods to India.

India must avoid becoming the dumping ground for controversial products that have been rejected in many parts of the world because of questions about their safety and usefulness.

Suman Sahai is director of Gene Campaign, an Indian research and advocacy organisation.