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Synthesis/Regeneration 34   (Spring 2004)

GM Industry and Science Busy Exploiting Hunger

by Devinder Sharma, Food and Trade Policy Analyst

In the past four months, hundreds of farmers in Karnataka, ironically the hub of GM industry, have taken the fatal route to escape the pangs of hunger and the growing humiliation that comes along with crop failures. Unable to understand the ground realities, the Karnataka government has been thinking of sending psychiatrists to talk to farmers. The Andhra Pradesh government too has followed this misplaced vision.

At the same time, in the past few months and for that matter as a trend that continues from a couple of years, a few educated entrepreneurs in the Karnataka’s capital, Bangalore, have suddenly become the darlings of the state exchequer. Many foreign companies, most of them unable to operate in the hostile environment against GM crops in the west, have moved shop to Bangalore. Invariably, they all come with the promise of higher crop yields, nutritional crops, and the underlying thrust of eradicating hunger.

In the past four months, hundreds of farmers in Karnataka…have taken the fatal route to escape the pangs of hunger and the growing humiliation that comes along with crop failures.

It isn’t therefore surprising to see Bangalore hosting five-star conclaves every month or so and that too in the name of fighting hunger. None of the delegates, and I repeat none of them, have ever stepped out of the hotels to even visit and meet the families of those who laid down their lives essentially to sustain flawed policies, including the misplaced emphasis on crop biotechnology.

The biotech epidemic has now spread wide. Karnataka is not the only state to have doled out state largesse to a handful of industrialists and business houses. If the recent surveys and reports in BioSpectrum are any indication, many other state governments are queuing with red carpets. Isn’t it surprising that the same politicians who were once despised by the industrialists have now become their comrades-in-arms? Isn’t it surprising that the same elite class that once blamed the “politician-engineer-contractor” nexus for siphoning off state funds, is now merrily part of the new age trio that comprises “politician-industry-scientist?”

Industrialists are not alone. Let us examine the dubious role of agricultural scientists, part of the new age tribe. “When was the last time you organized a national conference on farmers’ suicides?” I asked a group of distinguished agricultural scientists participating in a recent national seminar on the need for a strong regulatory mechanism for GM crops at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi. “When was the last time you organized a meeting on the shameful paradox of plenty that continues to plague the country—millions living in abject hunger while the mountains of food grains rot in the open?” The resulting silence is deafening.

“…millions living in abject hunger while the mountains of food grains rot in the open.”

In 2002–03, nearly 17 million tons from the unmanageable food surplus was diverted for exports, and that too at a price that was actually meant for people living below the poverty line. Another 6 million tons was released for the trade at the same price. A year back, the country had a staggering food surplus of 62 million tons, stacked in the open and faced with the vagaries of the weather. A report of the Standing Committee of Parliament had estimated that the government was spending 62,000 million rupees [about US$1.4 billion] every year to maintain these food stocks. If every bag of grain in the godowns was to be put in a row, it would stretch to the moon and back.

Agricultural scientists have refrained from debating this criminal apathy. GM industry too has very conveniently ducked this uncomfortable question. Both have instead joined hands to pry open whatever little remains of the state exchequer. Aided and abetted by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), they continue to organize seminars, workshops and conferences in league with the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Tata Energy Research Institute on topics like the role of biotechnology in fighting hunger.

If hunger at the time of plenty is a crime, if fighting hunger was a national priority, would not a more humanitarian task be to come out with recommendations on how to utilize the rotting food surpluses, on how to make the surplus food stocks reach those who need it most, on how to ensure that every citizen in the country is well fed? Shouldn’t the politician-industry-scientist trio impress upon the government the folly of spending Rs 62,000 million in storing the grains and not spending the same amount on its distribution? Couldn’t the industry come forward to help the nation fight the scourge of mankind? After all, there is no shortage of food.

Precious resources are instead being diverted from poverty and hunger eradication to laying out an adequate regulatory mechanism (even if it is only on paper) to welcome the genetic engineering industry from the United States and Europe—an industry which is actually on the run. State governments are making available prime land, massive resources and tax holidays, hoping that the sunrise industry will come to its rescue at the time of general elections. Agricultural scientists, knowing that the state has no money to even pay their monthly salaries, have found an alternative job opening to sustain their own livelihood.

If every bag of grain in the godowns was to be put in a row, it would stretch to the moon and back.

In recent months, more than 20,000 people in Britain turned out in meetings and 37,000 people filled in questionnaires in response to a nation-wide debate, aptly called “GM Nation?” In an overwhelmingly clear verdict, 98% of them rejected the introduction of GM crops; a majority of them were in fact hostile to the idea. In New Zealand, some 9,000 protestors marched through the streets of Auckland (some call it the biggest demonstration since the Vietnam war) to show the government the groundswell of public opinion against GM crops. Far way in Brazil, the state of Parana, which declared itself a transgenics-free territory, has held some 800 trucks—some of them from Paraguay—carrying genetically modified soy.

In India, the Department of Biotechnology has launched a massive misinformation campaign— India, which has traditionally accepted, with a lot of respect, almost all kinds of rubbish from the western countries, be it cow dung, toxic wastes, obsolete industrial technology, sub-standard automobiles, or cattle feed in the name of food commodities. No eyebrows are raised in accepting an unwanted technology, which comes with the more acceptable and emotional tag of removing hunger.

Under such circumstances, more and more state governments will follow the trend initiated by Andhra Pradesh—build up a cadre of psychiatrists to advise farmers not to commit suicide.

[5 apr 04]

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