George W. Bush's three-day visit to India in the first week of March 2006 was
not just about the U.S.-India nuclear deal. It was also about an agreement on
farm research and education, foundation for which was laid in November 2005,
following Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the U.S.
Known as the India-U.S. Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Education,
Research, Services and Commercial Linkages, the agreement is about the U.S. and
India conducting joint research in transgenic crops, animals, and fisheries over
a period of three years. Andy Mukherjee, a columnist for Bloomerberg.Com
enthusiastically announced, "If the nuclear deal promises relief for India's
power- starved industrial sector, the agricultural agreement has the potential
to transform the nation's poverty-ridden countryside. The economics are simply
unbeatable." Citing the success of Bt cotton in India, he states, "cotton
production has been transformed since Monsanto was allowed to sell its GM cotton
seeds to farmers in 2002."
Indeed, Bt cotton has transformed both the cotton production and lives of
farmers in India.
The Unbeatable Economics of Genetic Engineering: A Harvest of Suicides
While the Indian government was busy opening its vast network of public sector
agricultural research institutes to U.S. private companies, the first nine days
of March 2006 were marked with 25 farmers taking their own life in Maharashtra's
cotton growing district of Vidarbha. By April 14, 2006, an estimated 443 farmers
in the region had committed suicide to escape indebtedness since the start of
the agriculture season on June 2, 2005.
What is driving this harvest of suicides?
Last December, Jaideep Hardikar a journalist with India Together reported on the
suicide of Ramesh Rathod in the village of Bondgavhan, Vidarbha. He had
purchased Bollgard brand MECH 162 variety from companies with commercial license
from Mahyco/Monsanto for Rs. 1800 ($36) per 450 grams, compared with the 450
rupees ($9) that farmers pay for non-Bt seeds. The official price for Bt cotton
is Rs. 1600 ($30), but the local inputs dealer charged an additional Rs. 200
since Ramesh bought it on credit.
Ramesh's hopes were dashed when his Bt cotton crops had a severe pest attack and
the leaves of his cotton plants turned red before drying up. After having spent
a lot of money on inputs and the yield destroyed irreparably, he was in no
position to pay back the loans he had taken. With no option left, he opted for
death by consuming pesticide. Left behind to pay back the debt and shoulder the
responsibility of a family including a young son and a daughter, Ramesh's
grieving widow, Dharmibai used Endosulphane and Tracer - two costly pesticides -
against the bollworm pest, but the three acres of land did not even yield three
quintals of cotton.
More recently AFP reported the suicide of 34 - year old Indian cotton farmer
Chandrakant Gurenule from Yavatmal. He too had bought the genetically-modified
cotton seeds for his 15-acre (six-hectare) farm, only to watch his crops fail
for two successive years. When there was no hope left, despite him selling off
the pair of bullocks he used to plough the fields, and pawning his wife's
wedding jewelry, he doused himself in kerosene and lit a match on April 1, 2006.
It is estimated that more than 4,100 farmers committed suicide in the western
state of Maharashtra in 2004. Increasing cost of production along with sliding
global prices and dumping of cheap subsidized cotton from outside the country
has been compounded by failure of Bt seeds. Devastated by bollworm pest, Bt
crops have been attacked by "Lalya" or "reddening" as well, a disease unseen
before which affected Bt more than the non-Bt cotton crop, resulting in 60
percent of farmers in Maharashtra failing to recover costs from their first GM
harvest. Some studies show that farmers are spending Rs. 6,813 ($136.26) per
acre compared to Rs. 580 ($11.6) on non-Bt cotton since GE cotton requires more
supplemental insecticide sprays. It is this failure of the Bt cotton that
resulted in Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India banning Mech
12, Mech 184, and Mech 162 varieties in Andhra Pradesh while Mech 12 was banned
all over Southern India.
India-U.S. Knowledge Initiative: In Who's Interest?
At the first board meeting of the Knowledge Initiative in Washington D.C. in
December 2005, representatives from both the Wal-Mart food chain and Monsanto
Seed Corporation were present as key stakeholders in the agreement, a clear
indication as to what lies ahead: Indian Agricultural Universities and Krishi
Vigyan Kendras (Agricultural Research Centers), instead of catering to the
needs of poor farmers, will now be promoting the interests of GE giant Monsanto
and Wal- Mart.
Then there is the fear of biopiracy with U.S. multinationals having free access
to India's genetic resources. The agreement might set the American model in
place where following the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, even publicly funded research
in U.S. universities and institutes is patented and licensed out for commercial
development to companies such as Monsanto.
Not surprisingly then, the weekly newsletter of the Communist Party of India
(Marxist) wrote in protest, "Today's gene revolution depends almost entirely on
private domain science. If we harness Indian scientific research to the U.S.,
then it is allowing the complete dominance of companies such as Monsanto on
Indian agriculture. By Patenting and Branding Seeds, they will openly exploit
Indian agriculture. India will be coerced into production of raw materials for
the American MNCs and in turn these multinationals will sell their branded end
products through misleading advertisements and catchy slogans, labeling their
products efficacious, hygienic and safe from health point of view."
