Monday, May 21, 2007

Patenting Genetic Manipulation: A Threat Looming Large in the Indian Subcontinent

- Mira Kamdar

The Green Revolution that transformed Indian agriculture in the last century was an American invention. It began in 1944 with a project sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico. Dr Norman Borlaug, a plant geneticist from Minnesota, was sponsored by the Foundation to assist in breeding new plant hybrids that would boost yields of basic food grains. The project was enormously successful: Mexico was transformed from an importer of wheat to an exporter within a couple of decades. In the 1960s, the Rockefeller Foundation helped bring the Green Revolution to India, which was facing such severe food shortages that there was fear of a major famine. The hybrid seeds developed in Mexico were planted in Punjab, where yields soared.
In addition to the new hybrid seeds, the Green Revolution made heavy use of new pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilisers and irrigation techniques. However, it quickly became clear that the organochlorine pesticides were harming crops more than agricultural pests. The 1962 publication of Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring drew attention to the dangers of ddt, and helped launch the worldwide movement against the chemical.
The cost of synthetic fertilisers has risen in tandem with that of natural gas, increasing the cost of food production. Moreover, pollution from these fertilisers in the form of nitrates is a serious problem the world over. In the United States, where nitrogen fertilisers are a key factor in the most productive agriculture in the world, more public water supplies have been closed due to the violation of drinking water standards from nitrate than from any other contaminant. Without these fertilisers, the high yields of the post-Green Revolution era would not be possible, yet they pose serious risks and may permanently damage our environment, especially our water. Too much water, delivered via irrigation, can be environmentally harmful. Over-watering has negative impacts on soil composition, especially in conjunction with the use of nitrogen fertilisers where it increases the salinity of the soil. Farmers are increasingly facing these problems in Punjab, where India’s Green Revolution took off.
Dramatically increasing the production of food did not end hunger in India. Though India claims food self sufficiency, more people in India go hungry than in any other single country. At least 232 million people in India do not receive sufficient food. According to a unicef report last year, 200 million children — one third of all the malnourished children in the world — live in India. Nearly half of India’s children, 47 percent, are severely underweight.
Last year, India could not meet its food grains need. The country imported 2.2 million tons of wheat, including orders from American giants Cargill, the world’s largest grain trading company, and Archer Daniels Midlands. India’s strides in increased wheat production — achieving about 70 million tons annually — cannot keep up with the steady growth in population and swelling consumption. The diversion of land by subsistence farmers from food crops to cash crops such as cotton contributed to the problem, as did the reduction of land put to cultivating traditional hardy and nutritious food grains such as jowar (sorghum) and bajra (millet). The shortfall in wheat production caused prices of wheat flour, the ingredient for India’s flatbread that is the staff of life for hundreds of millions, to rise by 30 percent last year.
A key component of the closer India–US relationship is a new agricultural development initiative that President Bush hailed as “a second Green Revolution” during his speech at Delhi’s historic Purana Qila fort when he visited India last year. The initiative is called the US-India Agricultural Knowledge Initiative. Dr Norman Borlaug, after winning a Nobel prize for his work on the first Green Revolution, is participating in the new joint effort. The goals of the agricultural initiative are listed as follows: (1) raise agricultural productivity to promote food security (2) increase technology transfer, including biotechnology (3) build a sound policy and regulatory environment (4) expand trade and investment and promote integration of India into the global economy (5) ensure a key role for the US and Indian private sectors and (6) reinvigorate US-India university partnerships.
On first glance, it seems odd to name an agricultural deal a “knowledge initiative.” But a core goal of the agreement is to expand patentable intellectual property. According to the Ministry of Agriculture at the government of India’s website, the private sector participants are Masani Farm and itc on the Indian side, and Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, and, of all companies, Wal-Mart, on the American side. Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland are already, as we have seen, deeply involved in Indian agriculture. Wal-Mart has every intention of being so the moment the Indian government changes the law to let the company in. The Hindu newspaper reported last year that “transgenic research,” meaning research on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), “in crops, animals and fisheries would be a substantial part of the collaboration in biotechnology.” Reporting for the respected science journal Nature’s biotechnology publication Nature Biotechnology, KS Jayaraman asserted: “What critics resent most is the presence of Monsanto, the second largest gm seed producer in the world, and Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, on the board of the new initiative.” The article goes on to quote Indian food policy analyst Devinder Sharma on the role Indian universities are likely to play with regard to Monsanto and Wal-Mart: “With them on the board, the US multinationals are all set to determine the Indian agricultural research agenda.”
The combination of India’s rich plant and animal genetic diversity, its potentially large market, and its proven capacity as a research and development centre, are all powerful attractions for US agribusiness concerns. They can look forward to dramatically expanding the scope of their intellectual property rights holdings, using Indian brain power to help unlock new applications in biotechnology and transgenic research, using Indian fields to test new transgenic products, and then selling these products to Indian consumers, whether to Indian farmers or to Indian retail customers.
I called up Suman Sahai of Genecamp in Delhi to ask her about her take on the US-India agricultural deal. Genecamp is an ngo focused on indigenous knowledge, biopiracy, community rights, and intellectual property in agriculture. Suman has been very vocal in criticising the deal, saying India will gain little and give away too much. “The agricultural deal is pay-off for the nuclear deal. I see it very much that way. It’s easy to understand why Monsanto needs India. There is a huge amount of resistance to GMOs in Europe, Africa and Japan. Who are they going to sell this stuff to? An agricultural giant like India is hugely important for them,” she said.
In 2006, farmers in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and California sued Bayer Crop Science after an unapproved genetically modified strain of rice it had developed entered the food chain and contaminated the US rice crop. The modified rice contains a protein dubbed Liberty Link that allows it to resist herbicides used to kill weeds. After the contamination was discovered, Japan banned imports of US rice and the eu instituted testing requirements to ensure that rice coming from the United States was not contaminated. This was a major blow to US rice producers. No one knows the long-range potential effects of altered plant or animal genes entering the food chain.
I asked Suman why the Indian government would give so much genetic capital away to the United States. Suman would not take names, but she said that influential policy-makers “have direct tie-ups to this”. American companies aren’t the only ones favoured. Swiss biotech giant Syngenta, for example, is working with the Vasantdada Sugar Institute in Pune on genetically modified sugarcane. In general, “there has been a huge buy-in at the top level of the Indian government on GMOs,” Suman said.
“This has been packaged very cleverly by linking it to the Green Revolution,” she said. “For Indians, the Green Revolution gave us our sovereignty, it made us self-sufficient. To call this deal ‘a second Green Revolution’ is very shrewd, but this is nothing like the Green Revolution. All the knowledge generated by the Green Revolution was public knowledge. This will all be private knowledge. This is about intellectual property rights and monopoly corporations extending the reach of what they own.”
excerpts taken from Kamdar’s book Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Changing the World (Scribner)

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