Technologies are tools for doing or making things. They are a means to transform what nature has given into food, clothing, shelter, means of mobility, means of communication. Technology is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself.
But when we stop perceiving technology as a means mediating between nature and human needs and elevate it to an end in itself, we falsely give it the status of a religion. The Green Revolution bred seeds to respond to chemical fertilizers — they were called “miracle seeds”. The father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, called the 12 people he sent across the world to spread chemicals by introducing new seeds his “wheat apostles”. This is the discourse of religion, not of science and technology.
When the Green Revolution was introduced in India in 1965-66, no assessment was made of the impact chemical fertilizer will have on soil organisms, soil structure and the soil’s water-holding capacity. No attempt was made to compare the yields of Green Revolution varieties and the outputs of indigenous varieties and mixed farming system. When we started to conserve native seeds through the Navdanya movement in 1987, we found many of the indigenous varieties outperformed the Green Revolution varieties in grain yield. They also outperformed them in total biomass yield — this really matters because while the grain is eaten by humans, straw is food for soil organisms and farm animals. Our work on mixtures and biodiverse systems of farming shows that as a system, indigenous biodiversity produces more food and nutrition per acre.
"Genetic engineering in not a game of Lego in which genes can be moved around without any impact on the organism or the environment. It is time to put nature and people back in the technology narrative."
If we had a scientific approach to making choices about the technologies we use to produce our food, agroecology would win hands down. But the Green Revolution is promoted blindly as a religion, and not on the basis of science. Why else would finance minister P. Chidambaram announce in his Budget speech that the Green Revolution, which has destroyed the soil, water, biodiversity of Punjab, would now be expanded to eastern India?
Is the government trying to impose the cancer epidemic of Punjab on Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand? Does it want to deplete and poison the waters of eastern India like it did to the waters of Punjab? Does it want the rich biodiversity of eastern India to disappear like the biodiversity of Punjab has disappeared to create monocultures of rice and wheat?
In the language of doublespeak, through a “memorandum of understanding” with biotech corporation Monsanto, the Punjab government is now introducing hybrid maize in the name of “diversification”. Substituting one monoculture with another is not diversification, putting more diversity on our farms is. More than 75 per cent of hybrid maize goes for industrial use, especially animal feed. This is not a food system to reduce the hunger of people; it is a system to supply profits for the insatiable greed of corporations and industry. While feeding the hungry is the mantra, the real religion is greed.
Genetic engineering is the latest technology being imposed on India and the world as the new miracle. There are only three groups of GMO (genetically modified organisms) applications — Bt crops that are supposed to control pests, herbicide resistant crops that are supposed to control weeds, and future promises of biofortification in the form of Golden Rice for addressing Vitamin A deficiency, and GMO bananas for removing iron deficiency.
When we assess genetic engineering as a tool that aims to achieve the objectives of reducing pests and weeds or increases Vitamin A and iron, it clearly fails the test. GMOs have created superpests and superweeds instead of reducing pests and weeds. Golden rice is 7,000 per cent less efficient in providing Vitamin A and GMO bananas will be 3,000 per cent less efficient in providing iron than alternatives available in our rich but rapidly disappearing biodiversity. GMOs continue to be promoted as a religion in spite of all the evidence that they are failing to do the job they are designed for.
And as in religious fundamentalism, here also there is intolerance of alternatives — alternative paradigms, alternative approaches to food production and independent science.
We are already witnessing the viciousness with which the industry attacks anyone who provides an alternative. The new Seed Legislation introduced by the European Commission on May 6, 2013, is a desperate attempt by the biotechnology industry to criminalize the alternative of open source seeds for farms and gardens in order to establish a monopoly of the seed and biotechnology industry. Another example is the attack on scientists whose scientific research has provided evidence of harm. The more the industry claims that the GMO debate is about science, the more they silence science and replace it with their pseudo-religion. Technological determinism replaces technological pluralism. Technological totalitarianism replaces democratic choice and responsibility.
A consequence of making technology an end rather than a means is ignoring its impacts and failing to take responsibility for the harm it does to nature and people. The ultimate expression of irresponsibility is to create immunity for those who cause harm. A recent example is the Monsanto Protection Act in the US which allows agricultural companies such as Monsanto to ignore court orders against selling genetically-engineered seeds. Similarly, the Government of India has prepared a draft bill to establish the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI). According to the bill, the authority will be an autonomous and statutory agency to regulate the research, transport, import, manufacture and use of organisms and products of modern biotechnology.
GMO today means “god move over”. But genetic engineering in not a game of Lego in which genes can be moved around without any impact on the organism or the environment. It is time to put nature and people back in the technology narrative. It is time to see technology as a tool, and not an end that defines a new fundamentalist religion through which corporations become the new gods.