Krishna Bir Chaudhary, leader of Bharat Krishak Samaj, a farmers' organization
in India in an opinion editorial wrote, "The Indo-U.S. agreement on agriculture
will cast a demonizing spell over the country and is bound to cause large-scale
plunder of the agro-society and definitely tend to capitalize on our living,
life pattern, culture and social norms. Already much maligned, misconceived and
utterly irrelevant second green revolution is a clever ploy to promote the
interest of America and other Multi National Corporation's (MNCs)."
Revolutionizing Profits of Agribusiness
Celebrating the accord, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, " Our first
Green Revolution benefited in substantial measure from assistance provided by
the U.S. We are hopeful that the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture will become
the harbinger of a second green revolution in our country."
It was the U.S. initiative that brought the Green Revolution and its "miracle"
wheat seeds to India four decades ago. Fueled by large doses of chemical
fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, manufactured by the U.S. corporations,
the Green Revolution put the Indian farmer on the treadmill of imported seeds
and chemical inputs. Now with the revolution at a dead end, with pests resistant
to pesticides and fields choked with chemicals, the U.S. is offering India the
revolution of Genetic Engineering.
To add to the destitution in the countryside, the Indian government has decided
to liberalize agricultural sector. For instance, despite the increase in wheat
production this year to beat 73.1 million tons, which is more than sufficient to
meet domestic needs, the Indian government decided to import 500,000 tons of
wheat from AWB Ltd., an Australian public sector company, that has been
investigated for alleged payment of $290 million kickback to the Saddam regime
in Iraq for supply of wheat. Citing "rising domestic prices due to shortage" as
a pretext for imports, India is buying wheat at a higher price of $178.75 a ton
from AWB, when the Australian exporters have sold wheat in the global market at
$131 per ton.
Price of wheat did increase, particularly in the South, in January and February
2006, but it was a result of artificial shortage. As Ashok Sharma, a journalist
with India's Financial Express explains in his Farm Column, "Last year wheat
output was 72 million tons but the government agencies procured about 18 million
tons while the private trade procured and stocked a substantial amount. With
liberalization of the economy, the government removed all restrictions on the
stocking limit. The result is that the private trade is now in a position to
stock any amount and manipulate market prices. It is a shame that the
government, instead of re-imposing stocking limits, is citing the need for
imports on the pretext of shortageŠ Wheat can be transported through railways in
bulk in silos at a cheaper cost. The food ministry could pay the amount out of
the earmarked subsidy to another government department - railways - for
transportation. It is just an adjustment of the accounts within the government
without involving any extra cost."
Instead, at the recommendation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the
Indian government has decided to import an additional three million tons.
Abdicating its responsibility to the farmers, the Indian government is not
willing to pay them more than Rs. 7,000 ($120) per ton while it is prepared to
import wheat, the cost of which including handling and transportation would
amount to Rs. 10,000 ($200) a ton.
The Way Out
With India home to 50 percent of the world's hungry and two thirds of its
population depending on agriculture for its livelihood, the Indian countryside
does need a revolution.
This revolution, however, will look very different from the one envisaged by the
India-U.S. Knowledge Initiative or opening up of markets. Based on the principle
of food sovereignty, this revolution will recognize "the right of peoples to
define their own food and agriculture and to protect and regulate domestic
agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development
This revolution would entail:
- Prioritizing local, regional and national needs and protecting local and
national markets of basic food stuffs to give priority to the products of local
- Promoting and enforcing farmer's rights including access and ownership of
commons including land, water and seeds;
- Promoting sustainable peasant agriculture;
- Promoting the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the
rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production;
- And, recognizing food sovereignty as a human right.
India is the already the third largest producer of food in the world - world's
largest producer of milk, second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugar, fruits
and vegetables, and the third largest producer of cotton, to mention a few.
Looking at the economics of it all, genetic engineering and Bt cotton will not
revolutionize India's countryside, help increase production, or help feed over
350 million of its people who live on less than $1 a day, but a new farm economy
as the centerpiece of the country's economic development model will.
Anuradha Mittal is the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a policy
think whose mission is to increase public participation and promote fair debate
on critical social, economic and environmental issues in both national and
1. A. Mukherjee, "Biotech Can Transform India's Countryside." March
9, 2006, Bloomberg.Com
2. A. Sharma, "Wheat Imports Undermine India's Position in WTO." Farm Front
Column, April 24, 2006, Financial Express
3. India-US. Bilateral Documents. March 2, 2006, Jansamachar.Net
4. "India Throws Open Farm Research Sector to U.S. Companies." November 11,
5. "GM Crops, Animals High on Agri Pact." March 3, 2006, Financial Express
6. "More to India-US Tango Than Just N-deal." February 27, 2006, Rediff.Com
7. "India-US to Work for 'Evergreen Revolution." March 2, 2006, OutlookIndia.Com
8. J. Hardikar, "350, and Counting." Cotton Farming Crisis, March 11, 2006,
9. "Farmer Suicide on Rise as India's Rural Crisis Deepens." April 22, 2006,
10. J. Hardikar, "Vidarbha 2004: A Suicides Diary." January 8, 2006, India Together
11. S. Roy, "Slash And Burn: Sow Tons of Debt, and it's a Bumper Harvest for the
Grim Reaper." OutlookIndia.com
12. "People's Food Sovereignty is a Right." The Agriculture Trade Network